The Irrelevance of the Mind-Body Problem to Human Behaviour

Summary

In this article I argue that the mind-body problem, despite appearances, is not relevant to providing coherent accounts of human behaviour. For the purpose of giving adequate causal explanations of human behaviour, there is no need to resort to the distinction between mind and body, and no need to become involved in the difficulties which making that distinction entails. Persons act as co-ordinated, unified wholes, however many different parts or types of substance they may be composed of. A person’s mental experiences and bodily actions are tightly co-ordinated. The consequence is that a description of and accounting for a person’s behaviour can be integrated into a single, unified account, without having to distinguish between body and mind. We can continue with our everyday explanations of human behaviour, treating human beings – mind and body – as unified wholes.

Introduction

Despite the huge amount of scientific and philosophical work on the topic over the last 60 or so years, the mind-body problem remains a dilemma. If you are a one-substance adherent – physicalist or panpsychist or otherwise – you have the difficulty of explaining how qualitative experiences, which do not seem to have the characteristics of physical processes, are in fact physical. And if you are a dualist, you face the problem of fitting that view into a coherent scientific account of the world, and not least, a coherent account of human behaviour.

In this article I argue that the mind-body problem, despite appearances, is not relevant to providing coherent accounts of human behaviour. The giving of such accounts does not require balancing on one prong or other of the dilemma. It is quite feasible to remain in a comfortable state of agnosticism.

The simplest, and I think most intuitive, way to see why this is so is to recognise that persons act as co-ordinated, unified wholes, however many different parts or types of substance they may be composed of. A person’s mental experiences and bodily actions are tightly co-ordinated. The consequence is that a description of and accounting for a person’s behaviour can be integrated into a single, unified account, without having to distinguish between body and mind.

The strongest evidence of this tight co-ordination of body and mind is that a person is never in the ordinary way surprised by what their body does. (I am ignoring for these purposes a person being drunk, drugged, suffering from a condition involving loss of physical control, or a condition such as blindsight.) I always regard my bodily actions as my actions, never something I do not regard as my own. I shall look at this in relation to several types of mental and bodily activities, namely, speech, pain and vision, and show how this enables a coherent account of human behaviour to be given regardless of what position one takes on the mind-body problem.

Speech

When I say something aloud, paying attention to what I am saying or going to say, I am never surprised by the words which come out of my mouth. I may stumble, I may fail to speak as coherently as I would wish, I may change my mind about the actual words I say or take a different approach or stop altogether before reaching the end of what I intended to say. None of this makes me think, “Those words, those sounds, are not mine.” I recognise all of the sounds uttered as mine.

Sometimes, when I am talking to myself, I may start by ‘speaking’ silently to myself, and go on to complete the speech using my speech organs. For example: [silently] “Shall I go visit my sick friend or shall I stay at home? I’ll go visit my friend, [aloud, in affirmation] yes, that’s the best.” Both parts of that speech are my speech. I am aware of the silent part because I have the inner mental experience of speaking to myself, and I am aware of the part spoken aloud because I hear myself say it. (Speaking aloud often displaces or replaces an inner mental experience with a bodily speech action. I can, of course, rehearse silently to myself the words I intend to speak aloud. But if I just speak aloud without rehearsing, then usually I do not also have a simultaneous inner experience of the words spoken aloud.) Whatever the relationship between mind and body, I recognise, accept, take possession of, both types of speech, inner and outer, as mine. It is never the case that my bodily speech organs say something which I am surprised to hear and which I reject as not my speech.

Pain

In relation to pain there is a tight co-ordination between inner experiences and bodily behaviour. It is never the case that I feel unexpected excruciating sudden pain and make no relevant bodily motion. It is never the case that I find myself gasping, groaning or writhing while not feeling any pain.

I can, of course, try to restrain my bodily behaviour when I feel pain, and I can prepare for that, as when the doctor asks me to try not to flinch when he inserts a needle in my arm, although that may not restrain quickened heartbeat or breathing. Equally, when pain is suppressed in a situation when it would usually be felt, the usual bodily behaviour is also suppressed, for example, when a person suffers a sudden harm to the body, such as a bullet wound, which is not felt or noticed until later. There are many instances of this happening in war time. The relation between the experience of pain and pain behaviour is one of tight co-ordination.

Vision

Inner visual experiences and relevant bodily actions are also tightly co-ordinated. When I react to what I see, my qualitative visual experiences and my bodily actions are appropriately related; they are congruent. Thus, if I have the visual experience of seeing a blackbird, I never find myself saying aloud, “There is no blackbird there” (unless I am acting or lying). And if I do not have the visual experience of seeing my coffee cup in front of me, I never find myself reaching out for it. The body does not do what would be inappropriate, given the visual experience.

Discussion

A consequence of these types of tight co-ordination of mental experiences and bodily actions is that, in talking about a person’s speech acts, pains, or seeing, there is no need to distinguish between the inner and the outer. The one description, and the one verb, apply to both. I speak (to myself or aloud), I am in pain, I see.

