The body and the mind: how are they connected?

The overall question dealt with in the readings is concerned with addressing how the mind and body are connected. The identity theory described by Churchland is what Ryle argues against in his paper “Descartes’ Myth.” Ryle calls it the “category-mistake” because philosophers attempt to use the same terminology used for physiological differences in the same way that they attempt to describe mental states. Ryle coins the term “Ghost in the machine” as minds take on this spectral, separate physical quality within the machine that is the body.

Approaching this way may seem off-putting since we know that minds and bodies are connected. One’s own thoughts and decisions determine the way in which one’s body moves, though this can be done subconsciously as with the knee-jerk reflex. However, the exact connection is not fully understood.

In terms of neuroscience, which Churchland addresses, we know that certain parts of the brain control specific bodily functions. In some cases, it has been elucidated in modern neuroscience research the specific pathways that control certain functions down to the molecule. I struggle with what the exact issue is here. Churchland notes the argument here:

“…some have argued that it is senseless to ascribe the various semantic properties to brain states. Our thoughts and beliefs, for example, have a meaning, a specific propositional content; they are either true or false; and they can enjoy relations such as consistency and entailment. If thoughts and beliefs were brain states, then all these semantic properties would have to be true of brain states.”

It can be argued that one cannot have a mind if one does not have a brain. If the brain is destroyed, then one no longer has a mind. This can be seen in patients who are lobotomized and become (for lack of a better term) vegetables. The mind and body are connected via the brain, a physical object in which something metaphysical (the mind) manifests itself. It acts as a sort of medium by which the mind can then lead to bodily changes. Effects on the brain can have negative (or positive) effects on the body. We know that the hippocampus is critical for the formation of new memories, the amygdala controls emotions, especially anger and fear, and a lack or over-abundance of neurotransmitters can cause deficits in motion (as in Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diease). And all of this is connected by millions of neurons that synapse onto other neurons and release specific neurochemicals at the right place, at the right time. It is not hard to reconcile such advances to the connection of brain states to mind states.

However, in terms of identity theory, brain states cannot be exactly the same as mind states. They can undoubtedly be strongly correlated to one another, but arguing that they are one and the same comes across as difficult due to both the semantic argument and the effect of outside influences such as one’s environment, etc. on one’s thoughts and beliefs. Brain states are not the only influence on mind states and while there can be obvious changes in brain states due to outside influences (such as drugs), others can be not quite so obvious. For example, two individuals could have similar brain states, but different mind states. Which is why I would argue that they are connected, but not the same. This can then avoid the problem of semantics that those against identity theory focus on in their argument.

There is definitely merit to the argument that we can never really know if others share minds like us. One quote really hits this nail on the head: “Absolute solitude is on this showing the ineluctable destiny of the soul. Only our bodies can meet.”  This quote really captures the essence of what having both a mind and body connected in such a unique way entails. It goes along with “We live as we dream, alone.” This brings us back to the argument that one does not know if perhaps one is the only conscious being and one is surrounded by zombies (as noted by Bostrom in his simulation argument).

An interesting view on subconscious and conscious thought is presented by the popular Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, who depicts the subconscious as this inner sphere within the conscious sphere in his novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. It is imperative that this inner sphere remains untouched and uninhibited. In his novel, the subconscious is essentially this inner world of which the bearer (or the body) remains completely oblivious to. This is simply food for thought. It’s a different way of thinking about how the mind itself is organized.

3 thoughts on “The body and the mind: how are they connected?

  1. While I agree with your summary of the mind-body ideas presented by Ryle, I am a little confused by the distinction you draw between the mind and the brain in term of the identity theory in your sixth paragraph. You state: “two individuals could have similar brain states, but different mind states.” Could you provide an example of what you mean by this? I am having a difficult time understanding what the “semantic differences” are between the mind and the brain that you mention. What is your mind besides a sum of neurobiological reactions? Feelings and emotions are most certainly derived from chemical reactions as a response to one’s environment, thus I do really understand this distinction in the identity theory. How could two individuals have similar brain states yet different mind states?

    1. I disagree that the mind is simply a “sum of neurobiological reactions” as it doesn’t paint a full picture of what the mind is experiencing/thinking. For example, saying “my olfactory bulb was activated, these particular ions were then released, and then this specific hippocampal neuron was excited” is not the same as “I smelled apple pie and it reminded me of spending time in my grandmother’s kitchen when I was young.”
      This goes back to the semantic argument in how can the meaning of these words translate into the actual thought of a childhood memory. Yes, we can trace it back and correlate them to each other. The hippocampus deals with memory and the olfactory bulb deals with smells. So obviously a smell is leading to a memory. But the concept that it is this specific memory is not entailed.
      Destini (below) also does a fantastic job of explaining why how brain states and mind states can be different. We know that specific parts of the brain can control more than one function and thus, it makes it difficult to pinpoint what exactly the mental state is from the brain state.

  2. I completely agree with your point that mind states and brain states cannot be one. I feel as though the firing of neurons to signal you seeing red, could be the same as you seeing a red apple, a red boot, a yellow banana, or any thing else, but the actual perception of what you see cannot be seen. The actual sensations and perceptions we have cannot be just brain states. Our mental images and representations are connected to our brain but I feel there is more to it. In my other Philosophy of Mind course we discussed the idea that two individuals could have the same brain state but different mental ones, and it looks like having the brain state of neurons firing for pleasure, but one could be thinking of dogs and the other could be thinking sexually, this example may not be extremely accurate but it gets at the idea that the same brain states can happen for multiple occurrences in our mind and even in to our physical bodies. Just because your brain is firing to make it look like you are happy, you can never tell exactly what is making you happy by looking at your brain and that is where the gray area comes in of mental states.

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