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What is the Mind / Body Problem?

As with many problems in philosophy, the Mind / Body Problem results from philosophers rejecting what is commonly simply accepted and questioning whether perhaps something more complicated is going on - namely they choose to question if naturally accepted feelings about what a person is are correct, and ask whether distinctions should be made between minds and bodies and whether one of these parts has more right to be referred to as the person himself. The problem arises due to what seems almost entirely an instinctual denial that matter can think, and a feeling that perception cannot simply be explained in terms of chemical or electrical reactions in the brain , yet such a position is probably currently considered both more popular and simpler to implement - with dualism only entering the picture when philosophers decide that the position that matter can do the thinking, and can be responsible for the human experience is untenable, and thus decide that an additional thinking part needs to be added into the equation calling this by various names such as the mind or soul.

Whilst initially such a realisation would seem to place the burden of proof squarely on the shoulders of the dualist this understanding of the way that dualism has been reached as a theory does have interesting implications for how we view attacks on dualism and how quick we should be to reject this theory. It seems very strange, for example, that materialists, rather than straight out stating that the problem that philosophers create in claiming that matter should not be able to think is simply a red herring and such a presumption should not be made, insist on producing long and complicated proofs or explanations for why dualism won't work. The reason that this seems so strange is that the very creation of dualism was due to the complaint that materialism doesn't work, so without any reasoning as to how we could avoid this problem of matter not being able to think we are no better off than before dualism was suggested, and conversely with an explanation of how matter could think there should be no reason ever to bring dualism into the picture (since there would be no need for it), when putting forward a materialist approach.

Whilst Descartes' argument itself fails to validly prove anything about whether the mind must be separate from the body - the fact that he is able to feign not having a body, but finds it impossible to feign not having a mind shows only that he can conceive that his body is not his mind, but does not show that they are necessarily different things - it does raise interesting questions about minds and bodies and it is probably for this reason that his Meditations remains so popular and so read. One of the questions that remains central to the Mind / Body debate is that of whether it would be possible to have a mind survive the death of the body , since if such a disembodied mind or soul were to be possible this would seriously impact the claim that the mind and body are inextricably linked.

Furthermore, Descartes' suggestion that there might be a malignant demon intent purely on deceiving him is still a strong argument and is a possibility that has never really been refuted. The updated question, as stated by Smith and Jones - about the possibility that we might all be brains in vats, with electrodes detecting outputs and providing equivalent inputs in such a way that we might never be able to tell that we were simply brains in vats - is still very strong. There is however a large problem with this question that appears to have been overlooked, and that is the sub-philosophical question of 'What difference does it make anyway?'. Whilst this might at first seem an unimportant question, and on the surface very easy to answer (Either (a) all the difference in the world - we're being deceived - or (b) no difference at all - we have to go with what we have, and as this is all we know, we have to live in this world) other considerations should make us think twice before ignoring it. We do not, for example, claim that we are being 'deceived' in that we see tables as solid, whilst a physicist will happily declare that it is in fact made up far more of 'space between stuff' that 'stuff itself'. We don't say that we are obviously pretty much blind in that we can only see a small proportion of the spectrum of wavelengths of light. So how are we to claim that in only seeing one portion of the universe when we are stuck in our vats we are blind any more than we say we are blind in only seeing objects as solid or the visible spectrum of light? Also, if we were brains in vats the experiment would work only if no interaction directly with the brains was allowed, since this would shatter the illusion; but how could we say that this external world, where nothing could happen to us - our brains could not be hurt, moved, etc. - was more 'real'?

Side-stepping a short distance, another interesting question to ask is whether, even if we do allow a 'distinct mind' to have a body, whether it could have existence without perceptions. If, for example, we had the horrific example of a person who was blind, deaf, numb and unable to taste or smell, though they had someone there to nourish and keep the body alive, would the mind still be able to exist? The simplest response would seem to be that it would be possible. Whilst without external impetus this person would not be able to learn anything from the world around him, elementary thought should be possible. This person might feel incredibly trapped and claustrophobic, but the chances are that, if he had always been in such a situation, he would not, simply being used to an existence of thought alone - but whether he feels trapped, scared, or quite content, it would seem possible for the person to have feeling and thoughts.

If, being slightly kinder to our imagined victim, we allowed this person the facility of sight, but, taking back as much as we have given, make him entirely paralysed, it would seem likely that he would experience something much like that described by the Epiphemonenalists - he would see the world go by, and experience his own thoughts going by, without ever interacting with the world. If, however, we gave him back his movement, would we see him taking out his anger at his paralysis on the world, or would he be unable to interact back on the world, since only the physical can affect the mental, and not the other way round? This theory, where consciousness is merely a by-product of reactions in the brain, is quite a commonly held one and one that is easy to comprehend. It would require a very strong form of determinism to be acting, since, rather than having a mind or simply a 'person' choosing what they would like to do, it would require complex reactions in the brain to have total control, following very complicated rules that give the impression of free will and where consciousness meant something very different from what many would class it as - merely perception of these processes.

