Monday, June 12, 2017

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.    


I confess, dear reader, that I am at best an amateur philosopher and psychologist, although I have a number of times valiantly read my way through texts in both philosophy and psychology.
One thing I have heard of, in a distant sort of way, is that old chestnut “the mind-body identity theory”. As I understand it, this theory is an empirical and materialist counterblast to the idealist view that the mind is a non-physical entity not to be equated with the brain.
The mind (according to Platonic idealists and some Cartesian rationalists) is more than the neurones and nerve connections and gloopy grey matter that reside in the skull of each of us. Though the brain may host and be the physical seat of the mind, the mind is detachable from our physical being. In fact, in the idealist view of things, the mind is very simlar to the soul – the non-physical moral and emotional essence of what each of us is.
Not so, say empricists and materialists, sweating along in the footsteps of Locke and Hume. The mind is simply the sum of the functions of the physical brain. Emotions and thoughts are as much products of our physical being as digestion and excretion. No physical brain, no mind – and certainly no non-physical entity separable from the brain.
I do not know enough to discuss this matter in any detail, but I do understand the general plan of the battlefield, and at different times of my life I have been persuaded one way or the other.
Item – as a sometime manic-depressive (“bipolar dysfunction”, according to a more recent jargon), I have often found myself labouring under oppressive and debilitating feelings which sap my vigour, slow my brain down to a crawl and of course leave me feeling totally miserable. But in such thoughts (myself almost despising), my mind asserts itself and tells me that I have a capacity which I call “unconquerable reason”. I can see beyond the immediate present moment – beyond the physical pressure upon my brain, which the empiricists and materialists say is all my mind is. Like Descartes, at such moments I become a convinced rationalist, embracing the dualism of mind and body, knowing that the one is not the other.
But let me also speak of the contrary case.
Recently I had a particularly nasty bout of gastroenteritis.
It began as a rising nausea, which slowly crept up my gorge.
I took the afternoon off work as a malaise began, then took the following day off as well.
Once I got home, I vomited copiously in the family loo. When you have nausea, vomiting is a great relief. I thought I had expelled the evil thing that had invaded me – but no. Having made an appointment to see the doctor, I was backing my car down the drive when I had to stop and managed to get out the car door just in time to vomit copiously on the grass verge.
I made it to the doctor’s, and waited (as one always has to do in a GP’s surgery) for about half-an-hour. The nausea built up again. I dashed to the loo in the surgery and vomited expansively for the third time. As I emerged, pale and shaken, the receptionist asked me if I needed some help, so I had the humiliation of knowing that the whole waiting room of patients had heard my wild bodily evacuation. Halfway through my consultation with the doctor, I had to dash out for a diahorreic excretion in his surgery loo. As well as giving me a prescription, the doctor gave me a robust plastic bag, with closeable top, should I have to vomit before I got home.
I went to the pharmacy. While waiting for the prescription to be filled out, I had the embarrassment of vomiting for a fourth time – this time into my handy plastic bag. The pharmacist was as understanding and helpful as the doctor had been, and discreetly helped me to dispose of the filled bag in the appropriate receptacle.
Home I crept wearily and achingly. The mere thought of food or other nourishment was disgusting to me. I was tired. My body ached. I crawled to bed early and slept for about six hours. At about 2 in the morning I woke, dashed to the ensuite, and disgorged oceanic proportions of vomit – my fifth and final big vomit within less than 24 hours. My body had nothing left to expel. I was cleaned out. I would feel no more nausea. But the virus had to punish me in some other way. When I woke for the second day’s torture, my limbs and muscles ached, my backbone felt as if it has been misused by a contortionist. Unable to make me nauseous, the evil thing decided to make me feel in amplified form every minor bump, grossness or imperfection of my body.
Thus for my physical condition.
And what was my mind doing all the while? As I experienced nausea, ached, felt fatigue and physical pain, my mind was telling me that there was no joy in life, than my life was worthless, that all effort was a waste, that nothing ultimately mattered, that I was a wretch, and that oblivion was better than the stress of living.
My mind was dancing to my body’s tune and totally at one with it. Pure mind-body identity.
On the third day, after a full night’s deep sleep (most unusual for a chronic insomniac such as I), I awoke fully recovered. No nausea, no pain, no aches. The beast had passed through me and left me unconquered. I reflected that, in a world where people die of hunger and in wars, my 50-or-so hours of suffering were trivial, minor and the type of thing that only privileged people would choose to comment upon.
The sun was shining and my mind rejoiced. The world was good, full of promise, full of things to look forward to. I was glad my body had been cleaned out, and decided to profit from this fact by being a litle more frugal in my diet. There was a spring in my step and no hint of mental fatigue.
My mind was again dancing to my body’s tune.

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