The Other I

May 26, 2012

My liberating puzzle II

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The second unresolved problem which I find both fascinating and liberating is what has been known for a century and a half in philosophy and psychology as the Mind-Body problem.

Essentially, the problem is that all the evidence suggests that what we think and feel (okay, what we call our “mental processes”) both is influenced by and influences our observable physical processes.  We know that drugs, for instance, can influence our mental state.  And we know that what we think can influence our physical state.  What we think is happening or even think might happen can increase our pulse rate and blood pressure.  But how physical changes influence the energy of thought and vice versa is unclear.  That they do is undoubtedly so.  But how does something physical like a drug affects something apparently non-physical like a thought?

It is in some ways the same as the more modern question, What is Life?  How do a series of apparently mechanistic chemical reactions lead to a dynamic organism capable of self-replication, driven by self-preservation, and possessing a variety of levels and forms consciousness?

This question is actually a relatively recent one because when science as a separate discipline first emerged in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Roman Catholic church still held powerful temporal powers and severely punished those who were considered heretics.  Cruel executions were quite common.  Scientists, therefore, made a great effort to avoid suggesting that they were infringing on Rome’s territory.  Science, they said, was concerned only with the natural world.  The spiritual world still belonged exclusively to Rome.  Since the spiritual world included the soul, the life-giving force in every living thing, the question of how life could arise out of natural forces was too dangerous to even raise.

Matter, on the other hand, the stuff of this apparently imperfect, inferior, and temporary world was not alive.  Natural laws were not dynamic but purely mechanistic.  Newton’s theory of gravity seemed to offer a comprehensive view of this assumption.

By the 19th century, however, scientists were free to dismiss the soul as a life force.  But if life and consciousness could not be explained by a soul from another world, then life must occur naturally.  Consciousness must also be a natural phenomenon.  And so the mind-body problem, and questions about the nature of life emerged.

I remained a dualist for far longer than I remained a religious believer because I could think of no resolution to these twin problems.  Many scientists today remain “reductionists” arguing that consciousness is only an epi-phenomenon.  For them, once science is able to develop the conditions in a laboratory in which life emerges from a chemical reaction, the problem is solved.  For them, life is shown to be the result of a purely mechanistic process.

I’ve never been able to accept this reasoning.  Consciousness is real in its own right.  It is not a figment of my imagination.  I believe we still have the problem, even if we know all the life-producing equations, of how apparently something as ethereal and immaterial as thought and feeling arise out of matter.

I think now the answer lies somewhere in recognizing that until recently we have misunderstood the nature of matter.  Einstein’s theory rejects the mechanistic view of matter held by Newton, and demonstrates instead that matter and energy are different manifestations of the same thing.  Matter, in other words, is dynamic rather than passive.  The emergence of life, then, is not a supernatural event, but a natural result of the energy intrinsic to matter.

This insight still leaves us with unanswered questions, but I find looking for it in the mystery of the natural world more freeing than looking for the answer in Plato’s supernatural world or religion’s “soul” which is conceived as a force created directly by God and wholly above and outside of nature.  Science is only recently coming to terms with the realization that the nature of life and of consciousness lies wholly within its realm.

Yes, life, the mind, the body, consciousness belongs to the poet, to the artist, to the religious thinker, to the mystic, to philosophy.  But it belongs just as fully and wholly to the scientist.

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