How Startling it is that there is a Mind-Body Problem

I wrote my little book on The Mind-Body Problem (MIT, 2016, in the Essential Knowledge Sequence), partly because I was attracted to the idea of a little book that would tell you all you need to know about the problem. The other titles in the series are about things like Waves, and Robots, Paradox, Cloud Computing, Auctions, Metadata, Freewill and Neuroplasticity. So it’s a fun series. If you want to know everything about Waves, for example, the Essential Knowledge book is the one for you.

My interest in the mind-body problem was not merely informative. It is that, to use a word from Leibniz, the problem is a radical one. (He uses the same word, for example, about “the origination of things” – the problem in which he is interested is the radical one.) The fact that there is a mind-body problem at all means that there is something wrong or inexplicable at the centre of our world view. Schopenhauer is said to have said that the mind-body problem is the “world-knot”, and this is a great idea. You have the picture of the physical world tying itself somehow into a knot, maybe. But Schopenhauer didn’t mean that at all. For him the world-knot was the identity of the self that knows things with the self that wills things. How can they be the same thing? Wittgenstein and Descartes had versions of this problem.

Well, of course, but there isn’t any such thing as “our world-view”. What I mean by the phrase though is physicalism. All the philosophers who introduced the problem in the seventeenth-century took the issue to be what kind of thing the physical world must be in order for there to be room for minds in the same world. That is, on our understanding of the physical world there is no room for minds. So what should our understanding be? One natural response is of course to say that our understanding of the physical world is right and that there isn’t any room for minds in the physical world.

Today the position is not so different. You can look at the physical world as hard as you like, and not find the mind in it anywhere. We can assume that there is such a thing as a mind, which I think is something of a given, although what the English word “mind” means is not so clear – there are no equivalents, even distant,

in German or French, and you just have to find different ways to say things. However, you do have the mind-body problem described using sentences from these languages. You have “la problem du corps et de l’âme” (body and soul) or “das Leib-Seele Problem” or “das Körper-Seele (or ‘Geist’) Problem”.

OK, so you look at physics or the sciences, and unless you introduce the topic, as psychology does, without too much philosophically adequate discussion, there isn’t anything in the world of science corresponding to the mind. If you are doing psychophysical studies, say on the correlation between wavelength and hue, you have to assume that the people who match hues are matching something or other, and that we are not looking for gerrymandered classes of things to have behavioural responses to.

So let’s steal Schopenhauer’s phrase and call the mind-body problem the problem of the world-knot, to indicate that it is a radical metaphysical problem, in its way as radical as the radical origination of things, i.e. the origination of things ex nihilo.

There’s the child growing up, and then suddenly, really very suddenly in developmental terms, it has an intellect and the capacity to reflect on things that have happened to it, it is able to talk about experiences it has had, and so on. And even infants have some sort of experiences, no doubt, though that is presumably not the right word. I think that what they have is much more existential and interesting than an experience.

And how does this mind relate to the body of the developing child? It seems we also have just the same problem with the adult. The mind is not physical, so it seems; the body is physical; the mind and the body interact, so that drinking too much beer produces confusion and blurred vision, say; but mental and physical things cannot interact, since the latter have spatial locations and linear dimensions, and the former do not. You can’t imagine a mind without a position in space sort of surreptitiously sidling up to a body and doing a bit of interacting.

Of course, people will say, who says the mind is non-physical? It might be like a radio transmitter in the body, somehow transmitting to the rest of the brain. And there’s your problem. You can’t imagine that radio transmitters have minds or engage in any mental activity. They are built up out of electronic devices that will oscillate and transmit a radio frequency alternating current. There’s nothing mental there.

So we have a paradox, four propositions any three of which imply the negation of the fourth.

(1)  The mind is not physical, so it seems;

(2)  The body is physical.

(3)  The mind and the body interact.

(e.g. drinking too much beer produces confusion and blurred vision).


(4)     Mental and physical things cannot interact,

since the latter have spatial locations and linear dimensions, and the former do not.

I suspect that some people see the problem in much more sophisticated ways. I have tried to be sophisticated about the mind-body problem, and always failed. I think we are still in the position of Leibniz, who imagines that the brain is a big mill into which we can enter, and see its workings. But we will see no evidence of mentality. This is a version of Chalmers’ “hard problem”, I think. But then I think that the hard problem is just a souped up version of the seventeenth-century mind-body problem as it presented itself to Princess Elisabeth, Gassendi, Descartes, Leibniz and others.

If the problem is that radical, we need a radical solution, one that disrupts our usual physicalist ways of conceiving things.


  1. Jonathan Westphal

    Thanks Soupie. I hope that you meant what I wrote rather than or as well as the cover. I think the cover is really lovely, but the only hand I had in it was the lemon yellow quale. I wanted it to look like a German maths textbook. Quite why I haven’t figured out, but I’m working on it.

      • Jonathan Westphal

        Ah, OK thanks again, Soupie, for the clarification, and thank you for the very kind comment. I am interested that you use a very particular aesthetic word to render your opinion. It’s a significant part of my own take on the radical problems that there is an aesthetic angle than can be very helpful, just as in mathematics, and perhaps more obviously in aesthetics.

