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Mind over Matter PDF Print E-mail

given by Derek Maitland

Mind Over Matter

I want to open this talk by recalling what I rank as the most elegantly apocalyptic dilemma ever posed about the existence and future of mankind. It comes from the prolific works of the celebrated and controversial British philosopher of the 1940s, Cyril Joad, and when I first read it I knew I had to begin studying philosophy myself.

Joad wrote: “Is the human mind a fundamental feature of the universe, a key to the interpretation of the rest, or is it a mere accident, an eddy in the primeval slime, doomed one day to finish its pointless journey with as little significance as it once began it?”

Isn’t that just wonderful? Doesn’t it make you feel glad to be young and alive?

Now, there are various ways in which that statement can be interpreted, but I’ve always looked at it this way: Are we intelligent beings with a free will – capable of a creativity and resourcefulness that will survive everything to come, or are we simply organic robots, physical bodies with built-in computers that simply react to the demands and challenges of our environment?

Or let’s put it this way: Are we completely governed as human beings by an incredibly complex neurological wiring, or circuitry, that is part and parcel of our organism, or is there truly another force, what we call the mind, or the soul – certainly something metaphysical – which drives and guides the body through a higher level of desires, aspirations and needs which are far loftier than our physical senses?

It’s a question that lies at the heart of philosophy, and indeed has been debated furiously for centuries. I say it’s a purely fundamental question because of the bigger issues that bloom in great blossoms of thought from it – the whole of metaphysics, for example – whether in fact there are two distinct realities to our existence, one the physical reality of matter; the other a dream-like reality of ideals, thoughts, beliefs and concepts.

This fierce debate is raging still – fuelled nowadays by the steady advances in neurological research. And by that, I mean that they’re finding more and more little nooks and crannies and patterns or networks of circuitry in the brain which not only deal with emotions, desires, even projected aims and goals that many thinkers have claimed for the idealistic side of things, but suggest that what we would regard as the separate, free-thinking mind is simply a neurological function: a product of the human machine.

In our day and age, with the level of intellectual and spiritual debate that many of us are attaining, the very last thing we’d like to hear about ourselves is that we are perambulating organic computers.

Yet it may well be – and I, for one, sincerely hope it isn’t – that the concept of mind or soul as a separate, more elevated force within our consciousness will ultimately turn out to be an invention of religion – an emotional flux, born of faith, in which we’ve been able to correspond with another of our inventions – the gods.

If we take the Darwinian theory of existence and evolution, we can certainly say that our brains have grown and become more and more complex – fantastically so – in response to increasingly complex demands and challenges of our environment.

So have our minds – if indeed we have what we regard as separate minds – required to deal these days with an enormous, ever-growing, whirling storm of moral, ethical, intellectual, occupational, imperatives and dilemmas with each step on the rung of human development.

In that respect, we have another immediate question that we have to deal with: Is the human brain, as with the circuitry of any man-made computer, completely a-moral, dispassionate, absolutely objective, concerned only with the health, safety and welfare of the body itself – while it’s the mind or soul that’s responsible for the abstract issues and functions like truth, good, beauty, morality and the like?

Remember, we can build a computer now that’s more powerful in terms of calculation and multitasking than the human brain itself, yet the next step – artificial intelligence – making it possible to think for itself – deal with the abstract demands of the intellect – is so technologically daunting that it really is as if we have to develop a mind to go with it.

OK, I’m not saying that there’s definitely a separation between body and soul, brain and mind, but we can go back – as in most other things philosophical – to Socrates and Plato to prove the many centuries in which that distinction has existed.

Socrates referred obliquely to a separate mode of command and thinking when he spoke of permanent natures of justice, courage, and right and wrong, that were not of the bodily senses. Like Plato’s so-called “eternal natures” – which, of course anticipate the ages-old debate on immutable values – Socrates saw these as not perceptible to the senses and apprehended by understanding only.

Plato himself came up with that other definition of mind – the soul – which he saw as a link between the material world, the world of matter, including the human body, and the eternal, unchanging, values-based world of ideas.

It then becomes apparent that Plato shared with Aristotle the theory of the soul being a cause, separated from and working independently of the body – causing bodily movement by “exciting desires,” as in creating those desires.

In that respect, we begin to feel the first stirrings of that rather formless, nameless, almost undefinable impulse, or life-force, within us that Schopenhaur later called the “will.”

