Science, Philosophy, and Reason and the Mind-Brain Problem


A primary voice within the history of philosophy was Rene Descartes who coined the phrase, Cogito ergo sum — “I think, therefore I am”.  It was Rene Descartes who suggested and early explanation of the nature of the mind that separated, at least in philosophy a separation between the brain and mind and described in the term Cartesian Dualism.

What relationship or difference does the mind hold from the brain?

The question of mind, body, and brain interaction is a subject speculated upon, as well as, studied by philosophers, religious thinkers, medical researchers, and psychological researchers in an effort to find definitive answers. One of the places to begin looking for answers is to understand the difference between mind and matter.  A distinction between mind and matter stated “to be found in the fact that in man there is a mind which is absent in the rock.  The mind, they argue, controls that part of the individual which is mind” (Frost, 1945). This inference separates a man from all other creations and inanimate objects.

A distinction in difference between the mind, brain, and body is at the heart of the position held by Descartes.  This difference is referenced by Johnson, (1991) who poses a question about cognitive process and the impact upon the material and biological structural development (In the palaces of memory: How we build the worlds inside our heads). This question becomes important in understanding that a relationship exists between what goes on in the mind –thought processes and the physical development and structural changes in the brain tissue.  What is apparent through research that is currently available is that theories that support Cartesian Dualism, as well as Cognitive Neuroscience do influence modern assumptions about the science of Cognitive and Affective Psychology in the development of a theory of mind-brain interaction.

The argument for the mind-brain problem, attributed to Descartes, is a subject which has been debated by philosophers who predated his work.  Examination of what is believed in Cartesian Dualism reveals the essential core teaching that is characteristic of, “Plato (c. 428-347 B.C.)  [who] was a dualist who divided the human being in his dualist theory into material body and immaterial soul” (Mind-BodyTheories, 2006).   A number of important issues that are contained in dualism, which are important to understanding how philosophy delineates the arguments presented.

One presupposition is, “the body is a hindrance to the soul in the acquisition of knowledge and, as a rationalist, he abandoned the body and the senses for the activity of the soul capable of accounting for absolute being” (Mind-BodyTheories, 2006).  Inherent within this position an ontological influence is reflected that essentially regards the mind, soul, as a metaphysical property that is contained in the concept of mind, thoughts rational ability, and cognition. The basis of the mind-brain body dualism is that, “the body is a hindrance to the soul in the acquisition of knowledge and, as a rationalist; … [Plato] abandoned the body and the senses for the activity of the soul capable of accounting for absolute being (Mind-BodyTheories, 2006).

This approach lends itself naturally to a “rational/deductive science over the empirical/inductive approach “ (Elsevier’s Dictionary of Psychological Theories).  This essential framework of thinking has a substantive connection to Descartes who, “proposed that matter (body) is ‘extended substance’ and that the soul (mind) is ‘unextended substance’” (Mind-BodyTheories).  According to this view, the atoms or constituent parts that make up the mind are existent in the universe and are joined to form the mind. A way of explaining this by philosophers is in the term, interactionism, that is, “the theory that mind and body are separate realities that mutually influence each other” (Hunnex, 1986). This way of explaining the brain-mind differs from contemporary approaches in that it describes the mind in terms of what it is as opposed to what it does.

A contrast to this approach is found in the theoretical propositions of Cognitive Neuroscience which uses a scientific approach to what the brain-mind-body processes include. This is noted in the Concise Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science (2004) where Cognitive neuroscience is described as “The study of the neural basis of cognition … that depends heavily on the use of modern imaging technologies such as positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)” (Neuroscience, 2004).  One the significant differences in the approach of the psychologist—scientist and the philosopher-dualist is the assumptions that frame the epistemology for Neuroscience.

Cognitive science is based in the same logic which the theory of evolution follows. The rationale is to weight the biological and physical interactions as precursors of theory as opposed to metaphysical theory.  This is evident in early theorist in psychology, such as Freud looked at what the mind did in the unconscious more as a “flow than a ‘place”’ (Unconscious, 1995) .  His work in the latter part of the nineteenth century was a byproduct of what was understood in neurology and physiology.  This is illustrated in his theory about the “reflexive arc … the involuntary jerk of the leg when the knee is struck … tension builds up and needs to be released, and this release is an involuntary action” (Unconscious, 1995).

