- The problem of mind-brain dualism
- Recasting the problem in non-dual terms
- The knotting of experience and the brain
- Flesh of the brain
- Science and perception
- Concluding reflections
Ever since neuroscience has discovered correlations between brain activity and experience, the belief has taken root that experience is produced by the brain. According to this belief, reality is composed of matter, and experience is some kind of emergent pattern, epiphenomenon, or even illusion, generated by underlying material processes. But when pressed to explain this supposed production of the mental from the physical, the materialist approach is dumbfounded, and we are left none the wiser regarding their relationship. In this essay, I will attempt to provide a solution to the problem of the relationship between mind and brain, that is, between the subjective or experiential “what-it-is-like”-dimension of life and its objective biological dimension. I will articulate a non-dual approach, which is to say an approach that is neither dualist, separating reality into the distinct domains of the physical and the mental, nor monist, reducing reality to one of these domains. My guiding thread is Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological investigations into the nature of perception, especially in his late work, where these investigations take an ontological turn. Drawing upon his work, I will articulate a core logic that resolves the paradox of mind-brain dualism. To this end, I will introduce several ideas that will help us grasp the circularity at play in this relationship.I introduce four novel terms which are inspired by Merleau-Ponty’s work but are not found therein. These terms – inward folding, the onto-logic of non-duality, endo-anchorage, and flesh of the … Continue reading I will, however, have to restrict myself to the exposition of this “onto-logic”, and leave aside a full-blown explanation of non-dual ontology for elsewhere. But first, let us establish clearly what the problem of mind-brain dualism is, before recasting it in non-dual terms.
The problem of mind-brain dualism
The problem is essentially that of understanding the relationship between two domains: How does experience relate to the physical world? On the one hand, each of us testifies to a world that one lives in what we call “experience”. In this domain, things are made of sensible qualities. We see colored objects, feel the texture of surfaces, smell odors, hear sounds. These sensible things are moreover infused with associations and memories, and bear affective values, capable of arousing emotional responses. Other living beings are grasped as a form of life akin to oneself. Events of the world are experienced as situations that bear meaning which motivates us to act, or which at least opens up a field of possible actions. This rich tapestry of inner life is opposed to another view which we have come to understand as “the physical world”, which presents the world as a constellation of physical parts governed by blind mechanical interactions according to natural laws. The traditional approach of dualism considers these as two fundamentally distinct domains of reality: mind and matter. The mind is taken to reconstruct an internal double of the material world on the basis of sense-data. I am referring to the paradigm of representationalism. This bifurcation into two worlds has given rise to two opposing worldviews, which differ on which world they consider to be primary. Realism assumes the primacy of matter, or what lies beyond experience. In order to uncover the truth, the realist adopts the scientific-empirical method of investigating the material world. Matter is viewed as constitutive of reality. Experience is viewed as a product of underlying material processes, generally identified with nervous activity. What this position overlooks is that the presence of the world for us implies, in the first place, our consciousness of the world. If our conception of the world omits this source, then we are misconstruing the nature of what exists for us. Idealism seeks to rectify this error by grounding its conception of the world in our experience of the world, understood as the realm of consciousness. Truth is uncovered by consciousness reflecting upon itself, thus revealing the essential structures that make up its inner world. Consciousness is viewed as the constitutive center of reality, and matter as one of its projections. However, as the realist rightly points out, this undermines the independent existence of matter, and overlooks the materiality of the body which bears consciousness. Each of these positions only accounts for half the story. Idealism accounts for experience, but fails when it comes to the “things-in-themselves” existing beyond the projections of consciousness. It remains incomprehensible how such things could have an effect upon consciousness, and conversely, how consciousness could be receptive to signals from an alien world. Realism accounts for the material world, but falters when it comes to experience. The latter is assumed to be realized by underlying material processes, but this realization remains an occult and incomprehensible transition.