Equally, the question of the causal relationships between the inner and outer aspects of a person’s activities is irrelevant to giving a causal account of them. When I explain my shouting to a person to look out by saying that I saw a car bearing down on them, the causal relation, if any, between my inner visual experience and my physical shouting is of no consequence to the correctness of that explanation, because my visual experience is tightly co-ordinated with my bodily behaviour. I saw, therefore I shouted. That is the causal story. “I was in pain because something heavy fell on my toe” is a causal account which encompasses both my physical reaction of swearing loudly and my feeling of pain ‘in my toe’.

The epiphenomenalist will say that my shouting at the person to look out could not be causally related to my visual experiences, because my inner experiences are causally ineffective. But when I use the verb ‘to see’ I am not making any assumption or implying anything about mind-body relationships. I am describing what the whole person – mind and body – underwent or undergoes. Certainly, I suppose that my seeing depends on activity in parts of my body such as my visual sensory system and my brain, so I do not suppose that my seeing amounts to no more than my inner visual experiences.

Equally, the physicalist may say that my causal account assumes or implies that my inner experiences are causally effective and therefore must be physical (and, mutatis mutandis, the panpsychist or, generally, the one-substance adherent). But my claim that I saw, and therefore I shouted, makes no assumption and implies nothing about the nature or causal powers of my inner visual experiences. My causal claim rests on no more than the tight co-ordination of inner and outer, with the consequence that the person can be treated and is regarded as a single whole.

My seeing is something I, a whole person, undergo. I have no need to have a view about my constituent parts, and how my seeing is distributed among and implemented by my constituent parts, in order to make correct causal claims about the effect of my seeing on my bodily actions. Whether my inner visual experiences are causally effective or not, my seeing evidently is causally effective.

Further, no metaphysical assumptions or implications about relationships between mind and body are hidden behind my spoken assertion, “I see a blackbird” – other than that they are tightly co-ordinated. Certainly, I do not say, “I see a blackbird”, without having the inner visual experience of seeing a blackbird. But my assertion does not hide an assumption or implication that my visual experience plays a causal role in my making the assertion. It is metaphysically neutral in that respect.

The unity of causal accounts of behaviour extends also to causal accounts involving motives, reasons and actions. If I have a desire for cheese, and I reason that, since I have no cheese in the house, in order to have some cheese I would have to go to the shop, I then have a motive to go to the shop, and if I go to the shop, that is why I went. There is good reason to suppose that this causal account of my going to the shop is correct. Of course, it may be that I am deceiving myself as to my real motive for going to the shop (I want to have a rendezvous there), or it may be that I failed to notice that I had some cheese in the cupboard, so my reasoning was faulty. But leaving these sorts of considerations aside, in general what I feel and think provide accurate and adequate explanations of my decisions and actions. The explanations work: they make sense of what people do and why they do it. And as with other mental and bodily activities, I am never surprised by what my body does. There is always a tight congruity or co-ordination between my inner and my bodily activities.

I say that the standard, everyday causal accounts of considered human behaviour are accurate. This claim is based on the ideas that a person’s motives and reasons are causally effective, and that a person is able to discover the motives and reasons for their actions. My motives and reasons are not just ‘inner’ phenomena. My acquiring motives, and developing and having reasons, depend on activity in my brain. Motives and reasons are features of the whole person, not just of the mind or the body. I am able to discover what my motives and reasons are by processes of considering, exploring, reflecting, talking, and those processes may be, on any occasion, largely or exclusively carried on in an ‘inner’ way. But that does not imply that my motives and reasons are solely ‘inner’ phenomena. The motives and reasons I discover are tightly co-ordinated and congruent with my body, and especially my brain. And those processes of discovery themselves depend on activity in the brain.

Suppose that there were not this tight co-ordination of mind and body in the case of motives and reasons, so that there were occasions when my inner awareness of my motives and reasons were not co-ordinated with my brain states and processes. Then assuming that it would be my brain states and processes which were causally effective in relation to my body, I would be surprised by my bodily actions, because they would not be congruent with the motives and reasons of which I was aware and the bodily actions I was therefore anticipating. But this never happens. The only plausible conclusions are that mind and body are tightly co-ordinated, and that motives and reasons are causally effective.

Further, if in general the causal bodily effects arising from my brain were different from the bodily actions that I would expect from the motives and reasons of which I was aware, I would not be able to explain why I act as I do, since I have no awareness of what is going on in my brain. Since we very often successfully explain why people act as they do, this would be an implausible position.

Given that these standard types of causal account of people’s actions, based on treating them as unified wholes, are accurate and adequate, any other or further accounts based, for example, on brain activity, would at least have to be compatible with these standard accounts. This is likely to have some impact on neuroscientific theories relating to, for example, free will.

Conclusion

For the purpose of giving adequate causal explanations of human behaviour, there is no need to resort to the distinction between mind and body, and no need to become involved in the difficulties which making that distinction entails. The investigation of the brain and other body systems and their relationships with our ‘inner’ life remains of enormous interest. But when it comes to accounting for human behaviour, we can continue as we have always done, treating human beings – mind and body – as unified wholes.

 

Mark Hofman

May 2024

 

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