The philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, which we’ve been discussing for the last two weeks, has a feature that reliably irritates most people when they encounter it for the first time: it doesn’t divide up the world the way people in modern western societies habitually do. To say, as Schopenhauer does, that the world we experience is a world of subjective representations, and that we encounter the reality behind those representations in will, is to map out the world in a way so unfamiliar that it grates on the nerves. Thus it came as no surprise that last week’s post fielded a flurry of responses trying to push the discussion back onto the more familiar ground of mind and matter.
That was inevitable. Every society has what I suppose could be called its folk metaphysics, a set of beliefs about the basic nature of existence that are taken for granted by most people in that society, and the habit of dividing the world of our experience into mind and matter is among the core elements of the folk metaphysics of the modern western world. Most of us think of it, on those occasions when we think of it at all, as simply the way the world is. It rarely occurs to most of us that there’s any other way to think of things—and when one shows up, a great many of us back away from it as fast as possible.
Yet dividing the world into mind and matter is really rather problematic, all things considered. The most obvious difficulty is the relation between the two sides of the division. This is usually called the mind-body problem, after the place where each of us encounters that difficulty most directly. Grant for the sake of argument that each of us really does consist of a mind contained in a material body, how do these two connect? It’s far from easy to come up with an answer that works.
Several approaches have been tried in the attempt to solve the mind-body problem. There’s dualism, which is the claim that there are two entirely different and independent kinds of things in the world—minds and bodies—and requires proponents to comes up with various ways to justify the connection between them. First place for philosophical brashness in this connection goes to Rene Descartes, who argued that the link was directly and miraculously caused by the will of God. Plenty of less blatant methods of handwaving have been used to accomplish the same trick, but all of them require question-begging maneuvers of various kinds, and none has yet managed to present any kind of convincing evidence for itself.
Then there are the reductionistic monisms, which attempt to account for the relationship of mind and matter by reducing one of them to the other. The most popular reductionistic monism these days is reductionistic materialism, which claims that what we call “mind” is simply the electrochemical activity of those lumps of matter we call human brains. Though it’s a good deal less popular these days, there’s also reductionistic idealism, which claims that what we call “matter” is the brought into being by the activity of minds, or of Mind.
Further out still, you get the eliminative monisms, which deal with the relationship between mind and matter by insisting that one of them doesn’t exist. There are eliminative materialists, for example, who insist that mental experiences don’t exist, and our conviction that we think, feel, experience pain and pleasure, etc. is an “introspective illusion.” (I’ve often thought that one good response to such a claim would be to ask, “Do you really think so?” The consistent eliminative materialist would have to answer “No.”) There are also eliminative idealists, who insist that matter doesn’t exist and that all is mind.
There’s probably been as much effort expended in attempting to solve the mind-body problem as any other single philosophical issue has gotten in modern times, and yet it remains the focus of endless debates even today. That sort of intellectual merry-go-round is usually a pretty good sign that the basic assumptions at the root of the question have some kind of lethal flaw. That’s particularly true when this sort of ongoing donnybrook isn’t the only persistent difficulty surrounding the same set of ideas—and that’s very much the case here.
After all, there’s a far more personal sense in which the phrase “mind-body problem” can be taken. To speak in the terms usual for our culture, this thing we’re calling “mind” includes only a certain portion of what we think of as our inner lives. What, after all, counts as “mind”? In the folk metaphysics of our culture, and in most of the more formal systems of thought based on it, “mind” is consciousness plus the thinking and reasoning functions, perhaps with intuition (however defined) tied on like a squirrel’s tail to the antenna of an old-fashioned jalopy. The emotions aren’t part of mind, and neither are such very active parts of our lives as sexual desire and the other passions; it sounds absurd, in fact, to talk about “the emotion-body problem” or the “passion-body problem.” Why does it sound absurd? Because, consciously or unconsciously, we assign the emotions and the passions to the category of “body,” along with the senses.
This is where we get the second form of the mind-body problem, which is that we’re taught implicitly and explicitly that the mind governs the body, and yet the functions we label “body” show a distinct lack of interest in obeying the functions we call “mind.” Sexual desire is of course the most obvious example. What people actually desire and what they think they ought to desire are quite often two very different things, and when the “mind” tries to bully the “body” into desiring what the “mind” thinks it ought to desire, the results are predictably bad. Add enough moral panic to the mix, in fact, and you end up with sexual hysteria of the classic Victorian type, in which the body ends up being experienced as a sinister Other responding solely to its own evil propensities, the seductive wiles of other persons, or the machinations of Satan himself despite all the efforts of the mind to rein it in.
Notice the implicit hierarchy woven into the folk metaphysics just sketched out, too. Mind is supposed to rule matter, not the other way around; mind is active, while matter is passive or, at most, subject to purely mechanical pressures that make it lurch around in predictable ways. When things don’t behave that way, you tend to see people melt down in one way or another—and the universe being what it is, things don’t actually behave that way very often, so the meltdowns come at regular intervals.
