Body and Mind

I have a sweet tooth. Implicitly usually I am most looking forward to evening time after dinner when I can have dessert. Ice cream. Or cake. Some pie. Or chocolate. If I don’t have it, I feel like a soccer ball deflating. As if the telos for the day has been frustrated. When I skip having dessert for a day or two, I get antsy, easily annoyed, irritable. The usual withdrawal symptoms of any addictions.

I am going to try something for the next month. I will give up sweets. No chocolate. No donuts put out in the kitchen in the office. No after dinner ice cream.

One motivation is to improve my health. With the imminent arrival of my baby girl, I would like to take better care of myself. I even went to the doctor for the first time in many years for a physical, something I have avoided due to an anxiety I seem to have acquired from a childhood trauma of when my father had a heart attack. When I told the doctor of my impending parenthood, she nodded understandingly, indicating that it was common for parents to be to acquire new motivation to be healthier.

Another motivation is spiritual. Since I was in college, I have had, I now see, a very intellectual and abstract sense of philosophy and spirituality. As if these were mainly mental activities – something I strive for with my mind, far removed from how I take care of my body or cultivate habits of life. This was my attitude even when I was writing my PhD on embodied cognition and the essentially bodily nature of human consciousness.

This was of course reenforced by academic philosophy. Many of my colleagues took better care of themselves physically than I did. Running, biking, hiking, going to gym. But naturally all this physical activity was seen as outside the domain of philosophy. A life style choice matter but far removed from the work of thinking about the nature of consciousness or justice.

Certainly philosophy arguments don’t turn on the physical health of the people debating. But is being a reflective person improved by one’s ability to with stand addictions such as eating sweets?

I think so.

Now I am thinking that if I can control my urges and not give into my physical cravings, then it will improve not just my health, but also my ability to think more clearly. That the urges for sweets is like a covering over my eyes which makes me see the world through a kind of haze. No different in principle than if I were addicted to alcohol, drugs or sex.

This is of course an ancient idea: resisting the body, indeed even starving it a little, is a way to heighten one’s higher mental states. I think this is right.

For too long I have thought just with my mind. Now I want to think with my whole being, including my body. To enable that, I have to take better care of my body and take care of how I treat it.

What will my awareness be like if I can resist sweets for a month? I intend to find out.

15 thoughts on “Body and Mind

  1. This is a very interesting post.

    Running, biking, hiking, going to gym. But naturally all this physical activity was seen as outside the domain of philosophy

    I always preface my daily run by walking for an hour with my dogs. I find this is the most productive thinking time in my day. My best insights seem to occur during these walks. I am not sure why this should be. The rhythmic walking activity in an attractive environments with the delightful curiosity of my dogs seems somehow to free up my mind so that it can roam freely over the problem domains that I might be considering during my walks.


  2. But is being a reflective person improved by one’s ability to with stand addictions such as eating sweets?


    All the world is a stage and we have our parts to play on that stage(to misquote the Bard(*)). We are creating a narrative plot line. But on that stage are various props, for example a banquet table filled with food. But there are many other props, equally distracting or desirable. When we become fixated on or distracted by the props we miss or fumble our lines to the detriment of the narrative that makes up our lives. To concentrate of the plot line and fulfil its developments takes concentration, purposefulness and discipline. These are qualities that are not natural to us and they are inculcated by a lifetime of practice. Self-denial is just one of the many practices that develop these qualities. But it is one of the most important practices because it is immediately available in every part of our lives. It is the first bulwark in the front line of concentration, purposefulness and discipline. When we yield this bulwark we jeopardise all else.


    All the world is a stage
    And all the men and women merely players;
    They have their exits and their entrances,
    And one man in his time plays many parts


    • Great comments. To add in the spirit of what you said: Good thinking requires good awareness, which means being able to hold in one’s mind things which we might be naturally inclined to push aside or overlook. This is obvious enough with the effects of drinking or doing drugs on thinking – if I drink a six pack and then try to think about my life, I am acting against my aim. One doesn’t drink a lot to think clearly, but rather to avoid thinking.

      It is harder to see this – or at least has been harder for me – with things more ordinarily taken for granted, like eating sweets or eating till I am stuffed. Things which we might think of more as small failings, but orthogonal to one’s cognitive lives. But hard to see what is the difference between alcohol and sweets, or whatever happens to be one’s go to thing to forget about one’s pains or issues.

      Mindfulness, or prayerfulness, in contrast is to not forget or push things out of consciousness, but to not also be driven by those thoughts or anxieties. To develop the mental muscle to see them with a distance. Within a broader perspective.


  3. Mindfulness, or prayerfulness, in contrast is to not forget or push things out of consciousness, but to not also be driven by those thoughts or anxieties. To develop the mental muscle to see them with a distance. Within a broader perspective.

    Yes, exactly. I think of it this way. We have both an embodied mind and a cognitive mind, in stark contrast with other animals, for example my dogs, who only have embodied minds.

