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Human beings have physical bodies that can be observed, studied, and predicted. The same cannot be said about the human mind. It is such an intricate, complex thing, and it personally affects every individual on the planet. For centuries, philosophers have been puzzled by its nature. Questions as to whether or not there is a soul, what its relationship is to the body, and how the brain contributes to the mind have perplexed us for millennia. These seemingly unsolvable puzzles are collectively referred to as the mind-body problem. Many of the theories asserted by philosophers fall short in solving this problem. The most pragmatic solution to the mind-body problem comes not from these philosophers, but from a religious philosophy offered by Mormonism.
One of the first philosophers to attempt to solve the mind-body problem was Rene Descartes. He sought to understand fully the nature of his own mind, what it was exactly that allowed him to reason and think. After much contemplation, he came to the conclusion that man was a dualistic being—comprised of a material body and an immaterial soul. This theory, referred to as dualism, holds that the soul occupies no space, is not composed of matter, and is an immortal entity. The soul is compared to a ghost residing in and operating the body, a complex machine. He holds that the soul is not “lodged in the human body exactly like a pilot in a ship, … but that it is necessary for it to be joined and united more closely to the body, in order to have sensations and appetites similar to ours, and this constitute a real man” (Descartes 278). He also claims that “the soul is of a nature wholly independent of the body, and that consequently it is not liable to die with the latter” (Descartes 278).
Descartes’ theory implies a life after mortal death; a soul that is immaterial cannot be harmed or destroyed once it is separate from its physical casing. This suggestion is appealing to persons of faith. However, this dualistic theory presents a problem. If the soul is immaterial, it cannot occupy time or space. Yet individual minds seem to exist only within the bodies to which they are connected, and the mind and body function in direct cooperation with one another. An immaterial mind cannot occupy time or space, yet our minds exist within our bodies and our timelines. Descartes’ theory also states that the body and soul interact, but he does not say how; he claims that it takes place in the pineal gland of the brain, but exactly how this interaction takes place there is simply a mystery to be solved. Dualism does not appear to adequately answer the questions of the mind-body problem.
After realizing that Descartes’ dualism failed to solve the mind-body problem, philosophers began investigating another theory: phenomenology, or materialism. The basis of materialism is that human beings do not have immaterial minds or souls, but rather experience thought as a result of physical processes. One branch of phenomenology, called Epiphenomenology, takes this to an extreme. David Chalmers hypothesized the possibility that material substance is the only “mind,” human beings having no consciousness or higher-order cognition. He explains that people could function as computers, only giving pre-programmed responses to external stimuli. Essentially, he theorized that there is no such thing as mind; human beings are merely machinery that has been programmed to give appropriate responses to environmental factors. However, there is one aspect of the human mind that Epiphenomenology fails to explain: altered states of mind. A person can be lost in thought, thinking only of memories or imaginary situations of things to come, and then suddenly become acutely aware of himself and his surroundings. If epiphenomenalism were to hold true, no such thing could possibly occur; epiphenomenological beings have no higher-order cognition and can therefore experience no self-awareness. Individual experience and a distinct sense of self effectively discount the truthfulness of this theory.
Another branch of materialism, called behaviorism, ties the meaning of the mind to human behaviors, which are testable and observable. Jerome Shaffer points out that this behaviorist theory is inadequate because “behavior and behavioral dispositions do not furnish an exhaustive analysis of … mentalistic terms” (Shaffer 285). It is clear that human beings do not actively display every thought that enters their minds; behavior and mind are not one in the same thing.
Shaffer presents identity theory as an alternative. Rather than tying mind to behavior, it ties mind to matter. He says that “thoughts, feelings, wishes, and the rest of so-called mental phenomena are identical with, one and the same thing as, states and processes of the body” (Shaffer 285). Essentially, it claims that thoughts are not only caused by firing synapses inside the brain, but that they are the synaptic firings themselves. This solves the problem of a mysterious, unobservable soul being the root of the mind, as synaptic activity is something that can be studied and monitored with medical technology.
Identity theory has problems of its own, however. Paul Churchland says, “We do not know enough about the intricate functionings of the brain actually to state the relevant identities” (Churchland 317). Identity theorists hold that the mind is physical events occurring in the brain, but no one knows enough of brain function to pinpoint exactly what those events are and what thoughts they cause. Triggering synaptic firing at a particular location in the brain of one might cause one to recall a certain memory, but triggering activity in the same spot on another person’s brain will not bring up the same memory. This inconsistency is not adequately explained by identity theory.
Another major issue with identity theory is the fact that thoughts and neural functions are observed as two very different things. A person experiences his own thoughts as memories, wishes, desires, regrets, and emotions. One does not think to oneself, “Several synapses just fired in my prefrontal cortex.” Rather, one might think, “That was a lovely trip to the beach. How I would love to go back.” The person experiences “a domain of thoughts, sensations, and emotions, not a domain of electrochemical impulses in a neural network” (Churchland 319).
Perhaps the biggest issue with identity theory is the fact that synaptic firing and thought do not occur simultaneously; there is a gap in between the time when a synapse fires and the time when a person experiences thought. If identity theory were to be true, a synaptic firing and a thought would be one and the same thing, meaning they would have to occur at exactly the same time (Cook).