They also arrive in an impressive range of contexts, because the way of thinking about things that divides them into mind and matter is remarkably pervasive in western societies, and pops up in the most extraordinary places. Think of the way that our mainstream religions portray God as the divine Mind ruling omnipotently over a universe of passive matter; that’s the ideal toward which our notions of mind and body strive, and predictably never reach. Think of the way that our entertainment media can always evoke a shudder of horror by imagining something we assign to the category of lifeless matter—a corpse in the case of zombie flicks, a machine in such tales as Stephen King’s Christine, or what have you—suddenly starts acting as though it possesses a mind.
For that matter, listen to the more frantic end of the rhetoric on the American left following the recent presidential election and you’ll hear the same theme echoing off the hills. The left likes to think of itself as the smart people, the educated people, the sensitive and thoughtful and reasonable people—in effect, the people of Mind. The hate speech that many of them direct toward their political opponents leans just as heavily on the notion that these latter are stupid, uneducated, insensitive, irrational, and so on—that is to say, the people of Matter. Part of the hysteria that followed Trump’s election, in turn, might best be described as the political equivalent of the instinctive reaction to a zombie flick: the walking dead have suddenly lurched out of their graves and stalked toward the ballot box, the body politic has rebelled against its self-proclaimed mind!
Let’s go deeper, though. The habit of dividing the universe of human experience into mind and matter isn’t hardwired into the world, or for that matter into human consciousness; there have been, and are still, societies in which people simply don’t experience themselves and the world that way. The mind-body problem and the habits of thought that give rise to it have a history, and it’s by understanding that history that it becomes possible to see past the problem toward a solution.
That history takes its rise from an interesting disparity among the world’s great philosophical traditions. The three that arose independently—the Chinese, the Indian, and the Greek—focused on different aspects of humanity’s existence in the world. Chinese philosophy from earliest times directed its efforts to understanding the relationship between the individual and society; that’s why the Confucian mainstream of Chinese philosophy is resolutely political and social in its focus, exploring ways that the individual can find a viable place within society, and the alternative Taoist tradition in its oldest forms (before it absorbed mysticism from Indian sources) focused on ways that the individual can find a viable place outside society. Indian philosophy, by contrast, directed its efforts to understanding the nature of individual existence itself; that’s why the great Indian philosophical schools all got deeply into epistemology and ended up with a strong mystical bent.
The Greek philosophical tradition, in turn, went to work on a different set of problems. Greek philosophy, once it got past its initial fumblings, fixed its attention on the world of thought. That’s what led Greek thinkers to transform mathematics from a unsorted heap of practical techniques to the kind of ordered system of axioms and theorems best exemplified by Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, and it’s also what led Greek thinkers in the same generation as Euclid to create logic, one of the half dozen or so greatest creations of the human mind. Yet it also led to something considerably more problematic: the breathtaking leap of faith by which some of the greatest intellects of the ancient world convinced themselves that the structure of their thoughts was the true structure of the universe, and that thoughts about things were therefore more real than the things themselves.
The roots of that conviction go back all the way to the beginnings of Greek philosophy, but it really came into its own with Parmenides, an important philosopher of the generation immediately before Plato. Parmenides argued that there were two ways of understanding the world, the way of truth and the way of opinion; the way of opinion consisted of understanding the world as it appears to the senses, which according to Parmenides means it’s false, while the way of truth consisted of understanding the world the way that reason proved it had to be, even when this contradicted the testimony of the senses. To be sure, there are times and places where the testimony of the senses does indeed need to be corrected by logic, but it’s at least questionable whether this should be taken anything like as far as Parmenides took it—he argued, for example, that motion was logically impossible, and so nothing ever actually moves, even though it seems that way to our deceiving senses.
The idea that thoughts about things are more real than things settled into what would be its classic form in the writings of Plato, who took Parmenides’ distinction and set to work to explain the relationship between the worlds of truth and opinion. To Plato, the world of truth became a world of forms or ideas, on which everything in the world of sensory experience is modeled. The chair we see, in other words, is a projection or reflection downwards into the world of matter of the timeless, pure, and perfect form or idea of chair-ness. The senses show us the projections or reflections; the reasoning mind shows us the eternal form from which they descend.
That was the promise of classic Platonism—that the mind could know the truth about the universe directly, without the intervention of the senses, the same way it could know the truth of a mathematical demonstration. The difficulty with this enticing claim, though, was that when people tried to find the truth about the universe by examining their thinking processes, no two of them discovered exactly the same truth, and the wider the cultural and intellectual differences between them, the more different the truths turned out to be. It was for this reason among others that Aristotle, whose life’s work was basically that of cleaning up the mess that Plato and his predecessors left behind, made such a point of claiming that nothing enters the mind except through the medium of the senses. It’s also why the Academy, the school founded by Plato, in the generations immediately after his time took a hard skeptical turn, and focused relentlessly on the limits of human knowledge and reasoning.
