Solving The Mind-Body Problem in Five Minutes

What is the relationship between mind and matter?

Materialism holds that the mental is a product of the physical – the mind is what the brain does. By contrast, dualist accounts are consistent with our common sense  notion that the mental is fundamentally different from the physical. How much does a thought weigh? a dualist might ask. In this post I will offer a materialist position that offers all the strengths of materialism as commonly understood, but with none of the shortfalls.

Scientific Arguments for Materialism

  1. Changes in the brain lead to changes in experience. Think brain injury, drugs and the classic lab story of the man who reported smelling burnt toast upon having his brain tickled by a neurologist.
  2. We can bend spoons with our minds. A mental desire to bend the spoon leads to a cascade of physical events that ultimately result in our desire being fulfilled.
  3. Changes in experience lead to changes in the brain. We are able to learn, remember, develop skills and be traumatized because this moment’s experiences and efforts produce changes in the brain, some short-lived and others long-lasting.

Experiential Argument for Dualism

The mental and physical are clearly different. What does love weigh? How can a physical entity feel? Even if we were to completely map out the brain state of a person experiencing love there would be something qualitatively different about the brain state and the feeling. Dualism is assumed whenever one posits the existence of souls, spirits, and so on.

Materialism Responds

Many materialists argue that the difference between the experience and brain state of love is a matter of perspective. Two things can be the same and different at once. For example, I am a person and a student. Both of these things are true, but they are not the same thing. Secondly, if mind and matter are fundamentally different how do they interact? How does the mass-less emotion of love give one’s heart a jolt? It’s a fundamental law of physics that matter can only be influenced by matter. Similarly, how could matter affect the non-material?

If mind and matter are fundamentally different, how do they interact?

Solving the Mind-Body Problem

Reconciling the  interactive nature of mind and matter with the appearance of fundamental difference between the two begins by acknowledging that humans do not perceive the world in a comprehensive and objective fashion. Our perceptual systems are not infinitely broad and precise. There are things we cannot perceive, such as high-pitched dog whistles or the sonar signals of bats. Similarly, our perception isn’t so fine-grained that we can distinguish between any two stimuli (e.g., two shades of blue that differ in wavelength by a single nanometer). This second point is important for the Mind-Body Problem.

Categorical Perception

Our perception is categorical. We hallucinate sharp divisions between stimuli that we have no reason to believe are actually sharply distinguished. For example, the phonemes (i.e., speech sounds) /b/ and /p/ are very similar in terms of sound wave structure, differing only slightly along a continuous sound wave spectrum. Similar to orange and red being neighbours on the continuous colour spectrum, /b/ and /p/ are neighbours on the continuous sound spectrum. Yet, studies have shown that at level of experience, there isn’t a gradual perceptual transition from /b/ to /p/. When beginning to move from a /b/ sound toward a /p/ sound, the transition is gradual. A small alteration to the sound wave produces a small alteration in sound perception. However, as we move closer to the midpoint between the wavelengths of /b/ and /p/, smaller and smaller additional changes to the sound wave produce larger and larger perceptual differences. This becomes so extreme that we perceive a sharp boundary between /b/ and /p/, despite the gradual stepwise nature of the transition. Similar findings exist in other areas of perception. Thus, we don’t simply perceive light. We perceive discrete colours. And we don’t simply hear a continuous spectrum of musical sounds; we hear qualitatively different musical tones. Moreover, despite sound and light both existing as waves, we see light and hear sound (though if you want to see where this rule breaks down, look up synaesthesia).

Putting It All Together – Seeing What God Would See

Just as we hallucinate a sharp qualitative difference between /b/ and /p/, the same may be true of mind and matter. Our experience of mind and matter being qualitative different may be no more true than our experience of /b/ and /p/ being qualitatively different. Just as /b/ and /p/ can be described as existing on a continuous wave spectrum, something analogous may be true of mind and matter. If so, we would have a satisfying account of how the two can at once appear so different and yet still clearly share at least one plain of co-existence along which to interact.


10 thoughts on “Solving The Mind-Body Problem in Five Minutes

  1. Pingback: Solving The Mind-Body Problem in Five Minutes « The Frame Problem

  2. Three things:

    1) Firstly, I like the approach. It is (to me, at least) original to suggest that the mind/body problem isn’t so much one over the other, but a question of categorical failure.

    2) With that in mind, I’d suggest changing the text: ‘Solving the Mind-Body Problem’ with ‘Dissolving the Mind-Body Problem’. You’re not actually answering the question proposed by the Mind-Body Problem – you’re turning around and questioning the assumptions of the question.

    To put it another way, you’re not providing a solution so much as explaining that there was never really a problem in the first place (not a criticism, by the way).

