by Titan Mikuta
What is the Mind-Body Problem?
The mind-body problem is an unsolved problem concerning the relationship between the body and the mind. How can a conglomeration of atoms eventually incite the existence of metaphysical experience? How can perception be possible? These questions have baffled physicists, neuroscientists, and philosophers since their conception. It is the hard problem of consciousness. It is considered hard, because as opposed to easy problems, the answer will not arise through complete understanding of all relevant mechanisms. Understanding all of the physical mechanics of heat does not describe the felt sensation of holding your hand over a fire. A complete knowledge of the material happenings of the brain does not explain the arising of awareness, of something immaterial. There seemingly exists a gap between mind and matter that is impossible to bridge.
The Knowledge Argument
To better understand this separation between body (physical), and mind (metaphysical), the examination of something known as the knowledge argument is necessary. The knowledge argument, also known as Mary’s room, is a thought experiment meant to argue against physicalism, the view that reality is entirely physical. It goes like this:
The knowledge argument seeks to contradict common Western understandings that we can fully understand reality through the sciences, through material knowledge. The problem with a materialist understanding of the world is that it disregards experience as an aspect of reality and fully prioritizes matter. Matter is a very tricky concept when properly evaluated, as it implies the existence of something behind the sensory data that we perceive.
Imagine a circular table. In the center of the table, there is an apple — an instance of matter. Around this table sits every possible entity that can perceive — birds, bears, fish, worms, dragonflies, humans, ants, aliens, cats, buffalo, etc. They are each observing the object in the center. Due to the fact that each of these animals have different modes and organs for perceiving, a different image of the same object is created within each of them. A dragonfly’s eyes see a drastically different image of an apple than yours do. If I were to pick one of these images, none of them would be the true image of the apple. Our human eyes present us with an image of matter no more accurate than those of a dragonfly, it is simply a different image. Matter is the thing outside of perception that is being looked at. To truly know what the object at the center of the table looks like, you would have to see it without eyes, perceive it outside of perception. This is simply not possible, meaning that an objectively true image of matter does not exist. Perception is the matrix through which matter can be known, and it will be known to be different depending on the sense organs of the sentient creature. This understanding of the elusive nature of the physical world means that some primacy of the metaphysical world of perception must be acknowledged. It would be more accurate to say that we observe perception and sensory data than matter. Western philosophy births the mind body problem by abstracting from perceptual experience with the conception of matter, and then attempting to explain perception using this abstraction. It divides reality into two substances: the mind, and the unperceivable physical world that we assume to exist outside of it.
Western philosophy takes a dualistic stand on the nature of reality, believing the universe to consist of two seemingly unconnectable substances, mind and body. Eastern philosophy proposes a much different approach: mind and body are one and the same. The East has developed a compelling case that reality is non-dual, that there are not two separate substances that are frustratingly unconnectable. It is able to combine mind and matter into one unified whole, by stating that it is impossible for one to exist without the other. If reality didn’t exist, the mind couldn't possibly exist. If the mind did not exist, there would be no conception of reality that existed either. Have you ever seen a world outside of consciousness? If not, that’s okay, because nobody has!
Western, physicalist understandings of reality are what give birth to the mind-body problem. The belief that matter is the primary substance of reality has caused unsolvable problems to arise: how do we use the sciences to explain the subjective qualities of experience? How can matter explain the felt sensation of color, or heat? What role does rational understanding play in revealing the irrationality of existence? The East very early on developed philosophies to understand the impossible nature of reality. The Taoists observed the Tao, the Hindus conceptualized Brahman, monotheisms hypothesized about God. All these concepts speak about the functions of ultimate reality as a unified whole that lies infinitely beyond human understanding. It distills reality into non-numerical oneness. Dualistic Western beliefs cause reality to be viewed as two separate things: the universe, and us. What ensues is societies of glorified apes trying to denote why existence is. Non-dualistic Eastern beliefs see that we are clearly inseparable from the universe, finding relief in an unbreakable inability to understand why we are.