Mind Under Matter (Part Two): The Mind-Body Problem

The mind-body problem is simply the question of how the mind relates to the body. How does a supposedly immaterial thing, mind, relate to a physical entity, the body? Solutions to this problem have ranged from physicalism which maintains that what a person experiences as her mind is reducible to brain activity, a physical phenomenon, to substance dualism, the standard view for theistic philosophers who contend that a person is both composed of a material and immaterial substance (i.e. a body and soul/mind) each of which possesses its own independent existence and somehow interact in the human person. Following the evidence presented by QM in line with its idealist implications, I propose a possible way of conceptualizing the mind-body problem based upon a model of emergence where the mind of an individual is fundamental ontologically, and the body emerges from it. This approach does not deny the genuine existence of the physical world; rather, it recognizes that the physical is not self-existent. In this way, the view I am outlining here does not fall cleanly into the categories of either substance dualism or monism (where everything which exists is really only one substance, similar to a reductive account). Such a view has two major benefits.

The first benefit of this view is that it answers how these two seemingly disparate entities, the mind and the body, interact. Many philosophers such as Daniel Dennett have opted for a physicalist understanding of human ontology where the mind is reducible to brain activity; however, given the data in QM examined above, physicalist views such as those championed by Dennett are not viable given that this would serve only to validate some form of realism (a view addressed in the prior post).

As a result, the only viable options left are those which do not reduce the mind to something physical but instead views it as something irreducible and immaterial. As noted before, the typical option for Christian theists is substance dualism which maintains that a person is composed of both a mind (or soul) and a body, both of which have an independent existence (albeit both dependent on God’s power ontologically) and yet somehow interact. This view has been famously championed by philosophers such as Richard Swinburne. It has not been without objections such as that souls have no objective verification but have traditionally been used in terms of their explanatory power, but, given the data explored above, there now exists evidence (albeit not a proof) that an immaterial reality is present in the observer.

Other notable objections include the interaction problem which states that if a person was composed of both a physical body and an immaterial soul, then these two things could not interact with one another because they share no medium through which to influence one another. If there was such a medium, it would either be fundamentally mental or physical, not some shared combination of both, so the mind, if immaterial, ought to be causally effete in regards to the physical universe. While this objection raises a problem for traditional dualism, there is not the same issue for idealism.

The assumption both within substance dualism and behind the interaction problem is that the mind and the body each possess their own existence independent of one another, and they are somehow joined together into one person. The problem with this assumption is that, as stated above, the material (which includes the human body) is present only because of the conscious observer (i.e. the immaterial). In other words, these two substances do not exist independently but rather one is dependent upon the other. An implication of the Copenhagen interpretation in QM is that the material exists only because it is observed by an immaterial observer (as opposed to a purely material one), so any form of substance dualism which upholds the independent existence of the body and mind has been significantly undermined similar to physicalism. Consequently, idealism addresses this interaction problem by contending that there is not an independent existence ontologically for the body; rather, it is emergent from the mind and these two interact by virtue of their emergent relationship.

An illustration for this interaction is the coding of a computer to produce an image on a screen. Suppose a person searches for pictures of trees on the internet. Upon the tree appearing on the screen, there simultaneously manifests two things: the tree and the code required to produce that tree. What is seen by the naked eye is the image of the tree. What is unseen is the code (i.e. the 0’s and 1’s) which comes together within the computer to compose this image of a tree. In this way, there are two real things which exist, the tree and the code; however, the tree only exists because it is emergent from the underlying code. This does not mean that the tree on the screen is illusory, but it does imply that the tree has no independent existence and can only exist insofar as there is a code which gives substance and form to the tree. The tree is the activity of the code in effect. Further, changes to the code affect how the tree operates or appears and changes to the tree (say interaction with another on-screen item such as fire) means there are changes to the code. This analogy is not perfect. Changes to the tree by fire implies interaction between the fire’s code and the tree’s code, and that does not necessarily hold true in the relationship between two physical bodies. Despite this caveat, the analogy is a useful way for conceptualizing the mind’s relationship to the body.

In this way, the interaction problem is also mistaken to form a stark dichotomy between the properties of mind and matter by assuming the properties of one entails the negation of those properties in the other. An available option for idealists is to contend that matter is the phenomenological manifestation of the mind’s activity in a way that does not sharply equate mind and matter. As Howard Robinson points out, “The phenomena – the sense-data or ideas – have three important properties: (i) They are the vehicles of our sensory judgments, (ii) they are the way the physical world manifests to us, and (iii) they are the only categorical properties the physical world possesses. The physical world is a nomological structure manifested in experience.” (1) Given the tree and the code illustration presented above, it is not inconceivable that the mind and the body would also bear a similar relationship to what Robinson presents here with the body being emergent from the activity of the mind. Such a view recognizes a clear distinction between the mind and body while rejecting the premise that this entails a total negation of properties between them.

A second benefit to this view is it rejects the notion that everything which exists is purely mental, and so it rejects that the physical world’s existence is illusory. Any theory of human ontology from a Christian perspective must take into account humanity’s bona fide status as biological beings or else it is necessarily deficient and inconsistent with Christianity. The orthodox Christian position is that the physical world is genuine and not an illusion. Scripture consistently refers to God as Creator and praises Him for His works in creation. (2) Any view of reality which argues that the physical world is merely illusory undermines these convictions and ultimately implies gnosticism. If the true human self can be merely reduced to the mental, then the true self is not physical in any real sense. The body therefore becomes a hindrance to the exercising of the self’s genuine personhood since what a person experiences about herself in daily living is largely a physical existence. While a person experiences the physical by way of the mental, to conflate the two implies that the ideal would be a person’s liberation from the physical illusion in order to more fully embrace the mental or spiritual. This concept contradicts the value of the Christian doctrine of resurrection both in reference to Christ and to humanity generally. The resurrection of Christ and His incarnation play a special role in affirming the reality of the physical world because it is by way of these means that God reveals His nature and character. According to Irenaeus, the only legitimate way to discover truths concerning God is to expound His activity and dispensation for the sake of humanity. Truth is found in God’s own long-suffering over man’s disobedience, His revealing things to the prophets, His shutting up all in disobedience to have mercy on all, and in giving thanks that the Word of God was made flesh and suffered. (3) In other words, there must be a discernible living history which is impossible (or at least illusory) without the physical world.

The independent existence of the body has been undermined by QM as the particles which compose a thing, including bodies, do not exist apart from observation, but this fact need not imply that the body is merely an illusion. The body is simply emergent from the activity of the underlying mind like how an image on a computer is emergent from the activity of the underlying code, so this should not imply that somehow the material world does not really exist. I leave open the possibility of the body being emergent from the mind either due to the mind’s innate structure or because of a third party’s (i.e. God) special intervention to unite the two with the added caveat that ultimately it must be God’s active power which sustains the mind if it produces the body on account of its innate structure (Col 1:17).


(1): Howard Robinson, “Idealism and Perception: Why Berkeleyan Idealism is Not as Counterintuitive as It Seems,” Idealism and Christian Philosophy vol. 2, ed. Steven Cowan and James Spiegel (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 83-84, accessed May 27, 2020, https://books.google.com/books?id=XuA3DwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.

(2): Job 12:7-10, Ps 95:4-5, Ps 104:24-25 Isa 42:5, Jn 1:3, Rom 1:20, Col 1:15-20, Heb 11:3.

(3): Irenaeus, “The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So Called,” Early Christian Fathers, ed. Cyril C. Richardson (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996), 361.

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