Why do people believe in the mind body problem?

“Why do people believe in the mind body problem?

I thought this was solved long ago”

My answer on Quora:

Here are a few reasons I can think of:

  1. Our imagination seems immaterial.
    There is no imaginary stone, for example that is too heavy for us to lift. We can imagine ice cubes melting the sun or a new state of matter that is liquid gravity. Dreams are surreal, and provide evidence that fully realistic worlds can be rendered without there being the expected physics presented. If dreams were not realistic, it would be easier to swallow materialism. As it is, it is very tough to justify how it would be that brains would be able to instantly conjure up fantasy worlds without having access to the same creative resources that physics itself has.
  2. Mental representation is not physical.
    Our thoughts do not appear to break down into chemical compounds which can be transferred from brain to brain in an eyedropper. Instead, they can be communicated through representational signs across many different material substrates. Right now my thoughts are becoming part of your thoughts by means of electronic devices, but it could instead be communicated by voice, gesture, pen and paper, etc. Physical substances and forces cannot be transmitted as signs. We cannot send a text to someone dying of thirst which they can drink.
  3. We cannot access the brain through introspection.
    The greatest minds in history have never, through meditation alone discovered the details of neurology, biochemistry, etc. Common sense might suggest that since, for example, we can touch our body with our body, and see our eyes with our eyes, that we should be able to think of our brain with our brain, but that is not the case. It also goes the other way, where we can correlate data that we find in brain imaging to *known* ‘neural correlates’ like feelings or tasting flavors, but there is nothing in the brain images themselves which would or could ever suggest any such thing as a flavor or feeling.
  4. There is no logical connection between physical phenomena and subjective experience.
    Physics involves measurable forms which can be described using geometry and whose functions can be described through logical, arithmetic steps. Physics is intended to be done without any subjective experience (other than a zero dimensional ‘observer’). Subjectivity is the opposite kind of phenomena on every count from physics. It involves immeasurable qualities of aesthetic appreciation and participation which do not owe their significance to complex universal processes. Instead, subjectivity is comprised of a personalized richness of presentation which eliminates the need for complexity. There is no logical way that a certain wavelength of light could become ‘blue’, and no mathematical transformation which would make it more logical, yet blue is a quality which we cannot deny exists in the universe.
  5. Life is weirder than it seems like it should be.
    The fact that we have never come across any culture that does not have a concept of spirits and the afterlife does not have to mean that there are spirits and an afterlife, but it is certainly an odd thing to have as an anthropological universal if there were nothing funny going on between mind and body. Physics and mathematics in the 20th century only adds to the weirdness, since, after all, if there were nothing but bodies colliding into each other, then we would have no need for concepts like uncertainty, and if logic were nothing but objective facts, then we would have no need for the idea of incompleteness. Also there are so many fishy things that people report all of the time…Near Death Experiences, Out of Body Experiences, psychedelic revelations, paranormal capabilities, synchronicity, etc. If you think that these can be easily swept aside by insisting that they are just anomalies and fraud then you have not looked at the research fairly.
  6. It is the default/naive truth of human experience.
    The sense of being ‘in’ our body, looking out of our eyes is something that we take for granted, but has no basis in physics. Your screen doesn’t have to feel like it is sitting in front of a computer to work, so the fact that there is any sense of being ‘inside’ of ‘our’ body is already a hint at our relation to space and time. Our body is more like a window or a filter than it is a robot. We can say that the Earth is not flat, but if that were literally and completely true, it would be hard to explain why carpenters use a level. Indeed, the roundness of the Earth is not especially useful most of the time for those of us who actually live on the surface of it and experience it as flat. Any description of the universe which fails to mention that planets seem flat when you walk on them and only seem round from a distance is not complete.
  7. Because they have considered the issue deeply.
    While the last few centuries have seen the rise of scientific worldviews which describe our experience from the outside in, some people have noticed that there is a problem with this. Since subjective experience is private to begin with, there is no reason to expect that a worldview which is bound exclusively to public inspection would not be grossly misleading. In fact, the failure of behaviorism in psychology and artificial intelligence in computer science to demonstrate satisfying results should have steered us away from these kinds of approaches already. Fortunately some of the leading scientists and philosophers in the field of consciousness, like Tononi, Koch, and Chalmers have been pointing in a new direction, one which involves consciousness rather than matter as a fundamental property. There is a long tradition within philosophy, particularly in Eastern thought which holds that awareness is the fundamental reality and that matter, bodies, and brains are borrowed from a universal pool of ideas and experiences. The universe may be made of stories rather than things, and things are just part of the story.
  8. Because they have natural insight into the issue
    A recent study suggest to me that not everyone has an equal chance at understanding the mind/body problem. For people whose minds are very logical, they may identify exclusively with the process of their own intellect rather than the qualities of experience from which the intellect arises. I wrote a post about this: Asperger’s, Autism, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness For others, the fact of subjectivity is quite plain and ordinary. We move our hand by moving it directly out of our own intention. Whatever biochemical description accompanies that movement is not enough to even define why it is occurring in the first place.
  9. Because simulation theories and emergence are misguided.
    Most theories which collapse subjectivity into physics rely on the kind of GUI model. We look at the computer screen and see pictures and words, and it is natural to think that this relationship would be part of a physical mechanism. A brain would simply produce computations that look like something or taste a certain way because looks and tastes are a way of labeling information and organizing it. What this view fails to recognize is that labeling information would only mean that it would be processed differently, not that those differences would suddenly become a flavor or a sound. Emergence is a way of chasing our tail and fooling ourselves that we have explained consciousness, but in reality, emergence itself cannot be explained without awareness. The parts of an airplane can be individually thrown in the air, so that even though to our understanding the property of a plane flying by itself seems new, it is not at all surprising to the universe. Consciousness is not like that, since there is no configuration of physical objects that would result in a subjective experience, even as an extension of some physical force or field to become self-sustaining or consolidated, etc. The raw ontology of privacy isn’t there to begin with in our model of physics or information.


