I’ll leave pngarrison to comment on the interesting paper to which he linked on the last post. Good stuff again – thanks. I’ll just kick off this line of thought with the final sentence of that paper:
We are thus left with a fascinating puzzle as to how an 8-mo-old prelinguistic human not only seems to think of animals as a coherent category but then makes inferences that they alone must have filled insides.
The paper is written from the mindset that this infant concept is somehow the origin of the “folk biology” that animals are integrated wholes, but I would suggest that perhaps the real “folk biology” is more the idea that they aren’t.
One aspect of this “folk biology” is the current popular view, in the ascendant from the beginning of modern science even before evolution, that animals and other living things are machines, or even collections of machines. They are cobbled together by the process of evolution from bits that are more or less independent, the “selfish gene” being one graphic example of this. I’ve looked at that a little recently.
The second aspect is closer to what has piqued my interest for the last few days in particular, which is the widespread influence of what we could call a “folk psychology” of mind-inhabiting-body, “folk” not in the sense of primitive inborn ideas, but in the prevalence of Cartesian dualism in our society. The two are not the same, for “from the beginning it was not so.”
As far as one can tell, primitive societies had a pretty monist anthropology: you don’t keep the bodies of your ancestors in places of honour in your house if you think they have souls separate from their bodies. Certainly Hebrew anthropology, though often misread by western Christians, sees the soul, or nephesh as the living being in toto, and such things as the mind or the heart or the spirit, whilst distinguishable aspects of people, as essentially inseparable aspects of that total life.
Hebrew ideas of humanity remained firmly embodied, which is why the resurrection of the body was the Messianic hope rather than the release of the soul. And yet, given the idea that the dead were somehow still alive in God, there was a loose concept of the “abnormal” separability of the animating spirit at death in Sheol.
This essential unity is reflected in New Testament thinking such as Paul’s idea that one could sin against ones body. Jesus’s hyperbolic teaching on dispensing with ones eye, hand or foot if it causes you to stumble must be understood not as disdain for the body, but as extreme measures to preserve it from sin for eternal life (“lest your whole body be thrown into hell”). I’ll return to that.
Thomist Aristotelian thinking had closely related concepts: the soul was the form of the human being, a “hylomorphic” combination of matter (hyle) and form (morphe) that was nevertheless an inextricable unity. Again some exception was made for the continued existence, in an attenuated form, of the immortal soul until it should be reunited with the body. But the basic unity of the Christian anthropology is historically reflected in the importance of the idea of proper burial, in the power of relics of the saints and so on.
A counter to this came in the influence of Neoplatonic ideas on Christianity, which in extremes like Gnosticism led to a radical dualism in which the body was an enemy to be escaped by the purely spiritual soul. Some such idea (possibly from Augustinian thought) was probably adopted by Descartes as he saw the reasoning “mind” as the immaterial “ghost in the machine”. He divided the world into mind and matter, thus placing the key division not between us-as-beings and the external world, as in Biblical thought, but between “us-as-minds” and the material world. The result is that our bodies become part of the world outside, rather than simply being “us”. I contend that this “folk psychology”, which is an unconsidered fact at all levels of society, is unrealistic scientifically as well as metaphysically. It has had the tendency to produce, in our culture, a sense of alienation from ourselves, with concomitant effects on the treatment of others.
What I mean is this. What infants perceive about the “filled unity” of animals is actually real. Whether or not animals evolved from single celled animals, they certainly develop from a single multi-potent cell. And remarkably (if we trouble to consider it) even by the time that single cell becomes the 37 trillion in our bodies, they all retain a unity of identity and purpose, directed towards the good of the whole.
Not only is it a true physiological commonwealth, but a galaxy of co-operation and even self sacrifice, as our immune cells happily face annihilation from pathogens on our behalf, and planned cell death is a major preserver of overall form and function. This is all the more remarkable the more we realise that the genome is not so much a seat of government as a library of congress. Some unifying idea decides which genes are expressed overall, and in which tissues at which times.
The appearance, at least, is of cells as a community of 37 trillion model citizens all harmoniously dedicated to maintaining the homeostasis of the whole organism. If that doesn’t occasionally fill us with awe, it should, as too should the way that bodies are sometimes capable of acting for higher goods even than their own survival, such as the protection of offspring or the self-sacrifice of those species in which successful reproduction is accompanied by planned death.
Now, an even more intriguing phenomenon, it seems to me, is how “mind”, in its most general sense, has been developed as a governing principle on an almost completely different level from that ubiquitous physiological self-goverment. Think of even a relatively simple animal negotiating the outside world via its senses and nervous system. The CNS has no idea of the co-operative effort being made on its behalf by the other cells of its body, as it gets on with hunting, avoiding external dangers, competing for mates and so on.
In our own case, even apart from Cartesian ideas, we can take the harmonious operation of our bodies for granted, yet can mostly only appreciate it by investigation rather than introspection. But Cartesian dualism encourages us to forget that, as the body works selflessly on our behalf in its development, it also establishes our mental functions, to whatever degree they are physical, during that development to act selflessly on its behalf.
Primitive people naturally think of “me and thee”. It seems to take a pervading philosophy to think of “me, my body, and thee.” I don’t think it’s an inappropriate analogy to see our higher nervous system as the government appointed by the body to protect it from “threats at home and abroad”. Even theologically that still applies – Paul makes great play in his analogy of the Church as Christ’s body on the fact that nobody harms his own body, but cares for it. When governments start to operate for their own pleasures rather than their people’s good, we call them tyrannies.
Now, since sin came into the world people have certainly abused their bodies through drunkness, gluttony and so on in all times. But if ones working concept is that mind, will and reason constitute an autonomous “me” separate from ones body, it becomes for the first time logical to say, “It’s my body – I can do as I like with it.” Drug abuse, risk-taking activity and so on make some ethical sense if the mind is seen as the sole focus of what it means to be human. Conversely, of course, it becomes easier to argue that defective minds are expendable as sub-human.
Even the current fashion for celebrities to say they love, and are comfortable with, their body seems to mean moulding it by diets, workouts and surgery to an aesthetic ideal that will attract notice, rather than caring for it as a God-given responsibility.
But to me it all seems a bit like Charles I’s Divine Right of Kings, or Louis XIV starving his people to build Versaille – our bodies, we think, exist for us, “us” being our minds as absolute monarchs. But biologically that isn’t so at all – our minds were created for the good of our bodies; and, of course, for the good of their offspring too, or else we are a house divided against itself. Which isn’t rational at all, but “folk anarchy”, maybe.