The Mind/Body Problem in the Context of Natural History

16 October 2009


Descartes' Bones

Today I finished listening to Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason by Russell Shorto. This was an enjoyable intellectual history from the early modern period to the present, taking the fate of Descartes’ mortal remains, which were surprisingly peripatetic, as the thread of the narrative. The book dipped into science, history, and philosophy without attempting to be rigorous about any of these. But it was enough to set me to thinking about that old Cartesian bug bear, the mind/body problem.

The mind/body problem is one of those venerable philosophical paradoxes that, once it is rigorously formulated in the language of philosophy, becomes nearly insoluble, or so close to insoluble that no possible solution can be satisfactory because of its necessary compromises with the principle of parsimony. Since the most stringent formulations of the problem cannot be stated simply, they cannot be solved simply either, and wishing them away doesn’t satisfy either.

But I wrote above, “rigorously formulated in the language of philosophy.” This is significant, because if we put the mind/body problem in the context of natural history, it looks rather different. Indeed, it looks a little puzzling that anyone could be puzzled over it.

It has been observed that in the history of evolutionary thought it was once believed that man came from a “smart ape.” That is to say, that we began with the growth of the brain and its capacities, and became what we are from that point forward. But now it seems unlikely that our primate ancestors simply got smart. The most likely scenario as it is understood today is that our ancestors first became bipedal, and by becoming bipedal freed their hands to manipulate their environment, and in having hands free to manipulate their environment became creatures for whom competition on the basis of mental ability could be a viable proposition. Hence the evolutionary escalation that bequeathed to us our present brain and its cognitive capacities, born of a competitive integration with the world.

Descartes, of course, lived long before there was any clear idea of human evolution, but implicit in his dualism and his definition of self and certainty in terms of the cogito ergo sum is the idea that our intelligence is primary and central to our humanity. Present natural history tells us otherwise. What is central and primary to primates like ourselves is our integration in and interaction with the world. From this springs mind and ideas. To suppose, one way or another, that our integration and interaction with the world is derivative and that mind and idea come first is the perennial error of idealism and its variations. Man is not a smart ape, but first and foremost a manipulative ape. A formulation of the mind/body problem adequate to the knowledge of contemporary science would take this into account.

Just yesterday in Salmon and Industrial Selection I noted that the selective advantage an organism or species may possess may have nothing to do with its physical structure, but may derive exclusively from a change in behavior. It was a consequence of both physiological and behavioral changes that made it possible for our ancestors to walk upright and to manipulate the world with our hands. Patterns of behavior, whether of salmon or of Australopithecus, emerge from interaction with the world. But it does not take much imagination to see how patterns of behavior are also incipient forms of mind. When patterns of behavior are recalled and repeated, or signified by some signal, yet another step is taken from action to conception. This is where our minds and ideas come from: from earth, not from heaven.

. . . . .

Earth: the source of our mind and our ideas.

Earth: the source of our mind and our ideas.

. . . . .


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