Scientific thought has taken up this fragmented worldview siding with the primacy of matter, and considers the domain of experience as a product of material biological processes. This stance is not entirely misplaced; the fact is indeed that experience is tied to particular biological processes. But the materialist approach, in its thrust toward absolute understanding, disfigures the reality of life. Our first-hand testimony of life is demoted to a secondary status, and the objective world of matter is crowned as the true reality. The question then arises of how a material body could possibly conjure up the qualitative dimension of experience. If reality is the dance of dead particles, lived experience is an anomaly, and no amount of conceptual tinkering can turn bodies into anything more than mechanical puppets. The problem of the relation between mind and matter is trapped in an irreconcilable paradox. If that is the state of affairs we have arrived at; if our theorizing about the psychophysical body has reached a metaphysical stalemate, nucleated by the “hard problem of consciousness”, perhaps this is because the question has been poorly construed.
Recasting the problem in non-dual terms
The obstinate question that resists all answers is how the physical brain gives rise to experience. If we consider the physical world as categorically distinct from experience, and if the physical brain ontologically subtends and sustains experience, what becomes incomprehensible is precisely what we ought to explain, that is, the transition from the one to the other. Let us return to the actual situation we are presented with, as we live it in our lives, so that we might better pose our question. We do not discover that the physical brain gives rise to experience. Rather, we experience ourselves in the world as a body, and we discover that this body contains an organ which is absolutely necessary for experience, the brain. This means that the experience-brain relation is double-sided: Experience depends upon the brain as the material organ without which it would not exist, and the brain depends upon (perceptual) experience as the field of presence without which it would not appear to us as a material organ. The brain is the material condition of possibility for experience to take place, and experience provides the transcendentalI mean “transcendental” in the broadly Husserlian sense, i.e., of providing the structures and conditions of consciousness that make possible the appearance and meaning of objects within … Continue reading conditions of possibility for the brain to appear. But stated like this, we are still caught in a sort of dualism, and the representationalist would be quick to note that this conception does not necessarily contradict their own: The material brain is the brain-in-itself existing beneath experience and realizing the latter through its biological processes, while the appearance of the brain is the internal representation formed thereof within experience. A coherent non-dual conception of the experience-brain relation will have to address this scission of appearance and reality head-on.
Certainly, we cannot outright deny the separation between appearance and reality. The appearances in my perceptual field can be confused, illusory, subject to correction. The appearances cannot simply coincide with the things themselves; there must be a distance between the two. At the same time, this distance cannot be a complete separation, or else we would not even have the barest inkling of a real world subsisting beneath the fleeting appearances. The appearances are illusory only in relation to a correction that reveals what is truly present (Merleau-Ponty, 1968, pp. 40–41; hereafter cited as VI). The separation between appearance and reality must at once be the possibility of their connection; the distance must be the medium for a contact. Perception is this distant-contact with the world, which renders the world present to a perceiving body (VI, p. 220). Still, this elaboration of perception as distant-contact remains consistent with a dualism of mind and matter: one could simply understand this distant-contact as the function of representation. In a sense, this is even true: the notion of representation was meant to express this fallible yet grounded connection with the world that we have through perceptual experience. Extricating the dualism from this notion then comes down to reconceiving of the nature of this distance and this contact, such that it does not bifurcate reality into two incommensurable orders.
This bifurcation signifies that in the traditional notion of representation, the distant-contact is squeezed onto its opposing limits, converting it into the unstable opposition of absolute distance or absolute contact. That is, experience is conceptualized as a sphere that is closed in upon itself, where it is in absolute contact with its own contents; conversely, it is at an absolute remove from the world itself. The commixture between appearance and reality is purified and turned into two contradictory domains. But how else could it be? The appearance has to be the appearance of something, and this something has to be distinct from the appearance – does this not automatically lead us to posit a domain of reality alongside a domain of appearances? In a sense, it is inevitable, but only in the case of an objectifying attitude which separates what is entangled. The truth is that there are not two domains, but a single, ambiguous tissue of perceptual experience. The phenomenal thing – e.g., the cup as I see it, the tree as I touch it, the flower as I smell it – is given to me as the carnal presence of the thing itself, where “carnal” signifies that it is present to my body in the same medium where my body is present to itself. This medium, which is the perceptual world, is not constituted by a relation between a world in itself and perception as internal representation of the things in this world – which is ultimately inconceivable – but between perception as openness upon the world and the world as ready to be perceived, i.e., as what answers to that perception (VI, p. 124).
