THOUGHTS ON THE MIND-BODY CONUNDRUM
THOUGHTS ON THE MIBD-BODY CONUNDRUM
D. R. Khashaba
1. The mind-body conundrum was the gift of Descartes to modern philosophy — a poisoned gift. I have repeatedly said that Descartes’s positive contribution to philosophy was purely historical, one could say accidental. He came at a time when the European mind was breaking the chains of Scholastic traditionalism and turning to the unfettered exercise of the individual mind. Descartes epitomized that drive in his philosophical essays and captured for himself the title of Father of Modern Philosophy. Else he would have been known to posterity solely as a mathematician and a scientist.
2. Descartes is best known for the Cogito. The Cogito has been variously criticized. No wonder. Plato has taught us that no determinate formulation of thought is immune to contradiction. That does not negate the philosophical significance of Descartes’s Cogito, the gist of which is that self-evidence, not authority, is the criterion of valid thought. But Descartes’s first application of the criterion of self-evidence was flawed; indeed it was catastrophic. He thought that in thinking he saw clearly that there are two distinct and completely separate substances: mind, the attribute of which is thought, and body, the attribute of which is extension. This involved two serious errors both of which had gravely damaging consequences. The first error was to see mind and body as separate. This created the interminable mind-body quandaries. The second error was to see the mind as a substance. While philosophers cracked their heads on the knotty pseudo mind-body problem, practitioners of the newly-born empirical-cum-mathematical science that was rapidly assuming gigantic powers happily concentrated their attention on ‘body’, at first leaving ‘mind’ alone until in time finding it a ‘substance’ that could not pass any test of substantiality, they judged it to be an illusion or, as Gilbert Ryle was to declare, a ‘deus ex machina’.
3. Both the mind-body problem in its latest version as the problem of “mental causation” and the problem of the reality of the mind in its latest version as the problem of “finding a place for the mental in the physical world” are erroneously formulated, being based on the duality of mind and body. The mind-body quandary is resolved when we see the human being not as mind and body but as a whole person, an intelligent, active, creative whole, or better put, as intelligent creativity, as every one of us knows in her or his own immediate experience. The question of the reality of the mind becomes plain when we acknowledge that the only reality we know immediately and indubitably is our inner reality and not the mutable fleeting perceptible things of the outer world. In what follows I will clarify and amplify these two points.
4. The Socratic distinction of the intelligible and the perceptible does not imply the mind-body division despite Plato’s early emphasis on contrasting the one Form and the multiple exemplifications. In the first part of the Parmenides Plato shows that any attempt to relate the intelligible Form ( idea, eidos) to the perceptible on the assumption that these are two separate entities is falsifiable. All knowledge is grounded in the experiential totality which in turn is grounded in the integrity of mind and body. In action and in thought the agent is the whole person. Distinctions are the tool of theoretical thinking, but regarding the distinctions as final hurls us into the labyrinth of falsehood.
5. There are those (including idealists and opponents of materialism and scientism with whose general outlook I am much in agreement) who welcome or defend Cartesian dualism on the ground that it makes room for the mind or soul. But this, in my view, places mind in the same class as the body. Mind is not separate or separable from body but belongs to a distinct metaphysical order. Spinoza, while starting from Cartesian grounds, sees deus sive natura not as a duality but as the One Substance in two aspects. The term ‘occult’ has been used pejoratively, but we may say that Reality is occult in the sense that it is inaccessible to the empirical methods of observation and verification. This, far from being a superstitious stance, affirms that the one reality of which we have immediate and indubitable awareness transcends the confines of sense and particularized cognizance. As Plato said of the Form of the Good, Reality is beyond being and beyond knowledge. This is a very hard thought to absorb because it runs counter to our practical and to our scientific ways of thinking, but unless we grasp this, all our philosophizing will continue to run in the rut of a vicious circle.
6. William James in The Principles of Psychology had said that “no glimmer of explanation of (consciousness) is yet in sight”. That was said at the close of the nineteenth century and throughout most of the twentieth century consciousness was written off. Gilbert Ryle bluntly maintains that “consciousness and introspection cannot be what they are officially described as being since their supposed objects are myths...” ( The Concept of Mind, p.149). Again: “The radical objection to the theory that minds must know what they are about, because mental happenings are by definition conscious … is that there are no such happenings ...” (p.154). The blunt denial is not an argument and there can be no counter-argument to it. But to me my subjectivity is self-evident. That it has no objective existence, that it cannot be empirically observed or verified, follows from its subjectivity. That it does not exist for science means mo more than that it is not accessible to the methods of science.