    3) My only beef is with Scientific Argument for Materialism #2. Yes, I know, you’re being coy (cascade of physical events = reaching out with my arm and bending the spoon). Still made my eye twitch, though. *twitch*

  3. Hey Daniel,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I like your idea about switching from solving to dissolving, and think it may well be the better choice. I may go back and change it over the next few days.

    As for “3”, I was being coy in a way, but I think that there was a legitimate point there: even though we don’t bend spoons with our minds as did the kid in The Matrix, it is our intention which produces real physical effects. A dualist would be hard-pressed to give an explanation as to how something nonphysical effects the physical world.

  4. Yes. This. I agree.

    Instead of asking what is different about the mind and body, just ask what is the same! That leads naturally to the continuum, which satisfyingly allows for more than mere materialism but avoids the silliness of dualism with its artificial two parallel planes.

    Now ask yourself, what is it that varies smoothly along the line between body and mind? We know that the mind is more abstract than the physical world, maybe it’s abstraction. What exists between the place in the continuum that we feel as our mind and the place that we feel as our body, i.e., what everyday experience do we all have that is half-mindsy and half-bodyish? Emotions. They seem to flow about and so are more abstract than the body but more concrete than mental activity, more tied to the body.

    I call the continuum p-space, short for psychological space. The physical world is a surface in p-space.

    What exists in p-space “above” a tree? A rock? I doubt p-space is ever completely empty, even above a rock. It wouldn’t be natural. Nature always diffuses to fill voids, rounds off the corners. Even a perfect crystal has at least one abstraction — its pattern — and so has some height in p-space.

    Does stuff in p-space have mass? It would be more unusual for it all not to have mass than for there to be at least some kind of mass. It’s hard to say what “abstract mass” even could be. But see dark matter. Physicists are looking for 70% of the universe’s mass. Perhaps they should look in p-space.

    Does energy flow through p-space? It flows everywhere else, so why not? See dark energy. Something is pushing the universe apart, acting as a source term everywhere at once. Chi, prana, holy ghost — all different names for p-energy at the local level. Try imagining it’s the same thing. It worked well for Newton.

    Are our minds the peaks of p-space or is there more above us? What could be pouring energy downward in p-space everywhere? Maybe it’s like the old rock song:

    There’s got to be an invisible sun. Shining down on everyone. — The Police “Invisible Sun”

  5. The mind/body problem is actually much easier to solve. All it requires is one dualist volunteer.

    In our experiment, the dualist will have all of the portions of their brain responsible for higher level functioning (speech, cognition, etc) surgically removed. If, after the surgery, the dualist continues to carry on as a normal human being, conducting normal conversations, and retaining all of their previous knowledge and memories, then we know that dualism is true. Case closed.

    Any volunteers?

  6. How do you know mind and matter are different? From introspection? Can you even tell me what ‘mind’ is? Perhaps we should investigate that before rushing to philosophical conclusions.

    I would suggest that the notions of mentality put forward by many philosophers are based on their own biased introspection, carried out in the comfort of their office armchairs. Thus the preoccupation with language as the sine qua none of consciousness.

    If mind and matter are different, that does not mean they are separate and distinct. They are only words. Unless you feel you already know what they are and can identify where the matter stops and the mind begins. Or what the mind is…

    I think that we learn more about the mind body issue by studying living things with little minds – dogs, worms, infants, and people with brain damage. Then we can observe without the usual internal chatter that reinforces our biases. There is a continuum of mind, from one-celled animals (yes, they are capable of ‘learned’ behaviors!) to us, just as within us there is a continuum from the knee-jerk reflex to the me writing this response.

    Free will, the ‘problem’ of knowledge, and the ‘problems’ of other minds and of the mind-body relationship are all different statements of the question, “What is mentality? Where does it come from? How does it work?” Neuroscience, evolutionary biology, with a dash of philosophy will gives us better answers.

  7. Lich:
    As to how do we know that the mind and matter are different, we don’t. One of the main ideas in this post was that their *apparent* difference may be a product of our finite, simplifying cognitive systems, which we already know has a knack for dividing sensory input into distinct categories. An opinion that I argued in the post was that mind and matter must be united on at least one dimension where interaction can take place, because they clearly do interact.

  8. Pingback: Buddhism for Skeptics of Religion « Death By Trolley

  9. I think the mind-body problem is directly related to ‘death’, which we can only understand as no more living experience. We can’t conceive of a nonliving experience.

    I think even the idea of eternal oblivion implies a living experience. We cannot make any meaningful statement about nonliving experience without assuming a living experience. Materialists say “After death, the body deteriorates and that is the end of the person.”

    Well, we have no comprehension of ‘After death’ and can only conceive of it as a living experience, i.e., the end of the person, which could only be imagined as an experience.

    We have no answer to this question: what is the nonliving experience? We can’t say that after death there is no experience. Because… what is the ‘after death’? Saying that life continues after death has the same issue. What’s the ‘after death’?

    I think that we can’t conceive of an experience where the mind is the body either.

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