In the last Saturday’s Guardian Magazine, the boldly titled ‘This Column Will Change Your Life’ referred to a very interesting study on the nature of the human mind. The column discussed the way in which people perceive the constitution of the human mind and even the dreaded soul, and whether the mind is a function of matter or divorced from it. The study was interesting in that rather than addressing the question itself, it concerned itself with how the way in which people live their lives is affected by the view which they take on this question.
The article used physicalist to describe someone who considers the mind to be an action of the brain and dualist to describe someone who considers that the mind exists with independence from it. The study found that for physicalists a great importance was placed on health and on acting in a way which will keep the body, and therefore the mind, in a favourable condition. In the same way, dualists were found to be predisposed to treat their bodies with less care, as they are only a vessel for the (usually) impervious mind. Amusingly, people who read literature on health were affected in a way which made them more physicalist in their outlook.
When I had this reported to me it worked logically — if one hurts the body, in the case of a physicalist this means that one is hurting the mind, if one is a dualist, the mind should be immune. However, it seemed to disagree with my experience. In my memory (which is not entirely complete or perfect) the materialists (who deny the existence of anything which is not a function of matter or energy, and therefore the existence of a deity or soul) which I see are often keen to enjoy to a high degree the pleasures, many of which are unhealthy, of life. In addition, I have often found that it is the pious religious people who are moved to shun these experiences or to take them in extreme moderation.
It is quite probable that I have made a false correlation, but to continue the thread, it could be that there is a confusion as to the way in which people act upon their membership of the physicalist or dualist camps. The materialist who knows that their mind is affected in the same way as is their liver, acts like the body is but a shell; the idealist, whose immaterial soul should be on a different plane of existence to their body, acts as if this firewall doesn’t protect them.
To consider the cases in which the subject acts in a way which disagrees with their thoughts on the nature of the mind (which are the most interesting cases) there are probably two explanations: that the person is actually (and perhaps not consciously) of the other camp, or that — I’m sorry to seem repetitive on this one — if there is a firewall, it has been erected between their thoughts and their actions.
An good example for discussion is Christopher Hitchens. The man was a card-carrying materialist, but while holding this mindset he embarked on a continuously hedonistic voyage involving cigarettes and non-single-malt whiskey, then to ‘cut-down’ only a few years (before his illness). He said and wrote with prodigious ability that the mind was a function of the brain not separate from it, but acted in a way which (through his logic) would impair his ability to write and speak these statements with such talent.
One could also say that he, while speaking like a physicalist, had other thoughts. Perhaps — and I invite you to correct my speculation — he, as a result of the almost transcendent nature of his speaking and writing abilities, moved to occupy a position in which he felt his consciousness to be impervious to his booze intake in a way which should only be possible for someone whose mind is a function of something other than regular matter.
However, as I warned you, I am about to conclude that part of the reason behind the fact that so many people act in a manner contrary to that which would be determined by their mindset is the curious though pervasive ability of humans to compartmentalise their ideas.
‘Humans are amphibians– half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.) As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for as to be in time means to change.’ — Uncle Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis.
As Screwtape so adeptly and disdainfully puts it, we have logical and animalistic components. Therefore, when one’s logic states that the mind is as susceptible to the long-term affects of alcohol as is the liver while drinking keenly, I suspect that this is one of the times occasions on which the animal carries the day.