Where are we? The problem of body, brain and soul

What can the philosophy of mind teach us about our place in nature?

Humanity’s position in the order of Being may seem too vast or too mystical a destination to be reached by what is often a rather dry branch of philosophy. At the very least, you might find it odd that the inquiry into what lies between our ears has anything to say about Being, or nature, as a whole.

But I think so. And a philosopher who shows us this is the German Jewish thinker Hans Jonas (1903-1993).

mind and body

Most philosophers of mind approach the subject in two ways, and Jonas is no different.

The first step is to look “inside” and study the contents and structures of subjectivity: the will, for example, or the imagination. What does this imply concretely? The second step is to look “outward” to where the mind is in the world. Is it anchored in the brain?

Many – perhaps most – contemporary philosophers would answer “yes” to this last question. Some of these philosophers would go on to claim that only human beings, who have very large brains relative to our body size, are conscious. A larger proportion would probably go further than that and argue that many non-human animals are also conscious.

However, few philosophers would say no; the mind is not just located in the brain – it is located in the the whole body of a living organism present in everything forms of life: human, animal and even vegetable.

The reason this is a rare sight might be, admittedly, because it looks a bit crazy at first. If we can be sure of anything, then we can be sure that goldfish aren’t composing poetry in their heads, and dandelions aren’t making plans for the weekend. But the are compelling versions of the idea that consciousness spreads, albeit unevenly, through the living world – and Jonas’ philosophy is one of them.

Jonas’ starting point is to insist on the unity of mind and body as a whole, not just mind and brain. As far as he’s concerned, you don’t have a body – you are your body.

Jonas’ starting point is to insist on the unity of mind and body as a whole, not just mind and brain. As far as he’s concerned, you don’t have a body – you are your body.

This idea not only runs counter to a long history of thinking of us as souls inhabiting bodies, but also to science fiction stories like The matrix and Avatar, which suggest that the mind could be uploaded to a computer or other organism. Jonas rather believes in unity of mind and body. He does this because when we turn inward and examine our inner mental life, we find that whether we think, feel, remember, imagine or desire, our body is always there, giving structure to these acts of subjectivity.

Suppose, for example, that I think of a conversation I had with a friend that became controversial. I could ruminate on the words he said, the words I said, and think about exactly when the tension arose and why. But words alone would only tell half the story. I would also have to think back to our gestures, the intonation of our voices, the posture of our bodies and the physical space that separates us to capture the full meaning of our conversation.

In other words, the communication of thoughts and feelings is inherently embodied. And it’s not just the conversation itself that takes this form – even my memory it’s bodily in that I felt a tightness in my chest and my blood pressure rose as I relived the argument.

Jonas asserts that each of our thoughts and actions is made possible by the body and structured by it to a greater or lesser extent. And in his hands, that insight acts as a key to unlocking a new perspective on the world and our place in it.

Hans Jonas (Source: Kritische Gesamtausgabe der Werke von Hans Jonas)

The embodied spirit and life

So far, Jonas’ ideas are only mildly countercultural. Where he goes next in his quest to reconnect us to the living world is Woodstock, a philosopher in his own right.

Because our embodied minds (or conscious bodies, if you prefer) give us a clue to the nature of reality, the immediate evidence each of us has of our bodily consciousness tells us that matter can have interiorityinteriority.

We know, in other words, that at least part of the objective world is also inseparably subjective. And, of course, since the living human body is a product of nature, as the theory of evolution shows, this means that the mind, too, is an outgrowth of the natural world.

Because our embodied spirits give us a clue to the nature of reality, the immediate evidence each of us has of our bodily consciousness tells us that matter can have interiorityinteriority.

Here we are faced with a kind of enigma. However, as he could that the mind, although rooted in the whole living body, is only a late evolutionary adaptation of human beings – like opposable thumbs, for example, or the fact that we have to raise our children for an extremely long and exhausting adolescence. (The offspring of other animals steal the nest sooner, and everyone involved is probably happier about it.)

But Jonas argues that the opposite is true: that spirit is present in non-human life and that evidence of this can be found in even the most basic single-celled organism.

This is a bold, almost heretical claim. But just as the conversation between me and my friend showed embodied spirits at work, so have the actions of plants and animals. As such, Jonas argues that we can study the natural world for subjectivity as evidenced by the behavior of living things.

While animals are incapable of speech and abstract thought, a more basic consciousness is identifiable in their capacity for emotion and locomotion. Think, for example, of a cat stalking its prey, showing intention and anticipation. One might also recall how a lowly woodlouse will curl up into a ball as the first sign of threat, a response that suggests self-preservation. And even the limited behavior of the plants betrays a trace of subjectivity. In a flower, there is nothing more complex than emotion and locomotion but rather a progressive movement towards light, water and minerals in order to survive. Plants cannot think or feel, but can sense certain aspects of their environment.

All forms of life, as complex or primitive as they are, have a share of freedom and openness to the world because this is what is necessary to live, to continue to be

What do all these examples have in common? Jonas’ response is that they represent degrees of “openness” to the world and the freedom to act within it. All forms of life, as complex or primitive as they are, have a share of freedom and openness to the world because this is what is necessary to live, to continue to be. Jonas’s philosophy of spirit thus leads to a theory of Being in which life occupies a prominent place, and man represents its apogee.

Some readers will think this is simply anthropomorphic: that Jonah mistakenly projects the human mind onto animals, plants, and fungi, perhaps because he consumes too much of them.

However, other readers, like me, find inspiration in his philosophy – and even some comfort. Because if Jonas is right, and humanity’s place in nature is at the top of a scale of living beings characterized by freedom and openness to the world, then we are not separate from the rest of the alive and simply alive in nature. On the contrary, we belong to him.

That way we can feel a little more at home in the world – and that’s not a bad place for a philosophy of mind to land.

[Editor’s note]: It’s exciting to see philosophers and cognitive scientists pushing the boundaries of consciousness. My only hope is that they go even further. In classical Jewish thought, there is a universal consciousness that permeates all the material world and beyond, as Isaiah wrote “the whole world is filled with his glory”.

Yes, plants, animals, and even our individual cells exhibit a type of consciousness. Some even seeing some kind of consciousness at work in inanimate matter when observing phenomena like water and rock cycles.

We would say, however, that Jonas’ idea that “you are your body” is incomplete. This would not solve the mind/body problem because we would simply be forced to ask “if we cannot explain how a brain is able to generate consciousness, how could we expect the rest of the body to succeed?” In the Jewish way of thinking, our essence/consciousness/soul and our body are more connected than people realize, but the soul is not imprisoned in the brain, body or any other material entity.

Comments are closed.