Mind-body dualism and reductive materialism

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This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Doctrinal Insights from Embodied Cognition


Part 1. We briefly explored how the Restored Gospel emphasizes the importance of divine embodiment and what that might mean for us in an eternal perspective. We argued that our divine destiny has always been to become embodied beings of flesh and bone in the eternities. We also stated that, even with this restored understanding of divine embodiment, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often don’t fully understand the importance of mortal embodiment.

Mind-body Dualism

We may underestimate the importance of embodiment because we are the unwitting inheritors of a long-standing philosophical tradition known as mind-body dualism. Mind-body dualism assumes the mind is a distinct (i.e., immaterial) reality independent of the material body. Mind-body dualism, or what is often known as Cartesian Dualism (after the 16th century French Philosopher Rene Descartes), assumes that how we think, remember, and perceive the world all occurs in some internal mental realm separate from our physical bodies. As Oliver Sacks explains, “The idea that ‘the mind’ – an immaterial, evanescent thing – could be embodied in a lump of flesh – the brain – was intolerable to seventeenth-century religious thinking; hence the dualism of Descartes and others.”((Oliver Sacks, The Mind’s Eye (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), p. 93.))

In fact, many religious people – including many Latter-day Saints – assume that mind-body dualism just must be the case, if we are to believe in the existence of spirits / souls at all. We often assume that the idea of a soul (or spirit) requires that the part of us that thinks, remembers, imagines, chooses, and “contains” our personality is fundamentally apart from and different than the meat and chemical that makes up our physical bodies. We often assume this distinction permits our identity to be eternal, continuous from the premortal world into mortality, and from mortality into the afterlife, and so forth. The body, in this view, can be thought of like the mechs of many science fiction franchises, where the mech represents our body, and the person driving it represents our self-contained spirit or soul.

In this series, we are going to push back on and challenge the philosophical assumption of mind-body dualism, arguing instead for a more radical approach to the  unique LDS doctrine of human embodiment. We will argue that physical bodies are more than mere vehicles for the housing and transportation of self-contained minds or spirits. Rather, physical embodiment is a dramatic step forward for our spirits, a whole new way-of-being that opens up entirely new possibilities of thought, action, and identity.

However, before we can fully explore those possibilities, we must first examine what we consider a flawed way to challenge the idea of mind-body dualism so as to ensure we don’t go in the wrong direction.

A Slide into Reductive Materialism

Many thinkers have challenged mind-body dualism over the past few centuries, and for some very good reasons, but in a very different way than we will here. Some Latter-day Saint thinkers have observed, “As neuroscientific accounts of the mind and brain have increased in popularity in recent decades, these older Cartesian distinctions between mind and body have begun to fall out of favor, both within the scientific community itself and among the general public.”((Hess, Jacob Z., Edwin E. Gantt, Jeffrey R. Lacasse, and Nathan Vierling-Claassen. “Narrating the brain: Investigating contrasting portrayals of the embodiment of mental disorder.” Journal of Phenomenological Psychology 45, no. 2 (2014): 168-208.)) Oliver Sacks describes the history this way:

[P]hysicians, observing the effects of strokes and other brain injuries, had long had reason to suspect that the functions of the mind and brain were linked. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the anatomist Franz Joseph Gall proposed that all mental functions must arise from the brain – not from the “soul,” as many people imagined, or from the heart or the liver. Instead, he envisioned within the brain a collection of twenty-seven “organs,” each responsible for a different moral or mental faculty. Such faculties, for Gall, included what we would now call perceptual functions, such as the sensation of color or sound; cognitive faculties, like memory, mechanical aptitude, or speech and language; and even “moral” traits such as friendship, benevolence, or pride.((Oliver Sacks, The Mind’s Eye (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), p. 93.))

Others quickly embraced Gall’s basic understanding. The resulting worldview can be summarized by Jean-Pierre Flourens’ famous quip:  “The brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile.”((Qtd. in Oliver Sacks, The Mind’s Eye (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), p. 93.)) This led in the 18th and 19th centuries to a new tradition in physiology (and, eventually, psychology) that we will refer to reductive materialism. In contrast to ordinary usage, the term materialism here doesn’t refer to the pursuit of wealth, but rather it is the idea that matter is all that matters — that everything (even human behavior, emotion, and cognition) can be fully explained and accounted for entirely in terms of physiological processes and physical forces. The term reductionism refers to the assumption that complex phenomena (like human action and meaningful experience) can be adequately described in terms of simpler phenomena (like nerves firing).  In other words, reductionism is the notion that some complex phenomenon (e.g., falling in love or remembering to go to the grocery store) is really just a manifestation or product of some simpler phenomenon (e.g., genetics, neuron firings, hormone secretions, etc.).

