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How Do We Know We Are Not Just Physical Bodies?

The mind–body problem is one of the most difficult issues in modern philosophy

In this week’s podcast, Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks interviews Concordia University philosopher Angus Menuge on the notoriously difficult mind–body problem. Dr. Marks asks, “Is there a part of you that is not physical? Are we meat puppets limited to scientific analysis described totally by the laws of nature? “ That’s the mind–body problem! It’s more complex today because some claim we will build computers that have minds like humans (but not bodies like humans). But first, how do we know we are not just bodies?

This portion begins at 04:06 min. A partial transcript, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow.

Angus Menuge (pictured): Well, the real question is how two such different realms can relate.

If something is physical, if it’s a body, it’s extended in space, it’s located in space, it’s publicly observable, it’s quantifiable and measurable.

But if we think of the mind as a thing, going back to the former idea of the soul, then the soul does not seem to take up space, or at least not in the same way. It doesn’t exclude other physical objects from space. It has no definite location in space, and it’s not the sort of thing that can be publicly observed as we expect in science, where we’re acquainted with our mind or our soul most directly through introspection.

I can introspect my mind and you can introspect yours, but I cannot observe your mind and nor can I introspect your mind.

Robert J. Marks: Help me out because I’m not an expert in the field, but it seems to me that we only have empirical evidence of the differentiation of the mind and the body recently through so-called near-death experiences. Right now we have the ability to raise people who have been clinically dead and they talk about their minds separating from their body. So, I think this is empirical evidence that the mind and the body are not the same or that there’s part of the mind which is not part of the body. Do you think this near-death experience is compelling evidence for the difference between the mind and the body?

Angus Menuge: It’s only in the past few decades that there have been a large number of people who have been successfully resuscitated and are able to report these experiences. The evidence here, which is most extraordinary and telling are so-called evidential near-death experiences.

The patient reports, from the time at which there was no measurable brain function, witnessing numbers on medical machines, or the location of items like shoes, or facts that were subsequently independently verified. They actually recall things which we know objectively are true, which they could not have observed from their position when they were unconscious, certainly could not have seen through their eyes because their eyes were closed. They cannot be written off by hallucinations or a waking brain phenomenon as the person returns.

Of course, if it were a hallucination, the chances that that hallucination would line up with something we know independently to be fact are next to nothing — especially when somebody accurately reports all the serial numbers on a medical machine, and those numbers would only be observable in the normal way if you were many feet above where the patient’s body was. They seem to provide evidence that there is a possibility of a consciousness which is separate from, distinct from normal brain functioning.

Note: Bruce Greyson, psychiatrist and author of After (2021), recounts the case of a truck driver, fully anesthetized with his eyes taped shut, who sensed he was floating above his own body — and described the unusual actions of a surgeon (waving his elbows) at the time. The surgeon later confirmed that he routinely did that to avoid contaminating his surgical gloves by pointing with his fingers — something only colleagues would likely know. Some experiencers claim to have seen unusual colors and there is an interesting explanation of why they might have done so.

Angus Menuge: If you think about the history of thinking about the soul, initially the soul was thought of as the form of the body, what gives a body its life as well as, in rational beings like ourselves, our consciousness. This was the understanding that you have in Aristotle and Aquinas, for example.

The mind-body problem starts to become severe when you get to the point of Descartes, because Descartes does an analysis of the essence of different kinds of substance. And he’s very careful about this. When he looks at the mind, he sees that what’s distinctive about the mind is that its states and activities cannot be separated from it. You can be wanting something and thinking about something and feeling something, but it’s one “I” that’s doing all of them. And likewise, you can have multiple experiences at the same time yet they all belong to one subject. And so he recognizes that his thoughts and experiences cannot be separated from him.

Note: René Descartes (1596–1650, pictured) was a French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher. He is best known for the expression, “I think, therefore I am.”

He is considered to have founded the mind–body problem in its modern form. “He developed a metaphysical dualism that distinguishes radically between mind, the essence of which is thinking, and matter, the essence of which is extension in three dimensions.” (Britannica)

Angus Menuge: What’s different about physical things is they seem to be aggregates of separable parts. So if you think about a table, for example, it’s made up of parts, the table top and the legs. Or you could keep on going down to the level of molecules and atoms. It’s possible for those parts to be detached and exist separately.

But it doesn’t seem that thoughts and experiences are like that at all. It doesn’t seem that one person’s pain could actually exist outside their mind or be transferred to anybody else’s mind either. Part of its identity is tied to the one who is feeling the pain and the same thing is true for thoughts in general. And so Descartes’ analysis seems to show that mind and matter are fundamentally different kinds of thing or substances.

Robert J. Marks: I’ve done a lot of work in artificial intelligence on emergence. And I think if you’re a materialist, you have to believe that the mind developed as an emergence of the brain. Yet there’s all of this evidence that indeed, this is not the case, that the mind is much greater than the body can ever be. So I’m sure that there’s a number of different models of the mind–body problem.

Next: If the mind and body are so different, how can they interact? A look at different models of the mind–body problem.

You may also wish to read: Four researchers whose work sheds light on the reality of the mind The brain can be cut in half, but the intellect and will cannot, says Michael Egnor. The intellect and will are metaphysically simple.

Show Notes

  • 01:12 | Introducing Dr. Angus Menuge, professor and chair of Concordia University’s philosophy department
  • 04:06 | What is the mind-body problem?
  • 06:37 | Near-death experiences
  • 10:05 | The history of the mind-body problem
  • 15:24 | Popular mind-body problem models discussed today
  • 18:14 | Epiphenomenal thoughts
  • 22:31 | Dr. Menuge’s take on the mind-body problem
  • 29:04 | Will artificial intelligence ever be able to duplicate the functions of a human?

Additional Resources

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How Do We Know We Are Not Just Physical Bodies?