Rene Descartes

Embodiment

Lately, a lot of people have been talking about embodiment. From theologians and philosophers, to environmentalists and activists, there is a lot of concern with how we think of ourselves, and our relationship with the physical world.

René Descartes is often credited with (blamed for) sending Western culture down the road of Cartesian Dualism. In Cartesian Dualism, there is the mind and there is the body, and only ever-so-slightly shall they meet. In this worldview, we are essentially floating heads, trapped in physical bodies. The mind, the intellect, and the spirit matter — the body, the emotions, and the digestive tract do not.

But it’s not just Western scientists and logicians who hold this viewpoint. It’s also present in everything from blockbuster movies to new age spirituality. To use an expression popular in the new age movement, the question is

...whether we are physical beings having a spiritual experience, or spiritual beings having a physical experience…

— and the answer is always the latter.

We are in the midst of a reaction against this view. The view itself has been blamed for everything from the current obesity epidemic, to the environmental crises facing various parts of the world. If we think of ourselves primarily as minds, then why bother taking care of our bodies, and why bother taking care of the world?

In theology, the tide has been turning as well. Increasingly, theologians are intent on saying that we are not just minds or spirits, seeking some kind of enlightened escape to a nether world, but bodies and organisms, seeking transformation in this world.

This turn has not been driven by some kind of intellectual fad, but by the logic of the disciplines themselves, by the resurgence of historical research, and the renewal of interest in ancient Judaism — which saw human beings as holistic organisms, not as imprisoned minds.

It goes without saying that the same kind of turn has been happening in science, which every day discovers new ways in which our brains are incredibly physical things, embodied in an incredibly physical world. The view that we are beings driven only by the conscious intellect is wearing increasingly thin.

I’ve been aware of this conversation since I was 13, and by the age of 15, had completely moved to the non-Cartesian side of the tracks. But the truth is always more complex than a dualistic conflict, and non-Cartesians should recognize that more than anyone. For the benefit of my Neo-Platonist friends, who feel slighted in this conversation, I may explore some of those complexities later.

But for now, let me summarize what I think is so important about embodiment, and what I think Cartesians and Platonists miss.

Embodiment means relationship. To be embodied is to be in relationship with both sentient and non-sentient things, to be forced to negotiate with both our friends and our hunger pains. To recognize our embodiment is to recognize the important of other entities, the significance of other concerns and other needs. It is fundamentally the embrace of negotiation, persuasion, and cooperation, instead of force and violence. It is the opposite of solipsism.

Whatever kinds of forms we may take in the future, whatever kinds of beings we may become, embodiment will always be important, because to be embodied is to relate to that which is outside ourselves.

Comments

There's a CS Lewis quote "You are a soul; you have a body"

Hi Micah. I think our relatively recent development of "software" might be pertinant to emerging, or evolving perceptions. Many recent sci-fi works have involved the concept of uploading the contents of a human mind into a digital medium. (I had a dream about the same thing, when I was in my 20s). At first glance, this seems opposite to "embodiment", but with deeper examination, I think it focuses the dichotomy toward a mutually inclusive resolution of mind vs matter, or media vs message. Any given creature percieves the world from a very alien perspective, relative to us (humans) (my opinion, since I don' remember being a bird, or a snake etc). Some creatures, such as some primates, and some sea creatures, are judged to be equal to us in intelligence, but still their perceptions are (imo) alien to us because we have not lived in their bodies. To take the other extreme, eventually humans will cross the faustian (or pygmalian) critical boundary between machine and organism, again based on software and nanotechnology (we already have software virus'!) Once we build a self-replicating entity, we will be sharing the universe with yet another evolving intelligence, which will also experience existance in an alien format. By definition, we cannot "know" the experience of existance of other creatures (we don't even really "know" the experience of members of other human cultures!). If "mind" were all the mattered (pun?), we would be able to do so. The fact that we cannot, and it will always be denied to us, proves the point. Our senses, our physical limitations, our nervous system, our metabolic rate, our lifespans, our underlying core of fears and strengths and self-perception, all these things will always keep us segregated from other biological (or non-bio!) entities. Humans are somewhat unique in that we have a curiosity, a desire, to try and breach these constraints: we attempt to communicate, we attempt to replicate activity (aircraft pilots, scuba divers, trapeze artists, gymnasts, etc), we study their life-cycles, and their connections to each other and, often equally important, their connections to their environment. Many organisms, (i think including us), could not survive without symbiotes, predators, and "significant others" (external plants, insects, ecosystems). Of course, all this is BECAUSE of ecological diversity, which compels evolutionary and social adaptation.
It seems like a feed-back cycle that self-adjusts, self-perpetuates, and self-corrects, which is also basically the definition of an organism! (No big news to the gaia-ists, not to mentions sci-fi writers and natural scientists). But, anyway, sure, you could take a human, give him food and air, and keep him alive, You could even clone him, so he has no social/sexual contact whatsoever. Then, how long before his perceptions begin to change? No school, no parents, no language, no history, no environment or natural ecosystem interface, no "world": how long would he remain "human"? And what would he then become? (Please, don't try this at home! Admittedly far-fetched, just a thought-experiment using extremes for emphasis)

Thanks for sharing these ideas Micah. When you stop and think about it, all our notions of even spiritual existence function in a way that is analogous to our understanding of corporeal existence. We are incapable of imagining existence without some ability to affect and be affected by other objects and volitions. Artificial intelligence researcher Ben Goertzel claims that it is nearly impossible for learning to take place without a body. He has been testing his AI algorithms in second life.

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