Are the mind and body separate substances, or are they one-and-the-same?
Mind-Body Dualism is a philosophical question at least as old as Descartes, and possibly older. Most people tend to have an intuitive sense that they are a mind that has a body – that our mind resides within this physical thing we call a body. What I’m interested in here is whether it is useful to think about the mind and body as separate and what this could mean for humans and society going forward. This article is not meant to be an exhaustive exegesis on the entirety of the mind-body problem or even a summary of every facet. What I will do here is discuss three different ways to conceptualize the mind-body relationship, some practical concerns that arise, and then a theoretical analysis of responses to these practical concerns.
In modern day Christianity, the soul as a separate Substance from the body is taken for granted, though that was not always the case. Popular modern Christian teachings conceptualize a soul that outlives the physical body and is either condemned to Hell as punishment or taken into Heaven as reward based on whether actions and beliefs in life accorded with the teachings of one’s particular sect. In this school of thought, the soul is considered the True Self, the body being only a temporary vessel for the soul. Just as the physical body interacts with the physical world through the laws of physics and cause-and-effect, the soul interacts with the moral world through the laws of God and one’s internal values. The moral world is transcendent to the physical world, in that it determines the attainment of one’s telos, or purpose, but the moral world is affected by the physical world, ie. physically harming another person affects one’s soul in a negative way. This would be like a hammer, which has the purpose of building a house, which it does in the physical world, but it could also be used to harm another, which would affect the purpose of the hammer in a negative way (thereby giving it the designation of ‘murder weapon’ in a trial).
For the purposes of this article, I will focus primarily on the independence of the soul (mind) from the body (such as being able to outlive the body or potentially inhabit some other body), as opposed to any moral obligations placed on the soul.
The Christian Conception has an intuitive sense of being the correct conception of Mind-Body Dualism. I certainly feel like I am a mind residing in a body. It is impossible for me to conceptualize my own non-existence from a first-person, subjective point of view – my non-existence completely negates the entire enterprise. Therefore, I must be a mind or soul residing in a body that will then outlive my body.
The reductionist materialist view of Mind-Body Dualism has usually been to dismiss it. Certainly, with our current scientific knowledge, it is not parsimonious to add a non-physical ‘mind’ to the equation. In this conception, the mind is a product of the physical substrate. This can be observed when one takes a mind-altering drug – a physical molecule binds to receptors in the brain, altering the way the physical brain functions, which is the same as altering the mind. Neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have even formulated theories of consciousness that require the presence of a body in order for consciousness to exist, which further unifies the Mind-Body into a single Substance, which may lead to personality changes from organ transplants. This conception if the mind-body relationship has consequences for determinism, but that is beyond the scope of this post.
The materialist answer, as I laid it out above, has a different sense of being right. To say that a mind or soul exists doesn’t really answer the question, and in fact begs the question of what a mind or soul is. Although one may experience being a mind, a mind has never been defined or measured. It is impossible to even know whether other minds beside my own mind even exist, so how can I say for sure that minds exist independent of the bodies they inhabit? And the cause-effect relationship of the body-mind can and has been repeatedly tested via chemical intervention – to my knowledge, there is not a drug in existence that interacts with the brain in a measurable way that doesn’t have some measurable effect. Therefore, the mind and body are indistinguishable from one another.
In scientific terms, the mind-body relationship is often characterized in terms of a computer: the body is hardware and the mind is software. Detractors of this analogy accuse its proponents of putting too much stock into the comparison – there is not an apples-to-oranges equivalence between body and hardware much less mind and software, and trying to fit theories of mind into computer analogies is harmful to progress in the field. That being said, it is still difficult to not see a Mind-Body Duality at play here, even if it is not a mind-body independence – while the modern Christian conception of Mind-Body Dualism may allow for the mind to exist independent of the body, the mind-as-software conception does not. What is interesting, though, is that with mind-as-software, the software can run on many different types of hardware. A completely unified Mind-Body Monism would require that only body A could have mind A and only body B could have mind B – indeed, to say that body A has mind A is incorrect, because body A is mind A. But if mind A is merely software, then mind A could conceivably ‘run’ on body A, or body B, or body C etc. This is called substrate independence.
