The mind-body problem is one of the most famous issues within philosophical discussion. It has been a point of argument and deep interest for philosophers throughout history. The mind-body problem was addressed by Buddhism and the ancient Greeks, all the way through to Rene Descartes and beyond.
But why is this a matter of interest and why is it important? Here we will look at the answers to these questions, how it can make us think deeper about our existence, but also how this issue concerns us on a more personal level. However, firstly we must understand what the mind-body problem is.
What is the mind-body problem?
The fundamental premise of this problem is the idea of whether the mind and body are two separate entities, or whether they are the same and interconnected in some way. Should we treat them as the same thing or is one in charge of the other? More generally, it is the discussion between the relationship of the mind and the body, or the affiliation between mental attributes and physical attributes.
This, in turn, leads to many other questions that build on this issue. These questions are an integral part of philosophical discussion and concerns about our existence.
For example, what is the self and how is it related to the mind and the body? Are our bodies just housing our minds? What does it mean for a body to belong to a certain subject? Do mental states affect physical states and vice versa? Is our being composed of mental facets and physical facets, or are we just consciousness and nothing else?
As you can see, the mind-body problem isn’t a simple matter. No wonder philosophers have grappled with it throughout history. Many strands of thought and theories have tried to make sense of the relationship between the mind and the body. They each give their take on it.
Hence, there are many different ideas about what makes up our existence as a whole. Two approaches are the most common among those: Dualism and Monism.
Dualism and Monism
The main difference between these two theoretical approaches to the mind-body problem is that dualism holds a clear distinction between the two – between mental and the physical, between the immaterial and the material. At the same time, monism holds the idea that there is only one single reality to which everything can be explained – the two are indistinguishable, they are one entity.
But what does this mean? It will help to look at each idea in more detail:
We can understand dualism when recognising humans being made up of two different parts: one nonphysical (the mind) and one physical (the body/brain). These two things exist separately. They are not one whole subject.
The theory posits that both the mental and physical realms exist. However, they cannot be integrated. They are two separate cogs in a machine. They can work together but nevertheless are two distinguishable, individual entities. Rene Descartes is among the most well-known to believe in such a position through what is called Cartesian dualism (but that’s for another time).
This is easy enough to understand. We can often recognise that our minds can act differently to our bodies.
This could be in an obvious sense where our bodies may be frail in old age, but our minds are still as sharp as they were many years ago. Our bodies may become ill, by no fault of our own, but our minds may be still healthy (and vice versa). Our body has its system that works on its own; it is involuntary, whereas our mind can initiate voluntary actions.
You get the idea. This hopefully demonstrates what the essence of dualism is. It is perhaps more concrete and black and white than its counterpart though, and it’s easy to see why.
Monism takes the opposite perspective. It tries to refute the existence and distinction of these two separate entities and treats them as one phenomenon. It is a concept of singleness. Mind and matter are not two different states; they are both part of one overriding form.
We can see this through two types of monism: materialism and idealism. Materialism expresses the belief that nothing exists except the physical world. This means nothing exists apart from physical matter (in this case the brain and the body). This also considers consciousness as simply something that the brain does (an action or a function).
Idealism says that nothing exists apart from the nonphysical world. Physical objects are derivable and are just a product of our mental capacities. Perhaps the most famous advocate of this is the philosopher George Berkley (or Bishop Berkley). He argued that everything we perceive in the physical world, including our bodies, is just a projection of our mind.
The distinction is clear enough. Either our minds and bodies are two separate things that act independently from one another, or they co-exist together in some capacity in one single entity (e.g. consciousness, if taking the monist stance). This demonstrates how varied philosophical thought is when arguing about the mind-body problem.
However, for those of us who aren’t philosophers, it perhaps isn’t the point to advocate a particular position or choose a certain side when considering this issue. Rather we should use it as a means to help us engage with philosophy and help us think about our existence on a deeper level.
Why is the mind-body problem important?
You might wonder what the importance of such an ambiguous concept might be, or what use it is to us to even ponder on a matter like this. It can do two things for us: help us generate discussion about our existence on a general level and can also affect how we judge ourselves on a personal level.
The mind-body problem can engage us with the most deeply held concerns within philosophy about what the nature of our existence is. Are we physical beings inhabiting a physical world? Or, do we exist on a mental level where our minds are the only true entities and everything else is just a projection of our consciousness?
This all may seem broad and convoluted. But at its root, it is a major pathway to trying to understand the reality and our place in it. Encouraging this endeavour can only be a positive thing for society and us.
Viewing this issue on a personal level can also put a different spin on the subject.
One of the major enigmas we face in life is the struggle to understand or handle the conflict between our minds and our bodies. Perhaps how people view us on the outside, by our appearance and our projected character, is starkly different from how we may feel inside our mind.
The way we look or how others perceive us may sadly and unwantedly become engrained in our identity. However, we are still unsettled in our psyche when we know this not to be true.
Should we view our minds and bodies as part of the same parcel? Or is it healthier to have the awareness that what is depicted in someone’s exterior may be false, with the true nature of our being lying in our minds and our thoughts?
These ideas are less of a theoretical approach to the issue and more of an emotional angle that concerns our well-being. Nevertheless, it just demonstrates further the different ways we can consider the mind-body problem. In whatever way or capacity we choose to do so, it can only be for the betterment and benefit of ourselves.
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