The Mind-Body Problem Through Four Different Philosophies' Eyes

Updated on January 17, 2020
Jared Barlament profile image

J. W. Barlament is an author, blogger, and researcher of political, philosophical, and religious issues.


Philosophy’s many rambling and unending problems might seem trivial in a world that has little patience for inactive pondering. But, at the same time, it seems that the hard sciences that have taken philosophy’s place have begun to run aground. We’re at the point where we’re incessantly discovering things that we either can’t perceive or can’t comprehend. Science is limitless, but alas, man’s ability to conduct science is starting to fall flat.

Philosophy, the all-father both of the sciences and of innumerable other disciplines, thus comes swaggering back into the house he was once so rudely shooed out of. The sciences, meanwhile, are still busy scratching their heads. They’ve done their best, but the day has come when they can no longer poke and prod at existence without a helping hand.

A problem has been raging in philosophical circles since the dawn of philosophy itself. And still, despite the best efforts of philosophers and scientists alike, it sits unsolved. Only in recent years, however, with the rapid spread of accessible education worldwide, has it gained more steam and mainstream attention. It’s been called “the deepest of all mysteries” and “the last great problem”. But you read the title, and you know what I’m talking about. So what, precisely, is the problem in the mind-body problem?

"The School of Athens" by Raphael
"The School of Athens" by Raphael

The Mind-Body Problem

Is your mind just another piece of your meaty machine of a body? Is the feeling that the conscious mind is something fundamentally different than the unconscious body just one big biological prank? Or, maybe, are our minds really fundamentally different from our bodies? This is the essence of the mind-body problem. We have an intuitive sense that there is, indeed, some sort of distinction between the two. And yet, many of our intuitions have been proven to be illusions, and this distinction between mind and body may simply be another such illusion.

This is no easy topic to tackle, and despite this article’s enormity, it still is only scratching the surface of the full debate. There are hundreds of different philosophies on this issue, with hundreds of different philosophers contributing to each. The mind-body problem - or any similarly popular problem, for that matter - is impossible to explore in its entirety. But, of course, what’s the point in calling something impossible, if not to entice fools to try their luck at tackling it? Thus, we will carve out and dig into a little slice of the philosophical pie anyway.

To properly analyze this little slice of pie, we’re going to have to go about this all methodically. We will introduce four different ontologies, or philosophies on the nature of reality, in turn; materialism, idealism, dualism, and panpsychism. For each, we first will explore what it generally means, and then, we will delve deeper into what it means for our monolithic mind-body problem. Lastly, we will explore its respective strengths and weaknesses, thus leaving us to move on to the next of the four. And, once that’s done, the decision of which one makes the most sense (or if none do, for there are plenty more than four philosophies out there) will be left to you.

"Triplici Animae in Corpore Visione" by Robert Fludd
"Triplici Animae in Corpore Visione" by Robert Fludd


First on the chopping block is surely the most familiar of the four; materialism. Simply put, materialism states that material things are all that exist. Fundamentally speaking, all of existence is made up of one kind of thing - material things - making it a form of what’s called monism. Of course, this means that there can be no mental or conscious quality in the universe separate from living beings and their limited brains. If the body is all that exists, then the mind (using “mind” synonymously with “soul” or “self”) can very simply not exist.

The mind-body problem is closely related to the hard problem of consciousness, or the problem of how unconscious matter gives rise to conscious minds. This is a uniquely materialist problem, for in our other three philosophies, consciousness is a fundamental part of reality. For the materialist, consciousness is a wholly material phenomenon, and the idea that it’s anything other is merely an illusion. Materialism states consciousness to be the byproduct of the complexity of the brain; a philosophy of organs, lobes and neurons, instead of gods, souls and spirits. Through evolution and a complicated (and yet undetermined) series of chemical and neural processes, consciousness arose as a purely physical phenomenon based in the brain. There is no need to separate out the mind and the body, for the mind is just another material part of a material body in a material world.

from BBC Radio 4's "In Our Time, Materialism"
from BBC Radio 4's "In Our Time, Materialism"


And now, while we’re still on the topic of monist philosophies, we turn our attention from materialism to idealism. An analysis of idealism after one of materialism is fairly straightforward; idealism is essentially the opposite of materialism. Instead of matter being all, and mind being illusion, mind is all, and matter is illusion. Consciousness, usually in either one of two ways, creates the material world. These two are as follows - that either we must take our own consciousnesses as sole untainted fact of existence, through which the rest of existence is filtered, or that there is a universal consciousness that forms the foundation of the rest of existence. Only the latter idealists claim that the material world is illusory, but all idealists claim it to be inferior to the immaterial world.

Idealism, in all its varied forms, has gone in and out of vogue time and time again throughout history, with its last days of dominance occurring in the 19th century with the German idealist school. Since then, though, science has made it increasingly hard to argue that there is some kind of universal consciousness permeating all of existence, through which all of the material world is merely an illusion of said universal consciousness. It’s an idea that has had many names slapped on it, and that has been endorsed by too many historical traditions to count, but it seems to be slowly bleeding out from the blade of scientific rigor. This has not made idealism obsolete, however, for as noted, idealism is a varied philosophy with varied perspectives within its massive scope.

