Skip navigation

The so called Mind-Body Problem is an older than dust problem in Philosophy, so old in fact that to really understand it we should talk about it in very different terms than originally proposed. It is also a problem which tends to sound trivial at first mention, but becomes harder and harder as we think further about it. Let’s put it like: how can an immaterial thing be produced from something material? There are things we know are “of the mind”: an idea, an information, an equation or even an opinion. And there are things we know are “of the material world”: a brain cell or a processor chip. But how can the later create the former? This is our circumstance:

World and Mind as two intersecting circles (or sets)

And we are learning a lot about both World and Mind, but we don’t seem to be getting any closer to understanding why or how they work together. We know the neurons almost to the atom level, but we still don’t know how or why a big bunch of neurons can create what feels like a “soul”.

When Google came along, their first approach to the web was to bypass the analysis the other search engines were doing on the data and instead analyse the links. But we could say that they instead of focusing on the body (where each byte is, which circuits have which current) they focused on the soul (how the people are using those pieces of information). This goes to show that, at least in some important parts of our “evolved” world (Bog knows what they are doing in their servers around now), the same ages-old questions still resonate!

But i think an even more relevant example would be “democracy”: it is undeniably an Mind thing, it was conceived by someone, not discovered. It was not something that existed and we just learned about, it was something that we invented. We created it out of nowhere, and then we forced it in the world. And our geopolitics today suffer it’s influence in a massive way. How can a thing of the Mind, that is abstract and immaterial, have such an impact on the World, which is heavy and concrete?

If ideas can be so powerful, why can’t i just have the idea that i have a pony and be done with it?

The first image already tells us a lot of things: there are two worlds, and there are some points where they seem to touch, there are some things that seem to be both in the world and in the mind, and, whatever it is that is beyond World and Mind we don’t know much about.

Nevertheless, we can only contact other Minds through the World: either when we interact with other bodies or when we read the Google search results out of our physical screens. Even supposing brain implants are soon to be fabricated, there are still the cables and devices which are undeniably physical. Finally, drugs and brain scars are very direct evidence that tweaking the physical substrata of our minds can alter the way we think.

Therefore, we can’t suppose that the Mind exists outside of the World. Instead, the Mind must be one specific (maybe special) case of things that happen in the world. The Mind is inside the World:

Mind as a circle inside World, or as a subset of World

This is usually called Physicalism, i guess. But let’s not jump to conclusions like self-proclaimed physicalists use to. This new picture does not tell us that World is more important, or more powerful, or more direct, or more real, than Mind. What it does tell us is that the frontier between Mind and World is somewhat more elusive.

First we thought simply that there were some ideas that were also “of the World”, and therefore true and powerful, and others that weren’t, and therefore futility. Now it does not seem like our circumstance is so simple any more. Even if we supposed an intermediate area surrounding the Mind, playing the same part of the intersection in the previous picture, it is much harder to find any anchor point anywhere that we could use to orient ourselves. The relation from Mind to World is not linear, a simple matter of measuring “how far” we are from World. Instead, it is a continuous process of orientation.

In other words, we exist as thinking beings, and we are part of Mind, and we are affected by Mind and World both, and we must swim in this infinite frontierless ocean. This image is called the Boat of Neurath. [Hat tip to Gorm]. We experience somethings of the World, but what leads us to them can be completely different approaches — sometimes we find truth by being analytical and sceptic, other times we find it by diving into the moment, and yet other times we find truth by correlating experiences that seem to be completely separated. Our relationship to the world is complex and it becomes more complex as we learn more and more about the world. This enhancement of complexity is completely at odds with any naive approach to this problem.

Most of the simplicity of the first picture comes from it’s outer frontier, but it is a frontier with something unspecified. We don’t know what’s out there, and we don’t even know if there is anything out there. When we get rid of it, we come to the second graph. But, getting there, we are also reminded that both graphs are useless if we don’t know what is the point of view from which those pictures originate. Where do we take those two ideas, Mind and World, from?

And the surprising answer is that we take them from ourselves. We have a subjective Point Of View. In the second picture, the POV is in the right middle of the M circle. It is obvious: it is from our subjectivity that we extract objectivity. We do not mine objectivity out of the World, it is not something we are given from Bog (or any other larger-than-thou instance, by any other namenotation). We make objectivity. We build for ourselves what is “world”.

The issue is not “Inside” against “Outside”. Simply equating Truth with whatever it is Outside-of-subject — which, again, is the naive approach — simply turns the world into friend or foe, which it isn’t. Equating World with Outside hides away fundamental issues like ethnocentrism. Everything that i learn becomes part of “i”, in a deep sense. That i can relate more and more to that which is external, progressively, as i become more mature, is a development of the subjectivity, not an relenting to the Outside.

In fact, the most honest standpoint is when we realize that the World is something that we must deal with and nurture and empower inside ourselves. That is the same as inverting the second picture, putting World inside of Mind!

World contains Mind is equivalent to Mind contains World

Notice that when we make this inversion, the frontier remains the same!

The assumption that the individual self is the source of ideas and also of the evaluation of such ideas is not a fact, but an attitude. It is an heuristic, a strategy. The “truthness” of an idea is not a property of the idea, but a value assignment i do over it — and this value-assignment also happens to be an idea, so we have a meta-idea, which is cool but also another story.

Assuming this point of view, we are reminded that there was, in fact, another frontier in our first picture, and that it didn’t go away, the outside remains outside no matter how many times we flip the graph, even if i had filled the whole picture with blue there would still be a border at the end of the picture, there is no escaping, and whatever it is it can’t be brought into light by definition, for when it is brought into light it ceases to be “outside” and becomes “inside”.

And if we can’t cross this impossible frontier, it is not because we are puny and weak and unintelligent (notice though that the Realists love to say that about other cultures…). We can’t cross it because we are complex, curious, freedom-loving creatures. It is the relationship with that frontier, a frontier that will not go away, that is not a problem to be solved, nor an enemy to be fought, nor an imprecision to be ruled away and ignored, this relationship is the most complex and difficult problem around. To be able to acknowledge it is one of the very first requisites of intellectual maturity.

World and Mind as opposed to the Unthinkable

The Unthinkable. Not a moral issue, not an epistemological issue, not an ontological issue.

Nevertheless, an issue about which we must assume our responsibility. We must act knowing that we can’t think of the Unthinkable — as silly as that phrase sounds. We must accept our responsibility to the world we live in, that we create, and ultimately our responsibility to ourselves.

To do this, maybe there is a recipe. Maybe there are things or ideas that help us doing it. And, in my personal experience, one of the most powerful tools i found to do that is the assumption that Subjectivity is the origin of Objectivity. It is from OPINIONS that we forge TRUTH, or, more precisely, we work on our opinions to make them more and more reliable, not making them more than opinion, but instead just more mature opinions. Thus, the World is contained in the Mind. Not because it is, or because it isn’t, mind you, but because this frees me. I call this Relativism.

World as a circle inside Mind, or as a subset of Mind


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: