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On the Glory of Being a Body

Some people are mind-body dualists.  They say their bodies somehow contain an immaterial or non-physical mind. Perhaps they call it their soul or spirit. If minds (or souls or spirits) are thought of as immaterial or non-physical, then they are also non-natural. Maybe they are supernatural. But if they are non-natural, then naturalists aren’t going to allow that they exist.  If naturalists agree on anything, they agree that mind-body dualism is false. It’s an error. More than an error, it’s a morally and spiritually serious self-delusion. As a naturalist, I say that every human person is strictly identical with their body. This is mind-body identity. I’ll call it animalism, because it implies that I’m just a human animal. Nothing more, nothing less.

Advocates of mind-body dualism often portray mind-body dualism as a happy position. They say dualism entails many positive consequences. Dualism entails that you are only contingently linked with your body. Your embodiment is accidental; it really is not essential to who you are.  And so any physical problems or troubles with your body don’t define you – you are free from the contingent accidents of the flesh. They think dualism also entails that you cannot really be harmed by anything that happens to your body. If you get sick, or injured, or assaulted or murdered, it isn’t really happening to you – it’s just happening to your body. And when you die, you aren’t really dead. Your mind, which lives on, has merely been separated from your body. Since animalism has none of these allegedly happy entailments, it’s a tragic position.

I think animalism is liberating. Of course, if animalism is true, then dualism is false, so that being an animalist frees you from a false way of relating to yourself. You won’t set up a split within yourself – a split between mind and body. On the contrary, as an animalist, you’ll see yourself as a well-integrated whole, as a unity. And you’ll be able to gain accurate and detailed self-knowledge. As an animalist, I know that to learn about myself I need to study my body. Since my brain doesn’t have much direct self-awareness, or even much direct awareness of the rest of my body, I can’t learn much about myself just through purely mental introspection. I need to carefully study my body. And learning the truth about the processes going on in my brain and the rest of my body can be very liberating. It’s morally good to know the truth.

Perhaps the greatest gift that animalism gives you is that it lets you see yourself from an objective perspective. It enables you to see yourself from a third-person perspective. You can look at yourself in a detached and unbiased way. By measuring your body, by observing it using scientific and medical sensors, and by revealing its patterns using computers, you can discover the reality of your own self. You escape from the prison-house of first-person self-consciousness. Why is this good?  Because your own self-consciousness is deeply distorted and delusional. When we look at ourselves using our own self-awareness, we are overcome with cognitive biases. Looking at yourself from a third-person point of view is literally ecstatic – it lets you get outside of yourself. And, from that Archimedean point outside of your own self-consciousness, you can start to change yourself.  You can see what needs changing and you can gain access to tools and procedures for changing it.  You can remake yourself.

Animalism is especially helpful when it comes to mental illness. Mental illness is no different than any other illness – just as diabetes is an illness with the pancreas, so mental illness is an illness with the brain. If I were a dualist, then I’d have to say that my depression is some fundamental flaw in my soul, in my very nature as a person. But as an animalist, I know it’s just a flaw in my brain-chemistry. And now the great blessing of animalism is that it provides me with many options for self-modification.  How could I possibly change my immaterial soul? But I can change my brain-chemistry. I can meditate; I can take drugs; I can use electrical or magnetic brain-stimulation.  Animalism provides you with powerful ways to know and change your mind. Animalism means you can be part of a scientific-medical research project to help cure illnesses.  You can work together with others to really try to solve human problems.

But if you’re a dualist, you can’t do anything about mental illness. You’re entirely at the mercy of unknowable powers. This can lead to very unhealthy ways of dealing with mental illness. If it’s an illness of your immaterial soul, then medical science can’t help you – so why bother to seek treatment?  It’s true our medical ways of treating mental illness are still immature. But it’s always better to seek help from others than it is to suffer alone in silence.  And dualism leads to shame and stigmatization: if you suffer from a mental illness, there’s something wrong with you personally, something flawed about your very essence, rather than just a disorder of your brain.  There’s nothing shameful about having diabetes; likewise, nothing shameful about mental illness. Both are treatable illnesses in your body.  Dualism entails a false sense of responsibility for mental illness.  If it’s a disease of your soul, then it’s your fault.  And since dualism is usually associated with libertarian free will, dualism implies that if you’re mentally ill, then you freely chose to be mentally ill and you could freely fix yourself.  If you don’t, it’s because you’re perverse or even possessed by some demonic spirit. The dualist stigmatization of mental illness is at work in most modern healthcare systems, in which “mental” illness is insured at lower rates than “physical” illness. For an animalist, it’s not your fault.  You got dealt an unfortunate hand of cards in the genetic lottery. Perhaps you suffered a brain injury or infection.  But you didn’t do anything morally wrong.  And we can work together to help you play your genetic cards well.

Animalism provides me with powerful moral ways to address illness and suffering. I am ill; I suffer. If I were a dualist, then I would be able to alienate myself from this suffering; I would be able to deny that my illness is really happening to me. My illness would just be something happening to my body, which is not me.  But as an animalist, I am morally compelled to directly face my suffering. It is an opportunity to cultivate and exercise all the moral virtues.  I have to face my suffering with honest, with courage, with patience, with practical wisdom.  Animalism motivates compassion for others: when they are sick or injured, it is not an illusion;  suffering is something bad that is really happening to an actual human person.   Presented with a suffering person, an animalist can’t say: “Oh, she’s really fine, she’s not suffering, it’s just her body.” Animalism forces you to deal honestly with the misery and evil that happens to people.  Of course, dualists do suffer when their bodies suffer.  But they can always separate themselves from that suffering: it isn’t really happening to them.  Animalists can’t deny it.  We can’t distance ourselves from our bodies.  So we are highly motivated to end suffering.

Dualism leads to a kind of good-versus-evil approach to the body. The dualist locates sickness and suffering in the body. So the body is defective and impure, while the mind remains perfect and pure. The mind is good, beautiful, strong, virtuous, holy; but the body is evil, ugly, weak, vicious, and unclean.  This leads to body-hatred. So why care about your body at all?  If it’s not really you, then why take care of it? You ought to ignore your body in favor of the purely spiritual life of the mind. This can lead to unhealthy ways of treating your body. It’s arguable that dualism leads to an even larger hatred of life on this earth.  On the dualist model, the earth is a prison-camp, a gulag for fallen souls.  Why should we care about the earth, about its ecology and non-human life, when we’re just temporary prisoners here?  Mind-body dualism can also induce other dualisms, such as gender or sexual dualisms.  A long and unfortunate tradition assigns men to minds and women to bodies.  This leads to the oppression of women.

Although animalists do not believe in souls or spirits that are separate from their bodies, they can still believe in souls and spirits.  For animalists, souls and spirits have to be natural things.  Of course, that does not mean they have to be material things.   An old idea, which goes all the way back to Aristotle, perhaps even Plato, is that the soul is the form of the body.  Your soul is the structure of your body.  It is at least the information in your DNA and the neural patterning of your brain.   And if your soul is information, then it can be copied.  Some transhumanists say that mind-uploading will someday be possible: it will be possible, through advanced technology, to copy your soul from your organic body into a robotic body or virtual body in cyberspace.  The spirit is natural energy; perhaps it is deep energy.

Dualism, ultimately, promises some sort of life after death. More precisely, they usually promise that your mind survives death, that it lives through death.  But living after death doesn’t require living through it. You can die and then you can live again after you died before.  At the simplest level, your DNA can be stored and used to create a clone after you’ve died. Of course, your clone won’t have your memories or psychology.  So in the neurological sense, it won’t be you.  But it would have your genome.  So it would be an exact biological copy of you. Cloning after death is a kind of biological reincarnation: your life-essence really does animate a new body. I like to think of my clones as other possible versions of me.  They are versions of me who live lives I could have lived.

One of the consequences of mind-body dualism is that cloning doesn’t seem satisfactory as an afterlife strategy.  Since your clone won’t have your mind, it isn’t really you.  But of course that objection depends on the assumption that the thing that is really identical to you is your mind.  If I am cloned after I die, then I will be biologically identical to each of those clones.   Still, anyone who affirms animalism will agree that most of the information about your life is stored in your brain. Advanced technologies may allow us to copy that information out of your brain and into a robotic or virtual body.  And while those technologies may never actually exist, they are possible. When it comes to having an afterlife, dualists cannot claim anything more than possibility. The possibility of an afterlife is just as real for animalists as it is for dualists.

Animalists might go even deeper into arguments about possible afterlives.  Perhaps we live in a multiverse.  Reality contains sequences of universes in which each next universe is mostly copied from the previous universe. Advocates of evolution say that complexity accumulates.   This implies that the more information something contains, the more likely it is to be copied forward.  Since our bodies and brains are so rich in information, it could well be a law of nature that our bodies and brains are extremely likely to be copied from this universe into the next. However speculative that theory might be, it is far less speculative than the dualist theories about the afterlife.  After all, the animalist theory of life after death appeals to natural things, that is, to structures of information, and to laws involving copying information.  Dualists have never offered any detailed theory of life after death at all.  So I think animalists do much better here, and I’m always surprised to hear naturalists declare that there is no life after death.  How do they know that?  They seem to believe that the dualist model of life after death is the only model.  However, as a naturalist, I don’t believe that the dualist model is the only model.  Animalism is at least as good as dualism when it comes to life after death.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks for this article. Very interesting thoughts! 🙂

    “But if they are non-natural, then naturalists aren’t going to allow that [non-natural souls] exist.”

    Although it’s worth adding that Naturalists range in how certain to how agnostic they are on the non-natural. It is probably more complete to say that naturalists “hold no beliefs in non-natural phenomena and make no such claims”. Spiritual Naturalists then, base their practices and views only on the natural.

    “I can’t learn much about myself just through purely mental introspection… When we look at ourselves using our own self-awareness, we are overcome with cognitive biases.”

    It’s true that you can’t learn things like having a blood clot at location x inside your brain or having high levels of y neurotransmitter. But with the proper techniques one can indeed learn a lot of very useful things about one’s mind, including examining what we think and why we think it. And there are also methods whose main purpose is to get around bias. And it has been reliably demonstrated that these approaches can have powerfully transformative effects on one’s personality, character, and deep perspectives.

    “If I were a dualist, then I’d have to say that my depression is some fundamental flaw in my soul, in my very nature as a person. But as an animalist, I know it’s just a flaw in my brain-chemistry. And now the great blessing of animalism is that it provides me with many options for self-modification. How could I possibly change my immaterial soul?”

    This approach can be true in some cases, but it seems to me we also should beware a false dichotomy. We shouldn’t suggests that the only two options are to believe in a dualistic soul or to alter brain chemistry from an external source to modify its behavior. Otherwise we ignore the fact that brain chemistry is not only “input”, but also “output” – not only a cause but often the symptom. The thoughts and activity of the brain can, itself, alter the neural connections and chemical levels in the brain. Yes, all conditions in the brain arise from physical causes, but thoughts (brain activity) and external events are physical causes too. This two-way causality has been scientifically demonstrated and should not be surprising to a naturalist who sees no duality between mind and body.

    While brains are not a perfect analogy to computers, the very reason they are not is part of this point. It would be as if we had computers that could physically alter the pathways and operations of their hardware by the input and operation of their software (Imagine some kind of Star Trek computer with internal materializers and transporters perhaps).

    This is why, for example, it has been verified in studies of some fish that those at the top of the social hierarchies are not there because they had larger brains, but got larger brains because they were in that position. We don’t work that way in the sense of brain size per se, but the cause and effect nature of brain structure is similar in the fact that experience and thought can and do alter brain structure and chemistry. If they did not, that would be something magical and inexplicable.

    Very much of the way the mind works has to do with conditional experiences and mental formations rather than something that can be traced to a genetic trait/flaw or infection by foreign bodies. And, these thoughts are not ‘running’ on our brains with an impermeable barrier between their activity and the actual brain structure and function. This is why many studies have shown that meditation, therapy, and other contemplative/thought-based approaches to introspection can and has had equal efficacy on many mental health issues to that of psychiatric drugs, and without the sometimes substantial side effects.

    But that isn’t of course to say that chemical assistance may be very important and helpful for many people under the right circumstances. It is simply to say that there are a great many therapeutic and practice-based approaches that are far more powerful and profound in their capabilities than many people who have not experienced them realize. It also means there it is not necessary to evoke dualism or supernaturalism to explain or understand how it is that they can have such profound effects.

    What I love about this article is its emphasis that we do not look at things in terms of fault, blame, shame, guilt, punishment, supernatural, etc. But you recognize that all conditions arise from physical causes and we can work to understand those causes and think of ourselves objectively to correct, direct, or improve in a rational way. I too still yet agree that holding others responsible for their mental illness is flawed because life’s events, developed perspectives, and mental formations are also a part of our ‘hand of cards’ life has dealt.

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