The Mind-Body Problem

The previous part hints that life has both, material and non-material aspects, and it is important to provide more robust support for such an assertion. We will argue later that reducing any life form (even bacteria) to matter is incomplete, but we will focus first on human beings, since language and self-reflection are advantageous for such enquiries. Examining the so-called mind-body problem (essentially the relationship between the mind and the brain) seems a natural starting point. An additional benefit of beginning with the mind-body problem is its democratic nature. Unlike the mysteries of the universe or subatomic particles that require equipment available only to a few specialists, we all have access to our own minds.

Before we consider the various options though, we must address a quite wide spread misconception related to this subject. It consists of the claim that science has already solved or is close to solving the riddle of consciousness and its relation to the brain. This is perpetuated by some scientists (e.g. Professor Semir Zeki), but more often by non-scientists (e.g. philosopher Daniel Dennett) or the media. It is true that science has made a great contribution in recent years to understanding the structure and functioning of the brain, but this is a different matter. In fact, science is no closer to solving this problem than it was decades ago when the interest in the subject re-surfaced. The consensus of the speakers at the 1995 conference in London, Consciousness – its place in contemporary science, still stands: ‘science really did not understand anything about consciousness – what it is, how it evolved, how it is generated by the brain, or even what it is for’ (Sutherland, 1994, p.285). The issue is not that science is not there yet, and that only further study and more sophisticated instruments are needed. More fundamentally, with the current methodology, science is unlikely ever to address this problem fully and adequately. The commonly accepted criteria for data in a scientific analysis are that they are objective, public, and replicable (leading to predictability). However, consciousness has some unique characteristics that render these criteria inadequate:

The first person perspective – the present scientific methodology favours observation, but the mind is not open to external observation. Unlike physical objects or phenomena, the mental is private and non-accessible to the outside, objective, public sphere. It is intimately and directly accessible to its ‘owner’, but not to others (a report is already second-hand data). Güzeldere, a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, writes:

…from the outside, the first-hand exploration of the consciousness of others just seems to be out of the reach of ordinary scientific methods, others’ experience being neither directly observable nor non-inferentially verifiable. (1995b, p.116)

Non-spatiality – the other problem is that the materials of consciousness are non-spatial. They are not located in any specific place nor do they take up a particular volume of space; they are not made of spatially distributed parts nor do they have a spatial dimensionality; they are not solid and some of them don’t even have a shape (e.g. the ideas of love or freedom). Since they are non-spatial, they are in principle unobservable. The view of some scientists that the appearance of non-spatiality is a kind of illusion seems so far to be baseless. It was discovered a while ago that certain sets of neurons process lines, angles or simple geometrical forms, but this is a far cry from even the simplest mental images. Nobody has yet managed to find in the brain anything that even remotely looks like a house or the grandma that one can imagine or remember. In theory, the brain can produce something similar to holograms, but this has never been detected, so spatiality of mental events cannot be assumed on that basis. It is only reasonable to accept that mental events as such are unobservable from the third person perspective, and, for all practical purposes, non-spatial until shown otherwise.

Qualia (qualities that experiences such as feeling pain, seeing the colour green, or smelling a flower consist of). There is clearly a difference between the particular behaviour of nerve cells associated with pain, for example, and the actual experience of pain. Even materialists such as Koch,[1] admit that ‘there seems to be a huge jump between the materialistic level of explaining molecules and neurons, and the subjective level’ (1992, p.96). To paraphrase the aforementioned philosopher of mind, David Chalmers, however much knowledge neuroscience gains about the brain, there will still be an ‘explanatory gap’ between the physical and subjective realms. Experimental work on perception, for instance, only relates to the contents of consciousness, not to the experience itself. Neuroscience can explain, to some extent, how sensations can be ‘translated’ into electro-magnetic impulses, but it does not say anything about how these impulses are translated into images, thoughts, feelings (not to mention that humans are able to create them too). Put simply, science has not found mental events in the brain. The best it can do is to provide a detailed map of the physical processes that correlate with specific subjective states. No neurological theory explains why brain functions are accompanied by them.

The contribution of science should not be underestimated, but the inevitable conclusion is that present scientific methodology, on its own, cannot truly solve the mind-body problem. Bearing this in mind, we can now examine various possibilities of the relation between the brain and the mind. It theory, there could be eight options – we will address them one by one.


The Mind-Body Problem Chapters

Matter Exists, The Mental Does Not

This view is known as reductive materialism or materialistic monism. It is based on the belief that the mind can either be identified or reduced to the brain (or body) activity.

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The Mental Exists, Matter Does Not

This position, known broadly speaking as idealism, is advocated by a number of scientists and philosophers (e.g. A. S. Eddington, J. Jeans, G. F. Stout, W. Harman).

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Matter Causes The Mental

Although the starting point is matter, this is a very different perspective from reductive materialism. Its proponents acknowledge that the mind is irreducible even if it is the result of the brain.

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The Mental Causes Matter

Although this position may seem counterintuitive, the support for it may be found in some interpretations of a particular strand of modern science – quantum physics.

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The Mental and Matter Exist and Interact

Dualism is based on a belief that there are two qualitatively different entities that interact with each other. A number of contemporary scientists and philosophers were acutely aware that the physicalist perspective is inadequate and advocated some forms of dualism. 

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The Mental and Matter Exist, But Do Not Interact

In order to avoid the interaction problem, some philosophers took the position that both, immaterial (mental) and material (brain) substance exist independently, but they do not interact.

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One Give Rise to Two

There is another way to deal with the problem of causation, commonly known as dual aspect theory originally espoused by philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677).

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The Synthesis Perspective: Two Give Rise to One

It does not seem that the above possibilities provide an adequate explanation for the relationship between the brain and the mind. Although many of the theories have some elements that ring true, none of them is fully satisfactory. 

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[1] He recently shifted his position to panpsychism, which we will discuss later.

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