Will We Ever Solve the Mind-Body Problem? — The Torch Podcast

An Interview with Professor Patrick Grim, Ph.D.

On this episode of The Torch, we examine the questions surrounding human consciousness and the infinite source of inquiry they provide the fascinating field of Mind-Body Philosophy.

Here to discuss Mind-Body Philosophy and more is Patrick Grim, Professor of Philosophy from the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

The following transcript has been slightly edited for readability.

Ed Leon: We’ve heard this called the mind-body problem. Do we have a problem here? Why is it called the mind-body problem?

Patrick Grim: We indeed do have a problem. It’s not a practical problem. It’s a theoretical problem.

Ed Leon: All right. Talk to me about why it’s a problem.

Patrick Grim: The problem is the basic question of how physical and mental can go together in a certain way. If we opened up your skull we’d find 3 ½ pounds of this gelatinous gray matter.  Entirely physical, but something we can hold in our hands. Okay, now that’s what’s inside your skull when I talk about opening your skull. If I ask you to open your eyes what you have is like a technicolor world of colors, and motion, and sensations, and sights, and maybe you smell the coffee brewing. The question is how those two things go together? How can this physical thing produce this subjective experience? The mind-body problem is how does that work? It’s been a philosopher’s problem for thousands of years.

Ed Leon: Right, so take us through how the thinking about this, philosophers, like you said, and scientists too, have been in search of the answer to this for centuries, millennia, how has our thinking about this evolved over time?

Patrick Grim: I’m afraid it hasn’t evolved a whole lot.

Ed Leon: Is that right?

Image of René Descartes
Dubbed the father of modern western philosophy, much of subsequent Western philosophy is a response to René Descartes’ writings, which are studied closely to this day.

Patrick Grim: Yes. I’m afraid that we’ve learned much more about the brain. We’ve explored all kinds of aspects of experience, but what the connection is between the two remains much of a mystery. The attempts to solve it, and Descartes is probably guilty both of making the division as strong as it is, and at some of the earliest attempts at trying to find a scientific bridge between the two, but he thought there was one little gland in your brain, the pineal gland, right where these things meet.

Well, not only is it scientifically untenable, you can remove that gland, and you will remain perfectly conscious. It has nothing to do with the connection between mind and body, but theoretically it’s not going to work. In fact, no place in your brain is going to work, because if the world is divided between sort of the physical over here, and the mental over here, the question isn’t where they meet. It’s how could they meet anywhere? To put it this way, the pineal gland is either going to be on the physical side of the universe, or the mental side. Either way it’s not solving the connection problem.

Ed Leon: We’re thinking of them separately? As two separate realms. Maybe that’s part of the mistake, so if they are so separate how can we experience … I guess the physical we can experience, but how can we experience the mental? How can we quantify it, or can we?

Patrick Grim: There are attempts at quantifying the mental. There’s some fascinating attempts at trying to quantify the mental. There are some attempts that go back to a field called psychophysics. The idea is we can measure the objective universe with yardsticks, but how we experience the universe may not work that way. We can measure how much brighter a light is in candlepower, but whether you see it as twice as bright won’t be the same. Won’t match the objective, so an experiment I’ve often used is, oh, if I pull out my wallet, and I hand you a $100 bill-

Ed Leon: Thank you.

Patrick Grim: You’re happy, right?

Ed Leon: Yes.

Patrick Grim: Okay, and then the question is, “All right, how much would I have to give you to make you twice that happy?” The answer probably isn’t another hundred. Well, maybe it’s $200.

Ed Leon: Let’s start with $200. We can start there. I mean-

Patrick Grim: People scaling, but the point is you’re subjective scaling may well not match the objective.

Ed Leon: You said that we think of them separately, and maybe that’s the problem. Well, what other approach would be take?

Patrick Grim: That’s the problem too. It’s not clear what other approach you would take. I mean, the problem is essentially dualistic. Yes, you’ve got this dual universe, and how can you bring them together? The alternative is some kind of monism that, “No, there aren’t two things. There is one universe that’s made of one kind of thing.” Then the idea is what kind of thing is it, and if it’s a physical universe, if it’s the universe described by physics, and if that’s all the universe is, there’s still a question of, “Well then, how come part of it seems so different?”