But is substrate independence, when it comes to the mind, one of those blind spots we’ve thrown in our own way by using the computer analogy to understand the mind? This is important when it comes to the question of whether a general artificial intelligence is conscious or not, or whether humans will ever be able to ‘upload’ their consciousness onto a computer. The computer analogy for the mind-body relationship assumes that cognition and consciousness are forms of information processing. Computer A that is processing the same information as human brain A, regardless of the physical ‘stuff’ with which the information processing is being done by the computer, will have a mind that is indistinguishable from human brain A. If this is true, then a general artificial intelligence that processes information similarly to a human brain will be conscious, and a person will theoretically be able to ‘upload’ their mind onto a computer (discussion of personal identity and psychological continuity are beyond the scope of this post – what is important here is that the same information processing that makes an entity think of itself as a conscious being can be generated on a computer).
This answer to the mind-body relationship has both the intuitive feeling of being a mind ‘inhabiting’ a body while also being dependent on the body. While the analogy may be imperfect, and possibly even deleterious in the end, it still appears more accurate than the previous two. Unlike the Christian conception, the mind-as-software analogy does not simply push the answer of ‘what is mind’ back into the realm of the unknown without explaining how mind and matter interact. Unlike the materialist conception, it allows for an epiphenomenon that, while dependent on the physical substrate, isn’t necessarily physical itself, thus it does not deny the existence of qualia. However, a new, even more accurate conception of the mind-body relationship may be required to overcome the pitfalls of the computer analogy.
Mind-Body and Gender Identity
The Mind-Body Duality question is important in our modern age when it comes to the transgender phenomenon. This is when a person has the feeling that their mind and body do not match, at least within the spectrum of gender. Libby Emmons says in her piece talking about the relationship between transhumanism and the transgender phenomenon:
Transgender advocates will answer that we are more mind than body, and this is what makes transgender ideology an essential component of the drive toward transhumanist acceptance, whether transgender advocates realize this connection or not (a Twitter search reveals that many do). The ongoing effort to change language, and redefine ‘male’ and ‘female’ so they refer to something other than sexual dimorphism, is designed to establish a Cartesian mind-body dualism in which the mind can dominate body to such an extent that personal subjectivity can decisively contradict biological reality. Transgender practice is the ultimate biohack. The claim that one has been born into the ‘wrong’ body is a total rejection of mind-body unification, and a statement that mind and body can be so disparate that the body must be thoroughly altered to match the mind’s perception of how it ought to be.
So, the way I see it, the fundamental question for transgender individuals is whether this conception is correct. Are these individuals truly a ‘mind occupying the wrong body’? This is an important question for two reasons: 1) is the transgender phenomenon real? and 2) is modifying the body to fit the mind the correct answer to the problem of a mind occupying the wrong body?
Question 1 has to do with critics of the transgender phenomenon. It gets to the root of whether these individuals have some essential part of their mind that is the gender they identify as, yet for some reason this mind occupies a body with the opposite sex. Or, is this some kind of disease, cultural deception, or moral shortcoming?
By disease here, I mean whether it is something where less invasive approaches could be used to rectify the situation – in other words, is it theoretically possible to come up with a ‘pill’ that will make someone’s gender identity match their physical sex? By deception, I mean is it something that is culturally indoctrinated into a person, such that they may feel peer/parental pressure to identify as the opposite gender to their sex, or that doing so might assuage anxieties that have a different cause? And by moral shortcoming, I mean that it is merely a sexual fetish? Or a way of obtaining victim status in order to gain social capital within one’s in-group?
The answer to question 1 leads into question 2. Because if transgender individuals do have some sort of essential part of their mind that is the gender the person identifies as – such as literally being a female brain but with a male body or a female soul residing within a male body (or vise versa) – then extensive chemical interventions and reconstructive procedures would seem to be justified. But if it is a disease, a cultural deception, or a moral shortcoming, then other approaches might be more effective for the transgender individual.
