Why Is There a Mind-Body Problem? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Contemporary philosophers often refer to the “mind-body problem,” which is roughly the following: how is it that the physical body interacts with the seemingly non-physical mind? Many philosophers answer this question by simply denying that the mind is non-physical. They claim that the mind is a manifestation of the brain and the chemical processes going on in the brain.

But this answer is also quite problematic. As atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel writes,

Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science.  The existence of consciousness seems to imply that the physical description of the universe, in spite of its richness and explanatory power, is only part of the truth, and that the natural order is far less austere than it would be if physics and chemistry accounted for everything.  If we take this problem seriously, and follow out its implications, it threatens to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture.

Why is it that philosophers are so concerned about where the mind (consciousness) fits into reality? According to Nagel, this entire mind-body problem stems from our philosophical forefathers.

The modern mind-body problem arose out of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, as a direct result of the concept of objective physical reality that drove that revolution.  Galileo and Descartes made the crucial conceptual division by proposing that physical science should provide a mathematically precise quantitative description of an external reality extended in space and time, a description limited to spatiotemporal primary qualities such as shape, size, and motion, and to laws governing the relations among them.

Subjective appearances, on the other hand — how this physical world appears to human perception — were assigned to the mind, and the secondary qualities like color, sound, and smell were to be analyzed relationally, in terms of the power of physical things, acting on the senses, to produce those appearances in the minds of observers.  It was essential to leave out or subtract subjective appearances and the human mind — as well as human intentions and purposes — from the physical world in order to permit this powerful but austere spatiotemporal conception of objective physical reality to develop.

Philosopher Edward Feser argues that this move by Galileo and Descartes was a massive blunder and in part 2 we will see why that is.