Tuesday, September 29, 2009

15.2.2008 - Some idiosyncratic reflexions on the mind/body problem - talking to my brother

The starting point for some philosophers of consciousness is the "evidence" that there is a world out there, and a mind in here, and that in between there is the body that shapes and mediates the perceptions of that world (Locke?). I don't agree at all with this model of phenomenology. I will explain why, but instead of directly attacking what may look like the core of the model (the distinction between a mind and a world), I will first try to challenge the evidence that we can actually define a "body" at all, that mediates these two other "things". Let me proceed with a little (silly) thought experiment. Imagine that you are cutting some paper with a pair of scissors. You move the scissors confidently, the paper is being cut smoothly, you can feel it being cut, just as if the scissors were a prolongation of your hand. Yet most will agree that the scissors are not part of their body, but just a tool that extend it's capabilities - the range of possible actions that they have on the world (I am here assuming the model to better undermine it from the inside of course). Now, let's say you notice a stain on the paper recently cut. You try to scratch it with your nail, and while you do that you feel, of course, the texture of the paper again, the bumps and all the details its surface has to offer. Now, most people would agree that their nails are part of their body. Take a nail cutter and cut one of your nails: the part just cut is no longer your body, you have stripped from it. Now start cutting another nail, but don't finish the work. Is the nail being cut still "your" body? When does it stop being part of your body? When the nail is separated one cm from your finger? one millimeter? one micron? But wait a minute: the actual atoms of the piece of nail, even before being cut were already separated by the rest of the nail by some micrometers! and what about the atoms that are on the tip of the nail? they were already a cm away of the part that would remain being your body! Can we find an useful (meaningful!) definition of a body? Perhaps, an useful one could be: your body is composed by all the atoms that are never separated by more than, let's say, a few microns. Yet this cannot work either: you are standing on your feet, and the sole of your shoes (or the socks if you want) are probably a few microns apart from the sole of "your" feet: therefore it should be part of your body. Since this is not the case (is it?), then it means that the previous "definition" is not usable. Well, you see my point: keep adding "physical" conditions that would qualify for the "body ownesness", you will always find a way of challenging the usefulness of the definition (try it: organics matter separated by few microns? just touch a piece of meat. Organic living matter separated by a few microns? just touch a pet - no, wait, not even necessary: millons of microbes over the surface of your skin would "be your body").

Is there a way out? Perhaps: you can try to play the game in two opposite directions:

(1) declare that the nail was not part of your "real" body in the first place; that your real body is, well, closer to your head for instance. And stubbornly keep this view of "otherness" accepting all its consequences, which means that your body will shrink more and more until.. until what? until it reaches the little homonculus in your cartesian theatre? You have a better, more profound retreat though: to conclude that you DON'T have a body.

(2) take just the opposite strategy: what about saying that yes, the nail already cut is still your body? Well, this will produce an avalanche of reasoning that will make you conclude that the whole world is your body.

In both cases, we would be forced to conclude that the concept of "body" is an useless one (thanks Occam!).

But the concept of body is not useless at all! we communicate and refer to this concept all the time. This is because it is an useful convention, a functional definition of a part of the process of knowledge gathering (just like "living" animal, or sentient being, or self, or... - but I am going to quickly here). Let me add something before I take another angle of attack on the model of mind/body/world. There is, I believe one one way out yet it will take us in a completely different direction, by giving us a new insight: let's go back to the scissors that are cutting the paper. If you were obliged to declare that the scissors are part of your body, what reason would you (reluctantly) give? Perhaps that they act "as if they were part of your hand": which I read as: their FUNCTION enhances the function of your hand, the action of the scissors is not an obstacle to my intention of cutting the paper, but it just HELP "me" doing it better (it even redefines and clarifies the intention of "cutting" something). One can even wonder to which extend the "intentionality" is not a by-product of the availability of a function, of the capacity of acting on the world. From that point of view, the scissors, or the body for that matter would be defined inasmuch as it can create patterns of action, and enable (create!) intention. But given that the boundary between the "world" and the "body" is ill defined, we have to conclude that the world itself is a critical "part" of ourselves (the self defined as the subject/object capable of intentionality).

Now, before developing this view further, I will come back to the initial problem and take another angle of attack. Suppose that from the very first day of being born, I perform on a baby some little grafts: I add an additional arm, controlled by the muscles of the abdomen (as Stelark has done during his adulthood), then I put a permanent green pigment on his cornea, so the world would be ever-green, then I put ear-aids that act upon the surrounding sounds, so that, for instance, the individual would only hear a discrete, temperate scale of pitches instead of the continuous range of frequencies. Most would say that the so modified human being won't be experiencing the "real" world. That the perception of the real world has been modified by some sort of artificial prosthesis. But this statement does not resist analysis: if you were born blind, or deaf or without arms or skin sensation, then you wouldn't be experiencing the "real" world? This is at least politically incorrect: it would mean that the only one entitled to "experience the real world" are those born with sight, legs, arms, etc. We are forced to conclude that what some call the objective reality is no more than a convention - a democratic one though.

So, the body (defined as the conventional human machine) clearly modifies the nature of the experience we have of the world, but what I intended to show here is that the very idea that there is a world out there mediated by the body is wrong: the world, the things that we call "the world" are "experiential invariants" of the action-perception loop created by a certain form of the body (which as we have seen is an ill-defined concept, and variable, modifiable).

In other words (worlds!): the model of world/body/mind is misleading, it is like the shadows in the cavern. A poor description of what is really going on.

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