INTRODUCTION TO THE MIND/BODY PROBLEM
When you want to express what you are thinking and feeling, do you use the word brain or mind? For example: Do you usually say, “I’ve got something on my MIND”, or “I’ve got something on my BRAIN”? You might use one but rarely the other, or you might use them both, but this question probably sounds like trivia. In fact, it might have never come across your mind. But to philosophers of the mind and to cognitive scientists, the word mind could have very different implications from the word brain. The word mind refers to the part of us that embodies our thoughts, intentionality, dreams, desires, memories, feelings, beliefs, hopes, and personal experiences. The brain on the other hand, is a physical organ. It is the most complex organ in our own vast perceivable universe, but an organ nonetheless. The brain is a collection of neurons, cells, water, fat, chemicals, and blood vessels that sits in the skull. The mind is what the brain does. Complex activities in the brain such as secreting chemicals and the firing of the neurons give rise to the contents and the context of the mind. An analogy that cognitive scientists like to use is that the brain is like a computer’s hardware, while the mind is the software/programs that are running on the CPU. Different software arise out of similar hardwire devices, just like how we all have brains that are constructed out of the same kinds of neurons and chemicals, but manifest themselves into a multitude of varying minds.
The big question on neuroscience and philosophy of the mind is: how could the brain, secreting its chemicals all day long, give rise to the mind? How does the machinery of the brain allow the mind to work as it does and to give it the character that it has? How does the brain allow us to have the sense of “I” or to “be like something” subjectively? The brain is an objective something in the material world while the mind is a subjective something in the phenomenological world. How do the two interrelate? Think of subjectivity as an experience or phenomenon that escapes and is unbounded by scientific description.
The experience of being “me”, or the “I” – ness is a phenomenological question and a great mystery. It is a qualitative and subjective question, and it is not to be quantified simply because we can’t measure it in terms of degrees. The human brain is just a 3 pound sponge full of chemicals ingredients being simply a lump of flesh. But where is the subjective and unique experience of being “me” situated in the brain? In other words, how does the mind arise from the brain? The bond and the interrelation between the mind and the brain is still a deep mystery; a mystery that human intelligence may never be able to unravel. The brain is a trivial feedback device, programmed by natural selection to solve (relative to questions of philosophy and physics) very simple problems in regards to survival, and selectively made to drive an organism to move towards certain things (pleasure) and to avoid others (pain and danger) in order to make sure that the organism is more often than not situated in the right circumstances to survive and propagate their genes. Therefore, it is not a pipeline to “truth”, nor is it designed to solve complex mathematical equations and answer self-referential questions such as how does the brain give rise to the mind.
Even though I don’t think that we can ever solve the mystery of the mind with the structure of our brain and intelligence, it is worth pointing out some of the basic philosophical implications of the mind/body problem. The nature and the source of human “not-knowing” is to me, far more interesting than what is already known. To know how the mind works, it is essential to talk about consciousness. Although consciousness is a product of the mind, it is not everything that the mind produces. The unconscious and the subconscious part of the mind assert as much force on us and direct our behaviors, feelings, and thoughts as much as, if not more, than the conscious mind.
Because consciousness is so elusive, I think the best way to explain what it is, is to give examples rather than definitions. The reason for this is because I think the essence of consciousness is a heterogeneous quality that cannot be objectively defined or quantified. Imagine the difference between receiving a heart surgery without a local anesthetic and having it done with one. The difference between the two is obvious: the anesthetic removes the consciousness of pain. Imagine the difference between simply closing your eyes and opening your eyes. The experience that you have when you open your eyes is the conscious experience of visual stimuli, something that is missing when you have your eyes closed. Consciousness is not exactly the same as wakefulness, for in dreams you are also conscious. You might not be conscious of the fact that you are dreaming, but you have consciousness nevertheless when you dream. Losing consciousness is more or less like a dreamless sleep or a coma, where all sensations and experiences are lost. Consciousness in short, is the collective of sensations and feelings, volition, emotions, thoughts, and perceptions that temporally unfold on a moment to moment basis to give rise to self-awareness, subjective experiences, and sentience.
The central problem of consciousness and mind again, is how it relates to scientific processes in the brain. The big challenge is to explain how the internal, subjective, and phenomenological sensation and experience of consciousness fits into the objective and external world of matter because no amount of scientific description will convey a subjective grasp of conscious experience.
At this point, we face three options to choose from when it comes down to the mind/body complication.
You can choose to be a materialist, a dualist, or a mysterian.
(to be continued…In part 2 I’ll deal with perspectives from the materialists and dualists, and part 3 I’ll talk about mysterians).