The strange case of René Descartes and Madame Guillotine (Pt II)11 min read

Part Two:  Bridging the gap between body and mind

What are our minds like and how are they connected to our bodies?  It’s a question that’s perplexed philosophers for centuries because, although our bodies are clearly here, we can’t see, touch or apparently know the mind from outside our own subjective experiencing.  It’s a toughie.  We’ve seen what mind-body dualism has to say, with its metaphysical decapitation of body and mind.  Now we’ll explore some alternative ideas and theories that challenge Descartes and the dualists, bridging the gap between body and mind – making us all whole once again.  But first, time for a reality check.

Thinking about the nature of reality

There’s little doubt that science has transformed our lives for the better, whether in the realms of human health, our knowledge of how the world around us or the universe beyond works, or in the multitude of technological innovations that have ameliorated the harshest living conditions and improved the overall quality of life⁠1.  Scientific inquiry has also had a positive influence on philosophy, sometimes forcing a fundamental rethink of key ideas.  One such rethink surrounds the metaphysical dualism we encountered in the previous article.

As we’ve seen, dualism argues that reality is comprised of two wildly different, connected planes of existence:  a changing, finite, decaying physical world linked with an unchanging, infinite and permanent spiritual realm.  This dualism appears in the metaphysical distinction between heaven and Earth, and in mind-body dualism’s distinction between body and mind, which argues that our physical bodies – finite and subject to death and decay – are animated by an eternal soul that goes on to heaven or some other spiritual afterlife when the body dies.

In recent years, this idea – that mind and body are separate substances from different realms – has come under serious challenge from a new, science-informed argument:  the casual-closure principle.

Causal Closure

As a metaphysical argument, the causal closure principle makes a compelling claim about the nature of reality.  The general idea is that everything that happens in the physical universe must have a physical – and not a spiritual – cause.  Consequently, all explanations of physical phenomena are contained in the physical realm, with no need for any kind of spiritual intervention.  This is true for the universe, the world, and for us as well. 

The body of knowledge built up over the past couple of centuries by the physical sciences has explained pretty much everything – or hypothesised what is yet to be explained.  This means there’s no additional space – conceptually or in reality – for spiritual forces or mystical energies.  Because our understanding of gravity explains why apples fall to the ground, we don’t need to make reference to apple sprites or wind spirits to explain why apples fall from trees.  Gravity explains it all – and there we have an instance of causal closure.

While Descartes’ mind-body dualism persists, together with a widespread belief in spirits or souls, the causal closure principle – which you’ll remember says everything in the physical realm is caused by physical causes – tells us mind-body dualism makes no sense.  So where do we go from here?

The rise of embodiment

The human body has been curiously overlooked in the western tradition for centuries, seen as little more than a vehicle for transporting around the soul.  Even more recently, cognitive science has continued the dualist tradition by putting the mind in the driving seat and dismissing the idea that the body has any influence on cognition⁠2.

However, new theories of embodiment began to emerge from the early twentieth century, with philosophers John Dewey and Maurice Merleau-Ponty together with developmental psychologists Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky among the first to seriously consider the human body’s significance as the foundation of our being.  Meanwhile, psychologist JJ Gibson would later develop his theory of affordances, which places human beings squarely in the world, in an environment that shapes our behaviour – so much for being brains in vats.

What follows is a brief, limited, and strictly western⁠4 survey of some of these theories of embodiment.  We start with the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

The lived-body 

The pioneering mid-twentieth century French philosopher and psychologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty developed a truly novel perspective on embodiment, which understands the human mind as integrated with the human body, as a mind-body.  There are similarities here with Buddhist ideas of non-duality.  Merleau-Ponty recognised that we’re all situated within our bodies, and that our bodies provide not only the perceptual position from which we gaze out upon and engage in the world but also provide the only basis for our connection with the world.  Our being in the world is an embodiedbeing in the world and our connections with the world are only possible through our bodies.  Merleau-Ponty also points to inter-subjectivity – our connectedness with other people – and our shared histories as evidence of a world inhabited by other people that lies beyond our own subjective experience, challenging Descartes’ belief that the external world could be a figment of the imagination.

Why our bodies matter

Merleau-Ponty offers us a monist theory of embodiment that sees the mind causally-closed within an embodied biological system (the body) in contrast to mind-body dualism, which you’ll remember sees the physical body animated by a spiritual soul.  Merleau-Ponty’s work also prefigured the later works of Thomas Nagel (What Is It Like To Be A Bat?) and Shaun Gallagher (How The Body Shapes The Mind), which argue that the kinds of bodies we have (bipedal, upright standing, with opposable thumbs and a human specific sensoria) give structure to our conscious experience.  Try, if you can, to imagine being a bat, guided by vision and echolocation while flying through a densely populated woodland on a moonlit hunt.  I’ve tried – and it’s impossible.  But I can guarantee it’s nothing like taking a stroll along the seafront on a balmy evening in the summertime.

The key point for Merleau-Ponty is that our bodies are the foundation of our being and without our bodies there would be no-one to think, “I think, therefore I am”.

The felt-sense

In the early 1950s, existential philosopher Eugene Gendlin began working collaboratively with the ground-breaking American psychologist Carl Rogers, founder of person-centred therapy.  Gendlin’s aim was to understand the nature of human experience and he came to recognise that we all have a pre-conceptual, intuitive ‘bodily feel’ for the issues we’re confronted with or the situations we find ourselves in⁠5.  Gendlin called this ‘bodily feel’ the felt-sense, which is always prior to – and is crucially elaborated by – cognitive activity, through which we interpret, make sense of, and gain an understanding of whatever the felt-sense is telling us.