Substrate independence, in the mind-as-software conception, would render the first question moot. That female ‘software’ could run on male ‘hardware’ (or vice versa) is inherent in the idea of substrate independence. The question then becomes why the female software is running on the male hardware. The soul conception would answer the question by saying that a female soul is inhabiting a male body. Why that may be would lay in the realm of the supernatural (or whatever you would want to call the non-physical). The materialist conception would answer the question by saying that, in a deterministic universe, it could never have been otherwise, given initial conditions. In other words, the genes, uterine environment, and upbringing that developed into the person were determined by conservation of momentum through four-dimensional spacetime going all the way back to the origin of the universe. But the mind-as-software conception asks: are there a set of conditions from which transgenderism will reliably arise, and can those conditions be manipulated in order to change the outcome? The ethical question of whether one ought to manipulate those conditions follows directly from this line of questioning.
Lets go back to Emmons’ piece. Setting aside the potential biological reality of the transgender phenomenon, what is it that determines what a person is – the mind or the body? And what does the mind-body relationship mean for what people ought to do, or be allowed to do, in order to modify their bodies the way they desire?
Mind or Body?
Most people, I would argue, believe that when they talk about themselves, they are referring to their mind. Our language concerning our bodies even indicate a separation – I talk about ‘my arm’ as if it is a thing that I own (more on that below). But I simply say ‘I think this’ or ‘I believe that’ when I speak of my mind – it is referring to my self in the first person rather than something that I own. So, can it be said that the mind is the only thing that matters when referring to myself?
If the mind is the only thing important when talking about the self, then what one does to their own body – tattoos and piercings, transhumanist body mods, sexual reassignment surgery, etc – is not changing their self. It may be said to be changing the way one expresses their self, but the self (the mind) remains unchanged by any body modifications.
If the body is important when talking about the self, then altering it fundamentally alters the self. This is certainly interesting when it comes to psychological continuity – could a person change their self (body) into a completely different self? Would this be tantamount to murdering the old self? Would it be moral to change the self of a terrible person, ie alter a serial killer in such a way that they are no longer a serial killer, even if doing so effectively turns them into a completely different person? And should a person be allowed to change their self (body) into someone who is a serial killer? Objections to transhumanism and transgenderism certainly carry more weight if we say that the body is more important, or just as important, as the mind, when it comes to defining what the self is.
An important premise for natural rights and liberal democracy is the notion that a person owns themselves – you own your own body and therefore are not owned by anyone else. Hence, it is morally wrong for a person to initiate force against you, because that would be tantamount to someone else owning your body. Only you may initiate force against yourself via an act of will. The will, then, can be conceptualized as the mind (the self) initiating force (ownership) on the body (the property). Property rights are the idea that the initiation of force is only moral on one’s own privately owned property – one can do whatever one wishes with one’s own property so long as it does not infringe on the property rights of another. Democracy is an attempt to institutionalize this as fairly as possible for a large group of people, where a person’s vote is their own and is taken as tacit agreement that another body (the government) is has the person’s permission to initiate force on said person. Whether democracy has succeeded in this endeavor is beyond the scope of this article.
This self-ownership conceptualization presupposes a separation of the mind and body in some meaningful way, whether it is the mind-body independence in modern Christian thought or mind-body as software-hardware in the scientific analogy. Self-ownership may break down in the materialist reductionist conceptualization of the mind-body relationship, since in a materialistic deterministic universe ownership is nonsensical.
Ownership of the self is important in determining what one ought to do with their own body and what one should be allowed to do with their own body. Both of these questions have different answers based on ownership: who owns your body? The answer is the difference between individualism and collectivism. The individualist says the self (mind) owns the body. The collectivist says the group owns the body, thus there are certain mores (oughts) and rules (allowances) that must be observed within a particular group (ie cultural taboos and social contract theory).
If we go back to transhumanism or transgenderism, the individual chooses, by their own will, what they ought to do with their own body and what they are allowed to do with their own body. Collectivism will come up with mores and rules to guide this behavior that does not necessarily take the will of the individual into account – there may be things that are possible for you to do with your body, that you may want to do with your body, but you ought not to (because it may upset group cohesiveness or sensibilities) and/or you are not allowed to (there are rules or laws stipulating that membership in the group prohibits such behavior).
The question of the mind-body relationship is of practical importance, particularly when it comes to transhumanism and transgenderism. While there are not any solid answers yet for the questions raised here, it will continue to be an important conversation to have.