2 Oct 2011
The Mind-Body Problem
Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust,
Die eine will sich von der andern trennen;
Die eine hält in derber Liebesöust
Sich an die Welt mit klammernden Organen;
Die andre hebt gewaltsam sich vom Dust
Zu den Gefilden hoher Ahnen
Two souls alas! are dwelling in my breast;
And each is fain to leave its brother.
The one, fast clinging, to the world adheres
With clutching organs, in love’s sturdy lust;
The other strongly lifts itself from dust
To yonder high, ancestral spheres.
~ Johann Wolfang von Goethe, Faust I, 1808
The mind-body problem is an old philosophical problem arising in the philosophy of mind. Thinkers, philosophers and poets like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe have thought about it for centuries. The problem arises because of the fact that mental phenomena appear to be qualitatively and substantially different from the physical bodies on which they appear to depend. In a recent discussion on the FRIAM list, Glen E. Ropella puts it like this: the mind-body problem is it’s the perplexing sense that there are parts of the body that seem to have little or nothing to do with the mind. And vice versa: there seem to be thoughts that have little or nothing to do with the body.
The cookie monster which enjoys only the taste of delicious cookies can not really comprehend the world of books, because dusty books are not very digestible. The raw desire for a fresh chocolate chip cookie or frozen blueberry yogurt seems to have little to do with the mind, and the abstract thought of a Calabi-Yau manifold in 6 dimensions seems to have little to do with the body. An example where we feel this perplexing sense would be a situation where body and mind contradict each other: for instance my body may say I should eat a frozen blueberry Yogurt now, but my mind says I should not because it contains too much sugar. Or my body says I should have sex with that beautiful woman, but my mind says I should not because I am married.
The desire to eat comes from my body, and I can feel it comes from the inside (in the last instance it comes from the genes who have built a system which craves for our building blocks sugar and fat). The rule to avoid too much sugar is clearly learnt. I can feel it comes from the outside if I recall the rule or listen to the “Super-ego”. As you know, Freud called the representation of the body which is responsible for the desire “id” (“das Es”), the representation of culture and mind “Super-ego” (“das Über-Ich”), and the mediator between both the ego (“das Ich”). Each of us has developed a complex personality which determines how Id and Super-ego interact to form the Ego. The sinner eats every Yogurt he can, the saint eats none at all and gives them away to the poor. The Tiger Woods or Bill Clinton type eats every Yogurt he can while pretending he has eaten only one.
Until we can explain this perplexing sense that there are parts of the body that seem to have little or nothing to do with the mind (and vice versa) the mind-body problem is not completely solved. It remains also unsolved as long as we can not explain how the mind emerges from the body, i.e. from the interactions of billions of knowledge molecules (“ideas”) and Yogurt cells. In the end, the interactions of course lead to a vast network of neurons which incorporate all available knowledge and which are made from Yogurt cells. The devil is in the details. I think the trick here is to consider the body and the environment, i.e. the adaptive body embedded in a certain environment. A human being is a complex object living in multiple worlds, it is as a biological organism a certain instance of nature which meets a certain instance of culture during development, and both instances come together to form a unique connection between both worlds.
The one world is the world of information, ideas, and imagination. The other world is the physical and biological reality based on amino acids and proteins. If both worlds collide, humans emerge. The collision of body and soul can be illustrated by a cookie monster who steps into a library. The abstract world of ideas and imagination is a strange place for the allegory or embodiment of hunger. A library has its own soul, it is full of ideas, stories and memories, while the cookie monster is only able to think about eating the next cookie. Cicero said “a room without books is like a body without a soul”. And an African proverb says “when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground”. And yet these different worlds of body and soul have something in common, reading is a bit like eating, and thinking like digesting. A body needs food, a mind information. A body can be hungry, a mind curious. Therefore we do like sweet and funny things, since sweet things are food for the body, and funny things are food for the mind (*). To be curious means to be “hungry for knowledge”. What would the opposite situation look like? Perhaps a Google crawler which walks into McDonalds.. The embodiment of curiosity steps into a place of food.. However, when universes meet and worlds collide, strange things happen. And so the cookie monster orders a book about cookies.. and a glass of milk, please.
I think the emergence of the mind – including the emergence of consciousness and self-awareness – is the most complex and most interesting form of emergence, and until we can explain it, we can hardly claim that the mind-body problem is solved. Likewise the biologists can not claim they have understood the genes until they can say how the body emerges from the instructions of the genes (how genes like the hox genes build the body, consecutively, in every detail). The Chinese know that the mind is made of many “knowledge molecules”. The Chinese word for intellectual is “zhi shi fen zi”. Zhi shi means knowledge, and fen zi means molecule. Thus intellectuals are people with many knowledge molecules. One of the big questions in Philosophy and Psychology seems to be how the mind emerges from the collision of “knowledge molecules” and “biochemical molecules” (aka Yoghurt), from the continuous interplay of memes and genes or nature and nurture.
Noch niemand konnt es fassen,
Wie Leib und Seel so schön zusammenpassen,
So fest sich halten, als um nie zu scheiden
Und doch den Tag sich immerfort zu verleiden
No one’s grasped how, each with either,
Body and soul can fit so well together,
Hold fast as if not to be separated,
Yet each by other daily vexed and hated.
~ Johann Wolfang von Goethe, Faust II, 1808
(*) We are wired up to enjoy sweet, funny and sexy things. We enjoy sweet and fat things because they provide us with basic building blocks for the body, aka sugar and fat. We enjoy funny things because they provide us with new nuggets of insight for the mind. We enjoy cute and sexy things because they provide us with material to maintain the species.