Illustration of the Cosmic Order
Panpsychism is the view that consciousness, mind or soul (psyche) is a universal and primordial feature of all things. Panpsychists see themselves as minds in a world of mind.

On the other hand, there is a tradition of idealism. Where, “Oh no, the universe is really something mental that we somehow create.” The question is, “Well, then how do you get something so physical out of that?” It’s like two sides don’t seem to work, but neither side alone seems to work. There are philosophers, and there are sympathetic researchers in the brain sciences who want to say, “Well, maybe we’ve just got to work on that harder.” They approach it in terms of a view called panpsychism where, “Yes, you have a physical universe, but there’s some mental component in it.” Their theory is it goes all the way down. That somehow there is an aspect of the physical universe that is mental.

Ed Leon: Mental, and how is it discoverable?

Patrick Grim: That’s a good question. I mean these are speculative theories.

Ed Leon: By the way, even though this is an age old question, it seems to be kind of in the public fascination at the moment. Why is that? Why is this kind of a interesting time to be thinking about this?

Patrick Grim: If you trace the history in psychology of consciousness, and you would think that psychology has consciousness at the core.

Image of William James
William James was an American philosopher and psychologist. He was also the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States.

In fact, if you go back to the beginning of the science of psychology in William James, and Freud, and Wilhelm Wundt, as the 19th century went to the 20th, consciousness is front and center. For most of the 20th century up until like the ’70s consciousness practically disappears from psychology. It practically disappears from philosophy of mind.

Mostly that was driven by the desire to make things scientific. If we’re going to do a science of the mind we have to have data, and they didn’t trust the data of introspection. At best that was somebody telling me stories. That was verbal behavior, and you have the reign of behaviorism all the way through BF Skinner’s wonderful work in the ’50s, but there the question isn’t consciousness, it’s how do you explain behavior? I think the theory was that you could do it without touching on the mysteries of consciousness. Since what’s called the cognitive revolution in the ’60s, and the development of brain scanning techniques since then, the whole field has broadened into more disciplines, and has returned to consciousness as a very central question.

Ed Leon: We are just making kind of a cyclical come back.

Patrick Grim: We are coming back to where we were before.

Ed Leon: In the course you focus a little bit on the work being done in hospitals by anesthesiologists. Talk a little bit about that, because when we go to an operation the anesthesiologist puts us out. I mean, that’s pretty godlike power right?

Patrick Grim: Well, that’s what you hope. Anesthesiologists are wonderful people to talk to, because they’re dealing with a practical subject. They’re dealing from a scientific background, but they’re very open to philosophical questions, and are often willing to admit that they don’t have the answer. Here’s a theoretical problem, but it also has practical implications in anesthesiology, is that what you’re actually given is a cocktail of chemicals. We know what some of them do, and it’s really a combination of things that are given to you when you go under the knife. One thing they want is what’s called a paralytic. They don’t want you thrashing around. It makes things hard that way, okay? They don’t want you to have any memory of the event, and there are things that are amnesiacs that will block the memory.

Of course, what we really want to do is block the pain. The problem is that you could have a combination of a paralytic, and an amnesiac, that was indistinguishable from a case where you really blocked the pain. Did we really have it so you weren’t in pain under the knife, or was it just that you weren’t thrashing around and had a complete wipe of memory afterwards? Unfortunately, there are a small number of cases, but also very scary cases, where people report being conscious while in the operating theater although entirely paralyzed. The question, of course is, well, how often does that occur? It would be great if we had a consciousness meter that we could go, “Oh, he’s definitely unconscious,” but we have to understand consciousness better in general before we do that.

Ed Leon: If they are unconscious does that mean they have ceased to exist in the conscious realm, or are they just not able to report experiencing that?

Patrick Grim: That’s the problem. We want the sensation you have under anesthesia to be no sensation at all. We don’t just want you to be really good at forgetting the horrors that you experienced. We just don’t want those horrors to happen.

