The Mind-Body Problem
William Hasker (Huntington College) characterizes one of the central problems in philosophy, the Mind-Body problem.
Bill, one of the things we’re spending time on at the center this year is the mind body problem. Can you say, what is the mind body problem? What is the problem?
Okay. Well, it’s a fact about us that we are bodily creatures, you know, each of us is composed of a certain amount of skin and flesh and bone and muscle and so on and so forth, we have a certain size and shape and weight and all that sort of thing. Also we are thinking, experiencing beings; we have thoughts, we have feelings, we have beliefs, we have desires, we make decisions and so on, or we have a conscious life, as it were, and we think of this as the life of our minds or sometimes traditionally it’s called our soul, okay. And if you just go through life, you know, normally, that seems perfectly obvious and, well, why is it a problem? But if you try to think about it, philosophers have found out and other people found out, for that matter, that there’s really a lot that’s puzzling about what is the relationship of this mental life, this thought life that I have, and what is going on in my physical body and its relationship to the world? We kind of think we know what a body is, I mean, we see bodies all the time and we can take courses in anatomy and physiology and so on. When you ask, well, what is the mind? That’s more elusive, you know. I can look at my body in a mirror but I can’t in any literal sense look at my mind at all. My mind seems to be behind my eyes somewhere but I can’t get behind my mind; even if I see the back of my head with a mirror that doesn’t seem to help with my mind so what is the mind? Or what is the soul? Well, many people, probably in fact the majority of people who’ve thought about this in any way, have thought of the mind or the soul as something different from the physical body, something that in some way inhabits the body, possibly enlivens the body or energizes it but that, you know, is something different from what is physical. In contemporary science there’s a pretty strong push the other direction to say that our thinking life is just a manifestation of our physical bodies, that all the work is done by the body and so then we have the computer analogy so our brain is the meat computer inside our head and we think we understand things that way but whether we really gain much understanding is certainly open to debate.
But so the mind body problem is the problem of sorting out the relation between the two: what is the nature of the body? What is the nature of the mind? What’s the relation between them? And trying to arrive at an understanding this which is coherent, fits together with everything we can find out about the mind, the mental life, about the body, the brain, the way they function, and if we’re religious believers, all of this somehow has to fit into our belief in God and our religious view of the world, so it’s really a rather enormous problem and, as you know, philosophers spend their lives beating their heads against it and, you know, where you make a tiny bit of progress here and there that’s good but it’s very difficult to really understand, you know.