Let’s take an example. I perceive a cup of coffee. The dualist analysis would have us dissect this event into my perception of the cup, understood as an internal representation generated by my body/brain, and the cup in itself, which exists beyond my perception in the objective world. The non-dual approach does not collapse this distinction entirely: there is indeed a separation between my perception of the cup and the being of the cup. However, if we were to express this separation by positing an independent realm of objective reality, we strip perception of the intertwining essential to it. That is, the actual being of the cup is what my perception renders visible, tangible, as a distant presence. What separates us is the entire “thickness” of my own body, of the world, of the cup, which is at the same time what enables our communication (VI, p. 135). In other words, the cup indeed transcends my perception, but perception is a process of taking up and incorporating the transcendence of the world. Therefore, we would poorly construe the relationship between my perception and the cup if we understand the latter as existing independently of my perception. As a thing of the world, the cup is ready to be perceived by my sensing body, and thus enters into its circuit, forming a system with it. Instead of the body generating an internal representation of an external world, we may speak here of a kind of inward folding of the world itself.
Does this reconception enable us to make any progress on the problem of the relationship between experience and the brain? That will be the crucial test to determine whether the non-dual approach accomplishes a significant and fruitful transformation of our understanding of reality.
The knotting of experience and the brain
In order to resolve the experience-brain problem, there is one more element of the equation that we must thematize: the circular nature of perception (VI, pp. 133–146). This can summarily be stated as follows: (1) it is the body which perceives the world; (2) the body is itself a part of the world; (3) thus perception in principle affords the possibility of a self-perception (given that the perceptual system can accommodate for this kind of reflexivity). In other words, the perceiver perceives from the midst of the world, and so belongs to the same world that is revealed by perception. Therefore, it belongs to the nature of vision that the seer is also visible (VI, p. 113); it belongs to the nature of touch that the toucher is also tangible. This is what we may call the onto-logic of non-duality. To put it differently, the situatedness of the perceiver within the world perceived entails that the perceiver is doubled by the operation of perception as one of the perceived entities. The perceiving body is doubled as a perceived body. This does not mean that there are two bodies, one which is subjectively experienced and another which exists objectively beyond experience. Rather, it means that one and the same body turns back upon itself and renders itself visible through the channels of its own perception. The body folds in upon itself and becomes experienced as a body. There remains a distance between the experience of the body and the factual body. This is exemplified by neurological disorders such as the phantom limb syndrome, where one experiences the possession of a limb which is factually absent. For a detailed discussion of the phantom limb syndrome within this context, see Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945/2012, pp. 78–91). But this distance is not absolute, and in normal functioning, it is the medium of a genuine contact with the body.
But if the body must undergo this inward folding in order to realize the experience of the body, does that not imply a physical body prior to experience which accomplishes this inward folding? If my experience of my body does not necessarily correspond to the factual state of my body, does this not imply that my experience is an internal fabrication? Does the correlative dependence of experience upon nervous activity not inform us about the biological center of this fabrication? Finally, does all this not settle once and for all that experience is a neurologically-mediated internal representation of reality? We now get to the heart of the matter. The statement that experience is a neurologically-mediated internal representation of reality is, to an extent, on the right track, but falls into confusion mainly because of its metaphysical presuppositions. These dualistic presuppositions assign the status of exteriority, physicality, and objectivity to the domain of reality, which includes my factual body and its nervous activity; and it assigns the status of interiority, mentality, and subjectivity to the domain of representations. This, as the annals of philosophy have shown, dooms our understanding into paradox. Our way out lies in firstly recognizing the two-sidedness of the dependence between experience and nervous activity: Experience indeed depends upon nervous activity, but this nervous activity itself appears within the field of perceptual experience. Thus, the experience-brain dependence is not the production of one phenomenon by another, whether we take it in the strong sense where the two phenomena are ontologically distinct, like the dependence of smoke upon fire, or in the weak sense of the emergence of a higher-order pattern from lower-level constituents, like the emergence of waves from water particles. There exists no precise analog of this relation in the natural world. The experience-brain dependence is a sort of internal anchorage of experience within its own field. Why does this “endo-anchorage” take form? Because of the circular nature of perception. The body perceives the world to which it belongs, and therefore has perceptual access to the processes which realize its own experience. The following analogy might help to understand the situation. Consider the body’s perceptual openness upon the world as a mirror (VI, p. 139). When the body perceives itself, it is comparable to the mirror curving back upon itself and reflecting itself. The mirror and its mirror image are neither identical nor absolutely distinct; they form an indissociable pair together. Similarly, experience and nervous activity form an indissociable pair, as one and the same being reflects itself through its openness upon the world. Thus, the brain is indeed the generative center of experience, but only insofar as the brain constitutes the point where experience turns back upon itself through its own perceptual powers. The brain therefore does not take metaphysical precedence over experience, but emerges together with it in the tissue of perception. In other words, perception opens onto the stage of the world as a field which is, at the zero-point of its axes, anchored in a brain – a brain which is no less anchored in that field.
