Thoughts on the Mind-Body Problem


If I asked an American layperson how he made sense of his subjective experience, he would probably tell me something about him “having” a soul, a mind, or a consciousness. If I asked him to point to his mind, he would laugh and tell me his subjectivity is not physical, but rather, “interior”, looking out onto the “external” world from “behind” his eyes. If I asked him whether he thought that his mind is the same thing as his brain-body system, he would tell me that the pure subjectivity of his phenomenal experience is an introcosm, nonreducible to the physical world. Accordingly, the layperson understands himself to “own” his body, controlling it like a rider on a horse. This is the famous Ghost in the Machine. The physical world is something our minds have to dominate and control, sending commands from the Master Control Room to the body like those cheesy sci-fi movies . How then to make sense of this mind-body relationship? The mind is mental and the body is natural. Can we naturalize the mind in the same way we naturalized the body? How can we make sense of the introcrosm or “interiority” that structures how we understand and feel ourselves to be? How am I inside my head?

This is of course the famous mind-body problem. It cuts a deep swathe in the history of philosophy. I can think of no other problem that has so much depth and goes by so many different names: reconciling the subject-object divide, naturalizing consciousness, intentionality, selfhood, subjectivity, solving the problem of knowledge, the problem of  the external world, the problem of qualia, etc. Theorists cannot understand what it  would mean to “explain” the subjective feel of “how it seems”, the redness of red, the coolness of water, the pleasure of sex. Philosophers are baffled when it comes to the mind-body problem; many have offered solutions but no consensus is ever reached, progress is never made.

But I want to claim that philosophers are stumped because they have a limited phenomenological understanding of subjectivity, not because the problem is too “Hard”. Failing to pay attention to the analogical structure of our self-interpretations, philosophers have mistakenly understood “mental interiority” literally, thinking that their “insideness” is real in the same way that an apple is real, but existing on another plane of existence, or at least property-ing in terms of “subjectivity” or “phenomenal feelings”. Most philosophers have failed to understand how exposure to inside-outside discourse in childhood analogically (i.e. metaphorically) constructs a “virtual” self-reflexive workspace that operationalizes whenever we jump offline and introspect on the perceptual gaze, understanding ourselves to be “feeling sensations” and subsequently narratizing alternatives to behavior through our working memory.

This phenomenon of navel-gazing is relatively new in evolutionary history. An animal on the savanna who took himself offline from his attentiveness to what’s going on around him (watching for predators, paying attention to social events, and looking for feeding opportunities) would likely not last long. Most nonhuman animals do not know what its like to “feel a sensation” because phenomenal sensations require the conceptual wherewithal to understand oneself as an “interiority having sensations”. Which isn’t to say that animals don’t have qualia. They just don’t have the qualia of knowing that you have qualia. There is a difference. And this difference makes a difference. Coming offline from the stream of perceptual sampling opens up new behavioral shortcuts through “chunking” world-information in terms of more abstract patterns. Narrative chunking is the great functionality of language. By “labeling” the micro in terms of the macro, we can overlook extraneous information, reduce algorithmic randomness, and streamline our behavioral affordance-space. Names, for instance, greatly reduce the computational load in social cognition. They allow for the possibility of personality ascription and more accurate simulations of behavior in accordance with our memories. Labeling works the same way. Seeing objects as objects allows us to point things out with great precision, transferring information and meaning with greater efficiency, increasing the efficacy of childhood training. Because forgetting information is so costly (storing it is the easy part), linguistically driven cognition opens up dramatically useful offline thinking through an affordance-space of streamlined behavioral alternatives. We can “narratize” different alternatives in behavior and use this narratizing as a new control schema for behavior. We can literally “tell ourselves what to do” (or submit to the authority of Others, as is usual).

Moreover, these “epistemic behaviors”, like all behaviors, have unique phenomenal profiles. But the phenomenal profile is structured by the narrative scaffold itself, and the mentalistic discourse of each historical epoch self-reflexively shapes the phenomenal feel of narratizing. Because our neolithic ancestors did not have inside-outside discourse and could not think of themselves as subjective minds “inside their heads” experiencing qualia, they never had the analogical foundation for constructing the offline linguistic workspace that “chunks” and therefore understands behavior in terms of propositional attitudes such as beliefs, desires, passions, etc. Only through childhood exposure to reason-based discourse can we utilize the implicit semantic structure of the logical space of reasons as a cognitive foundation upon which to construct an offline workspace that chunks the world in terms of mentalistic narratives. Through exposure to narratives, the mind can “bootstrap” itself into a dual-channel system, capable of nonconscious online behavior and offline workspace narratizing. The former allows for habits, the latter for thoughts.

We thus have a rough answer to the mind-body problem. We must first not take our own phenomenal experience literally. We need to understand that without our exposure to reason-based narratives in childhood, we would not experience ourselves in terms of mental states mappable in terms of psychological laws involving propositional attitudes. This is what the Ancient Greeks discovered. They understood better than anyone the possibilities of thinking opened up by language, but they too failed to take a properly meta-meta-cognitive stance on thinking because they (1) did not have the metaphorical models necessary to understand thought nonliterally and (2) they had no concept of the nonconscious mind. If we don’t take phenomenal feels literally, then solving the mind-body problem becomes a matter of explaining analogical construction mechanistically. I’m not sure what figurative understanding would look like computationally, but one thing seems clear: you need to have a body of some sort. If we could make an embodied computer learn analogically, we might make the Myth of Jones a reality.



Filed under Phenomenology, Philosophy

3 responses to “Thoughts on the Mind-Body Problem

  1. Criminally Bulgur


    I discovered your blog a few weeks ago and have been following your recent posts. It struck me that your rehabilitation of Jaynes has a lot of similarities to what Dennett has to say in Consciousness Explained about the role that the acquisition of language plays in providing the characteristic structure of human consciousness (i.e., a narrative stream of serially ordered discrete experiences). Have you looked at Dennett and, if so, written anything about it?

  2. Gary Williams

    When I first got into philosophy of mind, Dennett was my hero. I still have a lot of respect for his theories, but I now think he is often right for the wrong reasons. He also collapses several distinctions I would like to preserve, but for the most part, I agree with him about the problematic nature of qualia, his views on Cartesian materialism, and his account of the narrative self. Dennett was a trailblazer in analytic philosophy of mind, but he wasn’t infallible. Accordingly, I have since moved onto the Post-Dennett behaviorism of 4EA philosophy (which is *not* the same as stimulus-response behaviorism). But in some ways I have jumped back to the 70s because I find Julian Jaynes to be lightyears ahead of philosophical psychology today.

  3. Harlan

    I’d be curious to hear what you make of this talk and set of meditations, given your interpretation of this problem:

    It speaks to the same problem, but from a more applied perspective, yet he comes to a very different conclusion. I find it a beautiful conclusion, and I wonder if it would resonate with you as well. If you want.

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