Philosophy of Mind and the Body

As a teenager I was certain there was life after death and at university I learned this meant I sat on the side of Dualism when it came to the Mind/Body philosophical conundrum.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Dualism is “the theory that the mental and the physical—or mind and body or mind and brain—are, in some sense, radically different kinds of thing.”


Believers of the opposite view, Monoism, would claim that thoughts themselves may be reduced to a purely physical process and—necessarily—when the body dies, one’s thoughts and memories and therefore identity die with it.

At this point in my life, I’m absolutely on the fence. Visionary books such as The Celestine Prophesy and Conversations with God are long behind me. Yet I’m just as likely to believe in terracotta elysian palaces as to believe Stephen Hawking when he said to The Guardian:

“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Recent Food for Thought

Three articles in the April 02, 2018 issue of The New Yorker approach the theme from various angles. They were all really long so to have you the time of reading them yourself, here are some of my favorite lines copied verbatim. I also like to keep this kind of thing as a resource for later reflection!

Are We Already Living in Virtual Reality? by Joshua Rothman explores contemporary uses and implications of virtual reality.

  • Thomas Metzinger: Having read Johnson-Laird, he’d begun to wonder whether reality, as we experience it, might be a mental stage set—a representation of the world, rather than the world itself. Having an O.B.E. (out of body experience) could be like visiting the set at night, when it wasn’t being used.
  • Thomas Metzinger: “I think that, in the human self-model, there are many layers. Some layers are transparent, like your bodily perceptions, which seem absolutely real. You just look”—he gestured toward a chair next to us—“and the chair is there. Others are opaque, like our cognitive layer. When we’re thinking, we know that our thoughts are internal mental constructs, which could be true or false.”
  • Thomas Metzinger: “Do you know what an ‘illusion of control’ is?” he asked, mischievously. “If people are asked to throw dice, and their task is to throw a high number, they throw the dice harder!” He believes that many experiences of being in control are similarly illusory, including experiences in which we seem to control our own minds. Brain imaging, for example, shows that our thoughts begin before we’re aware of having them. But, Metzinger said, “if a thought crosses the boundary from unconsciousness to consciousness, we feel, ‘I caused this thought.’
Mind Body Philosophy - VR

“The Edge of Identity” by Rachel Aviv assembles a portrait of a woman who experienced extreme mental fugues, in which people lose memory of their identity for a period of time, yet their body manages to keep the show on the road.

  • She was given a diagnosis of dissociative fugue, a rare condition in which people lose access to their autobiographical memory and personal identity, occasionally adopting a new one, and may abruptly embark on a long journey.”
  • Philippe Tissié, one of the first psychiatrists to study fugue, characterized it as a kind of self-exile. In 1901, he wrote, “The legend of the Wandering Jew has become a reality, proved by numerous observations of patients or unbalanced persons who suffer from an imperious need to walk, on and on.”
  • Aaron Krasner: “Dissociative fugue is the rare bird of dissociation, but dissociation as a phenomenon is very common,” he said. “I think as a field we have not done our due diligence, in part because the phenomenon is so frightening. It’s terrifying to think that we are all vulnerable to a lapse in selfhood.”
  • In an essay that [Henry] James wrote shortly before treating [Ansel] Bourne, he argued that science would advance more rapidly if more attention were devoted to unclassifiable cases—“wild facts” that threaten a “closed and completed system of truth.” Understanding splits in consciousness, he wrote, is “of the most urgent importance for the comprehension of our nature.”
  • Hannah’s father David Upp: “I suspect they will need a new paradigm, before Fugues can fit any theories.” He suggested that “magical realism comes closer” than any current psychological theory, and said that one of Hannah’s favorite authors is Isabel Allende.
  • In an article in the journal Spiritus, T. M. Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropologist who studies religion and psychiatry, suggests that there is a “shared psychological mechanism” in dissociation and evangelical worship: the capacity to withdraw from the everyday and become entirely absorbed by interior experience. “Trance-like responses to great distress have occurred throughout history and across culture,” she writes.
Mind Body Philosophy - wandering

“Mind Expander” by Larissa MacFarquhar features Andy Clark, who believes the mind is not a self-contained operating system but that it “extends into the world and is regularly entangled with a whole range of devices.”

