It’s very common for us to say something like “My head is sore”, or “My stomach aches”, or even “I have a rash” when we experience one of those symptoms. So who is it who has this head, stomach or rash? This way of talking confirms our feeling that we “have” a body, but that our bodies are not us. Stop and think about it for a moment. Are you your body?
You might answer that your body is part of you but it isn’t YOU. That the you who has this body is maybe your mind?
But then we do the same thing with our minds too, don’t we? We say “I’ve lost my mind”, or “I’m out of my mind with worry”. Who is the “I” who is referring to this mind?
So your body isn’t you. Your mind isn’t you. But both your mind and your body are a part of you.
The physicalist approach to this claims that this “you” which you experience is an illusion. It’s just something your brain makes up.
But stop and think about that one for a moment. If “you” are an illusion, who is having this illusion?
This is what Mary Midgley is exploring in her latest book, “Are you an illusion?”
I highly recommend you read it. It’s short, and it’s an easy but deeply thought provoking read.
She asks of those who write the books claiming that only the physical is real, and that the subjective sense of self is an illusion
Unkind observers sometimes enquire who, in that case, actually writes the books that expound this doctrine? Do the brain cells really do this work on their own?
She quotes the neuroscientist, Susan Greenfield, saying in an operating theatre, “This was all there was to Sarah, or indeed any of us…..we are but sludgy brains” and Colin Blakemore saying “The human brain is a machine which alone accounts for all our actions” and she responds
Thus if we want to understand why (for instance) Napoleon decided to invade Egypt or Russia, what we need is not – as we might think – some knowledge of the political background and of Napoleon’s state of mind, but simply facts about the state of his brain, which alone can account for his action.
Does the claim that you are only your brain cells, or only your DNA, ring true for you?
The materialist credo rules that thoughts, not being physical, cannot cause physical events. And as we know from every activity of our lives that thoughts actually can and do affect those events – that they are often all too effective, producing practical results in the world even when we wish they wouldn’t – this doctrine puts materialism into a radical conflict with reality.
This is the nub of it for me. These materialist beliefs don’t only not ring true, they don’t adequately explain reality. So why are they so prevalent? One of the authors she draws on to answer this is Iain McGilchrist who has shown us how the left and right hemispheres of the brain work together to produce and integrated understanding from their two very different ways of approaching reality. She quotes him saying
Mind has the characteristics of a process more than of a thing; a becoming, a way of being rather than an entity
This is almost identical to the way Dan Siegel and the Interpersonal Neurobiologists put it – “the mind is a process of regulation of energy and information flow”.
She hits the nail on the head time and again. Let me finish with this one
The bizarre anti-self campaign which is the main subject of this book is surely intended, among other things, to put us off taking notice of everybody’s inner life: to persuade us that this is a trivial, contemptible subject by the simple device of pretending that it isn’t there.