Body Parts

Body Parts

Is the mind part of the body? I have not seen this question discussed before; it raises some ticklish questions.[1] I am not asking whether the mind is the brain—that question is very familiar; I am asking whether the mind is part of the body even if it is immaterial. That is, I am asking whether Descartes could or should say that his immaterial mind is (literally) a part of the body—like the heart or the kidneys or the brain. I am of the opinion that it is part of the body: for if not, what is it a part of? My mind is clearly a part of me, a particular human being, as the tiger’s mind is a part of it (the tiger). Let’s suppose it is an immaterial part; it is still a part of the animal, the organism, the biological unit. An animal is a functional unity of separable components, and the mind is one of them, in all its glory and complexity. It evolved as other animal parts did, and it functions to aid survival, just like other parts of the animal. The only question is whether it is also a part of the animal’s body. My heart is part of me and it is also part of my body (one might say the former holds because of the latter), but is the same thing true of my mind? Granted, it sounds funny to say so, but is it true? Here we must be on the look-out for conversational implicatures: would saying “My mind is part of my body” carry the implicature that my mind is a physical organ like my heart without logically implying that? Would it suggest (but not entail) that my mind is a visible solid object with a shape and color? It might well, say if you were listing all your body parts in a medical exam, but it doesn’t follow that this is what the sentence means. It just might not be relevant to the context, yet still perfectly true. Consider a lizard being described by a zoologist: would it not be true to say that the lizard’s elementary lizard mind is part of its brain, and hence its body? Its body is a functional system and the mind is part of that functional system, so it is really a part of its body. Or should we say it is part of nothing? Isn’t it in the lizard’s body (in its brain)? It isn’t in the air surrounding the lizard or underground somewhere. It is just a different kind of part from the lizard’s other parts, being (as we are assuming) an immaterial part. But immaterial things can have parts themselves and be parts of larger immaterial things, so parthood is not alien to them. Perhaps it belongs with other entities that make us hesitate to classify them as body parts—hair, saliva, feces, lung cavities, earholes. These too differ from paradigm cases like hearts and kidneys, but they are still clearly of the body—bodily, part of the whole body-system. The fact that they may be made of different material from that of the rest of the body does not disqualify them from being parts of the body. Similarly, the mind might be made of an immaterial substance and still be a part of the body—just an immaterial part.

The question clearly comes down to what is meant by “body”. Is it to be defined as meaning “material part of an animal”. The mind is clearly a part of the animal, but is it also a part of its body? That is the ticklish question. It seems to me that the word is not defined in these exclusive terms; it is neutral on the question. After all, we think of pain as bodily, and some emotions too, as well as some mental illnesses; so, we are ready to accept that some of the mind is bodily, and “physical” in that sense. Perhaps an element of stipulation is necessary, but the stipulation is principled: why not say that the mind is part of the body—why consign it to some other department of the organism? All the other organs of the organism belong to its body, so why insist that the mental organ belongs elsewhere? Why introduce this kind of division into the organism? Is it because of some outmoded notion of the human being as composed of a body and a soul and never the twain shall meet? But this is a pre-biological conception of the human animal, created by the need to reserve a part of the human being for divine purposes. The mind evolved from bodily origins millions of years ago; it was a natural product of the body not a divine intervention. It is better to think of the body more inclusively, so as to bring the mind within its boundaries—even if it is an immaterial thing. The concepts of body and immateriality are not logically exclusive. What if we discovered an area of the body occupied by an immaterial thingummy, though not a mental thingummy—wouldn’t we say we had found an immaterial part of the body (next to the kidneys, say)? What if we came to the conclusion (as physicists sometimes have) that so-called matter isn’t matter at all but something far more ethereal—fields of force, say? Would that make us say that the heart and kidneys are not parts of the body? Clearly not: we allow, as a conceptual matter, that parts of the body may be immaterial. So, there is no logical bar to counting the mind as part of the body even if it is immaterial (it clearly is if it is identical to the brain). The correct conclusion is that the body is not necessarily made of material stuff; it may be made of both material and immaterial stuff. The concept of the body does not exclude the mind from being part of the body; and it is reasonable to suppose that it is, implicatures notwithstanding. It is not that my mind is part of me but not part of my body; it is part of both. Thus, I am nothing but my body in this extended sense, but my body is more inclusive than tradition suggests. I am not divided rigidly into body and non-body. I don’t have a body and a mind; I have a mind in my body, as part of it. I therefore recommend this way of thinking: it dissolves needless dichotomies, pointless duplications. Just as we have dropped the old concept of soul, so we should drop the old concept of body. You can be as Cartesian as you like and still believe that the mind is part of the body. Dualism then becomes true of the body (if it is true at all).[2]