But what about the brain of an embryo, prior to the lifeform’s capacity to perceive – surely this developing brain exists even though the lifeform does not yet experience? And more generally, are we not making the absurd claim that the existence of the world depends on experience? That is, are we denying that the world has existed prior to life, and are we denying that it remains in existence without life? Let us start with the first question. Indeed the developing brain of an embryo exists before the power of perception is acquired. However, opposed to the traditional conception, its mode of existence is not that of a physical entity which, at some crucial point, realizes the emergence of a mental mode of existence. Rather, the embryo (and its brain) is visible (e.g., for the mother, the doctor), and at some crucial point, when its powers of perception are developed, becomes visible for itself (VI, p. 147). Existence is not split into two orders, one physical and the other mental. Rather, perception is the very measure of what exists (VI, p. 103). The carnal contact between the sensing body and the world is what brings to presence the realm of all beings. The split is therefore between perception and a world susceptible to being perceived – a split which is at once a connection. We are therefore not saying that the being of the world depends upon experience. Rather, we are saying that the being of the world can only be grasped by the connection that we bear with it as sensing bodies, and that it must be defined in relation to this connection. And with respect to this relation, this distant-contact inaugurated by perception, the world is our interlocutor, i.e., that which completes the circuit of our perception.
Flesh of the brain
The underlying metaphysical thesis of this entire discourse is that being is perceived being. ‘What is’ ought not to be defined abstractly, in terms of scientific constructs or philosophical idealizations. Rather, ‘what is’ abounds all around us, traverses us, constitutes the world we live. It implies that being bears a kinship with perception, with perceiving bodies. We are therefore articulating an ontology of the flesh. This is not an ontology of suppositions and speculations, but one which gives expression to what we live. In perceptual life, we bear witness to the fact that the living body transcends itself and incorporates the world into its existence (VI, p. 136). Perception is a sphere of interiority-exteriority, of subjectivity-objectivity, or rather, it is the ambiguous tissue whence philosophy has extricated these polar concepts. We experience our own body as the central pivot of a field which extends onto the whole of Being. The earth runs through beneath our feet; other bodies are present to our touch; we feel ourselves immersed in a reality to which our body belongs as one of its constituents. When we speak of the flesh of the body, we refer to the body of perception, which is the visible seer, the tangible toucher, the body which at once renders the world present and renders itself present in the world (VI, pp. 248–251). The counterpart and accomplice of this body is the world of perception, which, as an extension of our own flesh, we may call the flesh of the world. The unbridgeable gap between the physical and the mental, which is the blight of traditional ontology, gives way for an intertwining between the perceiver and the perceived.
As we have discussed, this intertwining which is accomplished by perception not only brings the body into contact with the world but also with itself. Hence, the body can survey itself, examine its own flesh, uncover the secrets behind its life. Science has taken up this task and has discovered the organic locus of the intertwining, the organ where experience takes form: the brain. The brain is not a physical entity beneath experience which somehow realizes the latter; rather, the brain in question is the one embedded in the visible body, lodged behind our eyeballs, in principle accessible to all perceivers. Experience is anchored in the flesh of the brain, the squishy pinkish globular mass resting in the shadow of the cranium. Evidently, then, there is no question of the brain miraculously producing another domain of reality opposed to its native domain of physicality. Mind, brain, body, and world are given in the same perceptual tissue. The experience-brain dependence is naturally brought forth by the circularity of perception, which inserts the perceptual system itself into the world perceived.