7. It is not enough to concede the “existence of an inner mental life” or to say: “Much of our ordinary thinking is conducted in internal monologue or silent soliloquy, usually accompanied by an internal cinematograph-show of visual imagery” (Concept of Mind, p.28). We are still on the level of observable manifestations of the inner reality. The important thing is to acknowledge that the fount of these manifestations is essentially invisible, is not an actuality or entity, but is the metaphysical ground and condition of all existence and all existents. We have to absorb the idea that what is ultimately real is, like Plato’s Form of the Good, beyond being and beyond knowledge and yet is the begetter of all being and all knowledge. It is because Kant lacked the notion of metaphysical reality transcending being and knowledge that he wrestled futilely with the transcendental unity of apperception.
8. I have repeatedly charged Empiricists and Analytical philosophers with ignoring or denying the mind. I have now now seen some recent philosophy of mind writing. It seems that around the turn of the century there has been a change of heart. Apparently it has at last been acknowledged that consciousness and mentality are too insistent to be denied or neglected as mere epiphenomena. Eminent academics are now speaking of “finding a place for the mental in the physical world”and puzzling about “mental causation”. We are told that “the chaff of philosophical behaviourism has long been discarded while the wheat has been appropriated by the philosophical doctrine of functionalism.” The sentences I have just quoted come from the Introduction written by Julia Tanney for the sixtieth anniversary edition of Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind published in 2009. Tanney’s exhaustive paper on Ryle’s work together with something I have seen of Jaegwon Kim’s Mental Causation and Consciousness: Our Two Mind-Body Problems. In what follows I do not examine or comment on either of the texts I referred to. These modified an impression I had of Analytical philosophy and incited me to give fresh expression to thoughts I had repeatedly presented before. A word of warning to the reader is due: my having mentioned these academic thinkers should not lead the reader to expect me to vie with them or to write in their style. As usual I write naïve essays, exploring my own mind and I purposely shun the academic paraphernalia.
0. So philosophers of mind are once again grappling with the mind-body problem or group of related problems. I am afraid they will seek in vain to explain the mind or consciousness or to determine the place of mind or consciousness in the physical world. The approach is still basically flawed. For them consciousness or the mental, to have any reality, must be something out there. So we find talk of mental processes, of introspection, of “the phosphorescence of consciousness”. It is always something objective, something observable. It is, as Wittgenstein said of a sensation, “not a something, but not a nothing either!” (Philosophical Investigations, §304). Philosophy of mind is a misnomer; it has nothing to do with the reality of the mind; it is a science, and as a science it can only deal with manifestations of the mind. The mind is inaccessible to the methods of science. But it is very difficult for moderns to see the mind as what is truly real, and more difficult still to see that since it is real it does not exist. The mind is subjectivity, and subjectivity is, in Gilbert Ryle’s word, uncatchable, but is not therefore a deus ex machina as Ryle thought. (See “Where Is I?”, The Sphinx and the Phoenix, 2009). The ancients had the notion of the spirit, and even if they had personified the spirit, it was to them what was real as opposed to the world and the actual things of the world. All the quandaries of the pseudo mind-body problem and of the pseudo problem of free will (what apparently is now designated as the problem of mental causation) can only be resolved when we absorb the idea of reality as not a thing or an entity, but as activity, as creativity. All the manifestations of the mind are evanescent as all things in the world are evanescent, they have no being but are ceaselessly becoming: the galaxies are not, but are becoming. What sustains the evanescent? Not a principle that is active, creative, but a principle that is sheer activity, sheer creativity. Call that Brahma, call it Atman, call it Mind, call it the ‘World Soul’ This is a thought difficult to speak, difficult to think, because language and thought were formed to deal with the practical exigencies of life, not for disclosing reality. Science deals with all existents; that is its proper domain; it has no access to reality. Philosophy, poetry, art, help us commune with our inner reality and give expression to that reality in myth, in song, in dance, but not in the language of factual report.
10. So long as philosophers of mind take what is objective, what is empirically observable as what is real, they can never reach answers to final questions about the what or the cause of anything. If they work like scientists, they must confine themselves to scientific questions. If they raise philosophical questions they should know that scientific or scientific-like procedures will take them nowhere. They will only be able to give more and more and ever more detailed descriptions, dissections, distinctions.