Identity theory was an attempt to solve the mind-body problem in a way that would negate the problems set forth by dualism and behaviorism. Shaffer does not hold identity theory as more than a reasonable explanation for a set of observations; he admits that dualism is still entirely in the realm of the possible. In the end, Shaffer was not entirely satisfied even with this theory, admitting that “there are grave difficulties in attempts to defend such an identification” (Shaffer 291). Perhaps there is another approach to addressing the mind-body problem.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offers an explanation of the nature of the soul that appears to address the questions left unanswered by the other theories. This “Mormon phenomenology” combines dualism and phenomenology by stating that there is, in fact, a soul, and it is, in fact, comprised of a material substance. Churchland came closer to this idea than most non-Mormon philosophers with his concept of substance dualism: “…the ghost [in the machine] is a spiritual substance, unlike physical matter in its internal constitution, but fully possessed of spatial properties” (Churchland 307). He continues to speculate the possibility that “…interaction [between brain and mind] can perhaps be understood in terms of their exchanging energy in a form that our science has not yet recognized or understood” (Churchland 308).
Mormon theology teaches that humans are tripartite beings, composed of body, intelligence, and spirit. Both intelligence and spirit are composed of matter. What philosophers refer to as the phenomena of mind—self-awareness, thoughts, memories, feelings, wishes, and sensations—are attributed to intelligence and spirit by Mormon phenomenology. Essentially, mind is a greater physical entity composed of a material intelligence and a material spirit or soul. The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith received revelation that is recorded in Doctrine & Covenants 131:7-8, stating, “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned with purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.” These verses of Mormon scripture align with Churchland’s speculations regarding substance dualism. Spirit is made of a pure, refined matter that cannot be seen or studied using today’s scientific technology. The fact that we are not yet able to see this spiritual matter does not negate the possibility of its existence; we cannot see the particle that causes the force of gravity, and yet evidence leads us to believe in its reality. The same is true of the spirit; compelling evidence is persuasive enough to inductively argue for its existence.
The Mormon notion of the soul includes the idea that it is eternal, not unlike Descartes’ notion of an immortal soul. “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence … was not created or made, neither can be” (D&C 93:29). Our intelligences and spirits have always existed. If intelligence cannot be created, it is reasonable to assert that, like matter, it cannot be destroyed. Mormon phenomenology holds that spirits are eternal and will therefore continue to live after the death of physical bodies. “For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy” (D&C 93:33). During this life, the spirit and the body are inseparably connected. The spirit and the body are intertwined and make up a single physical entity with a distinct identity. This notion solves the problem of Descartes’ mysterious, independent soul and the “ghost in the machine” explanation.
The mind-body problem “is answered by the material nature of spirit” (Riddle 1079). Descartes’ dualist theory suggests that body and spirit are two separate parts of a single being, but this raises the question of how an immaterial soul could possibly occupy time and space. He gives no adequate explanation for how the soul would be tied to the body or how the two would interact. Mormon phenomenology asserts that the body and soul are indeed two different parts of a person, but that both are material and occupy the same physical entity. A physical spirit could very logically be connected to and reside within a material body.
Shaffer’s theory fails to address the discrepancies between neural activity and states of mind; Mormon phenomenology takes into account a spirit as another governing entity of the human mind. The notion of a physical spirit also offers an explanation as to why there is a gap between neural impulses and mental activity. The electric charge that passes through the synapse must also go through the spiritual matter that potentially resides somewhere within the brain before it is expressed as a thought, feeling, or sensation. That space of time allows for the spirit to process the thought.
This explanation, while logical and pragmatic, is not perfect. As previously mentioned, human beings have not the means nor the ability to observe this highly refined spiritual matter. Given this limitation on our knowledge, we cannot know exactly how the spirit interacts with the body and brain to produce thought, consciousness, and higher-order cognition. There is no deductive proof of the existence of a material spirit, although in this case, inductive reasoning (and lack of other explanations) gives convincing evidence in favor of Mormon phenomenology. As previously mentioned, we have not yet found the graviton, the particle responsible for the force of gravity (Smolin 92). In fact, only 4% of matter in the universe is visible to us (Primack 114). To claim that something cannot exist simply because we cannot see it would be absurd.
This Mormon phenomenology implies that there will be an afterlife. If intelligence cannot be created or destroyed, it must live on even after elemental bodies are gone. This notion resonates well with proponents of Descartes’ dualistic theory, as well as with persons of faith. This suggests that there is another place or dimension in which the spirits of the deceased reside, which opens up the possibility of both life in other areas of the universe and different dimensions of reality on planet Earth.
This theory also implies that human beings are free moral agents. If a spirit is part of the complex mind, neural impulses are not the sole determinant of thoughts and behaviors. The assertion of a soul leaves room for free will. According to Mormon philosopher Blake Ostler, morally accountable free agents must be able to be a cause of action without being caused to be that, and the only thing that could be such an agent is an eternal intelligence. Nothing causes it to be; it just is, and it always has been. This theory implies that we are not puppets in a deterministic universe, but free moral agents with the ability to choose and control our own behaviors (Ostler).
Dualism, Epiphenomenology, behaviorism, and identity theory all appear to fall short in one or more aspects of their explanations; none of these adequately answer the mind-body problem. Mormon phenomenology, with its ideas of a material intelligence and spirit, offers a logical and pragmatic solution to the mind-body problem. Mormonism offers explanations that other theories cannot. In this day and age, this theory not only makes sense, but it appears to be necessary to explain the phenomena of mind.
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