The mind-body problem addresses the question how the mind is related to the body. It is a philosophical debate which stems from the fundamental question what the mind is. Philosophy plays a vital participatory role in cognitive psychology.
What is philosophy?
Philosophy means “love of wisdom”. In its broadest sense philosophy is the search for wisdom and knowledge. Its concern is knowledge and understanding the universe. Philosophy as discipline studies a wide range of topics. A philosopher may examine politics, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, epistemology, and other subjects. Metaphysics and epistemology are the concern of cognitive scientists. Metaphysics examines the nature of reality. The mind-body problem is metaphysical one because it seeks to understand whether the mental world is part of the physical material world. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and asks such questions as: What is knowledge? How is knowledge represented in the mind? How do we come to acquire knowledge?
Monism and dualism
|Marble bust of Aristotle|
The first question of the mind-body problem refers to the mind. Is the mind physical or something else? A second and more specific question points to the relationship between the mind and body. If we assume that there are two entities as body and mind, then another question arises. What is the causal relationship between them? Is the body cause of the mind, or is the mind cause of the body? Does the body controls the mind or the mind controls the body? Many theories argue that the mind controls the body and many other theories argue that the body controls the mind. Some other theories state that both control each other; additional theories state that the two work in parallel but neither has any causal influence.
Types of monism
According to monism there is only one kind of state or substance in the universe. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) was a monist. He characterized the difference between mind and body as the difference between form and matter. One way to think of his notion is to consider a lump of clay. It made up of physical matter, and we can think of it as corresponding to the brain. We can shape the clay with our hand into different forms—for example, we can make a pot with it or roll into a ball. The shapes the clay can assume are like different thoughts in the mind can take on when it undergoes different patterns of activity. These shapes are just different physical states and do not constitute any nonphysical or spiritual substance.
If you are a monist you are left with two fundamental choices. Either the universe is mental or it is physical. The first option is called “idealism” and second option is “materialism” or “physicalism”. It is very difficult for a person to take idealism seriously. Imagine that everything you know isn’t real but is simply an illusion of reality. The world you perceive and understand exists only “in your head”. The head itself is not real, if you take the idealism seriously. A supreme being such as God could be responsible for this grand illusion.
On the flip side of our monist coin is materialism or physicalism. The origin of this view originates from the Greek philosopher Democritus (ca. 460 – 370 BCE). He believed that everything is composed of atoms. The attributes and behvious of the atoms, he said, can explain the differences between things. Materialists are also monists who believe that the universe is composed of a single substance. They regard this substance as physical and material rather than spiritual or ethereal. Physicalism is the doctrine that everything that exists is physical. The operations of the mind are seen simply as the operation of the material substance of brain.
Identity theory is a form of physicalism, which is a type of monism. The identity theory of mind holds that states and processes of the mind are identical to states and processes of the brain. Some philosophers hold that though experiences are brain processes they nevertheless have fundamentally non-physical, psychical, properties, sometimes called ‘qualia’. Qualia is a term used in philosophy to refer to subjective conscious experiences as 'raw feels'. Examples of qualia are the pain of a headache, the taste of wine, the experience of taking a recreational drug, or the perceived redness of an evening sky.
The dualist viewpoint divides the human being into two substances: matter and mind. This view is, perhaps, the most natural one. It is quite common to distinguish between “my body” and “my self”, and our bodies may become injured or ill whilst our minds are active and alert. Our mental experience is also private, reinforcing the feeling that it is somehow separate. Views that spring from folklore, native belief and religion can all influence our views of our self. This is sometimes done consciously – as in the religious doctrine of immortality – or subtly, through language and the way in which we refer to ourselves.
Dualism proposes that mind and body are two different entities. The most famous representative of the dualist view is the French philosopher René Descartes. Descartes claimed to have discovered one fact beyond doubt: that he is a thinking thing. This famous argument - called the Cogito after the Latin phrase, “cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) – tries to establish the mind as a separate substance from the body.
According to Descartes the mind was a completely distinct substance from matter. Matter is easily described: it is measurable, has dimensions, can be touched and seen, sometimes smelt and tasted, divided, destroyed and altered. Mind, however, can almost be defined as the opposite of this – in fact, one of the difficulties with Descartes’ definition is that mind seems to have almost no positive qualities. It is invisible, without dimensions, immaterial, unchanging, and indivisible and without limit.
In defining mind and matter in this way Descartes is also fulfilling a religious agenda. Mind so defined can be equated with the soul, which in turn can be proven to be distinct from the body and immortal. Descartes suppressed one of his early works when he saw how the Catholic Church treated the astronomer Galileo and is at pains in the preface of the Meditations to gain the favour of the doctors of theology in Paris. He was a very religious man with a sincere faith.
The problem with Descartes' definition of mind and body is that he seems to be describing two mutually exclusive substances. If, in every respect, matter differs from mind, how are the two meant to interact? Descartes needs to explain this because, unlike other theories there is meant to be a causal interaction between the two substances – in other words, mind influences matter and vice versa. This is called interactionism.
However, the difficulty here is how a material thing – our body – can be influenced by a non-material thing – our mind. By Descartes’ definition mind is immaterial, having no dimension, mass, etc. But then how can something without any physical effects influence a physical thing? According to current scientific thinking, physical objects are only affected by physical forces. Even if we think in terms of atoms, molecules or particles, we are still talking about things with dimension and mass – however small.
Descartes’ response was to suggest that the two substances meet in a part of the brain called the pineal gland. His reasons for choosing this seem to have been that the gland in central (unlike the other parts of the brain which are bilateral – mirrored on each side) and that it does not occur in animals. This latter fact was understood by Descartes as relating to the presence of a soul in humans and not in animals, whom he considered mere machines. However, modern research has also found a similar gland in mammals and lower vertebrates.
Spinoza and double-aspect theory
A more radical slant on the mind-body problem was presented by the Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) who argued that there were not really two substances, but two attributes of the same substance. Thus reality was therefore a case of two perspectives on the same thing: physical matter as perceived through the senses and mental stuff as experienced with the mind.
Probably the earliest systematic concept of mind and body stems from the philosophy of the Greek philosopher Plato (429-347 BC). Plato saw the mind as identical with the soul. However, unlike Descartes, Plato argued that the soul both pre-existed and survived the body, going through a continual process of reincarnation or "transmigration".
For Plato, the soul - or mind - obtained knowledge through recollection of these forms. By doing this the soul was simply returning to the state of knowledge which it had before birth. Because of this view, Plato's arguments for dualism centre on the relationship between reincarnation and the process of obtaining knowledge through acquaintance with the forms.