Minds and Bodies
A man or a woman is a physical thing like other physical things. A human body is heavy if one lifts it, solid yet yielding if one runs into it, capable of supporting weight if one leans against it. It consists of solids, liquids and gases, variously composed and mingled. It can be analyzed chemically or diagrammed geometrically. It has contours that can be photographed and smells that can be smelled. A human is, in short, a material object.
A man or woman is not a physical thing like other physical things. A sack of cement has weight but makes no weighty judgments; a wooden bench gives support but cannot be supportive. A running stream may be full of music, but it takes a human being to hear the music. A rock may be made into an altar, but it takes a living soul to worship at it. Humans, unlike other physical things, write poems and love letters, invent scientific theories and discover the depths of evil. They are like ordinary material objects, yet unlike them in so many ways.
The Mystery of Mind and Body
This, in a nutshell, is the mystery of mind and body. How is it that this familiar object, compounded out of ordinary chemicals, is yet able to transcend physical limitations and to live a life of the spirit? Or, to come at the mystery from the opposite direction, how does it happen that a rational spirit, capable of speculating about truth, beauty and goodness and of worshiping a Supreme Being, nevertheless finds itself embedded—some would say, imprisoned—in a body consisting of flesh and bone, blood and muscle? However one states the question, it remains a deep and perplexing mystery. And if anyone is ready with a quick and easy answer, it may be said with confidence that such a person has neither probed the depths of the question nor considered fully the complexities and difficulties that arise out of the proposed answer.
It may occur to you, however, that there is something wrong with the way in which the problem is being presented. If we compare a man or woman with a stone or a river, we may see little in common. But what of cows and horses, cats and canaries, lizards and turtles, fish and fireflies? Don’t other living creatures present, as it were, a continuum of cases between humanity and inanimate nature? And mustn’t these be considered if we are to put man in his proper place in the scheme of things?
The complaint is justified and will be discussed in due course. But considering the variety of living creatures does not by any means provide an easy resolution of the mystery of mind and body. Rather, it complicates the problem considerably. For one thing, there is the very real question as to how many of the “distinctive” characteristics of human beings are in fact shared by other creatures. Consider, for example, the controversies about the alleged linguistic abilities of apes. On the other hand, since some of the attributes which distinguish humans from ordinary material objects are shared by other creatures, some of the same questions will arise concerning those creatures as arise concerning human beings. If, for example, we think of a living organism as an assemblage of the microparticles of physics (electrons, quarks, gluons and the like), it seems a considerable mystery how such an assemblage of particles can experience a feeling such as pleasure or pain. Certainly our current physical theory, the best knowledge we have concerning the nature and behavior of these particles, gives us no help with this at all. And this remains true whether the organism in question is an amoeba (if amoebas have feelings), a fish, a snake, a leopard—or a human being.
I believe it is important to see at the outset that the mind-body relationship is deeply mysterious and will remain so whatever theory about it we finally adopt. That is to say, the mysteriousness is inherent in the subject matter and is not just the result of a confused or inadequate way of viewing it. If we do not see this, we may be apt to think we have found the correct answer when all we have really done is to point out difficulties in a rival theory. Thus one may feel that it is obviously absurd to suppose that a mere assemblage of atoms could compose symphonies or worship God—and, therefore, that the correct view must recognize the existence in man of an immaterial mind, soul or spirit. On the other hand, one may point to the numerous difficulties which arise if such an immaterial mind is postulated, and thus conclude that the correct view has to be some form of materialism.
Either of these conclusions might be correct, but as stated both are premature. This is so, first, because on this question (as with many other philosophical questions) there are not just two possible answers, such that by disproving one the other is automatically shown to be correct; and, second, because one is not justified in rejecting an opposing position because of its difficulties until one’s own position has been carefully scrutinized and shown to be free from equal (or even greater) difficulties. But for this latter task, we absolutely need the help of philosophers who do not share our favored view, and who will therefore be both more acute and more zealous in finding flaws in it than we ourselves are likely to be.
At this point we need to begin to define more precisely both the mind-body problem and some of the key terms and concepts that are involved in the problem. One might think that the terms to begin with are “mind” and “body,” but beginning this way would tend to imply that mind and body are both “things”—and this, as we shall see, is very much in controversy. It will be better, therefore, to begin by defining physical and mental properties. Let us say, then, that a physical property is a property or attribute which can characterize an ordinary physical object, whether or not that object is thought of as being alive or as being possessed of “mind,” awareness or consciousness. Examples of physical properties would include such things as being seven feet three inches in diameter, weighing 127 pounds, being purple and smelling like Limburger cheese.
A mental property, on the other hand, is a property which can only characterize an entity which is possessed of some kind of consciousness or awareness. Examples would include feeling pain, seeing something blue, thinking to oneself that 12 is the square root of 144, and smelling something that smells like Limburger cheese. Given these definitions, we can state the mindbody problem as follows: How are we to explain the fact—or what seems to be the fact—that the very same entities, in particular human beings, are characterized both by physical properties and by mental properties?
Let me be quick to point out that these definitions are quite rough-and-ready and are by no means to be taken as the last word on the meanings of “mental” and “physical.” In fact, there has been and continues to be a great deal of disagreement about the best way to define both of these terms. But the definitions given above, with the associated examples, suffice to point out a number of clear cases of mental and physical properties, and for present purposes this is all we really need. Let us proceed then to examine some of the answers to this most perplexing of problems.