    • Jonathan Westphal

      Hi David. I do know what you mean, but I don’t tackle the question until I write about functionalism, in Ch. 3 of The Mind-Body Problem. The difficulty with a Turing-machine analysis of mind is that it seems only to deal with Chalmers’ “easy questions”, which are obviously not even slightly easy. If someone steeped in the hardware/software distinction finds the mind-body problem to be solved, he should reflect on two things: (1) the phenomenal properties do not get an adequate treatment by functionalism, so that you can go on shuffling your Turing tape backwards and forwards and not get anything resembling either the phenomenal property itself, or anything beyond a behavioural registration of its presence. But for this the inputs in the machine table would have to be hooked up to external sources of information, and they would still have to produce the conscious experience. Personal computers have monitors where something analogous to consciousness seems to turn up; but you have to look at the screen to make it seem even slightly consciousness-like in nature. Otherwise it’s just phosphor dots doing getting activated by electrons shooting around, and not even close to a conscious being. Of course you can make the psychophysical jump to the colours you see on the screen a huge jump. After all, even the yellow on the screen is brought about by optical fusion, and does not exist in the pixels. I am a little uneasy about classifying functionalism as a form of physicalism, because in some forms it might be taken to deny my second proposition in the post: that (2) the body is physical. For the body has non-physical or computational states, one might think. Another way to see functionalism is of course to have it deny (1) the mind is non-physical, It can then assert that the mind is physical because it is computational, or it can assert that there isn’t any such thing as the mind conseived in the philosophical sense as a substance, but only as a kind of activity. And this begins to look a lot like Aristotelian functionalism, as Putnam as conceded. By the way David I wasn’t quite sure which argument “this argument” referred to in your post.

    • Soupie

      People exposed to computers might not be pursuaded by the argument, but only if they assume that computer software is immaterial, which it is not.

      On the other hand, people exposed to computers might be more open to the idea that reality is not fundamentally material. They might be open to the idea that our perception of reality as composed of material objects extended in a 3D space just is an interface with reality. That reality may exist at a deeper causal level in the same way a motherboard exists at a deeper causal level than the GUI it is running. Thus, the material reality we perceive may relate to objective reality in the same way that the icon of a file on a computer desktop relates to the actual file stored on the hard drive.

      • Jonathan Westphal

        Fair enough, but then there it is, the icon on the GUI. In the analogy that would have to be an element of mind or consciousness or whatever. And actually the icon works in the analogy because there is someone working with the GUI, looking at the screen, and so on. So we get a sort of homunculus view, which is not good to man nor beast.

        • Soupie

          Oh, for sure, this metaphor doesn’t address all the problems of consciousness and mind. For me, it provides a helpful approach to the HP (getting nonphysical consciousness from physical processes) by providing a logical way to see that consciousness need not derive from physical processes. This is not to say that consciousness does not derive from processes, just that these processes need not be physical.

          What we naively assume to be reality (the physical) just is our perception of reality. The true nature of reality may be nonphysical. Ergo consciousness need not derive from the physical.

          As radical as this seems, both the HP itself and work in QM indicate that the classical view that fundamental reality just is discrete, 3D billiard balls needs revised.

    • Jonathan Westphal

      I think the reason that the experiences of young children are more existential, and I am not sure quite what I mean by this, but I can’t think of a better word, and more interesting, derives from the vividness of these experiences, and the fact that they are not “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”. Wordsworth is wonderful on this. There is also the fact that the experiences of children are much more integrated, involving the whole body, perhaps, and feelings and thoughts and all the rest somehow rolled into one, or anyway much much more than they are with adults. The imagination of children, for example, is not just a mental faculty, but it also has to do with their very direct power of observation.

      • Curious Inquirer

        I like the direction you’re moving with this comment. The “beasts and babies” objection raises its head across a range of issues about mindedness. My own take is that our psychological vocabularies — or maybe better still, our philosophizing and theorizing about our psychological vocabularies — lack the fine grain needed to make the distinctions.

        Experience this, thought that — why even try to cash out the “experience” of an infant using the familiar categories which may apply (however weakly and contingently) to language-using adults? Part of the reason is that we just have no better alternative. How much that we take for granted about “the mental” is really a contingent and dependent on local cultural practices and uses of language?

        All interesting questions. Thank you for touching on them!

        • Jonathan Westphal

          Yes. Ryle has a very nice comment on childhood, in his piece on Hume. ‘A philosopher’s genius lies not in his giving one new answer to one old question, but in his transforming all the questions. He gives mankind a different air to breathe. But the differences that he makes are as hard to describe as the differences made by growing up. The adolescent cannot realize what these changes will be like; the adult cannot recollect what they had been like.’ (This is to be found in Vol. I of Ryle’s _Collected Papers_, p. 160, under “Hume”, originally published in 1956 in French in a volume edited by Merleau-Ponty entitled ‘Les Philosophes Celebres’.)