11. Theories about “the nature of mental phenomena” can only start from the actuality of given mental phenomena. Like all theory, they construct elucidatory ideal structures that have more or less of intrinsic coherence and consequently more or less of enlightening intelligibility. But the ideal structures (a) are always imaginatively arbitrary; (b) can never be exhaustive; rival theories are always possible; (c) can have nothing to do with the subjective reality that brings the phenomena into being.
12. One of the puzzles posed by Analytical philosophy is the question: What are the referents of mental concepts? The odd locution ‘mental concepts’ (as if there could be any concepts that were other than mental) apparently refers to the class of concepts relegated by Wittgenstein to ‘private language’, concepts of seeing, believing, feeling. These are experiences. The objective manifestations accompanying or relating to these experiences, their exteriorization, involve no difficulty, though it is always possible to concoct theoretical difficulties as it is possible to mistake practical difficulties for theoretical ones, as Wittgenstein does with situations involving uncertainty, doubt, hesitation, deception, ignorance, illusions, etc. But the experiences of seeing, doubting, feeling pain, are essentially subjective. They are internal and private and that is that. It is trying to objectify these experiences, to provide them with a ‘referent’ that keeps Wittgenstein going round and round in vacuous circles. (See “The Other Wittgenstein”, Plato’s Universe of Discourse, 2015.) (I refer to Wittgenstein because I prefer to keep to what I know fairly well but I believe that what I say applies equally to philosophers of mind and analytical philosophers.)
13. Analytical philosophers will continue producing endless good analyses of ‘seeing’ and ‘believing’ and ‘doubting’ — literally endless because the simplest act, the humblest thought, like a Leibniz monad, mirrors the whole universe and can breed an infinite variety of relatednesses and associations. But they will never capture the seeing in the instantiations of seeing or the believing in the instantiations of believing, because the reality of a ‘mental concept’ is subjective, its inner secret is its subjectivity, and this cannot be objectified, cannot be exteriorized, but can only be beheld subjectively and individually.
‘`4. Introspection’ is a misleading word. In introspection we do not look inwardly but survey representations of our thoughts and feelings. Our only access to our inner reality is in intelligent creativity. In creative thinking, in meditation, in aesthetic enjoyment, in the spontaneity of a deed of love, we are with our inner reality and we are our inner reality. The mystic says that we are then one with the One.
15. Why should ‘privacy’ – that individuals have thoughts, feelings, experiences that cannot be shared by others – constitute a problem? There are situations in which this poses a practical problem. This is one of the facts of life but it does not raise a philosophical problem. Analytical philosophers busy themselves with it because it constitutes a challenge to the Empiricist presumption that only things that can be observed and tested are ‘real’. That we all must confess, if we are reasonable, that we have private thoughts and feelings that are not open to inspection and examination by others shows that the Empiricist presumption is a superstition. But there are those who would deny the undeniable rather than question the Empiricist credo. This is related to but not the same as the problem of ‘other minds’.
16. I gave one answer in discussing solipsism, but now I see that the final resolution can only come when we see that the final reality is intelligent creativity. If I see that creative intelligence is my inner reality and the only reality I know, then I see that not only are other persons intelligent (conscious, have minds) but also that all being must be finally grounded in creative intelligence.
17. In vain do Analytical philosophers try to explain, to understand, to ‘ground’, understanding or knowing or meaning. Unless we accept that intelligence is an ultimate reality and an ultimate mystery, the more we make distinctions and construct sophisticated explanations and theories, the more we find ourselves sunk in perplexities and quandaries. Plato ‘explained’ the mystery of knowledge by the myth of reminiscence, and that is a better explanation than the most sophisticated theory.
18. Analysts are obviously enemies of immediacy. Nothing can be just itself and in itself for them. To understand there must be a faculty or what-not to make the one who understands understand. A word has meaning and the meaning must have a referent or whatever Frege said it must have. Julia Tanney develops a thought experiment relating to theory of Rules in the course of which we read: “Rules cannot tell you how to follow them (for this you would need other rules); but these second-order rules do not guarantee their own mastery either (for this there would have to be third-order rules); and so on” ( p.xlviii). Only Socrates knew how to cut this Gordian knot. The meaning of an idea is in the immediacy of its self-evidence and the meaning is its own rea;ity: all beautiful things are beautiful by Beauty; all knowledge and all understanding is knowledge and understanding by inherent intelligence. To depart from the self-evidence of reality is to hurtle down the yawning inferno of regress, to get lost in the mazes of endless analyses. Betrand Russell concocted the Theory of Types to evade the bottomless chasm of regress. Wittgenstein did away with the Theory of Types (Tractatus, 3.331, 3.332).
