Collage parisien, on the mind-body problem

30 August 2016

As I tread the roads of this majestic city, trying to leave all work behind, one topic keeps nagging at me, somewhere in the area where mind and the subconscious overlap. It is — quite appropriately, perhaps, in the labyrinth of history that is the Latin Quarter — the mind-body problem. Appropriately, not only because a lot of the philosophical debate around the subject has taken place in this area, along the years (although it was actually The Netherlands where both philosophers considered to have initiated the debate — Descartes and Spinoza — spent most of their lives); but also because, in a month or so, I am due to give a talk on this, at an interdisciplinary seminar for medical students and philosophers.

Contrary to general belief, Descartes’ view on the subject is not so much that the soul (or the mind) and the body are separate — as the generic phrase ‘mind-body dualism’ seems to suggest. Rather, he was interested in the unity between body and mind, which he addressed in his Passions of the Soul (written as a result of his correspondence with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, who kept probing him on the subject.) The connection between the two lies in the brain. Indeed, according to Descartes, some form of brain activity leads to particular states of mind, which he associates with passions or emotions. In other words, our thoughts arise from the core of our body; and it is these thoughts which lead to a certain moral behaviour. Take, for example, Descartes’ paragraph 94: “What we call ‘titillation’ or ‘pleasurable sensation’ occurs when the objects of the senses arouse some movement in the nerves, a movement that could harm the nerves if they didn’t have enough strength to resist it or if the body wasn’t in a healthy condition. This creates in the brain an impression that naturally testifies to the body’s healthy condition and strength; and so represents this to the soul as a good that belongs to it in its union with the body; and so this impression produces joy in the soul.” Likewise, “The sensation we call ‘pain’ always results from an action so violent that it injures the nerves. This sensation naturally signifies to the soul the bodily damage suffered from such an action, and the body’s feeble inability to withstand it, represents both as evils that are always unpleasant to the soul except when they cause some goods that the soul values more highly.”

This isn’t far from what mainstream contemporary neuroscience suggests — namely that it is the activity taking place in the brain, which affects our thinking and emotions. More specifically, the two hemispheres are responsible for different ways of thinking — the ‘left brain’ for the analytical and conceptual one; the right brain — for the intuitive, whilst the deeper layers of our cortex, which form our limbic system, are considered to be the “emotional brain”. So for instance, “when we experience feelings of sadness, joy, anger, frustration, or excitement, these are emotions that are generated by the cells of our limbic system”. These kinds of feelings (the equivalent of what Descartes calls “passions”) are different both from the tactile experience of feeling, which we owe to our sensory system of touch (located in the post central gyrus of the brain) and from the intuitive cognition we sometimes refer to as “gut feeling”, or a “higher cognition that is grounded in the right hemisphere of the cerebral cortex” (Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight, 2009, pp. 19-20).

To revert to philosophy, if there is one line of thought, which is common to Descartes and Spinoza, that is the one concerning mind and body seen as the two attributes of God (or the divine substance) — thought and extension. This is obviously distinct from the ‘body’ and ‘mind’ referred to in the Passions; rather, these are the body and mind referred to in Descartes Principles and Meditations, where his main concern is epistemological, more specifically an epistemology of the physical (and metaphysical) world. In this realm, the separation between the two — “clear and distinct” — substances is evident. As Descartes puts it in his second and fifth Meditation, we can clearly perceive our thinking without our body, and our body movement without our mind; so the two do not need each other
in order to exist.

Similarly, Spinoza believes that mind and body are not each other’s cause, that is we do not need our mind to determine what our body will do, nor do we need our body to determine our thinking. I won’t get into the details of what exactly Spinoza means by ‘attributes’ (for there is an ongoing debate on this amongst experts); suffice it to say that, in Spinoza’s view (similar to Descartes’), attributes are the essence of the divine, infinite substance, and we — humans — only ever perceive two such essences: thought and extension. God alone is the cause of both attributes — mind and body.

On this — ontological status of substances and their attributes — the two philosophers disagree; Descartes distinguishes between the absolute, divine substance (God) and the created ones (thought and matter), whilst Spinoza considers there is only one, infinite substance to speak of, with two infinite attributes — thought and extension; the latter have “finite modes”, so to speak, like a particular mind and a particular body.

Which of these should I focus on, in my talk on identity and the mind-body problem? Well, which ones could I ever focus on, other than a particular body and a particular mind — intricately connected as they are, both seemingly displaying a divine sparkle at times, whilst remaining so wonderfully unique, so painfully feeble and irreplaceable at the same time…

As for Paris, this is a city that sits quite comfortably at the cross-roads between the two ontological realms — and one who roams these streets looking for inspiration may be equally tempted to ponder on the illusive nature of absolute substances, and to explore the idiosyncrasies of specific unities of body and mind, right here, where they are. And then, they might also remember the final realisation thought from Tagore’s Sadhana: “For here lies the sea, and even here lies the other shore waiting to be reached — yes, here is the everlasting present, not distant, not anywhere else.”

And here are but a few sources of inspiration I have found, while roaming the streets of Paris this time:

  • An exhibition of ceramic art, literally on the road — right at the top of Montmartre. Quite a good metaphorical link between thought and matter, considering the divine, non-linear type of thinking that goes into art, and the earthly aspect of the material itself — ceramic.
  • A ‘philosophical menu’ at the world’s first literary cafe: Le Procope, founded by a gentleman from Palermo in 1686, on Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie, just across the street from the French Theatre at the time, as we are told in a “note to strangers who ignore Paris”. The same note testifies that Rousseau, Voltaire, and other “grands Seigneurs” were regulars there.
  • At the Louvre, the 1556 painting of Paolo Cagliari (also known as Veronese), St Mark Crowning the Virtues is the most vivid — indeed, utterly corporeal — representation of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (or love).
  • An exhibition in the Garden of Palais-Royal, by Korean sculptor Chung Hyun, titled A Man Standing: Monuments of Time, where all the sculptures are made of sections of railroad tracks resembling human bodies. Everything here — from the statues’ posture, to their material, which suggests solidity and invariability — seems to be an ode to the power of mind and human endurance.
  • The musings of an American photographer, Louis Stattner, whose exhibition Here and There — showing fragments of life in Paris and New York — is at the Centre Pompidou for the summer. His testimony explicitly addresses the interdependency of body and mind throughout the transforming process of genuine photography: “I have no fixed idea, I don’t intellectualise it. To be really truthful, it’s your hand that decides what is significant. As much as the brain. When I work, my hand decides. Really, it’s happening so quickly… it’s your hand that has intelligence! Intuition. The hand … you have to have confidence in your hand. Photography imposes a certain discipline where you have to have faith. Your feelings take over and decide when to shoot.”
  • And finally, along the canal of St Martin, a single-legged dove, a symbol of peace struggling to walk in search for some crumbles of bread.

The Sorbonne is not very far from any of these locations. I wonder if students there ever leave its majestic amphitheatres and the “librairie philosophique” Vrin, to continue their debates out on the streets of Paris.