Plato wrote that the body can only move when pushed by others or when, as in living things, it is set going by a soul or principle of life within it. But then the question begs: what moves the soul? And Plato’s answer to that was a force that he called the “unmoved mover” of the universe – God.

And when you read that, you begin to appreciate how much of Plato’s theories and those of his fellow-thinkers made their way into the Christian religion. Not that Plato saw God in quite the same way as the Christians have since regarded Him.

Plato’s God was not the maker of the world, which he said was in itself eternal. Nor was God the soul. Rather, he was the perfect being – perfect and in need of nothing beyond knowledge. In fact, Plato saw the human soul itself as separated from the physical body, to be sure, but part of God’s eternal soul.

Anaxagorous, who is said to have taught Socrates the principle of the mind, regarded it as the force that animates all matter, has power over all things that have life, is infinite and self-ruled. In fact, Anaxagrous spoke of mind or intelligence providing order to the diversity and chaos of the world, and in doing so he again reached out to the theory of eternal natures, immutable values – the mind in quest of the intelligible will – the common good – the divine plan.

Beyond that, I think we can say that the mind, as the separate, non-physical, idealistic master of the body, prevailed in philosophical thinking – supported by religion -- right up until the empiricists of the 17th century, when the first real surge of scientific discovery and culture, with its accompanying strict limits on the supernatural, began to point toward the sharper debate on mind over matter that reigns today.

Is the mind, as we regard it, purely a function of the brain – and therefore an electro-organic product of matter – or is it a separate, idealistic, driving force that connects us all with an eternal common consciousness of true, immutable values and laws?

Why do we say on the one hand to others: “Use your bloody brain,” and on the other: “Surely your intelligence would tell you …”

Kant didn’t have much truck with the mind as a pre-eminent mover and shaker of all things. You’ll recall he’s most famous for asserting that, if there’s a mind at all, or more likely an intelligence in his way of thinking, it’s incapable of taking we mere mortals across the great philosophical divide to that fabled realm of idealism, wherein all things abstract reign.

Kant said the mind can obtain knowledge only from what it perceives of the material world through our senses.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte, on the other hand, was among those thinkers who began attributing the mind, or soul, with a kind of supreme purpose, and harnessing the physical world, and us, to achieve it. Fichte reckoned the soul itself saw nature, or the material world about it, as a kind of obstacle course with which to exercise itself and, and. ultimately, to successfully overcome – or even as a means through which to communicate with other souls.

Then we have Hegel, who took Fichte’s obstacle course and went a huge metaphysical step further. Yes, the mind or spirit needed an external world in which its striving to know and use might develop its own capacities. In other words, sharpen and develop its knowledge and reason.

But, says Hegel, the external world only serves this purpose because it sets before the mind, as an object for its study and appropriation, a nature which is in truth the mind’s own. And, having opened up the question of reality actually being what we ourselves perceive it to be, Hegel went on to define reality itself in terms of mind over matter – body and soul.

I think it’s so compelling and powerful, the way he puts this thesis – if for no other reason than you can actually understand what he means.

Hegal contended that the thought of an ultimate reality which is rational or intelligible – for that is practically what is here meant by “God” – is the thought of something which is certainly not perceptible by the senses. To appeal to the senses for verification would be unreasonable.

The only verification of which we could reasonably talk, he continues, is that supplied by the actual progress of knowledge, as, under the pressure of the questions which the mind puts to it, the world yields up one secret after another.

But the whole business of putting the questions, distinguishing the answers, and seeing what new questions these answers suggest, is all carried on by the mind in the strength of conviction – that in thinking logically, that is in following the laws of its own nature, it is tracing out the actual structure of reality.”

Can we prove the existence of mind over matter – a higher, independent intellect, if you will, that says we must walk before we can run, that a stitch in time saves nine, that pride goeth before a fall, and all the other little nagging safety and ethical messages we mentally download when we have time to stop and think?

Well, we can’t see the mind, or soul, or do a digital trace of it. All we have to go on at this point in time, I think, is to think of the analogy of man and computer.

And at this moment, I’m moving into the realm of existence as Derek Maitland sees it, with answers that are purely intuitive and must not be taken in the same light as those wide-eyed, slightly manic men we see with cow-licked strands of hair, whipcord neck muscles and spittle flying from the lips, bawling the word Truth at us from soap boxes in the Domain.

So, it’s my intuitive theory that as human beings, we are the mainframes in which our brains are the computers.

