CEPA eprint 3953

Embodied minds over interacting bodies: A constructivist perspective on the mind-body problem

Chiari G. & Nuzzo M. L. (1988) Embodied minds over interacting bodies: A constructivist perspective on the mind-body problem. The Irish Journal of Psychology 9(1): 91–100. Available at http://cepa.info/3953
Table of Contents
Mind: Its existence in a constructed reality
Mind and body: Two phenomenal domains
The languages of physiology and psychology
Implications as to the traditional views on the MBP
Neither reductionism, nor holism: Rather systemism
Neither parallelism, nor interactionism: Rather structural selection and intersection
The consideration of the relation of mutual specification between a distinguished whole and the parts distinguished in it, and of their specification of two nonintersecting phenomenal domains, constitute the starting point for a radical constructivist redefinition of the ‘mind-body problem’- (MBP), where the opposition between mind and body turns into a relation of complementarity between components of a larger (social, ecological) whole. The implications as to the traditional views on the MBP are outlined, stressing in particular the overcoming of the holism/reductionism and parallelism/interactionism dualities.
It is likely that few problems have had as many (often very ingenious) solutions as the ‘mind-body’ or ‘mind-brain problem’ (MBP). Yet, there are still those who believe that the problem has yet not been solved, and who hope for or suggest its solution. Instead of envisioning in it a clear evidence of the irreducible pluralism entailed in our construction of reality, each scholar of the MBP persists obstinately in demanding the universal avowal of this or that solution in the name of his or her correct access to reality.
In contrasting this attitude, we shall talk about the MBP without making reference to an objective reality independent of the describer and without validating our explanations. We shall assume instead a constructivist viewpoint.
The postulate shared by the constructivist perspectives can be formulated in \ the following way: “The environment as we perceive it is our invention” (von Foerster, 1984, p. 42), rather than our discovery. In psychology, Jean Piaget (1937) showed his acceptance of this general postulate stating that “l’intelligence organise le monde en s’organisant elle-même” (p. 311); so did George A. Kelly (1955), writing that “man creates his own ways of seeing the world in which he lives; the world does not create them for him” (p. 12). By pursuing the implications of the organisational closure of living systems entailed by the postulate, the constructivist paradigm defined by von Glasersfeld (1985) as ‘radical’ has come to a theory that, while making of cognition a biological phenomenon (Maturana & Varela, 1980, 1987), avoids resorting to a belief in an independently existing world without falling into idealism or solipsism.
The shift from knowledge-as-representation to knowledge-as-construction of reality implies an epistemological -shift from the search after the ‘right method’ for telling the true (the really real) from the false (the apparently real) in what we observe, to the analysis of the operations allowing the observer to distinguish what he or she distinguishes and therefore to organise his or her own experience. Knowledge of reality becomes secondary to knowledge of knowledge; epistemology is neutralised.
Coming back to the MBP, what emerges starting from such an assumption is an interpretation characterised by a ‘middle way’ attitude, by a logic of the tertium datur with respect to the classical aspects in which the problem can be decomposed. Let us briefly outline it:
(a) as to the existence of mind, both materialistic and spiritualistic positions are circumvented by the very core of constructivist perspective: that is, by considering the mind (as well as the body, and everything else) as a distinction operated by an observer, as a personal construction, rather than as an entity, a thing independently existing. An epistemology of participation between the observer and the observed (Varela, 1984) allows one to go beyond both objectivism and subjectivism;
(b) in a world which is our invention, the scientific disciplines – (neuro)physiology and psychology – traditionally competing for the victory on the MBP in the name of ‘truth’ are construction systems fighting over different battlefields (i.e., dealing with different phenomena).
(c) the problem of a psychophysical relation between independently existing entities turns into the problem of understanding the relation between different constructions of reality. In particular, from a systemic-constructivist viewpoint, the problem is the classical one of the relation between the whole and its parts – a leitmotif in all systems theory approaches. The emphasis on the phenomenal distinction and the generative relation between the whole and its parts permits the overcoming of the traditional holism/reductionism and parallelism/interactionism dualities;
(d) at the same time, the consideration of the mutual interdependence between wholes and parts allows one to answer the question of whether mind is nothing but brain, or a ‘higher’ (social, cultural, ecological) dimension. The answer again embraces both the theses while resolving their opposition: mind is realised in, but irreducible to, brain. Due to the closure of our cognitive domain, we find ourselves merged in the circularity of a world constructed by us and in which we are included. It means that our structure (brain-body) evolves in a process of relation with its own production (other persons, nature) in the attempt at maintaining itself living. In contrast, as Jantsch (1980) points out, “an equilibrium structure has no mind” (p. 162).