Yet the reason for deciding that the mental cannot affect the physical seems very strained indeed. The claim is made that the physical universe is a closed system that follows a large number of intricate rules, and yet this clearly need not be the case. Whilst Smith and Jones are happy to point out that it is only experimentally that we decide that any physical event is caused by other physical properties, and this in no way prohibits the possibility that in the future other experiments might discover this not to be the case, they are still willing to claim that up to now 'micro phenomena' follow rules. The physicist that has always maintained that such rules exist should surely have accepted that quantum theory has shown this not to be the case. It might be claimed that the mind could affect the physical world at sub-atomic level, so even if the brain was following larger scale physical rules the mind could alter very slightly the electrical impulses in the brain, and even this tiny effect would enable some form of free will to exist. This would clearly be a fairly ridiculous claim to make, and altering the seemingly random path of electrons with mind-waves is obviously not the simplest way to enable free will, yet it should show quite clearly that such an interaction with the physical universe is possible, and that there is nothing contradictory about talking about the mental interacting with the physical.

Armstrong feels that the theory he propounds - Central-State Theory - avoids many of the problems that other theories come across, by having a 'mind', but placing it firmly in the brain, and joined to the brain, thus stating that it is not a separate entity and allowing for interaction of the mind with the physical world through having an interaction of the brain and the physical world. Whilst this seems an interesting idea, without the need for a connection between mind and brain to allow the mental to interact with the physical it isn't clear what exactly the advantages of the theory are.

The mind is apparently not really non-physical, according to Armstrong, but connected very strongly to the brain (but not to the extent that the brain is in fact the active part, with the mind only observing the sensations) and as with all materialist theories this isn't exactly satisfactory except if we accept that matter can think. It is interesting to see the large number of philosophers that consider the question of whether a non-physical mind could have a position in space , yet quite clearly this need not be the case. A mind could easily be seen as sitting elsewhere in an observatory, watching screens and listening to speaker that indicate to it what is going on around it. It is just as easy to imagine this mind moving a joystick in its observatory as to have it doing the same thing from a position in the mind. In fact it might even enjoy the space to move around. Obviously, therefore, there is no need to have the mind set into the body in a physical-positional way, or indeed for it to have any position in space. It is a mistake, even, to claim that the common perception is that the mind is located in the same place as the brain, and that is where we 'feel' that we ourselves are. The reason we feel that the mind is in our head has nothing to do with the positioning of the brain, but everything to do with the placement of our eyes and ears. It is very simple to think of our 'selves' in our head, because it is from there that we see things, and there that we hear things. Since the ears are not as accurate at placing things as the eyes the real perception is that the 'essence' of each of us is positioned just at the back of the eyes, at the retinas, or rather exactly half way in between, since it is from here that we seem to perceive the world. If our brains were not, in fact, located in our head, and simply had long nerves to our eyes and ears, or if the Aristotelian physiology were correct, and we used the heart for thought, we would still view ourselves as 'in our heads' by virtue of the fact that it is from our heads that we see and hear.

This placements of the mind in the brain, and the connection that Armstrong suggests, also is intended to answer the major problem of when and how a mind comes into being. The idea that we should claim that animals do not have souls or minds, but humans do, seems to me entirely outdated and anachronistic, and it is strange to see people like Smith and Jones still propounding such a claim. Darwinism surely laid to rest any simple separation of men from beasts, and yet there are still claims that men have this vital part that animals do not. Armstrong's suggestion is that since there is this connection between mind and brain that they could develop together - in the short term, in foetuses, and in the longer term, with evolution. This theory seems very attractive, and is preferable to one that seeks to set humans as completely different to animals, and clearly we will need at least a semi-materialistic theory for something along these lines to work. A claim, however, could always be made that the physical differences between man and other animals is not great, and to claim that a parallel evolution of mind and body is ridiculous should not be readily accepted. Men are not so different from animals in form, and as long as we concede that one mind is always associated with one body it should not be so great a step to claim that the two evolved in parallel, and that the refinements needed - hands that can craft things, for example, or a brain with the capacity to carry out complex instructions from the mind (perhaps with a large volume to allow the capture of a greater number of mind-wave influenced electrons, if we are to believe the quantum mind-theorist) - might not be particularly complicated to develop or take a long time in the scale of evolution.

Overall, however, the development of a theory of mind remains very problematic indeed. Despite all developments the assumption that matter alone cannot think is a very hard one to shake, yet the theories that should help to clarify the way that we think, if it isn't simply physical, serve only to create new problems, and to add to the confusion. Without some form of dualism a non-determinist theory seems very hard to formulate - which is not to say that we should not simply conclude that the determinist is right - yet it goes against instinct, and free will is not something that people are particularly willing to give up without a fight.