These computers can operate the body, interpret its perception of the material environment about it, store and build memory, master an inestimable range of tasks and supply commands, energy and chemical at required times to stimulate an emotional response to what it senses.

Of course, there are celebrated philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle, who wrote “Concept of the Mind” in 1949, who insist that this is where it all stops -- in what he calls the super-mechanical capacities of the body and brain. Ryle claims that the idea of mind as an independent entity, inhabiting and governing the body, should be rejected as a redundant piece of literalism carried over from the era before the biological sciences became established.

But I’m not sure of that – intuitively, that is. To me, it is the mind that drives and masters the body through the brain. It is we ourselves, by analogy, sitting at the keyboard telling the computer what to do – making it respond to desires, aspirations, aims, goals, codes and yearnings that the computer, concerned only with “tasks” – and that’s the keyword – tasks – cannot understand.

And from that thesis, we go back to my philosopher mentor, Cyril Joad, and three steps in his own analysis of mind over matter.

Step 1: Joad asks: “If the purely mechanist view of evolution is to be accepted, how does man fit in – so poorly equipped for his environment, compared with other species striving for higher forms of life?”

Step 2: Joad continues: “I shall assume, that is to say, that both life and matter are real – in the sense that neither can be derived from the other and must find accommodation for each other in the universe.”

Step 3: Joad’s clincher – “The notion of a non-material form of life acting upon and using material bodies is therefore no longer so difficult to sustain, as it was when the older physics held sway.

“The body is a machine, and, if appropriately stimulated, will work as a machine works. Life may be conceived to be intimately associated with it, but independent of it – an activity, rather than a thing, which uses and moulds the body for its purposes, playing upon it as the fingers of a skilled pianist play upon his/her


That’s another most beautiful analogy, and to it we can add the athlete, whose sense of challenge, ambitions and pure will to win drive the body hard for victory. And the body delights in this mastery and drive – frisking and leaping, like a horse when the reins are let, in anticipation of each new challenge.

If I can round off this talk with another example of my own intuitive thinking, I would ask this: Why does the human body, the human self, put itself through such horrible trials, risk such injury and death and deprivation, unless there’s a power of mind over matter, some commanding force which can override its own natural instinct for safety and survival?

And I’ll leave you with this example of this overriding power from my own experience.

It’s one, you can laugh at -- my decision, three years ago, to take the world’s second highest bunjee jump in Helsinki, Finland.

My mind had an aim, a goal, you see – insane as it was -- and my body, ever-trustful that my mind would do the right thing, allowed itself to be winched up 400 feet on a huge crane over the Helsinki waterfront – standing on the edge of a small metal cage, legs roped together with the bunjee cord and two jump-crew hunched behind me.

My mind had absolutely no doubt about whatit was going to do. And it wasn’t until I reached the top, and the two Finnish guys behind me swung me around to gaze out over what I swear was the worst thing I’ve ever seen -- an absolutely awesome, awful, terrifying empty expanse of Helsinki rooftops and traffic -- that my body finally rebelled.

“What in the name of Christ are you doing?” it screamed. “This is suicide. This is how one kills oneself. This is against all the laws of human existence and self-preservation, for fuck’s sake! Stop this insanity. Get back. Go back down. I will not allow you to do this to me, us!”

Behind me, I could hear the two Finnish crew gently preparing me for the jump. “It’s gonna be beautiful, Derek. You’re just gonna love this. Now, on the count of three … One …. Two …”

And in those tiny moments, that’s where I encountered the pure and absolute separation of mind over matter, mind over body. My body was absolutely terrified. It was like a dog being dragged on a chain to a cold bath, ears back, neck straining, all paws frantically dug into the floor for traction.

But in those apocalyptic split seconds of decision, my mind – believe it or not -- could not bear the abject humility of turning back, stopping the jump, being lowered back down to the beach with everyone for miles around hooting with derision. And me at 60, I think it was – silly old fool, get him down before he does himself an injury. Who let him up there in the first place?

And the secret of bunjee jumping became plain to me too – it’s the mind, the will, overriding the body’s natural terror, that makes it as horribly thrilling and ultimately triumphant as it is.

Yes, I think we have a mind, or soul, that’s separate to and independent of our organic, computerized frames. It’s what makes us do such awesome, terrifying and wonderful things. It’s what, in the final analysis, makes us human.

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