19. Ryle tells us it is a mistake to talk of meanings as if they were objects. Agreed; meanings can never be objects.. But are we to ban all talk of Justice? For Plato Justice is decidedly not a thing, not an object, and Socrates shows that it cannot be defined. But for Socrates and Plato it is the fount of noble thoughts and noble deeds. As such it is a reality and as such it is a proper concern of philosophy. What have Analytical philosophers to say of Justice other than their interminable descriptions, dissections, qualifications, or, alternatively dumping it as a category-mistake?
20. Words and statements (expressions) do not ‘stand for’ things or even for meanings. They are meaningful in themselves; their meaning is their reality; and their reality can never be encompassed or exhausted. The one reality is spoken in a myriad ways and remains unsaid, it breeds a myriad truths but none of the truths can be true to reality. This is what Analytical philosophers find hard to comprehend.
21. “Learning the meaning of an expression”. we are told, “is to learn to operate correctly with it”. That is good as far as it goes, but it errs in that it is meant to turn attention away from the subjective. That is what comes from reducing words, expressions, meanings to actions, whether that be called behaviourism, functionalism, instrumentalism or whatever newfangled name. To eliminate the subjective is to abolish philosophy, and the science or sciences that are meant to replace it, in the absence of philosophy, smother humanity.
22. The human mind is constrained by two ineradicable limitations. All reality is ultimately a mystery: Knowledge, Life, Being, Love, Beauty are mysteries. We are given to commune with those realities and that communion is the life of the spirit. But we can never comprehend or explain them. The second limitation to which we are inevitably subject is that all formulations of th0ught and language being necessarily finite and determinate are intrinsically imperfect; we may endlessly qualify and refine our formulations and yet they remain open to further correction and contradiction. No theory, no theoretical construction, can ever be definitively final. These are two lessons philosophers have to absorb. Philosophy must always remain an endless quest, a ceaseless exploration of the unfathomable mysteries of reality. The quest, the exploration, is the life of intelligence.
23. Such is the heritage of Descates’s dualism. I maintain that any attempt to solve the riddle, or cluster of riddles, on Cartesian grounds must fail. Materialists and the advocates of scientism bypass the problem by exorcising the mind, setting up a physical monism. Certain idealists find the solution in a rival monism that negates the body. As long as we see reality as a something, as a what, however etherealized, we will continue to have problems. The radical solution demands a radical understanding of reality as no thing, or nothing if you like, but sheer activity, creativity. On the face of it, it looks as if this is what physicists have come to take as what is finally ‘real’. But the physicists’ final ‘reality’, be it a god particle or an equation, is still something out there, observable and verifiable, and I still insist on what I have repeatedly stressed: science and philosophy must be kept apart. Philosophy can never attain factual knowledge about the physical world and science can never answer a properly philosophical question.
24. Jaegwon Kim states the two mind-body problems as follows: (1) “How can the mind exert its causal powers in a world that is fundamentally physical?” (2) “How can there be such a thing as consciousness in a physical world, a world consisting ultimately of nothing but bits of matter distributed over spacetime behaving in accordance with physical law?” My philosophy has one answer to both questions. Ultimately reality is intelligent creativity, and I say intelligent creativity rather than creative intelligence to obviate the suggestion that reality is a substance or an entity or a what; reality is purely eternal act, or as I normally put it, Creative Eternity. A human being, as an integral person, mind and body in one, is creative at all levels of her or his being. Our body is intelligent and creative. Even when it is functioning adversely, it is originating, developing, albeit not to our liking. For corruption also is creative development though on a level other than that of the integral personality. Specifically human creativity is in creative thinking, creative art, creative deeds of love. So much for ‘mental causality’; it is the most commonplace of things: when you walk, when you talk, when you take a sip of coffee, your whole person is acting creatively. What about consciousness? Consciousness is mind, consciousness is intelligence: as such it is an ultimate reality and as an ultimate reality is an ultimate mystery. We are aware of our intelligence because our intelligence is our reality, but it is not possible to constrain that within a formula of word or thought. What about our universal physical laws? Scientific laws are generalizations of uniformities observed in natural processes. They are always approximations. There is no clash between freedom and physical laws. I am writing these lines: my thinking is spontaneous though qualified by my earlier thinking, but the movement of my fingers over the keyboard and the working of the keyboard and the computer conform with scientific laws. If a virus invades my body I am subject to biological laws; if I inhale polluted air I am subject to chemical laws; if a falling rock breaks my skull I am subject to physical laws. But I have maintained before and will reiterate that no god, equipped with all the laws of physics and informed of the position of every atom in the universe can predict what word I will write next.
