Monday, October 26, 2009

Solving the mind-body problem

Recently, I attended a lecture at Duke Medical School by Niall McLaren, an Australian psychiatrist. McLaren proposed a solution to the mind-body problem with which Western intellectuals have struggled since Rene Descartes. If the mind is different than the brain (a purely physical entity), then what is the interface between the mind (non-physical) and the body (physical)? How does the non-physical interact with the physical?

That question seems particularly acute for those who posit the existence of a human soul that is non-physical. Is the soul something that God interrupts biological processes to insert into an embryo at some point? If so, at what point does the insertion happen? How do we know that? How does the insertion occur? Once inserted, how does the soul interact with the body? The Roman Catholic Church answers some of these questions by Papal fiat and ignores the rest. Most Protestants blithely ignore these troublesome questions, thoughtlessly positing a human soul, accepting evolution and other biological processes, and never grappling with the interaction of the physical and non-physical.

McLaren suggests a helpful alternative to both of those options. If the human mind is an emergent property of the brain (i.e., if brain function is greater than the sum of the individual molecular components of the brain), then a two-directional interface might reasonably occur at the molecular level.

In support of his conclusion, McLaren relies heavily upon the work of David Chalmers who takes human consciousness seriously. Chalmers, capitalizing on Benedict Spinoza’s idea of property dualism (e.g., a dime has the dual properties of metallic composition and of financial currency), suggests that the mind has dual properties. The mind’s property of experience is private, vivid, and ineffable. Nobody can really know what another person experiences. On the other hand, the mind’s property of knowledge is public, silent, and communicable. Two people can agree that an apple is red (knowledge) but be unable to share their personal experience of the same particular apple (experience).

Thus, the brain, McLaren argues, has dual properties: that of mind and that of brain, i.e., the emergent consciousness and its physiological basis. This conclusion seems to finesse the previously unsolvable conundrum of mind-body dualism neatly without creating additional philosophical difficulties. For more on McLaren’s work, visit his website (

McLaren’s approach coheres nicely with my proposal that the human spirit, the imago dei, consists of those aspects of homo sapiens, developed through the evolutionary process, that are uniquely human, e.g., self-awareness and linguistic capacity. Other species may have developed these traits to some degree, but not to the extent that humans have. Indeed, given the evolutionary process, no other species having developed these characteristics to some degree would be very surprising.

Similarly, these conclusions connect with the work of biologist John Holland, which he describes in his book, Emergence: From Chaos to Order. Holland argues for a progressive understanding of evolution, moving from chaos to order, from simplicity to complexity, offers a view of evolution compatible with belief in a creative designer giving impetus and direction to the move from chaos to cosmos and with the notion of mind-body dualism premised on property rather than substance.

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