Ed Leon: Sure. I don’t know if you deal with this in the course, but there’s a lot of reports about out of body experiences. People that take their consciousness to other places that is not where their physical body is located. Their are studies obviously, some of it. Any connection to that with the study of the mind-body problem?

Patrick Grim: Oh yes, and it is something that we talk about in the course is near death and out of body experiences both. The first question about them is are they what they appear to be? When people have out of body experiences are they literally out of their bodies? In folklore, the out of body experience has a long history.

Ed Leon: Long history.

Patrick Grim: Oh yeah, and you can find it in the Salem witchcraft trials. Where one kind of evidence that was admitted in the Salem witchcraft trials was called spectral evidence. They thought yes, witches could leave their bodies and travel abroad, so somebody who complained, “Oh, Goody Proctor came in the night and pinched me, and punched me, and tried to strangle me.” It was no defense to that to say, “Oh, but Goody Proctor was across town in Salem at the time,” because after all her spirit could leave her body, and do the work of a witch. We do talk about that.

Of course, the question is that’s what they appear to be, is being out of your body. Do we have evidence that anybody ever really is out of their body? The answer is, although there was some early work by Tart in his lab that claimed to have someone asleep who is able to read letters written on a shelf inaccessible over their head, that turned out to be a very badly controlled experiment. There have been experiments since where they take one-hundred people who claim that they can see things removed from their body, and the success rate there is zero. On the other hand, the studies are also, “Okay, well if that’s not what’s happening, what is happening in the brain when it seems to be happening?” That continues to be an area of investigation.

Ed Leon: By the way, it’s hard to quantify that, but is just as much hard to quantify how angry you are, or how good your feeling today, so it’s really part of that same spectrum.

Patrick Grim: Even how much something hurts.

Ed Leon: Yeah. Exactly. Right. Doctors tell you, “On a scale from 1 to 10, what’s your pain?”

Patrick Grim: Yeah. Are you a 1 to 10? It seems like you ought to also have a score too, “And how much are you a reporter of your pain?” I always wondered this about my father where I saw him nick off a tip of his thumb with an ax, and he quite calmly took the tip of his thumb, walked in the house, wrapped up his thumb, and went on from there. I thought, “Is it that he’s just a whole lot more macho than I am, or is it that he just doesn’t feel pain as much as I do?”

Ed Leon: Sure. That’s a great question.

Patrick Grim: How can I possibly know that for another person?

Ed Leon: You can’t possibly answer that. By the way, does this need to be the realm of philosophers? Can philosophers ever answer this question? Are we going to have to rely on neuroscientists where this continues to be an inquiry?

Image of Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who is considered a central figure in modern philosophy. Kant argued that the human mind creates the structure of human experience.

Patrick Grim: I think it’s got to be both of them together, and that’s very much a theme of the course, is trying to bring the philosophical traditions together with contemporary brain sciences. I think that only the two together are going to be able to tackle this. If you go back to Immanuel Kant, he has this slogan that concepts without percepts are empty, and percepts without concepts are blind. Concepts is sort of the realm of philosophy. If the realm of analyzing the categories in which we think of things. Analyzing arguments with regard to things. That’s the concept side. Science is where the data comes from. That’s sort of the percepts. I think it’s the same kind of way. I think that philosophy without science is empty, and science without philosophy is blind.

Ed Leon: Yeah. Couple questions here from Facebook. How does perception play a role in this? You could have two people standing next to each other. An event happens. It’s perceived differently by each one. Talk a little bit about that.

Patrick Grim: Well, there’s some aspects of that we know, and there’s some philosophical problems that remain. Some of the things about that we know is yes, absolutely-

Ed Leon: Because they are both conscious. Both those people are conscious.

Patrick Grim: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, but they have different experiences, because your consciousness isn’t a thing by itself. It’s something that filters through your experience. Through your categorization. Through your conceptualization. Of course, two people with different backgrounds may well see something in very different terms. That is something that’s explored in anthropology, in psychology. We know the fact happens. Understanding particular details is what needs to be done. There’s a lingering philosophical question about what are called qualia. Qualia are the perceived qualities of things. The red of a red book, or the feel of velvet, or the taste of a pineapple. Okay, now is the taste that you have of a pineapple the same as the taste that I have?

