What are we made of

Since the seventeenth century, especially with the influential philosophy of René Descartes (1596-1650), we have been taught to conceive of ourselves as composed of two classes of substances: an immaterial mind and a physical body. Descartes, a devout Catholic, prepared the way for his conception of the mind-body relationship with his famous Latin dictum cogito ergo sum ('I think therefore I am').2 With this, he identified the thinking 'I' as the soul, and confined it within a physical body, as made explicit in the following statement:

I knew that I was a substance, the whole essence or nature of which is to think, and for its existence there is no need of any place, nor does it depend on any material thing; so that this 'me', that is to say, the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body, and is even more easy to know than is the latter; and even if the body were not, the soul would not cease to be what it is.3

The tendency to separate the mind from the body can be traced back to the Hippocratic Corpus (ca 400 bc). Hippocrates and his students were primarily concerned with the introduction of the first elements of clinical practice such as observation, palpation, diagnosis and prognosis. But at the same time they attempted to disregard all the 'irrational' and 'magical' methods used by traditional folk-healers along with their ancient knowledge of the human body. In Hippocrates' treatise on epilepsy, ironically entitled On the Sacred Disease, we read:

I do not believe that the so-called Sacred Disease is any more divine or sacred than any other disease, but that on the contrary, just as other diseases have a nature and a definite cause, so does this one, too, have a nature and a cause . . . It is my opinion that those who first called this disease sacred were that sort of people that we now call 'magi'. These magicians are vagabonds and charlatans, pretending to be holy and wise, and pretending to more knowledge than they have.

(Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987: 9)

The distinction between body and mind is even more explicit in the German language, where two different words are used to describe the body (Leib and Körper). Der Leib refers to the animated body, while der Körper refers to the objective, exterior and institutionalized body (Turner 1992: 9). Gilbert Ryle mockingly called the idea of the physical body inhabited by the non-physical mind 'the ghost in the machine', a phrase which has nowadays entered into common use (see, for instance, Blackmore 2003).

Descartes' separation of body and mind has to be put into the context where it belongs. As Mary Midgley has pointed out:

In Descartes' time, their separation was intended as quarantine to separate the new, burgeoning science of physics from views on the other, more general attempt to separate Reason from Feelings and establish Reason as the dominant partner, Feeling being essentially part of the body.

(Midgley, in Lorimer 2004: 173)

The argument that we need to attempt a reconciliation between reason and emotion has largely been supported by Antonio Damasio, who has drawn on his experience with neurological patients affected by brain damage to present a new theory of emotion that emphasizes its inseparable dependence on reason (Damasio 1994). According to Damasio, Descartes' error was the abyssal separation between body and mind, between the sizable, dimensional, mechanically operated, indefinitely divisible body stuff, on the other hand, the unsizable, undimensional, un-pushpullable, nondivisible mind stuff; the suggestion that reasoning, and moral judgement, and the suffering that comes from physical pain or emotional upheaval might exist separately from the body. Specifically: the separation of the most refined operations from the structure and operation of a biological organism.

As we have just seen, Descartes' idea of a disembodied mind also goes against our ordinary experience, which seems to present us with a transparency, not an opposition, between body and mind. Metaphorically speaking, if we think of the ocean, the seventeenth-century idea of the mind and body relationship is like the one between the water and the sand: they never become one. On the contrary, from a common-sense point of view, the relationship between mind and body is like that between the water and the salt. As Kasulis has pointed out: 'Unlike the sand, the salt surrenders its crystalline structure to dissolve completely into the water' (2004: 15).

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