Chuck into the deep end

Essay by by Pavel Okopnyi

Body and mind, intentionality, instruments and tools, consciousness, perception, phenomenal field, phenomenal body, and many others. Reading Merleau-Ponty’s “Phenomenology of Perception” [1] (as well as any philosophical work, to be honest) resembles a ‘sink-or-swim’ exercise in a sense that the unprepared reader chokes with words, terms and concepts, as well as unprepared swimmer chokes with water. This process does guarantee a result. In that sense, reading this book is itself a deep bodily experience, in which one can literally feel the restrains of his brain, or, mind, to absorb those new concepts and ideas, to understand and digest them. Should it be considered as a coincidence that even thinking about this experience invokes old, if not ancient, idea of body-mind dualism, which is also mentioned and discussed in an aforementioned book? Struggling with ‘choking on philosophy’ seems to be a common experience, shared by many others.

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Will. Screenshot from “Do Humans Operate Like Computers? (Kant) – 8-Bit Philosophy”

Otherwise, I don’t see another explanation of existence of a thing like a Wisecrack Youtube channel and it’s ‘8-bit Philosophy’ series [2], which tries to explain different philosophical concepts and ideas utilising 8-bit games’ assets and graphics to visualize those ideas.

Speaking of the mind-body dualism, as a person with a very little knowledge in philosophy, I would like to ask questions which might be considered naive (and that is the reason I probably should only ask them, without even an attempt to discuss, as they were, probably, discussed a lot by those with more experience and knowledge of the topic). This notion of body and mind or soul comes from ancient times and was thoroughly investigated during Early Modern and Modern Periods. Yet, this notion, and philosophical discussion around it, is strongly connected precisely with Western philosophy. What about Eastern philosophy? The world consists of many parts, and, if we are in search for truth, or, at least, for good ideas, I would suggest, that we ought to take into account philosophical findings from any parts of the world that can provide us with them. Another question: to what extent (if any) those ideas and concepts are biased by christianity which is for a long time a dominating religion in western world? Or any other religion or belief system, which imply divine or, at least, mystical essences to exist?

In the third chapter “The spatiality of one’s own body and motility”, Merleau-Ponty discusses two concepts (or types?) of body: objective, which is a physical body consisted of bones and muscles and nerves, etc; and a phenomenal body, which is… something else? This discussion implies the concept of ‘soul’, as Merleau-Ponty uses it to describe the difference between those two “systems”: “It is not a question of how the soul acts on the objective body, since it is not on the latter that it acts, but on the phenomenal body.” The reference to the concept of soul once again leads the the question of religious/mystical bias in the western philosophy in general, and in mind-body dualism in particular. Actually, in my opinion, the mind-body dualism itself would not exist without certain mystical notions, e.g. spirit or soul, which appeared in very ancient times for some reason (I’m not qualified to discuss the origin of those concepts, unfortunately). Those notions still exist in our present time, though, I would not say, that this fact should be used of an evidence of truthfulness.

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Image 2. Motoko Kusanagi

I got acquainted with the idea of mind-body dualism though modern culture, “Ghost in the Shell” anime/manga to be precise. The main character, major Motoko Kusanagi (img 2), is a cyborg, which has all of the human body parts replaced with cybernetic ones, including brain. This leads to the question (actually, a lot of questions): is she a human? Is a prosthetic hand still a hand, or should it be considered a tool, or instrument, like hammer, or cane? Another question which I personally favor is: “if we develop a mechanism which is as complicated as a human body, should it be called a living creature?” Of course, if we build a such a robot, it would be artificial, but what is the difference between artificial and not artificial? What I’m trying to say, is that, in my opinion, the general philosophy of phenomenology, which was founded in the early 20th century by Husserl, and based (to some extent) on the psychological findings of that time, today, for me provides more questions than answers, introducing confusion and even embarrassment. Maybe, it is meant to. However, contemporary psychology and cognitive science are far ahead of the state of 1920s. For example, today they can even explain (to some extend) such vague and elusive ideas like love [3]. My point can be found even offensive, though it is not meant to be so. The question I would like to address is: What would the phenomenology look like, if it was founded today, and based of contemporary cognitive science, leaving out the question of mystical concepts of soul. Would it even exist?

Commentary by Adib Abud Jaso

Taking this last point about artificiality and the body, we could just take into the most basic definition of artificiality, something that is man-made. We could just say that if a person makes a body part or an entire body, it is artificial by definition. But let’s consider the concepts of the use that a person can give to this body. If we can perfect an artificial hand that feels and moves just like a natural hand, then it would immediately become part of us, it could be consider a ready-to-hand tool most of the time and it would incorporate all of the properties of a natural arm. Nevertheless, it could be said than when that artificial hand gets broken, it can pass to present-at-hand state, just like when we break a natural hand.

The distinction between body and soul, could be said is also artificial. It is made by western cultures and has been discussed for years. Dag Svenaes points it started with Plato and Aristotle [4, p. 7]. To complicate more this discussion, even western languages sometimes have differences in the words to refer to these concepts, Svanaes also refers to this problem, especially about the discussion of Sartre and Heidegger about what body means in french (le corps) and in german (Körper and Leib) [4, p. 8]. We have created a world around body and soul, and I think Pavel makes a very interesting point by bringing other cultures that have no relationship with our western roots. Body and soul are also fasten very deep into western religions so it is very interesting to also study what eastern cultures have to say about this.

It is also interesting to study what were the context and the use that has been given to this duality of body and soul through time and cultures. Like Pavel suggests, what would all of these authors say in 2016?

 

References

  1. Merleau-Ponty, M., & Smith, C. (1996). Phenomenology of perception. Motilal Banarsidass Publishe.
  2. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLghL9V9QTN0gCZia2u-YnLxhetxnC_ONF
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-ewvCNguug
  4. Svanæs, D. (2013). Interaction design for and with the lived body: Some implications of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 20(1), 8
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