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If the Mind and Body Are So Different, How Can They Interact?

A look at different models of the mind–body problem

In this week’s podcast, Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks interviewed Concordia University philosopher Angus Menuge on the notoriously difficult mind–body problem. In the first part, they talked about we know we are not just bodies, citing the immateriality and indivisibility of the mind and the evidence from near-death experiences. But then how does the immaterial mind interact with the material body? Menuge offers some initial thoughts:

This portion begins at 12:30 min. A partial transcript, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow.

Angus Menuge: Many philosophers, materialists like Hobbs, but even people sympathetic with Descartes, raised this issue — they couldn’t really see what was the mechanism or the medium by which mind and matter could interact.

When I want to raise my arm, my wanting seems to be something, an immaterial property of my mind. And yet my arm-raising is obviously a physical, physiological, measurable activity. How do we get from one to the other? … a translation between the purely physical and objective and the mental and subjective?

People have thought you can solve this problem: “Oh, well, I could believe an organism is purely physical as a substance but we have two different kinds of properties. We have physical properties and mental properties.”

However, Jaegwon Kim, I think rightly, points out what he calls Descartes’ revenge. People who think they can solve the problem this way haven’t thought hard enough.

The fact remains that mental properties — like subjectivity, intentionality, that your thoughts are about things — are so different from physical properties that the mind–body problem arises all over again at the level of properties.

Note: Jaegwon Kim (1934–2019, pictured) was an eminent contributor to discussions of the mind–body problem. “Kim accepts and promotes the idea of physicalism, which for him means that the world consists solely of material particles subject to the known laws of physics. Kim’s “physicalism” is more properly pure ‘materialism.’” – The Information Philosopher Here’s a discussion of Descartes’ Revenge

Angus Menuge: In other words: Why should my thinking about something or my wanting a drink of milk have any ability to produce changes in physical properties in my body, such as my opening the fridge?

So the mind–body problem actually is much harder to get out of than people think.

This of course led, in the 20th century, to many philosophers embracing physicalism and saying, well, really, the only way that we can answer this problem is to somehow show that the mental either reduces to the physical, or at least it’s entirely determined by the physical, so that we don’t really end up giving this independent causal power to the mind.

Note: “Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical. The thesis is usually intended as a metaphysical thesis, parallel to the thesis attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, that everything is water, or the idealism of the 18th Century philosopher Berkeley, that everything is mental. The general idea is that the nature of the actual world (i.e. the universe and everything in it) conforms to a certain condition, the condition of being physical. Of course, physicalists don’t deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don’t seem physical — items of a biological, or psychological, or moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are either physical or supervene on the physical.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Some physicalists believe that “all mental states and properties can be, or will eventually be, explained by scientific accounts of physiological processes and states” (reductive physicalism) while others believe that “although the brain is all there is to the mind, the predicates and vocabulary used in mental descriptions and explanations cannot be reduced to the language and lower-level explanations of physical science.” (non-reductive physicalism)The Basics of Philosophy

Dualists argue, by contrast, that reality can consist of fundamentally different types of things. Mind may not be reducible to matter.

Next: How have various thinkers tried to solve the mind–body problem?

Here is Part I of the series:

How do we know we are not just physical bodies? The mind–body problem is one of the most difficult issues in modern philosophy. Philosopher Angus Menuge cites the immateriality and indivisibility of the mind and discusses the evidence from near-death experiences.

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

Podcast Transcript Download

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If the Mind and Body Are So Different, How Can They Interact?