Picture leaving home in the morning and getting a nagging feeling in your gut, a felt-sense telling you that something’s not quite right.  As you arrive at your car, you realise you’ve left your keys inside your home, from which you’re now locked out.  Your felt-sense ‘knew’ before you did.  Or perhaps you get a tightness in your chest or a churning in your stomach when you have some public speaking to do.  It’s clear that you’re feeling nervous but, if you attend to the felt-sense, you realise that this situation – speaking in a public setting – reactivates a whole set of unsettling experiences related to an awkward and inarticulate school presentation that was met with widespread derision.  Attending to the felt-sense will often ease the tension – and it again demonstrates the inescapable and irreducible significance of our bodies when it comes to everyday experiencing.

Embodied Cognition

A theory associated with the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, embodied cognition again sees the human mind fundamentally integrated with and emerging from the body.  This stands in stark contrast with dualists, for whom the mind (or soul) directs – but is unaffected by – the body.  Damasio discovered that people with flattened emotional response are indecisive and make poor decision-makers⁠6. That’s because affect and emotion play an integral role in choosing between alternatives.  Damasio goes further to suggest that before any cognitive activity takes place, there’s an initial emotional or affective stimulus which is then conceptualised or translated into thought. 

The theory of embodied cognition shows how the body – and the emotional and affective stimuli it generates – is irreducibly bound-up with our capacity for reason.  If we were ultra-rational Vulcan-like beings, our lives would be impoverished, we’d be poor decision-makers, and we’d probably never have survived as a species.  And it’s no accident that one of Damasio’s first books was called Descartes’ Error.

The extended mind

On a slightly different tack, Andy Clark and Dave Chalmers – cognitive scientists who specialise in philosophy of mind – have developed the idea of the extended mind.  Clark and Chalmers argue that the human mind often draws upon tools in the external world, thereby extending beyond the body to enhance mental activity and capacity.  Think of the last time you used pen and paper to calculate a complex sum or, perhaps less plausibly, used a ruler or protractor to aid architectural design.  Clark and Chalmers also share the example of a man with memory loss using a notebook containing journey details for a trip to an exhibition, with the notebook compensating for poor memory function.

While Descartes was skeptical of the very existence of an external world, Clark and Chalmers convincingly show how the mind is both integrated with the body and reaches beyond the body out into the external world.

So what is the mind?

There are plenty of unanswered questions relating to the nature of mind – because if it isn’t spirit what exactly is it? Is it something physical and, if so, why can’t we see it?  Many philosophers conceive mind as an emergent property that emerges from or as a result of neural activity.  Thus, ‘mind emergence’ is caused by the embodied, physical brain.  Determinists claim neural activity exactly corresponds to our thoughts while non-reductive physicalists reply that this is a nonsense, otherwise what of free will?

While many philosophers of mind view mind as an emergent property, Mark Bickard has proposed that mind is better understood as an emergent process.  Many philosophers mistakenly⁠7 view the world and everything in it – including brains and minds – as a collection of physical objects sitting alongside each other⁠8.  This creates a difficulty in explaining an apparently non-physical mind.  It’s a bit like placing a line of bricks on a conveyor belt to explain what rivers are like – it just doesn’t quite cut it.  Bickhard offers an alternative.  Drawing on quantum mechanics, he argues that mind may be better understood as a process rather than viewing it as either an object in itself or a property of the brain.  Thus, mind-emergence becomes a process that emerges from or as a result of neural activity at the level of the embodied brain.

The reality of the embodied mind

Although questions remain, it seems clear that the soul may persist as an idea but the embodied mind exists in reality – although we’re not yet sure how.   Yet regardless of this, mind-body dualism continues to exert a pernicious influence over our everyday lives even when seriously repudiated –  as we’ll soon discover in the concluding part of this series.


1 There are of course legitimate questions around the unintended effects and consequences of scientific and technological development.  After all, the antibiotics that once protected us have grown ineffective as the bacteria we were protected from have grown resistant; the industrial revolution – which has transformed life, in most cases for the better – was never intended to set us upon a collision course with the climate; when Marie Curie discovered polonium and named radioactivity, nobody envisaged nuclear waste; and the machines and tools that have always aided us have begun to shape our lives in ways that arguably limit our spontaneity and freedom.

2 American cognitive linguist and philosopher George Lakoff is one of the key critics of this position.

Gibson defined affordances as, “The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. … It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment”

4 This isn’t to suggest embodiment is a purely western interest – I’m just focusing on responses from within the western tradition to a problem that has arisen within the western tradition.

The felt-sense is reminiscent of the core affective state, a phenomenon developed in psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett’s theory of constructed emotion.  In short, the core affective state is an ever-present neurophysiological state that is comprised of hedonic (pleasure-displeasure) and arousal (sleepy-activated) values.  The word mood is a useful synonym.  The core affective state is the basis for all and every affective and emotional experience, with the core affect being progressively differentiated into discrete feelings through ongoing psychological perceptual acts.

This finding is based on Damasio’s extensive research with neurology patients who’d sustained acquired brain injuries.

Ok, the argument isn’t settled so it’s a bit strong to say they’re mistaken.  Yet, for me, process philosophy offers a far more accurate account of what reality is actually like.

This way of viewing the world is called substance ontology (ontology is just another word for metaphysics, the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of reality).  The alternative to substance ontology is process ontology, which doesn’t ignore objects but gives primacy to processes (like rivers flowing, ice thawing, milk warming, people living) and connectedness.

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