[1] What do the folk think about this question? A pilot survey conducted by me (one subject) suggests that the folk are not averse to describing the mind as part of the body, though their reasons remain obscure. This is a topic for future field research.

[2] The mind-body problem is thus the problem of how one part of the body is related to another part—the mental part to the physical part. It is the problem of unifying the body. It might be a mystery what unifies the body. Bone and flesh are unified in the body, though made of quite different materials; the mind-body problem has the same abstract form, but the two things are even more different.

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8 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    So you are expanding the notion of one’s body to be the vehicle for one’s mental as well as physical activities. No longer any need to feel split (even if one is a dualist). Does this concept permit a more coherent, or at least unified, treatment of the concept of freedom? And does the body have parts that relate to all items in one’s metaphysical taxonomy?

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      I am collapsing the alleged distinction between the animal and its body; this is not a real distinction (as Descartes would say). The animal includes its mind, so its body does too. The body is not a machine, not an inherently non-mental thing. Except when dead. The living body includes the mind.

      Reply
  2. Mark L
    Mark L says:

    Hi Colin,

    I was getting hung up on the mind being a function of the brain, in the same sense that urine production is a function of the kidneys. Presumably some people’s kidneys will out perform their brains (sadly turned out to be true in my case). It felt to me at least, awkward to say that movement is part of a car rather than its function for instance. So my initial thinking was stuck on the word “Part”

    However, you are right – the definition of body is critical. Though I wonder – this surely must be true for the definition of mind.

    Anyway, I think I hear my bladder calling

    Best

    Mark

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Talk of parts assumes that the thing in question is some sort of object (a subject of predication), which I think the mind is; but we can rephrase the question into an “aspect” ontology, asking whether mental aspects (properties, states) are aspects of the body. Then the claim is that they are, even if immaterial. My mind is an aspect of me, but also of my body.

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      • Mark L
        Mark L says:

        Yes aspect sounds good to me. As a side note I suppose you could say that the body is an aspect of the mind too as in the mental map of our own bodies that science says we have. Also the actual concept of a body is an aspect of mind, a cut off point exists between cells, atoms and electromagnetic fields that we perceive as a body.

        However I digress here, although there is some reciprocity (if that’s even the right word), it is clear, in a materialist sense at least, that the body is the ground/the whole and the mind is an aspect of that.

        Though I notice now that by changing it to aspect it feels that you’ve given me a slight opening for my persistent, anti-materialist beliefs. Aspect always sounds quite spiritual to me for some reason.

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        • Colin McGinn
          Colin McGinn says:

          For all minds, there is a body of which it is a part (aspect); but not for all bodies, there is a mind of which it is a part (aspect)–because not all bodies have minds in them (insentient organisms exist).

          Reply
  3. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Reflecting further, our usual notion of body has the feature that we sometimes identify it, or parts of it, as us and sometimes as other. I think this is a feature, not a bug. It has something to do with nature of control (it having a variable domain or “sphere”.) Does your conception of body admit this? Does the concept of boundary have a place with regards to your notion of body?

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