Science and perception
Earlier in the essay, it was stated that the representationalist paradigm falls into confusion mainly due to its dualist presuppositions. We have now reconfigured our metaphysical framework and remedied the subject-object separation by articulating a non-dual approach, where the intertwining or distant-contact between subject and object is central. However, there is another reason why the representationalist paradigm falters, and this has to do with what it deems to be the essential function of the mind: re-presenting the world. Our non-dual approach will fall short if it does not revise this underlying thesis.
According to this thesis, the mind is conceived of as a mirror of the world. Its basic function is to reconstruct the objects in the exterior world. This might sound intuitively true: I perceive around me a chair, a tree, a cup, which are objects existing in the world that my mind accesses by re-presenting them in its own sphere. However, as research into animal psychology indicates, this is not what most animals perceive.For an in-depth elaboration on this point, see Merleau-Ponty’s Structure of Behavior (1942/1963), notably Chapters II and III. For a summary of the pertinent points and a discussion that engages … Continue reading For the vast majority of the animal kingdom, the perceptual world is a world of species-typical significations, with zones of value and threat, attraction and repulsion. It is not the sterile world of objects existing in themselves, but a dynamic manifold which solicits actions depending on the meaning of the phenomena for the animal. The perceptual intertwining with the world must therefore be conceived of, first and foremost, as an intertwining of the acting body with its environment. It is only at the late stage of human evolution, through the acquisition of the powers for language and symbolism, that the perceived world acquires the timbre of a world of independent objects. We are no longer simply immersed in our immediate environment, but have the ability to take a step back and consider the perceived environment as a region of the world, and the world as a constellation of objects. We are able to displace our perspective into the things around us, and consider them in their own right as physical structures.
This transformation of the perceived world, enabled by these newfound human powers, has reached its present state through the scientific revolution. The perception of the world as a physical plenum is the culmination of a complex historical trajectory. In order to bring this modern worldview into relief, it is worth recognizing the vastly divergent worldviews that have preceded it, such as the pan-vitalism of our early ancestors, who viewed the entirety of nature as a living and breathing whole. Likewise, our perception of the body has gone through divergent historical phases, as illustrated by the vast abundance of writings about the soul in pre-scientific texts and its complete lack in scientific literature. Finally, the same applies to our perception of the brain. Consider for instance the Aristotelian view that the brain serves primarily as a cooling mechanism for the body, while the seat of intelligence was identified with the heart. All this goes to show that our present perception of the world as governed by physical laws, of the body as a biological system, and of the brain as the organic nexus of consciousness, is the product of a long historical process. We are acknowledging this historical dimension of science not to undermine the validity of scientific claims by relativizing them to a particular cultural epoch, but to cultivate a deeper grasp of the meaning of science. The movement of science is entangled with perceptual life. It does not step outside of the world we live in order to expose a hidden reality beneath it, but rather effectuates a certain transformation of the lived world by systematically and empirically investigating the phenomena (VI, pp. 225–226). In line with our metaphysical thesis that being is perceived being, this implies that knowledge and being – that is, epistemology and ontology – are intertwined in a single tissue, which is the tissue of lived experience.
To conclude, let us link this discussion back to the brain. Firstly, we stated that the perceptual intertwining is primarily one that brings the perceiver into contact with the world as a practical field of action and species-typical significations. This applies also to the perception of bodies. Other bodies are grasped as other agents like oneself, dwelling in the same practical field; they are grasped through meaningful categories such as family or stranger, friend or foe, predator or prey. One’s own body is a zone of vulnerability which calls for protection, nourishment, etc. At this level, our exterior organs are wholly functional means to engage with the world, and our interior organs are hidden from sight. But for us human beings, our engagement with the world affords a deeper kind of investigation which brings the phenomena to light as physical structures. At this higher level of perception, we are able to grasp bodies as biological systems, to conduct investigations into their internal organs, and to conceptualize their workings. When it comes to the brain, then, the perceptual intertwining which gives us access to this organ does not primarily re-present it as an objective physical structure with a function, but as an enigmatic portion of our flesh which remains safely hidden away. But this flesh of the brain can be studied, its interconnections with experience explored, which initiates a transformation that forever changes our perception of this organ and of its role in our lives.
