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Monday, February 21, 2011

The Mind-Body Problem

A topic of great interest to me, is the problem that Rene Descartes and many other philosopher's faced. So much so, that the debate really still goes on to this day, and that topic of contention is the mind-body problem. Or the duality of the being. What I mean by this is, You have in one corner, your brain, your body, your fingernails, your hair, and all the physical attributes that you can feel and interpret pain, touch and feeling. So you can run your finger across a cold surface and it causes certain nerves to fire telling your brain that the surface is cold. All very basic. So where does your mind come into play? Its generally accepted that the mind is different than your brain. You're brain is the physical structure in your head, and most people (I, included) are satisfied with just saying that the mind is swimming somewhere in your brain. Rene Descartes, a French philosopher really questioned this, and came up with the theory of Duality. This proposed that the Mind and Body are independent of each other, and that they could technically survive without the other.

"Body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible."

Descartes believed that the Mind or the "I" of a person was something immaterial, and that it couldn't be destroyed, and lived on after the body died and whithered.
But where is this? One thought experiment that's pretty fun to think about, is if you had a very long time, and the proper technology, someone could remove your brain, atom by atom, and replace it with identical atoms. You could remove one carbon atom from your brain, and replace it with an identical carbon atom. Do this several billion, billion times, and you could replace your brain. But would this 'new identical brain' still be you? If you reconnected all the neurons to as they were, would you still wake up with the same personality? According to Descartes, you would, because the mind is something inside the brain but doesn't interact with any physical matter.

Now here's how Descartes theory isn't completely sound. In my mind, I wanted to write this blog article. I woke up today with my decision in mind to write this, and so I sat down and wrote it. That right there dispels Descartes idea, he made it clear that the Mind and the Brain are separate. That the Mind is immaterial and because its not anything physical, it can never 'touch' anything in the brain. So by all rights, the mind should have no influence over the body.
A man by the name of Gilbert Ryle saw this fault and said that there had to be some sort of bridge to connect the two. That there couldn't be a "Ghost in the Machine" controlling its actions.

I suggest you find a book called "The Mind's I" by Douglass Hofstadter. The first introduction describes and interesting scenario, in which a astronaut is marooned on the planet Mars. She'll be met with certain death under the alien sky, and the only thing that can save her is the transporter on board her ship. She can be quickly broken down atom by atom, and "rebuilt" back on Earth. She decides that this is the only option to see her kids again. So she steps into the booth and blacks out, only to be "awoken" back on Earth. Every atom in her body is shredded and copied verbatim, and then put together on earth. So what happened here? Did her mind fly from Mars to Earth and insert itself in the newly constructed body? Or did her mind re materialize along with her body?

My last thought on the matter ( I can go on and on with this topic) is that of Artificial Intelligence. We can and have created robots, to talk, listen, understand, and do work. If you look at your computer in front of you, or your ipad, or notebook, one would say, that the computer is a vastly superior in its ability to solve equations, and do tasks. So humans can create a brain. Albeit, a very limited brain that can only operate when given instructions.. but it technically is a brain nonetheless. But can we ever create a Mind? According to writers like H.G Wells, and Issac Asimov, the mind of an A.I brain will emerge on its own. Meaning that one day your home computer will have a 'spark' and be able to refer to itself. Because we have no hard wiring in our brains that give us the ability to self reference, the same would be for A.I, they would soon just know and be able to think about themselves.

So I ask you guys, whats your opinion? Is there really such a thing that makes me, Me? Or is it just a random placement of neurons and memory? If it is just the placement of neurons, then we can re-create anyone by duplicating the arrangement of these nuerons in a new body.


  1. this is really a tough question. I think its experience and genetics... I am so much like my uncle that I barely even know first hand that I know it has to be something passed down.

  2. Descartes was a genius. I really hate when people like him are overlooked by majority. All that genius not being recognized. :( Very nice post as well.

  3. This is the classic paradox:

    Don't forget that our bodies are replacing its component parts 24/7. Cells create new cells to replace themselves. Technically, the "organic compound" we were conceived as and born as, is long ago gone.

    My opinion on the matter is pretty simple, and is also explained in the wiki article. Ultimately, replacing parts of a whole and incorporating it into the "original" makes the "new" parts part of the whole. Whether it be a ship, a river, or the human brain, ultimately component parts are replaced all the time, but the idea of something isn't necessarily lost because of it.

    And, sometimes, things like cancer stop the efficient restructuring of the original object. When this happens, to humans for example, our bodies stop replacing component parts with correctly functioning cells, and it can make us less "us". Not because they are new cells (as I said before, we are constantly adding new cells), but because the cancerous cells aren't integrated into our bodies and functioning.

    So, once something is integrated into the whole, I think they become just as "original" as the parts they replace, assuming they perform the same role.

  4. I believe that if I were to encounter a body, identical to me in every sense(meaning a 100% percent replica), it still wouldn't be me and though we might think alike, i don't think that we'd think the same thing...since I think the mind is forever evolving and growing then i'd be impossible to replicate...I don't know, anyways great posts gives me lots to think about....

  5. Nice read. Something unique and ever evolving like the brain will be impossible to duplicate.

  6. i think we are the sum of our experiences and therefore memories. if our memories are stored in matter then they can be transported, rebuild... altered!
    am i me?

  7. Really interesting post, and great blog overall! I find myself thinking about this stuff all the time, especially while driving or doing some other mindless activity.

  8. Love your blog, keep up the good posts!

  9. I loved this problem in introductory philosophy and psychology classes I took. Unfortunately it's been so long I can hardly remember the details!

  10. This question literally costs me sleep at night. I think about it way too much. Considering the top neurologists can't answer it (ie origin of thought), I don't know why I waste my time. I do tend to believe in something that is hosted by the brain, but not generated by it. It isn't, however, a matter of dogma for me. I'm not offended by other perspectives on the issue and I certainly consider the possibility that I'm wrong very likely. I could risk going into spiritual la la land, but I'll leave it at that.

  11. oh wow lets get deep with this stuff