All posts by Asha Caslin

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.

We know nothing.

The complex dilemma that we have to face from the readings is essentially how to define knowledge and differentiate it from true belief.

After completing the readings, I was eager to claim that someone can know something without having full knowledge of it. For example, while I know that (-b±√b2-4ac)/2a and that a2+b2=c2, I do not have a full understanding of why these are true and accepted mathematical equations. I would have gone so far as to argue that I do not have knowledge of these. Certainly, I know how and when to use them, but by Pritchard’s standards in What Is This Thing Called Knowledge, I do not know why I use them and therefore lack knowledge on both the quadratic formula and Pythagorean’s Theorem. The evidence and reasoning that I needed to justify my true belief (which even then is not enough to be knowledge as noted by Edmund Gettier) stems merely from the fact that I learned these theorems in class and had practiced them enough to know that the answers I derived from such equations were true.

When does simply accepting something that we’ve learned in class become knowledge? Or does it ever?

Due to these questions, I decided to do some research and came across the terms “a priori knowledge” and “a posteriori knowledge.” A priori knowledge is independent from personal experience while a posteriori knowledge is developed from our personal experiences. These were fully discussed by Emmanuel Kant, a German philosopher, and he held that fields such as mathematics, physics, and metaphysics fall into this umbrella of knowledge. Therefore, the concepts that I have come to learn and accept in mathematics are examples of a priori knowledge, that I have gained independently and which are accepted universally.

Yet this makes me think of the Ptolemaic system (or geocentric model) which states that the Sun revolves around the earth. Of course, we now know this to be false due to the work of Nicolaus Copernicus. However, before his discovery, it was a system that was generally accepted in the Roman and medieval worlds. While we know it was a false belief, for those during ancient times, it was accepted and considered true. There are people who have long been dead who believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. This now transitions us into the topic of belief versus knowledge. Belief, even true belief (as discussed in the readings, particularly in The Meno by Plato) cannot be considered knowledge. Belief can simply give more credibility to knowledge that one has gained because one cannot truly purport to know something if they do not fully believe it. To know is, in a sense, to believe. But, conversely, it does not mean that to believe is to know.

Knowledge cannot be narrowed down so easily to “getting things right” because aside from the possibility of one merely being lucky (which was discussed by Pritchard and Gettier), there are many things that we as humans do not fully understand. For example, when we begin to approach questions that no one truly knows the answers to, such as whether or not there is a god or whether or not abortion is ethical or what is our purpose in life, we reach an area in which knowledge is difficult to determine. They may feel that they know and perhaps they may be right, but that does not necessarily mean that these beliefs are knowledge. When can (assuming they can) any of the answers that people develop to these questions cross the barrier of belief and transition into the knowledge we as humans naturally seek? Sure, we certainly have a slew of theories with plenty of evidence that would typically justify such theories as Plato suggests. But while we have evidence for theories such as evolution, that does not stop people from whole-heartedly believing in God and decrying the alleged falsity of such a theory. Will the answers that we develop for the questions that we have yet to find concrete evidence for remain beliefs forever? Until we find concrete evidence that “ties them down by (giving) an account of the reason why”, we can never gain knowledge on the answers to these questions (Plato, The Meno).

There was, I felt, an important line to note in the last section of the first chapter in What Is This Thing Called Knowledge: “whether or not the world is round, for example, has nothing to do with whether or not we think that it is, but simply depends upon the shape of the earth.” I know that we will discuss truth throughout the semester, but this begs the question of whether or not we can know if something is really true. We can be misled and deceived, we can be wrongly taught and filled with fallacies, accepting these lies as true. We can live a life devoid of truth if we so choose it or even if we do not choose it. How can we ever really know the truth if we are only taught lies?

From these readings, the only thing that I can firmly conclude is that I do not really know anything. None of us do.



Sources (other than the readings):

“a priori knowledge.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 08 Sep. 2014. <>.