In this essay, I have tried to show that the correlations which neuroscience has uncovered between experience and brain activity are not evidence for the production of the mental from the physical, but rather results from the onto-logic of non-duality – that is, the circularity of the perceptual intertwining between the body and the world. This circularity renders the body visible for itself and allows it to uncover the processes of its own life. I will end by adding two layers of nuance to this conception.
So far, when referring to the nexus where the perceiver loops back onto itself and reveals the forge of experience, I have spoken as if this nexus is unambiguously “the brain”, or “nervous processes”. However, these terms are merely placeholders for what is, in fact, an open empirical question. The brain is an unfathomably complex organ, composed of blood vessels, glial cells, ventricles, neurons, synapses, and more. Each neuron is itself an immensely complex unit, containing a vast variety of proteins, organelles, genetic information, and more. Similarly, when speaking of neural activity, neuroscientists generally refer to patterns of actions potentials, but the latter are themselves complex conglomerates of processes, including ion fluxes, protein channels, neural membranes, synapses, neurotransmitters, and more. It is unclear at this point whether experience strictly corresponds to some localized subset of these processes, or whether it diffusely corresponds to their entire organization. The onto-logic of non-duality tells us that the perceived world ought to contain some anchorage of experience, some phenomenon which corresponds to the perceiver, but it is as yet unclear what this phenomenon is, where its boundaries lie, and whether these boundaries are sharp or fuzzy. It is, in other words, unclear whether experience is anchored in some clearly delineated neurobiological process, or some distributed set of neural processes, or perhaps even incorporates extra-neural processes, maybe even permeating the entire body. Neuroscience is at a stage that is far too premature to conclude an answer to this question. An honest inquiry into the biological roots of experience must respect the ambiguity we face.
Finally, I wish to emphasize what was stated at the beginning of the essay, which is that this essay explains a core logic of non-duality, and not non-dual ontology as such. The latter would require a far more extensive treatment, and was under the purview of Merleau-Ponty’s late work, which was cut short by his untimely death. The ontology of the flesh, which I briefly touched upon, is an ontology that explicates the deep tissue of the sensible world. It raises our awareness of how things are lived by us, how we pivot about them, how the lifeworld is structured by its dimensions, its levels, its hinges. It shows how the private world of each is at once an openness upon the common world of all. It tells the story of the lived body, our flesh, and its adventure through Being. With this essay, I hope to have demonstrated some of its philosophical merit, in particular its capacity to dissolve the mind-brain paradox. To further integrate this ontology with the science of the brain, a next valuable step would be to establish more clearly how neuroscience is understood through the lens of this ontology. If my reasoning is found to be sound, the non-dual approach must be the way forward for philosophy, and both justifies the scientist’s quest for truth and qualifies it as a part of embodied life. The flesh is recognized as the true reality. We are looking at a paradigm shift of immense proportions.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1963). The structure of behavior (F. L. Alden, Trans.; originally published 1942). Beacon Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968). The visible and the invisible: Followed by working notes (C. Lefort, Ed.; A. Lingis, Trans.; originally published 1964). Northwestern Univ. Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2012). Phenomenology of perception (D. A. Landes, Trans.; originally published 1945). Routledge.
Vörös, S. (2020). Mind Embodied, Mind Bodified. Etudes Phénoménologiques – Phenomenological Studies, 4, 91–117.
|↑1||I introduce four novel terms which are inspired by Merleau-Ponty’s work but are not found therein. These terms – inward folding, the onto-logic of non-duality, endo-anchorage, and flesh of the brain, in the order of their occurrence in the text – highlight the creative contribution of this essay.|
|↑2||I am referring to the paradigm of representationalism.|
|↑3||I mean “transcendental” in the broadly Husserlian sense, i.e., of providing the structures and conditions of consciousness that make possible the appearance and meaning of objects within conscious experience.|
|↑4||For a detailed discussion of the phantom limb syndrome within this context, see Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945/2012, pp. 78–91).|
|↑5||For an in-depth elaboration on this point, see Merleau-Ponty’s Structure of Behavior (1942/1963), notably Chapters II and III. For a summary of the pertinent points and a discussion that engages with contemporary debates, see Vörös (2020).|