Historical Introduction to Philosophy/The Mind-Body Problem

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Introduction to the Mind-Body Problem


The relationship between the mind and the body and what makes the self have been debated for millennia and are as complex as ever. The seemingly obvious nature of who one is becomes very unsure under close inspection, and we tend to ignore the problems of personal identity and the mind-body relationship even though the answers obviously involve profound consequences. Many great philosophers including Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes have written explicitly about this subject, and others like the pre-socratics have written about philosophies that could easily apply to them. To introduce the mind-body and personal identity problems, the general questions will be posed and some highlights from the various sides of the debate will be scrutinized.

So how would you answer someone if they asked who exactly you were? To answer this, it might be useful to ask yourself what you aren’t. Is a person still the same if he loses a toe or an arm? Is a heart transplant patient the same person before the surgery as after? What if someone loses half his brain? These things occur and yet we treat people after such events as though they were the same as before. If we are more than the continuation of the same body, which is the extreme view usually rejected after asking the previous questions, then what more are we?

What does it mean to have a mind? If we just say it is being conscious we would have to admit that many animals also have minds. So is it to be conscious of one’s own consciousness? What about when we are in deep sleep and unconscious, do we still have a mind? Does it arise from the sheer complexity that only the human brain and possibly some other higher animals’ brains achieve, or is it something non-physical that transcends brain tissue?

These questions are just the tip of the iceberg, and the answers are endless. Though this certainly isn’t the first discussion ever written about the nature of the self, the dialogue in Alcibiades I asks and attempts to answer some fundamental questions and is a good starting place.

From the Gutenburg Project, you can find the book Alcibiades. It is known as a spurious writing because it cannot be known for sure whether Plato wrote it (unlike the famous Socratic dialogues like the Euthyphro, Meno, and Crito which surely were written by Plato). It is attributed to him, however, for its similar style and substance and so should serve as a good introduction to the ideas concerning the mind and body from some of the very beginnings of philosophy. In it, Socrates argues that the body does not make a person but that it is only a tool used by the person. This means that the mind, which he equates with the soul, is not a physical entity. You can find some questions to consider after reading this dialogue.

With the idea that the soul is separate from the body, as clearly argued above, we could move on to reading the Phaedo, a dialogue almost certainly written by Plato concerning the last conversation Socrates had with his friends and followers before his death. In it, Socrates argues that the soul is separate from the body in three different ways. He did this to show his friends that though he was about to die, he was actually better off as a soul without a body able to understand truths without hindrance, without the confusion that sense perception brings about. Here you can find the Phaedo. Try picking out the different arguments for the existence of souls separate from the body and write them out in simplified form. Can you find anything wrong with them? Some questions and considerations can be found after you read the Phaedo.

For a different perspective, you can read Aristotle’s work, On the Soul. On this site, you can find the text under the heading “texts.” Read book II. Whereas, Plato argued that the body was not really part of a person but just a tool used by the soul (which would then have to be separate from the body), Aristotle argues that the two are inseparable. He thought the body, the physical stuff, was potentially a person, but it was only when that material took the shape of a human, the actuality of a human, that a person existed. The soul is the actuality of the body, and so the two are inextricable. To put it more clearly, he said, “we should not ask whether the soul and body are one, any more than whether the wax and the impression are one.” After you read it, you can go over these questions.

What if there isn’t anything but the material world, no special forms arising from the actuality of a body and certainly not some form of a person completely apart from the body? Though this sounds especially modern and something a chemist or physicist would believe, this view was held by philosophers before either Plato or Aristotle. They were called the Atomists, including Luecippus and Democritus who are best known for forming and advocating these theories. They held that the universe was made solely of void and being. Being is made of very small, indivisible particles that have no macroscopic qualities like color; it is only in the aggregation of these particles that those qualities emerge. So what does this mean for the body and soul? It leaves very little room for the existence of an eternal soul, which Plato and Aristotle thought existed. The writings of the first atomists are lost, and so all that we have are other authors quoting or paraphrasing them. If you want to learn more about them, a good site is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which has an article on the atomists.

One of the reasons the atomists were mentioned above is because of their influence on a later philosopher, Lucretius. In his book, On the Nature of Things, he details his ideas on life and how it should be lived. He thought that since we were nothing before we were born and didn’t fear that, we shouldn’t fear death where we no longer exist just the same. This stems from the idea that we are merely the conglomeration of particles and will stop existing after those particles break apart. You can read part of his work, Book III, and find questions to consider afterwards.

These philosophical works form the basis of the problem of the mind and body and personal identity. It was from these beginnings that the major schools of thought were formed and later philosophers would react. Plato championed what is called dualism, his idea that the soul and body are separate, while Lucretius and the atomists began the idea of what is called monism, their idea that the soul and body are one. Augustine sided with Plato and dualism which became church doctrine to this day. After the scientific revolution, more and more people began to believe the mind and body were just matter just as Lucretius had believed. These debates still continue and philosophers are always adding their insights into the mix, but with the foundation of knowing these works inside and out, you should be well prepared to tackle the others.

Author Micah Nelp, at least so far

Cartesian Dualism

The French philosopher Descartes believed that the mind and body are two different substances. The body in this case the physical part and the mind part with innate ideas like sound, taste, smell, and touch. The mind is stimulated leading to sense perception. In this way the mind grabs the ideas that are not physical.

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