Ed Leon: It’s close enough right, because we both identify it as pineapple?

Patrick Grim: Well, there’s a long philosophical problem called the inverted spectrum which addresses precisely that. Is it possible that you have an entirely inverted spectrum of color from what I do? Where if you take the spectrum, and you just reverse it, what if in your subjective experience you’re seeing, “Oh, indigo.” Where I’m seeing what’s at the other end of the spectrum. All right? Yet, we both would have learned the color by example. You would be using your term for that the same way I’d be using my term for this, but somehow, if this makes any sense, if I could see through your eyes- It would be like looking at one of those old negatives from a slide projector.

Ed Leon: Sure. That gets back to the idea of perception. There is another question here from Josh on Facebook, and that is that physics seems to be implying, or there’s some theories in physics that we are in perhaps some kind of simulation, and that the whole idea of perception is inconsequential, or is not really relevant?

Patrick Grim: The simulation argument is really very interesting.

Ed Leon: That’s kind of a new one right?

Patrick Grim: Well, it’s interesting. It’s a probabilistic argument. It goes something like this. It goes something like, “Oh, we’re getting better and better at making simulations. If we continue at this pace maybe at sometime in the future we’ll be able to simulate entire worlds. Complete with entire agents in those worlds, and this is an important part of it, complete with internal subjective experiences in those worlds.” Well, if we did that we could generate all kinds of simulated worlds. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of simulated worlds.

Okay, now compare the probabilities that what your experience is, is in a real world in this particular year, as opposed to the probability that it’s one of those gazillion simulations from the future, and the probabilistic argument is, “Oh, the probabilities swamp it.” It seems like we must be in a simulation. It is a conundrum. I don’t know anybody who believes it. It’s an interesting argument about our position and place in time, about probabilities, and about what could be simulated.

Ed Leon: Yeah. Josh on Facebook makes another interesting point, and that is there is some people that, here’s an example of consciousness controlling the physical, and that is you can think your heart rate down. You can slow down your heart rate. I can’t do that by the way. I have no skill in that realm, but there’s evidence, right? They hook people up to the monitors, and somebody can kind of mind control, or relax their way into a slower heartbeat. Is that an example of the two sides meshing?

Patrick Grim: I think that’s an example of, yes, mind and body are operative altogether. In fact, the lecture that I just taped this morning-

Ed Leon: Is that separate? Are they separate in that case?

Patrick Grim: That’s one of the issues is maybe not. One way of putting it is, “Oh, you could characterize the history of philosophy in terms of two chasms, two canyons that seem unleapable. One is a canyon between mind and body. One is between mind and the world. How do I know what the world is really like if all I have are my experiences of it? Of course, we operate as minds and bodies in a world all the time. Maybe the problem is precisely that. It’s a conceptual problem. It’s our conceptual problem. What we have to do is figure out how to better think about what the reality of the enjoining between the two of them actually is.

Ed Leon: By the way, we talk about mind and body. In the religious traditions we talk about soul. Is that a semantic difference?

Patrick Grim: One of the lectures is on the history of the soul, because although psychology comes from the Greek root psyche which we translate as soul, so literally psychology is soulology. That’s one term you won’t find except maybe as a literary flourish in contemporary psychology, or philosophy of mind, or the brain sciences. One of the lectures is on what happened to the concept of the soul? We can think of our contemporary concept of the soul as something that must have come to us from time immemorial. This concept of the person within the person. The thing that is the core of personality that perhaps survives after death, or moves from one body to another.

  It turns out when you track the history that there isn’t one single, simple concept of soul that comes from ancient times. It’s really this braided rope of concepts that come together.

It turns out when you track the history that there isn’t one single, simple concept of soul that comes from ancient times. It’s really this braided rope of concepts that come together. The question where it disappeared is a question of what we talked about before. The attempt of psychology to make itself a science as the 19th century went to the 20th, and William James is a major figure there. In his major work he quite explicitly addresses the question and says, “We have no need for the concept of soul in psychology. It’s nothing in addition to consciousness, or the conscious life that needs to be explained, and it’s nothing that proves very useful in trying to do the explaining.”