However in contrast, understanding the complex symbolism in psychoanalytical approaches and literature analogies placed upon the subconscious, repression, and consciousness that are presented by Freud seem to bear a resemblance in approach to Cartesian Dualism.  A question which arises is whether there is a metaphysical distinction-separation of the mind-brain, body or is there a tension that occurs in the narrative of the subconscious—with slips, lapses, and knee jerk reactions that alleviate the primal tension between what is perceived or repressed in the way the mind-brain and body function?  Answers that are contained in the science of Cognitive, Affective Psychology that answer questions related to the mind-brain issue by mapping understanding through Localization of Function (Sternberg, 2009,2006, p. 34).

Looking at the brain and identifying which schematic zones affect activity associated with behaviors or abilities enhances understanding of how the brain controls the activity in the body.  According to Sternberg (2009), “the fundamental structures and processes of the brain … [are] the nervous system … divided into two main parts: the central nervous system, consisting of the brain, spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system” (p. 71).  The relativity of how brain topography, organic construction, and systemic interaction is related to intelligence, aptitude, learning,  behavior, feeling, personality, memory, and physical motor activity are important to establishing a correlation between brain activity and phenomena occurring in human existence.

A truth abundantly clear is there is a relationship that is molecular, physical, and related to development and experience in brain function.  This is attested to in explanations of how behaviors connect to those individuals with injury to the head and brain which demonstrate that a correlation exists between brain functioning and perceptions in the experience of the individual.  This is noted by Sternberg (2009) who demonstrates how, “Damage resulting from head injuries can include spastic movements, difficulty swallowing, slurring of speech among many other cognitive problems” (p. 70).  An observation inferred is that influence on the neurological, psychological, vision, motor skills, etc. directly affects how the tissue and cells of react to trauma.  This experience and phenomena establishes a correlation between tissue, biology, experience, and how changes relate to the experience, as well as, the functions of the brain, mind, and body.

What relationship do the disciplines of science, theology, and philosophy have to gain from one another?

Summing it up reminds me that this is a developing science and while there may be substantive answers, the fact remains that there is more that we do not know than what we do know.  Within the theory of Cartesian Dualism and modern views about how mind-brain-body interactions occurs, what is apparent is that epistemology seems to dominate the research that has been done in the past and it seems that there still needs to be a greater understanding of the relationship between the brain-mind connection.  What is apparent to this writer is a need to demythologize the process of understanding and place appropriate value upon spiritual and religious understanding while allowing science, research, and benefits from theoretical study to posit value to the field of psychology bringing greater understanding of the mind-brain conundrum.  Consequently, I know that the polemics will rise up in arms to protect the ideals that are held, but my suggestion is that we defend high ideals to advance the truth and not to inhibit, scientific, theological, or spiritual input into such a complex subject.

Frost, S. (1945). The Basic Teachings of the Great Philosophers. Philadelphia, PA, USA: Garden City Publishing.

Hunnex, M. D. (1986). Chronological and thematic charts of philosophies and pholosphers. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan House.

Johnson, G. (1991). In the palaces of memory: How we build the worlds inside our heads. New York: Random House.

Mind-BodyTheories. (2006). Elsevier’s Dictionary of Psychological Theories. Retrieved July 24, 2010, from Capella University Library: MIND-BODY THEORIES. (2006). In Els http://www.credoreference.com.library.capella.edu/entry/estpsyctheory/mind_body_theories

Neuroscience, C. (2004). Cognitive Neuroscience. Retrieved July 17, 2010, from Capella Univertsity Library: Cognitive Neuroscience. (2004). In The Concise Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavior http://www.credoreference.com.library.capella.edu/entry/wileypsych/cognitive_neuroscience

Sternberg, R. J. (2009,2006). Cognitive Psychology (5th Edition ed.). Belmont, California, USA: Wadsworth, Cenage Learning.

Unconscious. (1995). In Critical Terms for Literary Study. Retrieved July 18, 2101, from Capella University Library: Retrieved from http://www.credoreference.com.library.capella.edu/entry/uchicagols/unconscious

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