  • [Clark] loves electronic music, and one of his favorite things to do is go dancing. “I love the steamy, sweaty vibe of a hard-techno club,” he says, “the way you can get totally lost in a sea of light, flesh, and music.” Anyone who has gone clubbing with him can see that he feels the line between himself and everything else to be very thin.
  • Most people, he realizes, tend to identify their selves with their conscious minds. That’s reasonable enough; after all, that is the self they know about. But there is so much more to cognition than that: the vast, silent cavern of underground mental machinery, with its tubes and synapses and electric impulses, so many unconscious systems and connections and tricks and deeply grooved pathways that form the pulsing substrate of the self. It is those primal mechanisms, the wiring and plumbing of cognition, that he has spent most of his career investigating.
  • If certain kinds of thought required devices like paper and pens, then the kind of poverty that precluded them looked as debilitating as a brain lesion. Moreover, by emphasizing how thoroughly everyone was dependent on the structure of his or her world, it showed how disabled people who were dependent on things like ramps were no different from anybody else. Some theorists had argued that disability was often a feature less of a person than of a built environment that failed to take some needs into account; the extended-mind thesis showed how clearly this was so.
  • The thought was that the mind was a kind of software program, and the body and the brain were just hardware, so there was no reason in principle that cognition couldn’t be reproduced on a different kind of hardware—on a silicon-based machine, say, rather than on carbon-based flesh. For this purpose, you didn’t need all the other equipment that came with animals—arms, legs, lungs, heart. Lurking behind this thesis was the mostly unspoken hope that if you could upload a mind onto a computer then that mind could be preserved and its owner would not die.
  • He came to believe that if you were going to figure out how intelligence worked you had always to remember the particular tasks for which it had evolved in the first place: running away from predators and toward mates and food. A mind’s first task, in other words, was to control a body. The idea of pure thought was biologically incoherent: cognition was always embodied.
  • Being prey to some optical tricks—such as the hollow-mask illusion, or not noticing when a little word like “the” gets repeated, as it was three times in the previous paragraph—is a price worth paying for a brain whose controlling expectations make reliable sense of the world. *I did not notice this trick!.
  • He wrote a book on the subject [of predictive processing] titled “Surfing Uncertainty,” and surfing was his metaphor for life: yes, the waves that the ocean threw up at you could be wild and cold and dangerous, but if you surfed over and over again, and went with the waves instead of resisting them, and trusted that you would be O.K., you could leave your self-conscious mind behind and feel a joyful sense of oneness with the world.
  • Jacob Hohwy wrote an essay for a forthcoming book titled “Andy Clark and His Critics,” in which he proposed a counter-metaphor to Clark’s joyful surfer: Nosferatu. The brain was like a vampire, shut in a coffin. “A lot of us feel that we are not very much in tune with the world,” Hohwy says. “The world hits us and we don’t know what to do with the sensory input we get. We are constantly second-guessing ourselves, withdrawing, and trying to figure out what is happening. Something that is very familiar to a lot of people, certainly myself, is social anxiety. We are trying to infer hidden causes—other people’s thoughts—from their behavior, but they are hidden inside other people’s skulls, so the inference is very hard. A lot of us are constantly wondering, Did I offend that person? Do they like me? What are they thinking? Did I understand their intentions?”
  • “I think a lot about mental illness,” he says. “We forget what a high per cent of us have some mental illness or other, and they’re all characterized by the internal model losing its robustness. One per cent of us have schizophrenia, ten per cent depression, and then there is autism. The server crashes more often than we think.”
  • Free energy, as Friston [he most-cited neuroscientist in the world] defined it, was roughly equivalent to what Clark called prediction error; and the brain’s need to minimize free energy, or minimize prediction error, Friston believed, drove everything the brain did.
  • When the brain strove to minimize prediction error, it was not just trying to reduce its uncertainty about what was going on in the world; it was struggling to resolve the contradictions between fantasy and reality—ideally by making reality more like fantasy. The brain had to do two things in order to survive: it had to impel its body to get what it needed, and it had to form an understanding of the world that was realistic enough to guide it in doing so. Free energy was the force that drove both.
  • [Rodney] Brooks speculated that one of the reasons A.I. systems and robots appeared to hit a ceiling at a certain level of complexity was that they were built of the wrong stuff—that maybe the fact that robots were not flesh made more of a difference than he’d realized. Clark couldn’t decide what he thought about this. On the one hand, he was no longer a machine functionalist, exactly: he no longer believed that the mind was just a kind of software that could run on hardware of various sorts. On the other hand, he didn’t believe, and didn’t want to believe, that a mind could be constructed only out of soft biological tissue. He was too committed to the idea of the extended mind—to the prospect of brain-machine combinations, to the glorious cyborg future—to give it up.

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