I’ve always been captivated by the promise of mind over matter. Like many kids, I loved the idea of having magical powers, whether to read and control other minds, become invisible, or fly—to name just a few. I loved fantasy and science fiction partly because they soared imaginatively above the routine, ordinary limits of existence.
Older now, I remain a sucker for stories of amazing human feats, from yogis controlling their heart rate, blood pressure or skin temperature (all of which were once thought to be involuntary) to the wonders of hypnosis, the placebo effect, and so on. It will come as no surprise, then, that I find modern scientific materialism’s reductive view—that the world is wholly governed by deaf, dumb and blind mechanistic forces—simplistic, to say the least.
Which brings me to the present question. I concluded a recent post about sleep by asking whether sleeping well might in fact be a moral virtue. The deeper question is how much control our minds can have over our bodies. More generally, how much control do we have over our lives? In this post I want to prepare the ground for giving this question further consideration.
To that end, I’ll unfold a paradox that helps show why this is such a fraught question. Those of you who sleep like babies every night may happily embrace the claim that sleeping is a moral virtue, while those of us for whom sleep doesn’t come as easily will not be eager to admit that our poor sleep patterns reveal flaws in our moral character. In our defense, we’ll point to genetics, environment, or others of those externalities that partly determine the way we are in the world, and we’ll claim this proves that sleeping well or poorly isn’t really a matter of choice.
By the way, note how convenient scientific materialism is if we’re seeking to avoid personal responsibility: Now sleeping well or poorly is something that happens to us, like the weather; it’s not something we control.
As I report in a recent post, sleep research suggests this view is false, inasmuch as insomnia is often cured by “talk therapy”—i.e., by deliberately changing one’s habits of thinking and doing. But truly, how many of us were ever that eager to relinquish our power to change our sleep patterns (and thus our life) for the better? Who really believes that the authority for something as vital and intimate as our sleep should be in the hands of physicians and pharmaceutical companies?
But while we may resist the notion that we don’t have power, we may also resist the opposite conclusion. Thus the paradox. For while acknowledging the power of our minds promises freedom and the potential for self-mastery, it also suggests personal responsibility, and thus the potential for praise- or blameworthy actions. Now imagine how it would go over if the physician told her patient that the prescription for insomnia is to become a better person. That doesn’t sound quite right either. No wonder there’s so much confusion and disagreement.
Speaking of oversimplifications, need I add that those who claim that ultimately we “choose” everything that happens to us—including what culture and family we’re born into, not to mention the awful things that strangers may do to us—are every bit as simple as their materialistic opposites?
What both of these simple poles in the complex plane of reality fail to acknowledge is that accident, chance, and luck are part of the cosmic weave, for better and worse. If you’re born into a ghetto and your mom drank heavily while you were in utero, your mind and thus your potential freedom may be significantly diminished from the start. Even for those fortunate enough to be born into better circumstances, there are no guarantees. Aliens may one day soon demolish the earth to clear the way for an intergalactic freeway, exterminating all life on earth, much as we exterminate inconvenient colonies of ants and bees without a second thought.
Where does this leave us? What ground have I prepared? In a way I’ve just been laboring the obvious, but that’s sometimes helpful, as philosophy has long insisted. I think it’s obvious that we are neither omnipotent masters of our lives nor slaves of causal forces beyond our control. I suspect we have considerably more power over our bodies and our lives than most of us can imagine, living as we do in the twin shadows of scientific materialism and of historicism. The latter’s view is that no one can transcend their historical situation: our horizons are determined by our culture. One can deny the strong version of such claims, while still acknowledging that our power to control our fates is indeed limited by accidents, luck, and other externalities, including those related the fact that—as historicists rightly insist—we are social animals whose lives depend partly on the web of relations that constitutes our community.
It follows that there are no easy answers to the general question of mind’s control over matter, nor to the specific one of our power over our bodies and lives. As yet, there are no authorities to answer for us, though experts of various stripes can help inform our understanding.
There is, however, one positive conclusion I think can be stated at this point. It amounts to the Socratic reminder that those who seek wisdom in these matters must include serious self-examination as part of our investigation. It’s an essential part of doing what nobody can do for us: finding out who you are and what you can, and cannot, do on your own behalf.
But as we shall see, and as no one knew better than Socrates, the path of self-examination isn’t an easy way. Which is why, of course, the simplistic alternatives are so perennially attractive. Good thing we’re inoculated.