Mind Without Body is No Mind At All

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Mind Without Body is No Mind At All

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Gyatrul Rinpoche once asked a group of us in Ashland whether we thought that mind could act without body. One of us, who inclined to belief that "mind" could assert control "over matter," ventured that he thought mind could act without body. Rinpoche played with the student a moment before making it clear, with a smile and a wave of his eyebrows, that he didn't think that was how it worked. No woo woo shit for him.

Gyatrul Rinpoche was all "sticks and stones," his mantra for haulin' and stackin' dirt and rocks and wood. He liked to see real stuff happen. He had lost his whole country, seen all of his friends murdered, and he just wanted to develop a quiet place to practice. He liked to see something accomplished by the end of the day, so he kept it simple, and cheered us on in little ways.

Physical reality provides the context for all our experiences. Our bodies quiver like drum-skins all day long. Pulses pounding, breath hauling air in and out of the body, muscles tensing and relaxing, posture winding up and down. We describe all of our emotional experiences in physical metaphors, as is evident from our literary devices:

  • “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” – Pablo Picasso
  • “Conscience is a man’s compass.” – Vincent Van Gogh
  • “Chaos is a friend of mine.” – Bob Dylan
  • “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.” – Albert Einstein

If we can't experience ourselves imaginatively without the aid of physical metaphors, how likely is it that our minds are truly non-physical? Thanks to the body-mind dichotomy, we misconceive our experience as "insubstantial," notwithstanding that we are interacting with a world of physical objects illuminated by a rain of photons streaming into our retinas, in an ocean of air through which sounds are reverberating, producing an experience sustained by our brain. The brain is that amazing organ composed of a cerebellum nestled around a brain stem, poised atop a spinal cord, from which the neural network fans out through the body, receiving sensory data and sending conscious and unconscious commands. The brain is amazing enough before you consider that the blueprints to build it are designed into the DNA of a human being. It is, suffice it to say, a physical object, a subset of your physical body, and inseparable from your experience of life.

The foundation of brain science is not experimentation, it is accident. Everybody knows that Phineas Gage was the gent who lost his personality, but not his life, after a steel rod was blasted through his head and out the other side. When the brain scientists of the day contemplated this loss of function, they reasonably deduced that, along with the brain tissue that was carried away by the steel rod, some of Gage's social skills were lost. Pathologists began observing the cognitive, sensory and emotional deficits of their patients, and attempting to relate them to autopsy results and injury histories. Some experimenters deliberately damaged the brains of experimental animals to observe what functions were lost. The experimental evidence establishes that experience is a symphony of mental events sustained by organic activity in the brain, and brain damage knocks out sections of the orchestra. Since consciousness is diminished by the loss of brain function due to injury, surely death, that ends all brain function, will end the entire experience of sense, emotion, and cognition.

If you argue that some mind survives death because it is independent of the activity of the human body and brain, then you should be able to produce that independent basis for the mind even while we are alive. Otherwise, it is entirely surmise. You are welcome to believe it -- that's the nature of belief. But as an assertion of fact, it gets a zero. No minds without bodies.
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