25. Take behaviourism, functionalism, emergentism, supervenience as far as they can go, so long as only the objective is considered admissible, whether on a ground of dualism or a stuff monism, the problem remains where it was. The subjective cannot be derived from or reduced to the objective. And it must be acknowledged that the subjective is the real and that the subjective is not stuff or substance or ‘a spirit’ or even ‘a mind’ but is solely and purely intelligent creativity. This is hard to digest. Positivists and Analysts were prepared to permit, if not to admit, Meinong’s realm of non-existents because Meinong spoke their jargon. The non-existential reality I speak of is something that everyone of us is aware of in herself or himself; we need only to rid ourselves of the prejudices and superstitions of scientism.
25. The principle that a physical event has a causal explanation is so flabby that it means nothing. It says an event happens because it has to happen. If we say that every event has a cause, this statement is soaked in falsity. What we specify as the cause of an event is a feature we isolate and abstract from the total situation that issues in the event. The total situation is, strictly speaking, linked to and intertwined with the whole universe. Every moment in the natural world is unique; nature has habits but never repeats herself without variation; hence no two situations are identical; all scientific laws are approximations. Causal determinism is a working fiction that has been turned into a superstition. Moreover: take an event; specify in minutest detail all the antecedents; how does that explain the event? Only in the protocol sense of conforming to a general pattern we had identified and called a scientific law. We deceive ourselves when we call that explanation. My friend gives me a helping hand. Analyze all the physical, chemical, biological, physiological, neural motions involved. That will not make me understand my friend’s deed. But knowing my friend, I understand; I ask for no explanation. Some twenty-five centuries ago Socrates said that; but the fictions of science are more ‘real’ to us than the ideals of Amity, Benevolence, Nobility, Generosity.
27. All the Analytical refinements of tools and techniques and terminology are, I was tempted to say vain, let me say are a case of ploughing the sand, and for all I know ploughing the sand may be an enjoyable and beneficial exercise. They vainly try to escape the essentially ineluctable imperfection of all formulations of thought. The more they perfect the enunciation of their principles the more they empty them of content and make them of no relevance to any meaningful instantiation, to use a term dear to them. It is thus that Wittgenstein found a ‘perfected’ logical symbolism vacuous, saying nothing. Refining formulations can be helpful for elucidating a thought, but it is worthless in argument. However precise your terms may be, your adversary will always be able to introduce a qualification, a distinction, that will vitiate your conclusion. The controversies not only in theoretical philosophy but also in such areas as bioethics, politics, sociology, psychology, etc., provide ample evidence of the fatuity of trying to settle differences by logical argument. The way to settle differences is to widen the scope of our common acceptations.
28. My position is that we cannot elude the dilemmas generated by the mind-body divide except by admitting that reality is of one character. How then do we face the commonsense divisions of mental and physical, living and inanimate, sensible and insensible, subject and object, or to use antiquated but conveniently comprehensive terms, spirit and matter? Speaking for myself, I say that I know spirit, mind, subjectivity immediately and indubitably, while matter, body, the objective is reported to me in mutable, evanescent manifestations. This was Plato’s answer: mind and the things of the mind are what is real, all the world around us is a shadow show. But if only spirit is real, how do we account for the existence of the things outside us, of the natural world? Here I have two different but not exclusive answers; they stand side by side. The first answer is to confess our ignorance. It is not given to us to know how there can be a world or how there can be any being at all. That is an ultimate mystery and it is not the only mystery we must stand humbly before. The second answer is that, to satisfy my craving for understanding, I say that I only find the existence of anything intelligible if I suppose there is intelligence in it, with it, behind it. This is not a factual answer; I do not say it is so; I say that is how I can find things intelligible. Many philosophers have given us imaginative accounts of how they can find things intelligible. Plotinus, Spinoza, Schopenhauer. They only erred when they assumed their accounts were factual and definitive. That can never be. But philosophers will continue to explore their minds and give us their various imaginative accounts through which we experience the satisfaction of roaming intrinsically coherent, imaginatively intelligible worlds. In other words, I do not ask of philosophers anything other than what I ask of poets, to transport me “Where Alph, the sacred river, ran / Through caverns measureless to man”. Do we blame Coleridge for giving us nothing but a dream?
Cairo, September 29, 2015.