  2. vicp

    Hi Jon,
    Very nice essay.

    Let me paraphrase the argument to a 15th Century Flatearther who you are trying to convince about gravity.
    1) Gravity is not physical, so it seems;
    (2) The body is physical.
    (3) Gravity and the body interact.
    (4) Non-physical and physical things cannot interact,
    :The error is in premise 1 because gravity is physical.

    Imagine Leibniz Mill except the gears are made from Styrofoam or flimsy rubber?
    Such a Mill could not transmit the forces of nature to grind the wheat; or in reality gears do not grind the wheat in a real mill but the forces of nature which are inside the gears that we see grind the wheat.

    Radios do not perform “radioishness” but were evolved to solve another problem. They allow human beings to communicate over larger distances or they solve a scaling problem of nature.

    Victor Panzica

    • Jonathan Westphal

      Ah, I like the inconsistent tetrad for gravity. My problem with it though is that 1) is plainly false, if we adopt a Cartesian criterion of the physical, which is why I mentioned the fact that there is a lot of gravity between the Earth and the Sun and it has a location, namely between the Earth and the Sun. I also like the idea of a Leibnizian Mill made of rubber or styrofoam. It could do some things but not others. And that’s the whole puzzle. The mechanical aspects of the set-up don’t seem to go any way towards helping us to understand the mental ones.

      • vicp

        To put it plainly it is all about the forces of nature which we do not understand the details of at the biological level. The scaling is the key to what evolution solved.

        If you hold to the stimulus response paradigm for a one cell animal, it reacts or moves wrt something in its environment and “mind” plainly exists inside the cell. We are also stimulus response beings except with more complexity and the scaling of our being to a higher environment holds the key.

        • Jonathan Westphal

          Are you sure you want to put your head on the panpsychist block? In what sense do the cells in our body have minds or “minds”, and what is the significance of talking about “minds” rather than minds?
          You have of course a very distinguished predecessor in Leibniz, someone whose view was that every organic unit has a mind or something mindlike, and that every entity is an organic unit.

      • vicp

        The Cartesian Criterion is formulated at this scaled level of nature and human argument.

        Does a simple particle or superstring meet the physical criterion for time and space?….Well barely. As we move up the structural ladder of nature: electron, proton, atom, organic molecule, inorganic molecule, cell…the occupied space and structure is more defined by the forces of nature that form them.

        If a biological cell is a metabolically controlled super molecule or structure, can neurons extend the metabolic process outside the cell and form Supercells? A theoretical cell with a more defined space and stronger emergence of the forces of nature. Just like color emerges across multiple cells in the visual cortex, can this be happening all over the brain? Just as color emerges into the manifest image, so does time?

        Why did a man, Francis Crick, who studied the largest molecule in nature become deeply interested in consciousness?

        • Jonathan Westphal

          What you write is very true. As you get further away from nice solid things that are clearly physical because they knock around space, you get into more abstract and mathematical things, so that many people then are prepared to say that the universe is mathematics, which is absurd. But perhaps what is happening is that mathematics is leading physics by the nose here.

        • Jonathan Westphal

          What you write is very true. As you get further away from nice solid things that are clearly physical because they knock around space, you get into more abstract and mathematical things, so that many people then are prepared to say that the universe is mathematics, which is absurd. But perhaps what is happening is that mathematics is leading physics by the nose here.
          About Crick. As I understand it, he started off his intellectual life with two big problems that he wanted to solve: what life is, and what consciousness is. He knocked off the first one, but he got a bloody nose with the second.

          • vicp

            Just seems everything is wrapped around time which like color only appears to exist. We use standards like celestial rotations, atomic clocks etc. to define standards of time but that is still relative.

    • vicp

      I don’t think time got into the mind-body problem.
      I think time is what comes out of the mind-body.
      Or brains initially evolved for sensorimotor function.
      One of our highest conscious senses is how we track objects as demonstrated by all of those experiments with dots that trick our tracking mechanisms. Nature is very efficient with our brain biology just as engineers learned how to minimize channel bandwidth by only sending the pixels which changed from frame to frame.

      Human biological time seems to get linked via language and observation into other time sense like emotional time or sense of my aging vs youth, the time of day, the season we are in etc.

      The functions of our other bodily organs occur at a microbiological level so why should the brain system of thirty or so organs be any different?

      The extended vs non-extended dualism is a remnant of old thinking. Dualisms make sense in this day and age only because we have better understanding of the cognitive system, i.e. nobody questions pains inside our body or misrepresents them as being “out there” and common sense is that our visual system sees things “out there”. The outsideness is due to the complexity of the visual system and the fact that visual data is distributed throughout the brain by several paths.

      If I smell the apple pie baking in the oven I know it is coming from the kitchen because the oven is in the kitchen. If some evil daemon moved the stove to another room without my knowing I would still believe it was coming from the kitchen until I investigated otherwise. The olfactory sense which is more highly developed in lower mammals has the aboutness or outsideness characteristic which is morphed by other functions like advanced language into our interface with the world. The discussion seems to point to the interface as being mind.

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