As mentioned before, I'm reproducing an old essay counting down the Top 10 Greatest Philosophical Questions of All Time. Today:
#8) What is the relationship between mind and body?
This is a question most people probably don’t think about, which is unfortunate considering it directly addresses their ability to think about anything at all. In its purest form, it asks: If the mind is intangible, unable to be touched, how can it interact with the world? How is pain translated from unfeeling electrical impulses to the sensation “ouch?"
Lots of folks these days like to think of the mind as the software to the brain’s hardware, and admittedly this appears an easy solution… except that it leaves no room for consciousness, a problem brilliantly summarized by the philosopher John Searle in his now famous Chinese Room argument.
Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a data base) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output). The program enables the person in the room to pass the… test for understanding Chinese but he does not understand a word of Chinese.
In other words, the computer analogy insufficiently explains the phenomenon. In particular, it seems unable to describe particular kinds of subjective experience that philosophers call qualia (singular 'quale'). When you stub your toe, for example, or hear a classical concerto, or embrace your lover, or smell fresh-baked cookies, and so on, there is a certain "what-it's-like-ness" to undergo that state over and above the electromechanical functioning of your nerves.
Note, we're not saying machines can't be conscious. But if they ever are, it will be because they have some emergent quality not yet identified that is present in brains but absent in computers (qua computers). The experience of consciousness is coldly absent from the software model.
What then is mind, and how can it affect the body? Unfortunately, this is one of the most doggedly intractable problems in philosophy, and there is no agreement on the source of the gap, nor what conclusions, if any, we should draw from its existence.
The debate goes on…