Mind-Body Problem  

The French scientist Antoine Lavoisier met his end in the blink of an eye – or perhaps quite a few blinks, depending on whether a grisly final experiment actually took place.  Lavoisier, the discoverer of oxygen and father of modern chemistry, was dispatched by guillotine during the French Revolution.  According to legend, Lavoisier arranged with a manservant to count his blinks after the blade fell to determine whether and for how long his mind continued functioning after separation from his body.  The servant supposedly counted 15 blinks.  Whether or not this particular story is true, there is much anecdotal evidence of disembodied heads that continue to blink, wink, grimace, roll the eyes and even attempt to speak after decapitation.  Were these merely involuntary movements (assuming they happened at all), or were they some grotesque illustration of the mind-body problem?   

The mind-body problem is normally of greater interest to philosophers than to scientists who experiment upon themselves.  The problem, in a nutshell, is whether the mind is wholly explainable in terms of bodily function and, if not, how the mind and body interact.  Descartes argued that body and mind were fundamentally different “substances,” one material and the other immaterial, raising the question of how they acted upon one another at all.  Clearly, the mind is physically dependent on the body and responds to bodily stimuli, just as the body responds to our thoughts.  But can we say the mind is merely a part of the body or -- to take it to the other extreme – that the body is part of the mind?

One of the reasons the mind-body problem has tormented philosophers since Plato is that the qualities we associate with mind are inherently subjective and cannot really be discussed in the same terms as purely physical phenomena.  Neuroimaging techniques may enable us to associate certain mental states with synapses firing in the brain.  But brain scans showing particular neural activity cannot simulate one’s inner experience of joy or fear or the taste of a strawberry.  Whether the external world itself has any existence apart from our subjective perception of it is one of those great unanswerable questions.  We can say with some certainty that the body exists within the mind, even if only as a hallucination.  As to whether the mind is merely part of the body, that probably remains unanswerable as well, unless we can find a way to separate the two.  Perhaps we should have asked Lavoisier to blink once for yes and twice for no.

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