Ed Leon: Interesting question here. I don’t know if this is even possible to test. What’s faster; speed of light, speed of thought?

Patrick Grim: That’s a very good question. Quantum physics comes in again, as was mentioned earlier, where according to Einstein nothing is faster than the speed of light. The Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen experiment, which was a thought experiment initially, it’s more than a thought experiment now,

Image of Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein is famous for developing his theory of relativity, especially the equivalence of mass and energy, expressed by the most famous physical formula of the world E = mc².

has this consequence, that if 2 particles interact or intertwine, and are then separated to alternative sides of the universe, the measurement issue in quantum mechanics seems to tell you that if I choose to make a measurement over here, instantaneously this thing over here ends up in a different state than it would’ve been otherwise. Einstein resisted that. In fact, his whole formulation of the thought experiment was if that could be true than something could move faster than the speed of light. Information. Many people are exploring the possibility that maybe it’s not a paradox. Yeah, maybe something can travel faster than the speed of light. Maybe information can travel faster than the speed of light.

Ed Leon: Sure. Right. We have a great course on the science of information. One final question here from Facebook, and that’s surrounding free will. Again, something being called into question with some of the new theories. Where does free will fit into the mind-body problem?

Patrick Grim: We’ve got a lecture in the series that addresses free will. It addresses two problems of free will. One of them is the ancient philosophical problem. The other is a much more contemporary scientific problem. Both of them are real and pressing. The familiar one is the philosophical one. Is the world deterministic? Even if it is, and is controlled by some random quantum events, how can I really be choosing my own future? That’s the philosophical problem.

The scientific problem is, from a couple of different experiments, it looks like our decisions don’t make things happen the way we think they should. In the sense that we can measure, or there have been attempts to measure, what’s called a readiness potential in the brain. That starts a causal chain that makes your hand move for example. Somewhere I decide to make my hand move, and then we try to do subjective measurements of when you decide to move your hand. It turns out what we think normally happens is that I would decide to move my hand, either simultaneously, or a little after, the readiness and potential in my brain would start, which starts the chain and makes my hand move. The experiments seem to show that timing is wrong.

Ed Leon: Really?

Patrick Grim: The timing is the readiness potential starts in your brain, then you have the impression of consciously deciding things, and then your hand worked. That looks like it can’t be-

Ed Leon: No free will.

Patrick Grim: Yeah. That looks like no free will. That’s the scientific issue. In both of them I think it’s important to return to a question of not just what free will is, but what kind of free will we want. There in the lecture I lean heavily on a sentiment from the American philosopher John Dewey who says

Image of John Dewey
John Dewey originated the experimentalism philosophy. A proponent of social change and education reform, he founded The New School for Social Research.

something like, “There are many things that people have cared about in the name of freedom. It’s never been a metaphysical freedom from cause-and-effect.” We might paraphrase it as of the many things people have worried about in terms of freedom, have wanted in terms of freedom, it’s never been to be sure that their brain wasn’t starting to operate before they had cumulative, conscious decision.

Ed Leon: Right. All right. Well, Patrick we’re going to close on a question that’s direct from the playground. Why does this even matter? Why is this question even important?

Patrick Grim: Can you avoid it? Can you stop thinking about it?

Ed Leon: I’m serious — mind-body, does it matter if they’re separate? If it’s one? Why is it important?

Patrick Grim: It’s important in the same way understanding any part of the world is important, and it’s probably the part of the world with which you are most familiar.

Ed Leon: Most familiar, most intimate, and we can’t figure it out.

Patrick Grim: We’re still working on it.

Ed Leon: Holy cow. All right. It’s called Mind-Body Philosophy, and Patrick Grim teaches it. Always great to have you here. Thanks so much for joining us on the Torch.

Patrick Grim: Thank you.

Professor Patrick Grim‘s new lecture series, Mind-Body Philosophy is  is now available to stream on The Great Courses Plus.
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