The following pages will deepen these features of a systemic-constructivist (re)consideration of the MBP, particularly on the basis of our present understanding of the ideas of Kelly, Maturana and Varela.
Mind: Its existence in a constructed reality
The starting point, then, is that whatever exists, exists in a recursive process of assimilation to previous structures (Piaget); is an element (a subordinate construct) within the context of a personal construct that defines its similarity and its contrast to other elements (Kelly); exists within our experience as observers of a unity (an object, an entity) brought forth by an act of distinction that delimits it from a background and in which we can distinguish constitutive components (Maturana and Varela). Mind and body are not exceptions: mind and body are constructs, “matter, energy, ideas, notions, mind, spirit, god, …are explanatory propositions of the praxis of living of the observer” (Maturana, 1986, p. 81). This criterion of existence is already sufficient to differentiate the constructivist perspective from most of the theses on the MBP founded upon ontological criteria referring to a subject-independent reality.
Starting from that point, the task is that of talking about mind and body without losing sight of the operations entailed in their distinction.
Mind and body: Two phenomenal domains
In particular, it is important to acknowledge that the distinction of a whole (structure, construct, composite unity distinguished as a simple one) specifies its properties; and that the properties of the whole are necessarily different from those of its constituent parts. It implies that a whole operates in a space defined by all the interactions made possible by its properties, and that this phenomenal domain is different from that of its constituent parts (substructures, elements, components). Given that a whole and its parts are in a constitutive relation of mutual specification, their respective phenomenal domains do not intersect.
If the composite unity is a living system, the recognition of this phenomenal distinction, in Maturana’s (1980) words:
dissolves the mind-body problem: a) by providing an understanding from the perspective that the so-called ‘mind phenomena’ pertain as descriptive relations to the operation of the organism as a simple unity, and that the ‘body phenomena’ pertain as descriptive relations to the operation of the components of the organism as a composite unity, and b) by showing that the operational connection between these two nonintersecting but complementary phenomenal domains lays in a metadomain of reciprocal structural selections. Or, in other words, that while the actual operation of the organism as a simple unity in the ‘mental’ phenomenal domain selects through structural interactions, the path of its structural changes as a composite unity in the ‘body’ phenomenal domain selects its actual interactions in the ‘mental’ phenomenal domain (pp 77-78).
Figure 1
The constitutive relation of mutual specification between the parts and the whole, and the possibility of considering a part as a whole and that whole in its turn as part of another whole, result in a hierarchical arrangement of the whole systems.
According to Varela (1976), in the “chinese boxes of totalities” each level, though distinct, is “imbricated” both with the upper and lower ones. Working out this constitutive feature of systems with reference to dialectics, Varela (1976; 1979) has pointed to the possibility of reconsidering a number of dualities – the mind-body included – in terms of trinities.
In the classic or Hegelian paradigm, the poles of a duality are opposite (according to the logic of negation of the form A/not-A) and symmetrical (i.e., belonging to the same level). In the cybernetic or post-Hegelian paradigm, one pole emerges from the other, and both extend asymmetrically across imbricated levels, according to a logic of self-reference of the form the it/the process leading to it – a star (*) form, in Varela’s term, where the slash ‘/’ is to be read as ‘consider both sides of I’. The star form represents a recipe that can tell us how to go from dualities to trinities, where poles are related in that there is a generative relation between them, and yet remain distinct since they lie on different levels.
In the light of this conceptualisation, Varela remarks, the apparently opposing duality subject/object appears as a component of a larger whole which sits in a metalevel with respect to both terms; a larger whole that, following the suggestions of Bateson (1972) and Pask (1976), Varela (1976) identifies in a conversational pattern: “a fixed point in the infinite recursion of interactions between a set of participants.” Both the subject and the object become then components of the right hand side of the star: conversational pattern/participants of the conversation. In other words, “we are participants in the quite large conversational domain of the biosphere… [and] in this context, the mind-body duality is just one form of the above Star, that is: mind (conversational pattern)/bodies (processors of the participants)” (pp 65-66).