There is another current of thought in idealism – that the mind constructs and is thus the basis for the rest of existence – that is becoming increasingly more accepted. It is commonplace to hear that the mind hallucinates existence, but what does that mean for the mind-body problem? In short, it means that it may be impossible to know what existence is really made of. The brain may trick us into thinking we know all about what’s going on around us, but in actuality, we have no idea what exists beyond our own consciousnesses. The universe is not necessarily this or that; material or immaterial; real or simulated. It is simply ineffable, for it exists outside of the mind, and we can only perceive it from inside the mind.

"Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog" by Caspar David Friedrich
"Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog" by Caspar David Friedrich


The word “dualism” can be applied to many different ideas about many different problems, but we’re only going to focus on one here. This is, perhaps unshockingly, the “mind-body dualism” first formally formulated by Descartes. This kind of dualism takes the mental and material and claims that the two are fundamentally different, with neither one arising out of or intertwined with the other. Thus, it throws any and all entertainments of monism out the window. There is not just one kind of thing in the universe. Rather, there are two – the material and immaterial; physical and spiritual; body and mind – and these two are entirely and eternally separate.

Descartes’ mind-body dualism has been vigorously attacked ever since its introduction. Descartes’ followers have remained undeterred, however, and have dragged Cartesian ideas through the annals of history into modernity. Thankfully for these ardent Cartesians, a new school that can be taken as a kind of mind-body dualism has recently propped up; the simulation hypothesis. Propagated by the likes of Nick Bostrom and Elon Musk, the simulation hypothesis postulates that the entire universe is a computer simulation run by a hyper-advanced civilization – perhaps even an ancestor simulation run by future humans to examine what their history was like.

At first glance, the simulation hypothesis seems far removed from mind-body dualism, but when we take a closer look, we see that this is not at all the case. If we are, indeed, living in a computer simulation, then the problem of consciousness can be solved via a sort of technological dualism. In this model, there are, in fact, two simulations being run together; a material simulation and an immaterial simulation. In this model, just like its Cartesian ancestor, we can split the mind and the body into two separate realms. These two separate realms – or simulations, in this case – although different, are integrated, and thus look like one from an insider's perspective. Of course, here there be speculation, and there’s no current way to either scientifically or philosophically prove any such idea. It remains a possibility, and is perhaps even a plausible one to some. But for the time being, at least, it is just that - a possibility - and nothing more.

"L'homme Et Un Traitte" by Rene Descartes
"L'homme Et Un Traitte" by Rene Descartes


And, at long last, we arrive at panpsychism, which is unique among these philosophies, for while the others have meanings and applications beyond the mind-body problem, panpsychism is entirely an ontological philosophy dealing with this one supreme problem. It is supremely difficult to define, though, for it really has no concrete definition. It is really more of a blanket term, with several smaller philosophies fitting into it. In general, though, and especially in its modern form (pioneered by the self-proclaimed panexperientialist Alfred North Whitehead), panpsychism states that there is a fundamental conscious quality of all basic physical entities. Or, more succinctly, there is mind in all matter, and matter in all mind, intertwining the two like the Yin and Yang are intertwined in the Tao.

If this sounds similar to idealism as described before, that’s because on paper, it is. It reasons that consciousness is an integral part of existence. But - not so fast there - it also does so in a radically different way. Instead of the material world being an illusory product of a lonely universal consciousness, in panpsychism, consciousness is infused into every bit of the *very much real* material world. Now obviously, tables, pillows, atoms, and molecules aren’t out here pondering what love is. It’s not that everything is fully conscious, but instead, that there is a sort of proto-consciousness - sometimes identified with experience or free will - that every basic building block of existence possesses. And, according to a modern take on panpsychism called Integrated Information Theory, if these basic building blocks are interconnected enough (like in the neural web of the human brain), they can give rise to complex consciousness like our wonderful selves.

It’s a lot to take in at first, but it does present a new and unique solution to a problem that’s seen no answer for centuries. That everything has some sort of experience or freedom of action is obviously radical, but it also seems, in a sense, natural. Our earliest ancestors were often practitioners of animism, a similar but less plausible doctrine that states that every animal and object in existence has a soul. And, under these ideas, they made lives for themselves and gave respect to the Earth for thousands of uninterrupted years. So perhaps, despite its apparent wackiness, panpsychism is really more natural a belief system than we modern people realize.

"Verwendung von Technik und Benutzung der Künste im Mikrokosmos des Menschen, Dargestellt in Kreissegmenten" by Robert Fludd
"Verwendung von Technik und Benutzung der Künste im Mikrokosmos des Menschen, Dargestellt in Kreissegmenten" by Robert Fludd


This all might seem trite, for it’s difficult to imagine how philosophies and problems so removed from everyday life would have any type of practical application. Even though we established at the start of this admittedly unwieldy article its importance to science, most people still see science as something distant. It isn’t applicable until it yields some new technological toy to distract the masses for a week or two. But the mind-body problem is not just a monolith for idle philosophers and disconnected scientists. It is, quite literally, the most pressing problem out there, for its answer determines what everything in existence is made of. How can we have knowledge of anything else before we have knowledge of ontology? How can we determine what is good and what is bad, what is unique and what is ordinary, or what is important and what is not, before we determine what is and what isn’t?

"Universe: The Art of Existence" by Steven Hughes
"Universe: The Art of Existence" by Steven Hughes

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 JW Barlament


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    • manatita44 profile image


      5 months ago from london

      I do not doubt that you have done this subject justice, but I'm so glad that God, in His mercy, did not allow me to follow this Path. I want to be like a child on the Mother's lap, using only my innocent Heart of sweetness. Much Love.


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