A Jaunt into Philosphy 4: The Mind-Body Problem

Here’s my last in my short series on philosophy. 

Another philosophical dilemma is the mind-body problem. Do humans have a mind separate from their physical bodies or is life merely composed of twirling particles and matter?  The latter view is called materialism; this belief contends there is nothing besides our physical functions.  Everything we experience including our thought processes is simply a response of the brain’s nervous system (Burr and Goldinger 320).

In contrast, a dualist is someone who believes there is a non-physical mind creating a causal effect between the body and the mind.  A materialist will counter that the existence of a non-physical mind cannot be proven.  However, the dualist puts great value in defending the idea of the mind because it can affect how one views the concepts of free will, morality and immortality (Burr and Goldinger 320).  For some, explaining away consciousness as a mere chemical response does not satisfactorily explain all human experiences. Perhaps we will never be able to explain scientifically why the mental realities of life seem so different to the physical realities around us (Nagel 36).

Epistemology is the study of knowledge.  Beliefs about knowledge range widely from pondering whether anything can be known to questioning whether we can know anything other than that which we know through our senses.  Rationalists believe that reasoning can be used as the sole source of knowledge. Modern philosopher Descartes and his axiom, “I think, therefore I am” is explained by Burr and Goldinger to mean “Whatever is perfectly clear and distinct to […] reason cannot be doubted and so must be true” (442).  Descartes’ statement does seem profound.  Of all the creatures that roam the earth, humans are seemingly so self-aware that we can realize that we are asking ourselves how aware we really are.

Empiricism states that we can only know what we can experience with our senses.  An empiricist would say that the certainty espoused by the rationalists say nothing at all about actual real-life fact; even science, they contend, merely points to probabilities but is limited when forced to produce facts (Burr and Goldinger 442-443). Philosophical skepticism speaks to yet a grander scale.   Just as Socrates went around to knowledgeable men only to discover that they really didn’t know anything, so philosophical skeptics question whether we can really know anything at all.  Burr and Goldinger state that skeptics may not refute that knowledge is possible but may challenge anyone who claims to have knowledge (443). The most radical level of this type of thought is solipsism where someone believes that nothing else exists in the world except for one’s own mind (Nagel 11).  The skeptic’s argument about doubting existence can spiral on and on.  However, most people – possibly even philosophers – at some point seem to acknowledge that there is something beyond our own minds even if the ‘what’ is not always clear.  This leads to many arguments debating the existence of God and the value of many different scientific pursuits.

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