On The Mind, Body, & (Not So Much) on the Soul.

A couple of nights ago, I was doing some creative writing around the concept of democracy. This wasn’t for a blog post, but for something else I’m working on.

So that’s the first thing. Stick a pin it.

The second thing is that, earlier today, I was talking with two of my students about the problems we face as a world, global problems such as climate change, poverty, disease, war and other forms of systemic violence, etc. After we differentiated between global problems and more localized problems, I asked the students to choose one problem that we could focus on. They selected “equal access to personal growth” and “equal rights.”

I then asked each of them to design their own superheroes, ones who could take on the global problem of equality. Each student had to decide not only on a name and superpower,  but also on a costume, weapon, motto, attitude, and day job (i.e., Clark Kent being a reporter).

One of the students called out her superpower right away: “I want to give people empathy.”

Boom. Done. Yes. Go. Run with that.

My other student had a more difficult time. Part of his hesitation may have been because he seemed to be feeling a little more down today than usual, but the other part was because these are really serious problems and there are no easy answers.

He finally said, after some back and forth,”I think my superhero would be considered a super villain.” His idea was that he would make everybody become part of a hive mind. His weapon would be that he would open his mouth and these little bugs would come flying out; the bugs would crawl into everyone’s brain and hook them into the hive mind.

He said that this would solve the problem because everyone in the world would pull together and strive for the exact same thing (in this case, equal rights and equal access). No one would stand in the way. No one would be the enemy. There’d be no racists, no sexists, no classists, etc., and hence no racism, no sexism, no classism, etc.

But he was hesitant because he thought this would be seen as a bad thing. We tend to believe in the sanctity of the individual, and he recognized that this superpower would rob people of their individuality by forcing them into the hive mind. Even though the hive mind would be striving for something good, the theft of their individuality would be seen as too much of an evil for the end goal to be worth it, and thus his super hero would be seen as a super villain.

So that’s the second thing.

The third thing is another class I’m teaching. I’ve spoken about this one before: my class on the Philosophy of Death. The students’ homework is to write a 500-word essay about the difference between the mind and the soul. Their answers have to come from them directly; this is not a research paper. As a class, they’d already agreed that there is a difference between the mind and the soul, but because class ended just as we came to that conclusion, I asked them to take their idea a little deeper in the form of a short essay. We’d then discuss their answers in class. I have to facilitate that discussion in just a few hours, and I’m wondering myself what my own answer would be.

So those are the three things: democracy, theories of mind, and the difference between the mind and the soul. Now let’s get on with it.

First, I don’t think I really believe in the mind, or at least, not in the mind per se. I think the mind is more like an ephemeral document, a record of a discussion written in fading ink.

To connect it to what I said earlier: the mind is the product of a democracy. The inputs — the voters — are all the parts of my physical body getting a say in whatever it is that my body does next. My Vision department (and make no mistake, the experience of vision is the result of a large consortium of cells in your body, much like the formal recommendation of the State department are the results of thousands of individual people passing their ideas up the chain to the Secretary of State) — anyway, my Vision department reports that such and such a thing is the most important aspect of the world to be aware of at the moment, but my Hearing department suggests something else. My Touch department can’t agree where to focus, so all of the various stakeholders shout out their own reports (itch in elbow!, pressure in jaw!, ache in neck!). My Taste and Smell departments, who often caucus together, continue to do so, and for the moment, they both remain silent. Meanwhile, messengers from the Memory Banks and anxious clerks from my Neuroses division constantly interrupt the conversation, and paranoia leaking negative messages from somewhere deep in my Intelligence agency.

Finally, miraculously, a decision gets made: enough votes are cast by all the stakeholders to focus on….whatever…say this, do that, veg out, etc., and then an action is taken in the world (actually, the real process is that, usually, an action is taken in the world, and then someone reports back on that action, leaving the congress to ask, “How can we rationalize that?”)

Anyway, the mind is not the process of that democratic moment (not the rationalization), nor is it the action taken in the world. It is, instead, like the law itself, something that seems to have more spirit than body, and like the law itself, powerless to stop anyone or anything that has the ability to act.

That’s why we have heart attacks, why we get cancer, why we say things that are hurtful when we know it is wrong to say them, and why we don’t get up and go to the gym. It’s because there’s no one really in control.

The law can say that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” but that won’t stop some citizens of a state from preventing people of color from reaching the voting booth on any given voting day in any given district, whether through armed guards at the door or through “voter I.D.” laws that disenfranchise citizens who are not able to, for whatever reason, satisfy the list of onerous requirements developed by that state in congress.

Because the law, as itself, has no power, much as the mind, as itself, has no power. Power is reserved to the people, just as it is reserved to your sensory neurons and motor neurons,  your muscles and bones.

So I don’t believe in the mind. Instead, I believe in the body’s attention and intention, created by the body and enacted by the body.

If the mind exists, it is only in the spirit of the law.

Both of my students had interesting superpower-driven solutions to the problems of equal rights and equal access. Both of them understood that the problems require people to change their minds. My first student wanted to give people a sense of empathy, to make them connect with other people’s minds, to understand, intimately, their interests and experiences, and to share, if only for a few moments, their subjectivity.

My second student wanted to take control of everyone’s mind — not in a greedy way, mind you (pun!), but in a way that forces everyone’s mind to act in concert, to act in union.

To return to my metaphor: both students wanted to add more inputs to the process of an individual’s democracy. My first wanted everyone to honestly and respectfully consider the subjective interests of the other before reaching any decision; my second wanted to insert a kind of dictatorial overlord over the congress, an overlord that is not an individual, but rather, the consensus of the all. 

I think both of their answers are terrific. Hers because, yes, of course empathy is the answer to the problems of equality, and we should all be mad that we didn’t see it sooner. And his because, essentially, his superpower (to spit out bugs that go into people’s ears and change their minds) is a metaphor for persuasive argument, which yes, of course, is the only ethical way to change people’s minds, since violence and compulsion enact the tyranny of one over the other.

But even (for arguments sake) we agree that all of that is true, where does “the mind as democracy leave us in regards to the soul?

I’m not sure. And for the moment, I’m okay with that.

(For a different but related take on all of this, see Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained).