What is the mind-body problem and why is it important?

Kelly asked:

Hi there, I have an argumentative essay for my philosophy class, it is ‘Why is the mind/ body problem within Philosophy of Mind and Consciousness studies indeed a problem? Argumentatively discuss.’ Could you please help me with this? Im really struggling!

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

It is quite easy, although you may have to do a little work on your own to follow up what I’m about to tell you.

The problem surfaced with Descartes, who postulated that there are two substances in the world. In philosophy, a substance is so basic, it cannot be explained by anything else, but must be defined once and for all. In other words, a substance is not a composite. So the first, which is mind, is not made up of anything other than itself. Descartes calls it ‘res cogitans’, which is Latin for ‘a thinking thing’. Because thoughts are not material, a mind cannot be divided, it is whole. But because it is immaterial, it also has no physical presence in space, and cannot be weighed or measured or registered on an instrument.

This leads to the second substance, matter, which is the opposite. It is in space and occupies some portion of space, and it can be discerned by the fact that it appears to sensory instruments like your nerves (touch, vision etc). Descartes accordingly called this ‘res extensa’, or ‘extended things’ – in other words, things that have a physical dimension.

Now this is where the problem enters. If mind is immaterial, it has no surface or any other physical means of contact where material things could attach themselves. So we are now confronted with the problem that my body motions, which we suppose are generated by thought (my will) must somehow be communicated from the mind to my flesh and muscles and bones. But how is this possible?

From Descartes onward (he lived in the 17th century) to this day, philosophers and scientists have struggled with different ideas on how these two substances can be brought together and work harmoniously, as we believe they do. Somehow, mind (will, desires etc) can make their way into the flesh, we just don’t know how. This has led many thinkers to try and find a way around the problem by various alternative ideas.

E.g. Malebranche supposed that God acts an intermediary between the two substances, effectively coordinating them, but very few people go along with this any more. Spinoza taught that there is no material substance at all, that the whole world is a kind of mind. Basically this spells out as God=The World. We are simply a conscious part of this mind world and generate the idea of physical things in our minds as impressions. They don’t actually exist independently. Leibniz reasoned that the two substances are actually two forms of existence for one ultimate substance. This one substance is force, although he calls it ‘monad’. Many monads forming a cluster of force which can be expansive (ethereal) and then be mind-like, or they contract and become matter-like. And this idea removes the problem, because the one substance in two forms of existence has no problem communicating with something other that is still like itself.

These ideas from Malebranche to Leibniz solve the problem of how mind and matter can communicate, but hardly to everyone’s conviction. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the whole issue got turned around and matter was supposed to be primary. Then you have to find a way of explaining how matter can become so thin and virtually vanish, so that it can make a mind. We tried this for nearly 200 years now (and still keep trying), but the results are again so ambiguous that they can hardly be called real solutions.

In the end, many thinkers cave in and propose that the whole issue is no issue at all. There are no substances, there is no mind, and matter is simply a word to denote various states of energy. Well, one can get by denying everything, but it doesn’t help to explain consciousness. And we really want to know what it is, why it is and how it came to be!

In the end, therefore, despite nearly 400 years of effort, not much progress has been achieved. So the problem boils down to this: That we humans have bodies as well as consciousness. When the body dies, it is no longer conscious. So there must be some element that made it (the body matter being built up from birth) conscious. But I think maybe the reason why we’ve never solved it properly, is because the question I have just mentioned is guided by presuppositions that cannot be traced back to any origin at all. What I mean by this is: We presuppose that a living body is made of matter and that somehow consciousness is added to the matter. But what if conscious life is a particular state of existence which we can’t examine because we are that state of existence? Just a thought, but it hasn’t been seriously looked at.

That’s the outline of the problem. How to fill it in, is another problem! So many books and articles have been written, and there is so much contention in this industry that a beginner would be well advised to stay away from it.

I would recommend that you read Descartes’ ‘Discourse on Method’, the book that started the ball rolling. It’s only about 70 pages and you can read it in 2 hours (and you can skip Chapter 5). This will at least give an authentic source from which you can quote. Then there is a short paper by Leibniz called ‘The New System’, which is very illuminating about the mind-body problem and also a classic with good quotes in it. Another good source is Gilbert Ryle, ‘The Concept of Mind’: it is probably enough for you to read Chapter 1 to get the gist of the problem from a modern perspective. If you can spare the time and have a genuine interest, you might also look into John Searle’s ‘The rediscovery of the Mind’, Gerald Edelman’s ‘Consciousness: How Matter becomes Imagination’, and Gregory Bateson’s ‘Mind and Nature’. However these books are probably Honours grade material and you didn’t state at which level you’re studying. Anyway, I hope you got something from my answer to help you along your way.


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