Maybe those who say philosophy is a futile waste of mental energy have a point when it comes to the big questions conventional philosophy has consistently failed to resolve. Consider, for example, that there has been little if any progress in figuring out the relationship between body and mind. Can such a question really be treated like some complex mathematical equation that simply lacks its yet-to-be-discovered solution? When it comes to tricky philosophical questions, can we really expect some eureka moment to one day arrive and forever put them to bed?
If long-standing philosophical conundrums appear markedly intractable, perhaps useful clues lie in re-examining their initial questions, as opposed to setting out on some sort of intellectual safari in search of what are obviously highly elusive answers – if indeed any answers even exist. An awkward but true observation regarding all philosophical problems is that they result entirely from asking philosophical questions; no question means no problem.
By merely asking about the relationship between body and mind, we unwittingly assume at least two things: we assume that we properly know what both body and mind are – and we assume that we therefore have a sound basis for examining how these two things relate to each other. But could it be that these assumptions have confused us into believing that we only need to find answers when in fact we have not properly understood the question?
Had we a true understanding of body and mind, surely such an understanding would entail full knowledge of how the two are interrelated, and so the question regarding their relationship would already be answered – whereas, if we do not fully understand what we mean by the terms body and mind, then it seems we cannot really understand the question. There is no way out of this reasoning.
While it could be said that a sound enquiry ought to start by fully defining both body and mind, defining these fully – if such an achievement is even possible – would effectively turn the question into its own answer.
Either way, there simply can be no meaningful debate about the relationship between body and mind without defining exactly what we mean by these terms? But again it has to be asked if there could be anything left to debate once the terms were defined exactly – given that truly exact definitions would seem to entail all that there was to know about both body and mind – including their relationship.
Logical or perhaps illogical tricks and traps inherent in abstract thought have to be considered here. For example, is a mere definition of something such as body or mind – no matter how clear and complete it may appear – to be equated with a clear and complete understanding or knowledge of these things in themselves? Copious and seemingly concise language can obviously describe something in great detail, but no amount of mere words adds to our finite knowledge of that thing or fills any gaps in that knowledge. Hence, even if we consider ourselves to have clear and agreed definitions of whatever concepts are under debate, such agreements do not necessarily mean we properly know what we are talking about – they merely constitute a consensus among the debaters.
However, it could be asked if it is possible to know or define anything fully without knowing or defining how that thing relates to other things. If this is so, it could be argued that body and mind could indeed be fully known without a complete knowledge of their relationship – and posing the initial philosophical question about the relationship of the two would appear not so silly.
But the problem here is that the ability to know either body or mind fully and independently of the other requires that they be considered as discrete entities – that is, as components of reality that either have no relationship to one another, or that can at the very least be fully known and understood regardless of whatever relationship they may have.
Unfortunately, it need only be realized that nothing at all has ever been proven to be truly independent of its wider environment for this position to appear ridiculous. Moreover, scientific theory strongly suggests that nothing can be fully independent.
To illustrate this principle in the simplest terms, merely consider that all physical things appear subject to various external influences such as gravity, and that all mental things are understood to exist within the greater entity known as mind – even if we still cannot define what mind really is.
So, although our thoughts and linguistic framing of the world may by necessity operate as if reality was indeed comprised of essentially independent components, we are surely able to discern that the substance of our thoughts is distinct from whatever our thoughts concern, and thoughts therefore create more or less flawed representations of reality. We can reason all human thought to be constrained by whatever limitations its mode of operation imposes, and one of those limitations is – as just mentioned – that thought appears distinct from that about which it thinks.
Even to take the bizarre stance that body and mind actually have no relationship to one another is to confront a huge problem: it still appears that nothing at all is entirely discrete. And it gets even worse. If we cannot fully know or understand anything, then we can never fully know whatever is under discussion, nor fully understand even the questions we ask. Put bluntly, all so-called knowledge is ultimately tainted by certain unavoidable delusions of understanding.
Moving to another philosophical conundrum – the freewill-versus-determinism controversy – it can be seen how such cognitive delusions only foster more intellectual dilemmas. And it is worth noting in the passing that these dilemmas can indeed be argued to be nothing more than products of muddled thinking, given that the universe around us seems not at all confused by any of this.
The mental blindness behind the freewill-versus-determinism debate consists of – among other things – more irrational and subliminal assumptions. Generally, there exists an unfounded assumption that one or other position must be correct, and that the other must therefore be incorrect. But why not consider that perhaps neither position is correct, or that both positions can be considered correct – but only in relative manners? And why not even consider that both positions can be simultaneously considered as both correct and incorrect – any given preference for one position over the other being dependent on how the mind chooses to frame reality at any given point? Does such a pick-and-choose set of options not closely match how our mind subconsciously hops around this question in everyday life?
It is only through excessive pride in the human mind’s supposed ability to fully understand certain aspects of the world, and through our indoctrination into a sort of singularity within modern culture’s cherished objectivity, that we manifest a habitually stubborn refusal to entertain two or more such logically contradictory positions. But simple honesty regarding the sheer persistence of the freewill-versus-determinism controversy should force us to humbly admit that – far from fully understanding anything – confusion remains our lot until such times as we go beyond normal everyday thought paradigms. Once we accept that freewill is simply one among a number of mental perspectives of reality, and that determinism is just another such perspective, then we are no more confused by the partial relevance of both than we would be by turning our head and noticing that our view of the world had changed.
Consider a mathematician who reasons that it must be possible, given infinite time, to count to infinity – but also reasons that it’s impossible to count to infinity because it would always be possible to carry on counting some more. Is it not immediately obvious that this mathematician is the author of his own conundrum, and therefore his problem has very little to do with mathematics, but is actually rooted in how his mind works – or fails? Furthermore, both his positions concern the concept of infinity, but much as the human mind has no doubt hatched plenty of definitions of infinity, how can anything encompass or comprehend infinity – something reasoned to have no limit?
Resolving this mathematician’s dilemma is only possible by accepting that he has confused himself by incorrectly imagining that he understands infinity – even as his very confusion provides plausible evidence that he does not.
Similarly, it is only by mistakenly imagining that we can properly separate the individual from the universe in which he exists that the mind creates this dilemma of freewill-versus-determinism. The mind may believe it is making choices at one moment but witnessing external cause-and-effect the next – but it has no way of knowing that the surrounding universe does not have some sort of will of its own, and the mind also has no way of knowing that what it considers to be its own mental choices are not in fact caused by preceding conditions. In fact, some recent neurological experiments claim to have detected apparently causal conditions in advance of subjects believing they were making conscious choices.
More generally, it proves impossible to unambiguously define where any supposed component of reality, such as the self or the surrounding environment, begins or ends – so much so that the underlying idea of a component-based reality looks more like a convenient mental compromise than anything proven to reflect the true nature of reality.
But ironically, it is perhaps in our reflexive use of causality as a means of explaining almost everything that we best see just how parochial our habitual ideas really are. When every supposed cause we identify can equally be considered as the effect of something else, there is a sense in which nothing can be considered as a truly original cause – just as no effect properly represents the true end of anything.
Of course, none of this is to deny that causal thinking proves very practical, or that body and mind are not useful distinctions. Similarly, we probably could not function well without imagining – correctly or otherwise – that we sometimes act of our own freewill, but are subject to causality at other times. But just because it proves useful to think in such simplistic terms does not mean that the human condition really is so simplistic; this whole situation very arguably reflects nothing more than the smallness of our minds in relation to a much grander and intractably enigmatic picture – perhaps a picture about which the most astute observation would be that it is just beyond us.