  1. April 30, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    I’d note that there’s a big difference between “there is a mind-body problem” and “some form of dualism is a respectable, if not necessary, way of accounting for it.” I think it’s fair to say that the former is true for far more wide-reaching reasons than the latter. Functionalism, Kimian epiphenomenalism, or neutral monism? That distinction falls into “the mind-body problem,” too – point being that it’s not clear what answer a monist would most plausibly give, either, even if you agree with Dennett that dualism should be thrown off the table “at all costs.”

    • May 2, 2015 at 12:32 pm

      I think that we can go a long way toward understanding how to solve the mind body problem simply by taking Dennett’s views and reversing them 180 degrees. Dualism is only the beginning.

      • May 9, 2015 at 1:58 am

        Absolutely agreed (though feel free to elaborate, if you want!) — I just meant that a defense of “there is a mind–body problem that wasn’t ‘solved long ago’” is far stronger and should be less controversial than even that (even as strong as I think those arguments are and as uncontroversial as I think that they *should* be—someone doesn’t to agree with that to recognize that there *is* a “mind–body problem,” that’s all.)

  2. December 30, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    I think this is a brilliant and playful answer that might drive some on the spectrum slightly mad. But it has in it much of what makes your writing appealing to me — the qualities of evoking subjective experience and reflection; the picturesque examples, as in a novel, which engage imagination; the felicitous choice of words; the wise humor which does not stray into sarcasm despite the frustration involved in engaging in this contentious “debate.”

    Here though is the most interesting aspect (to me) of the mind-body “problem” — how to talk about it? Some folks are not developmentally able (in the sense of Wilber/Graves/Kegan/Gebser) to understand the issues involved; others have a brain configuration that makes it more difficult for them to recognize subjective and inter-subjective material, as you point out with the autism spectrum case. But really, who in our society does not have a mind-body problem? (to broaden the scope of meaning a bit) Who is without conflict there? Entering into that is entering into peoples’ psychological defenses.

    I have less and less confidence that rigorous, logical arguments are of much use in this particular discussion. And somewhat-rigorous, mainly-logical arguments of the type I might make are perhaps even less of use — since far more logical minds will eviscerate them.

    How to show Dennett that he has a soul? (using “soul” here loosely). He would require a kind of religious conversion, and presumably, he’d fight that all the way. The most common reason IMHO people begin to reflect more deeply on the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity is because of their personal suffering. That is, once they exhaust the objective possibilities. So this question heads immediately into what has traditionally been psychological/spiritual territory. A quandary I don’t have an answer for.

    • January 3, 2016 at 3:11 pm

      “Entering into that is entering into peoples’ psychological defenses.”

      Yes, and I think that it is a point which is crucially important. Addressing consciousness is a problem because it necessarily involves ‘breaking the fourth wall’, which is something that is seemingly contrary to the whole purpose of both the analytical intellect and its scientific agendas. Everything that science excludes in its experimentation and interpretation would have to be the primary focus of a science of consciousness, so that science would have to stretch itself in a radical new way. The microscopes and telescopes that are required for this project are not available to everyone at every time. In fact, the instruments of consciousness study are actually defined by some’one’ at some time. It gets weird.

      “How to show Dennett that he has a soul? ”

      The true-disbeliever materialist may, appropriately, need material methods to correct their fanatical nearsightedness*. Anything short of brain intervention is probably a waste of time. The good news for the rest of us though is that Dennett’s ideas can be useful as an example of the lengths that the Western mind will go to to deny its Eastern roots, and they can be reversed/inverted to help find more full-spectrum solutions.

      *even the most fanatically near-sighted materialist should not be expected to benefit from a ‘correction’. A brilliantly unrepentant materialist is better for the collective mind than a thousand mediocre spiritual converts.

  3. January 4, 2016 at 2:23 am

    “Breaking the fourth wall” is an excellent analogy, in that it can be both exciting as well as disorienting for the audience. Our subjectivity is literally vulnerable to experience, and in a certain sense radically defenseless. In overly simplistic evolutionary terms, the intellect is a defense mechanism. This nervous emotional tenor is definitely to be felt informing the materialist argument, but the rules of the science game are such that it is off-limits to point it out. Simply, the more solid and real we perceive objects to be, the stronger is our corresponding naïve sense of identity, solidity, stability, safety.

    I would say that the instruments of consciousness study (mental and moral faculties), while not immediately available to all, are more available than the intellectual faculties, interest, and stamina necessary to do science—but they need to be taught and developed. And more important, a consensus has to be developed about what these faculties are and the best way to develop them, something along the lines of what B. Alan Wallace and others have worked on. I think it’s happening, slowly, with the interest in mindfulness (for example) in schools; I even think benefits in mental clarity are beginning to be accepted, more than just stress reduction.

    I would agree regarding brilliant unrepentant materialists, much as their views tend to exhaust me. Long ago as a physics student I came to deeply appreciate the confidence and clarity of rather narrow-minded but rigorous thinkers. What they do, they do very well, far better than I could, and certainly a great deal of material progress has depended upon them.

    • January 8, 2016 at 11:52 am

      I agree completely. It does seem to be changing, quietly and gradually. I seem to notice consciousness and the hard problem trickling into more and more articles and conversations, and materialist positions seem quieter. These days I mainly get naive materialism in the form of an innocent query from a young person who is new to thinking about philosophy in general.

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