In this view, there is no mind or soul separate from the body, and everything we do can be explained by reducing it down to the activity of some biological mechanisms. To use our earlier metaphor, there is no “human driver” (soul) in the “mech” (the body). Rather, the body is driving itself  (kind of like a Tesla Autopilot self-driving car). In this view, we are just sophisticated meat machines, programmed perhaps by genetic adaptation through eons of natural selection. As explained by Donna M. Orange, “Descartes’ error, encapsulated in the cogito ‘I think, therefore I am,’ was to imagine, in Gilbert Ryle’s (1959) famous and scornful words, a ‘ghost in the machine.’ For …  most cognitive neuroscientists, there is no ghost, only an utterly fascinating machine that misleads us into thinking/feeling that we have souls.”((Orange, Donna M. Thinking for clinicians: Philosophical resources for contemporary psychoanalysis and the humanistic psychotherapies. Routledge, 2009.))

One consequence of materialistic thinking is that we stop believing that human beings are moral agents. Moral agency, after all, requires genuine possibility and the capacity for genuine moral response. However, when conceived this way, biological mechanisms do not allow for either real agency or moral responsibility. When how we see, understand, and respond to the world is merely the product of mechanical biological programming, all sense of moral texture in our actions is reduced to mere epiphenomena (i.e., an illusory byproduct of the biological processes taking place in the body). From this view, it is the workings of our physiology that ultimately creates for us an illusion of having agency and moral responsibility.

In short, many deny mind-body dualism by treating the mind (consciousness) – to whatever extent it exists at all – as merely a product of biochemical processes occuring in the brain. Clearly, this is not where we want to end up. So we need a different way of talking about embodiment before articulating our main argument.

A Different Way of Talking about Embodiment

Our project has some parallels to the conventional project of neuroscience, and draws on much of their research – but it is also fundamentally different in important respects. One could say that we will be talking about many of the same things but using a different language to do so. If we are to take embodiment seriously, we must do so in ways that don’t reduce meaningful human action to impersonal biological mechanisms, and we must do so in ways that match our lived, day-to-day experience.

We experience human action holistically

For medical professionals who are trying to document the variety of ways in which human brains can be damaged, and the consequences of those injuries, reductionistic ways of talking about human action can seem very attractive. However, for explicating human experience generally, they leave a great deal to be desired. When our depictions of human action depart radically from how human action is experienced in lived-experience, they need to be clearly bracketed and understood as a provisional accounts designed to serve certain specific and limited purposes.

Let’s use an example to illustrate: Ice Hockey is a deeply physical endeavor. It involves quite a bit of strenuous physical activity and attention. This physical activity could be divided into discrete processes localized at and performed by various parts of our body.. For example, skating and puck-handling involves knee bending, arm-bending, neck-bending, eye movements, and proprioception, among other things, which are localized in knees, elbows, necks, eyes, and brains, respectively. Any one of which could breakdown and interrupt the performance.

It would be a mistake, however, to describe the playing of ice hockey as merely a pattern of actions involving a collection of processes such as knee bending, arm-bending, neck-bending, and eye and head movements. We simply don’t experience skating and playing hockey in that way. Of course, for someone first learning to move a hockey puck back-and-forth on the ice, “elbow-bending” may indeed be a salient part of the practice. But for someone with any experience puck-handling, “elbow-bending” ceases to be a salient part of hockey altogether, with “deking an opponent,” “tape-to-tape passing,” and “goal-scoring” taking its place. In short, we experience human activity holistically, not as a stack of smaller processes.

Two comportments, or ways of being

This example helps to highlight a distinction between two modes of comportment we can have with respect to our everyday meaningful living in the world. A comportment is a “way of being”, and is a term used by phenomenologists, including Martin Heidegger, Hubert Dreyfus, and others. We can use an example from Dreyfus to illustrate what we mean by these two comportments:

We hand the blind man a cane and ask him to tell us what properties it has. After hefting and feeling it, he tells us that it is light, smooth, about three feet long, and so on; it is occurrent for him. But when the man starts to manipulate the cane, he loses his awareness of the cane itself; he is aware only of the curb (or whatever object the cane touches) or, if all is going well, he is not even aware of that, but of his freedom to walk, or perhaps only what he is talking about with his friend.((Dreyfus, Hubert L. Being-in-the-world: A commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I. Mit Press, 1991.))