The change in the understanding of dualities in the direction of a type of relationship between the poles rendering them both clearly distinct (autonomous) and at the same time closely linked (related), “not one, not two” (Varela, 1976), entails a departure from the skull-bound tradition of mind without falling into dualism or panpsychism. It permits one to tie together the Gestaltist notion of emergence, widely used by the so-called emergentist materialists (Bindra, 1976; Hebb, 1980; Bunge, 1977, 1980), which defines the properties of a whole that none of its parts possesses, with the notion of embodiment, utilised both in neurophysiology (McCulloch, 1965) and in philosophy (Margolis, 1978), which refers to a relation between a property not definable in physical terms and a physical one. It makes it possible to think of mind as a social dimension realised in, but irreducible to, brain.
In the enmeshment of systems within systems there are no initial or final 1 elements: there is recursion, circularity, closure. But, as a feature of our being autonomous systems (i.e., systems defining our own boundaries and attempting to maintain them), we chop out ‘ourselves’ from the whole systems and put all the rest in the background as ‘environment’. Thus, when one maintains the primacy of the ‘physical’, one is chopping oneself out from the domain of interactions with other people, identifying oneself with ones ‘bodyhood’. When one maintains the primacy of the ‘mental’, one is identifying oneself with ones ‘personhood’, while chopping oneself out from the domain in which one is a component. But it is still possible to go a step further, in the direction pointed out above. It is possible to envision “a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem” (Bateson, 1972, p. 461), to guess that “there is a mind in every unity engaged in conversationlike interactions” (Varela, 1979, p. 271).
Also in Kelly’s (1969) definition of construct there is an overcoming of the logic of negation in its being an operation of discrimination abstracting simultaneously similarity and difference between a set of elements. It gives the construct a feature of bipolarity, where the two poles are in a relationship of complementarity. Furthermore, given that a construct is an element of other constructs, a personal construct system (i.e., a person) is composed of complementary superordinate and subordinate relationships (Chiari & Nuzzo, 1987). The consideration of the core role constructs as a subset of constructs dealing with the way a person construes similarities and differences between themself and other persons thus relating to others through their understanding of their construct systems, is coherent with a view of mind as a social-relational and yet personal process. Through role constructs, person and society arc in mutual relation to one another, so much so that the experience of extreme guilt, constituted by the loss of core role structure, threatens the sustenance of life itself because:
it interferes with the spontaneous elaboration of all our psychological processes, including the so-called ‘bodily’ processes….Our constructions of our relationships to the thinking and expectancies of certain other people reach down deeply into our vital processes. Through our constructions of our roles we sustain even the most autonomic life functions (Kelly, 1955, p.909).
The languages of physiology and psychology
As said above, an observer can chop out the hierarchy of imbricated systems in different ways, considering as subsystem or as environment what they were considering before (or what another observer can consider) as a system. After that, the unities thus distinguished can be included into different and irreducible theoretical constructions. It is on the basis of such an operation that a distinction between ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ or ‘physiological’ facts and processes emerged and gave rise to the psychological construction system and the natural-science group of construction systems. This kind of distinction may be useful, but to forget that we did it has the consequences that Kelly (1955) describes in this way:
Consider more specifically the realms of psychology and physiology. These realms have been given tentative boundaries based upon the presumed ranges of convenience of the psychological and the physiological construction systems respectively. But many of the same facts can be construed within either system. Are those facts “psychological facts” or are they “physiological facts”? Where do they really belong? Who gets possession of them, the psychologist or the physiologist?…The answer is, of course, that the events upon which facts are based hold no institutional loyalties. They are in the public domain. The same event may be construed simultaneously and profitably within various disciplinary systems – physics, physiology, political science, or psychology (pp 9-10).
From a personal construct theory viewpoint, then, each science is a subsystem (i.e., “a group of constructs which have a great many defined internal lines of implication and relatively few and less defined relationships with constructs outside the subsystem”) or, in more general terms, “a conceptual framework, a language system, a discipline, a universe of discourse, a defined field of study”; and it follows the untenability of any reduction, regarded as “the strange urge to establish an authoritarian hierarchy among subsystems” (Bannister, 1970, pp 50-51).
