On Thursdays at noon Yhouse holds a lunch meeting at the Institute of Advanced Study, in Princeton. The format is a 15 minute informal talk by a speaker followed by a longer open-ended discussion among the participants, triggered by, but not necessarily confined to, the topic of the talk. In order to share I am posting a synopsis of the weekly meetings
Synopsis of 9/30/17 YHouse Lunch talk by Ohad Nachtomy
Present: Piet Hut, Eiko Ikegami, Liat Lavi, Yuka Ishihara, Olaf Witkowski, Michael Solomon, Ohad Nachtomy.
Title: The Psycho-Physical Lab
Ohad is working on a book with this title about the Mind/Body problem in philosophy and links to the practice of Yoga. This book is not intended as an academic contribution to research but for a broader audience. His coauthor, Eyal Shifroni, Has been a yoga teacher for years. He argues that reflective yoga practice goes beyond health, but offers a way to engage body and mind to train each other. We use our physical abilities and limitations to train our mental capacities, and vice versa, to improve each. Reflective practice is essential to development. He emphasizes practice with less effort and more attention. This does involve posture and breathing exercises, but to what purpose? We cannot make sense of mental states without referring to our physical bodies. Body and Mind are interconnected. We train the body through reflective processes and improve the whole being.
He distinguishes this practice from Athletics, which tends to see the body as the house of the mind and thus downplays the importance of the body. Even sitting still to meditate is not purely mental. We need not assign priorities of mind over body or body over mind. He sees the practice of Yoga as not distinguishing mental and physical capacities. But there is a benefit to considering the distinction between physical and mental capacities even though boundaries may not be clear. The aim of this book is to offer the Philosophy behind these practices and to explore the interaction.
The book is in two parts. 1) Practical. Explorations of exercises and then reflection on how the physical posture affects the mental. The exercises maintain the same posture and focus on breath or on a body part. 2) the Philosophical Background. Looks at the justification for this approach. He does this entirely within the Western Philosophical tradition as he knows very little of the Eastern Tradition in which Yoga arose. He focuses on Socrates, Aristotle, Augustine, Plotinus, Aquinas, and then on Descartes, Spinoza and then later in the 18th century. For René Descartes, in direct opposition to Aristotle, Mind and Body are two entirely different entities. Bodies are extended in space and therefore subject to rules of causation. The universe is describable by the new science and assumptions on matter in motion, i.e. temperature as the motion of particles. On the other hand, Mind is not spatial or extended in space. Mind is indivisible and can motivate action – Will and Passions motivate action. For Descartes nature has no connection to mind. Only the Human mind possesses this quality of Mind. Even animals are just machines subject to physical laws. This gives rise to questions of Mind/Body interactions after Descartes. There are consequences of this distinction between Res Extensa and Res Cogitans (the two entities that along with God made up the Cartesian ontology. MJS). On the French side of the divide La Mettrie (Julien Offray de La Mettrie 11/23/1709 to 11/11/1751) wrote of the human body as a machine (L’homme Machine is the title of his book MJS). We find Materialism and Idealism as extensions of the mind/body question. Subsequently, Behaviorism does away with the Mind. Currently, many believe the New Physicalism considers the mental as an epi-phenomenon. John Searle (born July 31, 1932 and currently Prof. Emeritus U Cal Berkely, MJS) calls this Biologic Naturalism. (The mind exists as a process within the brain just as digestion occurs in the intestine.) Anything outside of the Physical was relegated to Religion or non-scientific thought. This has led to a split in Medicine mostly favoring a physiologic school. If you suffer from a symptom do you consult a physician or some alternative therapist? So, Mind/Body is still a practical issue. (Do we treat the flesh or the soul? MJS)
Ohad then addressed, What is a fruitful way to approach this? First he thinks the mind/body problem is not solvable. Any explanation of the brain would be scientific. But any description of mind uses an entirely different vocabulary. Even if science could explain what is happening in his brain when he thinks about something, why could that help him? How would that correlation help? He is not denying the benefits of antidepressant medications, etc. So, he would not “solve” the problem, but “dissolve” it. He cited Wittgenstein’s approach in trying to eliminate the dichotomy. For Aristotle the mind is to the body as the eye is to sight. Eye is an organ of sight. Perception and imagination or thought are related intimately to organs of the body. For Wittgenstien “The essence is expressed in grammar.” “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” “We surely admit there is a difference between Pain Behavior and constant Pain.” Language always conveys thoughts. Ray Monk comments on Wittgenstein saying Wittgenstein criticizes the Augustinian picture of learning words and objects as partial and incomplete. Some words don’t name an object. The deep assumption is to think of the mind and body as entities. But many capacities of Mind do not even mention mind. The idea is that we are concerned with the whole person, not the parts. A stomach ache is not the stomach but the whole person experiencing the feeling. Mental states are states of a Human Being. Even if you could identify a brain state, would that be the same as the person experiencing that state? Someone with a curious mind is a curious person.
Ohad ended his presentation at this point and discussion began.
Q: Piet: Regarding language, we talk about a “comfortable chair” but it is the body, not the chair, that feels comfortable.
Q: Liat Why is Yoga practice better than Pilates, or thirty minutes running, or thirty minutes doing math?
A: Yoga is not necessarily better, but has broader aims. The point is to become more aware.
Q: Eiko The discussion is quite academic. She says anthropologists describe how you felt as you went through the process.
A: His first connections with Yoga was at age 16 but he then left it to find it again about 15 years ago when he met his co-author teaching at the same college. The practice has become more significant over time.
Q: Piet If you look at biologic and cultural evolution you see behavior as a product of trying things over long times. India and China are the largest population cultural groups and both have deep cultures. Comparing Tai Chi with Yoga, the biggest health benefit is to diminish the danger of falling.
Michael: The mortality after hip fracture in people over age 65 is in the range of 50%! (Acta Ortop Mex. 2014 Nov-Dec;28(6):352-62. [Hip fracture as risk factor for mortality in patients over 65 years of age. Case-control study]. Negrete-Corona J, Alvarado-Soriano JC, Reyes-Santiago LA.)
Q: Eiko There are practical reasons to practice Tai Chi or Yoga, but historically these are related to performance arts. Only later did this become related to health. The Tea Ceremony also was a performance art beyond language, like dance. These traditions are a way of meditating on how you feel and how your body performs. While western philosophy emphasized nationality, etc. eastern philosophy emphasized performance.
Q: Yuka: On Reflection. For Descartes this was a Mind function. But for Eastern thought reflection involved “understanding oneself” as a transformative act including both body and mind.
A: He is amazed by those who watch tv while on a treadmill at the gym. Why distract yourself when you could be focusing on your body?
Q: Piet We speak of breath, body, and mind as a form of Trinity, like father son, and holy ghost. There is data that shows improved survival for patients in hospital who have a window in their room.
Q: Michael We have previously discussed the Self as an illusion in Buddhist thought. Could you consider the “whole person” you spoke of as the Self?
A: Ohad wants to ignore that since self is so complicated in philosophy. He wants to focus on limitations. Many think of yoga as being able to assume extreme postures. For Yoga you need not be so flexible but need to identify your limitations.
Q: Eiko Yoga makes us Humble. We communicate not only through language, but through the body. The body is the most communicative thing. Autistic people say they have a different “theory of mind”. Sensory input is body based. Alternative perceptions result in a different theory of mind.
Q: Olaf He used to do magic at one time. Magicians try to make it appear that things you cannot do actually happen. But practicing Yoga can be magical.
A: Learning to do head stands can truly extend your limitations. Also, seeing the world upside down changes your perspective.
We concluded our discussion here.
Michael Solomon, MD