We see here the same sort of thing taking place here that we see in hockey. For someone tending their injured elbow, the muscles and motions of their arm become salient, a thing to observe and study or explain. But for someone playing hockey, those things become almost invisible, as the person becomes engaged in meaningful activity that is made possible by the elbow, but cannot be reduced to the movements or characteristics of the elbow. A functioning elbow expands one’s horizon of possibilities, opening up avenues of action that could not be realized without it – just as the blind man’s cane reveals the world to the blind man.

For those with philosophical interest, the first way of being can be described by the term “present-at-hand” (the English translations of a German term coined by Heidegger, Vorhandedheit), which can be roughly compared to abstract, reflective action with regards to the cane (or elbow). The cane is disclosed to the blind man as an object with properties, something that can be broken, repaired, improved upon, discussed, and analyzed in the abstract, etc. In other words, the cane is an object that is just there, “present” before the man, a thing to be contemplated, analyzed, identified, and categorized in one way or another.

The second way of being can perhaps termed “ready-to-hand” (another Heideggerian term, Zuhandenheit). In this mode of engagement, “one is involved in everyday practical activity and the phenomenon is transparent.”((Dreyfus, Hubert L. Being-in-the-world: A commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I. Mit Press, 1991.)) In this mode, the blind man is hardly aware of the cane (as an independent object) at all, but rather is using the cane to extend his awareness of and participation in the world around him. Similarly, the hockey player ceases to be aware of the muscles in her arm, and is merely receiving passes, skating to open space, shooting the puck, and playing team defense.

These two comportments, or ways-of-being, can be seen in every aspect of ordinary human life. A mechanic who is trying to identify a mysterious problem with the steering apparatus of a car is likely treating the vehicle’s steering wheel and apparatus in a way that abstracts them from their ordinary functions and meanings. In contrast, a driver does not treat the steering wheel as an object she is moving in a circle in order to exert an influence on a vehicle by means of a steering mechanism and drive train. Rather, she is merely turning left onto the street where her dearest and oldest friend lives, in a quaint red house at the end of the block. Similarly, someone learning a new language might treat every sentence as an object of explicit concern, words that must be put together in specific order and arrangement with deliberation and care, while someone more fluent merely asks for directions to a nearby cafe.

At least, that is, until something breaks down or goes awry.

Being careful with language to avoid reductionism

Moments of breakdown — where a knee twists and an ACL is torn, or elbows grow stiff with age, or when someone experiences a stroke that injures their ability to process speech — disclose and reveal the myriad ways in which we depend on our bodies. But the mistake we too often make, at least in our view, is to treat these sorts of present-at-hand moments (where our physiology is disclosed to us as a thing to be contemplated, analyzed, identified, and categorized) as revealing the “truth” of the matter, the underlying reality of the world.

In other words, we can treat those moments — where the body becomes an object of study, and we explore the ways it enables our our daily practical action — as a particular and specialized mode of comportment in and engagement with the world, against the backdrop of a more default comportment of practical action in the world. When we instead treat those moments where we are abstractly studying the body as our default, we might slip into reductionism and treat a world of purposeful and meaningful activity as “merely” a collection of physiological processes.

As we move forward with this series, we will explore some of the various ways that physiological embodiment discloses our world to us, and opens up radically new possibilities for thought and action that were not available to us when we were premortal spirits. Our mortal bodies are like the blind man’s cane — they reveal the world to us in meaningful ways that we wouldn’t be able to experience otherwise. They open up whole horizons of possibilities, expanding our capacities for thought and action in ways we rarely think about.

In pursuing this project, we wish to reject Cartesian mind-body dualism, and explore and emphasize the ways in which activities that we normally think of as non-physical / mental are actually deeply integrated into the “flesh-and-bony-ness” of our mortal embodiment, the physiology of our lives here on earth. However, we do not wish to reduce meaningful human action and experience to mere physiological processes. Rather, we want to explore how our physiology enables and provides context for human activity that is, itself, not merely the product of those individual processes.

After all, as we noted, hockey is more than the mere operations of physiology, more than mere knee- and elbow-bending. It is an activity with dimensions that extend far beyond our physiology, into the norms, practices, expectations, and history of a particular sport, into friendships and relationships with teammates and coaches, into a culture that celebrates competitive sports generally. None of those things can be adequately reduced to biology.

So, it is important to be precise in our language, to always being careful to treat biology and physiology as necessary but never sufficient parts of understanding of human actions and relationships. This will be especially important in subsequent installments where we will explore the ways in which our minds and bodies are not nearly so distinct as assumed by mind-body dualism.

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