Mind and Body

This morning Richard and I talked about mind/body dualism. He was in his bed in Arizona. I was in mine in New Y ork. It reminded me of our first conversation in a little library at Yaddo. I had been thinking about the way religion and consciousness must have arrived together in the mind of the small Lucy creature who first heard thoughts in her head. Somehow, the cries and gestures that signified fear or hunger were imagined rather than enacted, and it did not seem possible she had generated thought in her body. It sounded like a voice from an external source. A god or other external entity must have installed this marvelous power. I said to this man I had just met, “I think religion and consciousness arrived together, the second mistaken for the first.” He mentioned Daniel Dennett, and we were off and running along the savanna we have been wandering ever since. This past semester he has been teaching a course with his colleague Kostalena Michelaki about the agency of objects, combining their expertises on material culture, Richard as a museologist, Kostalena as an archaelogist. They have been trying to entice their students away from the habit of dualism and show them that the uber category that contains humans as well as non-organic entities is objects or things. Humans are objects with agency and consciousness. The planet we live on, too, is an object with agency that lacks consciousness. The planet has the agency to sustain or end organic existence, for example. Richard and Kostalena were also showing students the way objects and humans have always been embedded in one another, homo sapiens being the makers of tools, language being one of those tools, as the means of shaping their evolution. The human body, with its opposing thumb, is a combination of the organic and technological all the way in and all the way out. Richard had been reading the final papers of the students, many of whom had gone the way of object agency but still clung to forms of mind/body dualism. We talked about the seductions of dualism. What does it afford, and why it it so difficult to over-ride? It seemed to me the contradictions were in consciousness itself. On one hand, it’s difficult for people to join the category of object or thing because it seems like a demotion. It seems like a demotion because for so long our culture has believed in some form of special category for humans—designated by a diety for higher status. In other words metaphysics. Metaphysics entering with consciousness and language and language, in the way it symbolizes the nonpresent and nonmaterial, being the machine that produces metaphysics all the time. Consciousness doesn’t feel like an emanation of the body because it’s the nature of consciousness to feel split off from materiality. What is required is a trick of the mind, prompted by a nudge or bop on the head with a bladder at the end of a stick, to remind us that thought is material, that airy nothings are not airy and not nothings, although we feel them as split off from our blood and gristle. It is the power of imagination to create metaphysics and the power of imagination to understand that metaphysics is an invention of mind. You can’t have it both ways. There is no way to have it but both ways. I said something like this. Then we went off to boil our separate kettles and have tea.

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