Later on, Greek philosophy and its Roman foster-child headed off in other directions—on the one hand, into ethics, and the question of how to live the good life in a world where certainty isn’t available; on the other, into mysticism, and the question of whether the human mind can experience the truth of things directly through religious experience. A great deal of Plato’s thinking, however, got absorbed by the Christian religion after the latter clawed its way to respectability in the fourth century CE.
Augustine of Hippo, the theologian who basically set the tone of Christianity in the west for the next fifteen centuries, had been a Neoplatonist before he returned to his Christian roots, and he was far from the only Christian of that time to drink deeply from Plato’s well. In his wake, Platonism became the standard philosophy of the western church until it was displaced by a modified version of Aristotle’s philosophy in the high Middle Ages. Thinkers divided the human organism into two portions, body and soul, and began the process by which such things as sexuality and the less angelic emotions got exiled from the soul into the body.
Even after Thomas Aquinas made Aristotle popular again, the basic Parmenidean-Platonic notion of truth had been so thoroughly bolted into Christian theology that it rode right over any remaining worries about the limitations of human reason. The soul trained in the use of reason could see straight to the core of things, and recognize by its own operations such basic religious doctrines as the existence of God: that was the faith with which generations of scholars pursued the scholastic philosophy of medieval times, and those who disagreed with them rarely quarreled over their basic conception—rather, the point at issue was whether the Fall had left the human mind so vulnerable to the machinations of Satan that it couldn’t count on its own conclusions, and the extent to which divine grace would override Satan’s malicious tinkerings anywhere this side of heaven.
If you happen to be a devout Christian, such questions make sense, and they matter. It’s harder to see how they still made sense and mattered as the western world began moving into its post-Christian era in the eighteenth century, and yet the Parmenidean-Platonic faith in the omnipotence of reason gained ground as Christianity ebbed among the educated classes. People stopped talking about soul and body and started talking about mind and body instead.
Since mind, mens in Latin, was already in common use as a term for the faculty of the soul that handled its thinking and could be trained to follow the rules of reason, that shift was of vast importance. It marked the point at which the passions and the emotions were shoved out of the basic self-concept of the individual in western culture, and exiled to the body, that unruly and rebellious lump of matter in which the mind is somehow caged.
That’s one of the core things that Schopenhauer rejected. As he saw it, the mind isn’t the be-all and end-all of the self, stuck somehow into the prison house of the body. Rather, the mind is a frail and unstable set of functions that surface now and then on top of other functions that are much older, stronger, and more enduring. What expresses itself through all these functions, in turn, is will: at the most basic primary level, as the will to exist; on a secondary level, as the will to live, with all the instincts and drives that unfold from that will; on a tertiary level, as the will to experience, with all the sensory and cognitive apparatus that unfolds from that will; and on a quaternary level, as the will to understand, with all the abstract concepts and relationships that unfold from that will.
Notice that from this point of view, the structure of thought isn’t the structure of the cosmos, just a set of convenient models, and thoughts about things are emphatically not more real than the things themselves. The things themselves are wills, expressing themselves through their several modes. The things as we know them are representations, and our thoughts about the things are abstract patterns we create out of memories of representations, and thus at two removes from reality.
Notice also that from this point of view, the self is simply a representation—the ur-representation, the first representation each of us makes in infancy as it gradually sinks in that there’s a part of the kaleidoscope of our experience that we can move at will, and a lot more that we can’t, but still just a representation, not a reality. Of course that’s what we see when we first try to pay attention to ourselves, just as we see the coffee cup discussed in the first post in this series. It takes exacting logical analysis, scientific experimentation, or prolonged introspection to get past the representation of the self (or the coffee cup), realize that it’s a subjective construct rather than an objective reality, and grasp the way that it’s assembled out of disparate stimuli according to preexisting frameworks that are partly hardwired into our species and partly assembled over the course of our lives.
Notice, finally, that those functions we like to call “mind”—in the folk metaphysics of our culture, again, these are consciousness and the capacity to think, with a few other tag-ends of other functions dangling here and there—aren’t the essence of who we are, the ghost in the machine, the Mini-Me perched inside the skull that pushes and pulls levers to control the passive mass of the body and gets distracted by the jabs and lurches of the emotions and passions. The functions we call “mind,” rather, are a set of delicate, tentative, and fragile functions of will, less robust and stable than most of the others, and with no inherent right to rule the other functions. The Schopenhauerian self is an ecosystem rather than a hierarchy, and if what we call “mind” sits at the top of the food chain like a fox in a meadow, that simply means that the fox has to spend much of its time figuring out where mice like to go, and even more of its time sleeping in its den, while the mice scamper busily about and the grass goes quietly about turning sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into the nutrients that support the whole system.
Accepting this view of the self requires sweeping revisions of the ways we like to think about ourselves and the world, which is an important reason why so many people react with acute discomfort when it’s suggested. Nonetheless those revisions are of crucial importance, and as this discussion continues, we’ll see how they offer crucial insights into the problems we face in this age of the world—and into their potential solutions.