Implications as to the traditional views on the MBP
Neither reductionism, nor holism: Rather systemism
One of the most traditional MBP debates is concerned with the polar opposition between reductionism and holism.
Reductionism – “the view that all higher level descriptions of molar phenomena can ultimately be reduced to equivalent lower level descriptions in terms of more molecular phenomena” (Valentine, 1982, p. 28) – tends to be favoured by those materialists claiming that only physical phenomena have real existence. In particular, reductive materialism or physicalism (Smart, 1963; Armstrong, 1968) pre-emptively holds that the brain is nothing but an aggregate of cells, so that knowing the latter is not only necessary but also sufficient for knowing the former and thus explaining the mental.
Holistic approaches, on the contrary, ultimately hold the possibility of reducing the ‘physical’ to the ‘mental’, disregarding the components of the living system and their participation in the operations of the whole.
From a systemic-constructivist viewpoint, these apparently opposing attitudes are complementary descriptions of a system (cf. Varela, 1979, p.102). In fact, they arise from an operation of ‘leveling down’ or, respectively, ‘leveling up’ of the two phenomenal domains to the observer’s linguistic domain of descriptions. As Maturana (1978) remarks with reference to reduction:
For the observer who beholds simultaneously both phenomenal domains…the changes in the relations of the components appear as changes in state in the living system that modify its properties and, hence, its interactions in its environment – all of which he or she describes by saying that the physiology of the organism generates its behavior. Yet, since these two phenomenal domains do not intersect, the relations that an observer may establish between the phenomena of one and the phenomena of the other do not constitute a phenomenal reduction, and the generative operational dependency of behavior on physiology that the observer asserts in this manner does not imply a necessary correspondence between them. Accordingly, in no particular case can the phenomena of one domain be deduced from the phenomena of the other prior to the observation of their actual generative dependency (pp 37-38).
Neither parallelism, nor interactionism: Rather structural selection and intersection
The adoption of a constructivist perspective throws a different light also on to the debated problem of an interaction between mind and body.
On the one hand, both classical structuralism and Gestalt psychology advocated a form of dualism, psychophysical parallelism, in which both mind and body exist but constitute independent, noninteracting entities that merely covary (cf. Hillner, 1984). Yet, from the above, it is apparent that psychophysical parallelism arises in the domain of descriptions of the observer that, though keeping the independence of the two phenomenal domains in which the composite unity operates, fails to recognise the constitutive relation of mutual specification between the components and their correlated simple unity.
On the other hand, the evidence of a psychophysical relation is affirmed by dualistic interactionists like Popper & Eccles (1977), maintaining both ‘upward’ and ‘downward’ causation (a bottom-up and top-down action).
Yet this statement is not coherent with the above stated constitutive impossibility of interactions between unities operating in different phenomenal domains. In other words, the interactionists mistake for interaction between levels the concomitant phenomena due to their reciprocal structural selection (above mentioned), or due to a structural intersection between systems.
Within a whole system, two or more subsystems may share some of their constituent parts, thus becoming interdependent in their respective changes. In other words, in the structural realisation of a composite unity, its components, or the components of its components, may participate in the realisation of many other composite unities. The result is that, in the distinction of two or more structurally intersecting systems, an observer distinguishes two or more different composite unities realised through the same body, and, even though different phenomenal domains do not intersect, he or she can observe ‘orthogonal interactions and relations’ whereby:
Structural changes that take place in one of several structurally intersecting systems as part of its ontogenic drift, may give rise to structural changes in the other intersecting systems, and thus participate in their otherwise independent ontogenic drifts…forming a network of coontogenic drifts (Maturana, 1986, pp 36-37).
The possibility of structural intersections of many composite unities in the realisation of a living system operating in language (a person) offers the opportunity for an understanding of the so-called ‘psychological’, ‘psychosomatic’ and ‘medical’ disorders within a radical constructivist framework. Kelly’s (1955) personal construct psychotherapy, dealing with the intersections among ‘core role structures’, and between them and the ‘maintenance processes’ in a personal construct system, represents a landmark in this direction.
We thank Vincent Kenny for his constructive criticisms of the first draft of the paper.
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