    Embodied minds are driven by appetite, emotion, impulse and intuition. They lack an executive to control how they respond to appetite, emotion, impulse and intuition. Consequently their behaviour is wholly driven by them. The embodied mind has no future and no past. It lives wholly in the present and is entirely controlled by appetite, emotion, impulse and intuition.

    We however, have a bi-modal mind. It is both embodied and cognitive. The cognitive portion of our mind acts as an executive(though with mixed success) that serves to direct or restrain appetite, emotion, impulse and intuition to serve future goals created by cognition.

    It is the power of the cognitive mind to deny the controlling power of appetite, emotion, impulse and intuition in the service of future goals that makes us distinctly human.

    Our minds are time machines. Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, our minds can travel back in time to draw on episodic memories and they can travel forward in time to imagine a desired future. This capacity to imagine a better future is what has driven all of human progress.

    When the present is less than desirable our attention is directed at a better future and we bend our cognition at attaining that goal. Thus we make progress. But when the present is saturated with the pleasure of surfeit our bi-modal mind becomes fixated on the rewards of the present, weakening the controls of the cognitive mind. Thus the impulse to progress is weakened or lost.

    Self-denial is an exercise in restoring the control of the cognitive mind over the embodied mind so that we can continue to imagine and create a better future.

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    • “But when the present is saturated with the pleasure of surfeit our bi-modal mind becomes fixated on the rewards of the present, weakening the controls of the cognitive mind. Thus the impulse to progress is weakened or lost.”

      Wonderfully said.

      I am feeling this at present, as I had a blip in my self-restraint and had a big brownie at the lunch in my office. The desire for the brownie presented itself not as for the brownie as such, but more for the brownie as a symbol of life, of not constraining myself, of what “I deserve”. As if the restraint to not have it was robbing me of life. And yet once I had it, it is only too obvious this was an illusion, a trick of the mind. What I thought was getting what I deserve turns out to be nothing more than a satisfaction of the present moment devoid of all the meaning of the temporally oriented minded. In the grip of the desire, the impulse to the brownie itself feels like “the aim of life” – or as a marker for the essence of the aim of life. But it is only by stepping back from that desire that a different and more fulfilling aim presents itself.


  4. Mindfulness, or prayerfulness,

    I am always troubled by the use of the term ‘mindfulness. What really does it mean? Here are some typical definitions that I found:

    Mindfulness. It’s a pretty straightforward word. It suggests that the mind is fully attending to what’s happening, to what you’re doing, to the space you’re moving through.

    Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.

    Mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness, cultivated by purposefully paying attention in the present moment with an attitude of non-judgment, kindness, and curiosity.

    The core of the definitions seems to be that it is a particular style of paying attention to the present.

    And this is where I have a problem, because paying attention to the present does not lie at the heart of what makes us truly human. This is something we share with all of the animal kingdom, though I grant that they cannot pay attention to the present in the same way that we do.

    What makes us both unique and extraordinary is our bi-modal mind, with its capacity for rationality, executive control and time travel. We don’t just live in the present. We also live in the future, bending all our energies towards achieving it. It is the second mode of our mind, cognition, with its remarkable capacity for time travel, which has been bolted onto the first mode of our mind, embodied thinking, which differentiates us and enables the extraordinary progress of our species.

    Thus I redefine mindfulness to mean all mental activities directed at achieving a desired future. I call this mindfulness because it is the pure use of the mind independently of the constraints imposed by appetite, emotion, impulse and intuition, which characterise our embodied mind.

    As I compose this comment I am being mindful. Why? Because I am directing my mind towards a future goal, composing a coherent reply to your comment. As I do this, I delay my wish to make another cup of tea, thus controlling both appetite and impulse. I also ignore the pain in my leg from a running injury, thus controlling emotion. For a short while at least, my cognitive mind is exercising executive control over my embodied mind. These things I call mindfulness. But I suppose I am alone in my definition of the term.


  5. I should not be too harsh in my criticism of mindfulness as a particular style of paying attention to the present. In this sense mindfulness can be seen as a means of preparing the mind to more competently face the challenges of the future. And that is a good thing, but only for as long as it does not weaken our focus on achieving the better future.


    • Your point is well taken. And it applies to when people try to force themselves to be mindful – as if being mindful was about literally staring at the inner contents of their mind in the present.

      But mindfulness in a better sense is actually what you mean. And I don’t think you are alone in defining it that way – even if it is not the current, fashionable way. When people say “Be attuned to the present”, they certainly don’t mean that we should just do what dogs and ants do. They mean: “The human capacity for reflection and future directedness is both the wonderful feature of humans, and also its pitfall. Because we can get focused on the future in a way that is also basically instinctual and not very reflective.” Most stress and anxiety is of this variety. So mindfulness is being aware of even the habitual nature of our future directed thinking – and through that awareness we can be open to a future that is truly reflective.


  6. As if the telos for the day has been frustrated”

    That brings up a large, related subject. David Duffy, over at The Electric Agora, wrote a fascinating essay about Neofinalism, an argument that telos is inherent in the natural world. This is an argument that tends to make atheists froth at the mouth, since the appearance of telos in the Universe is a grave challenge to atheist beliefs.

    Dan Kauffman wrote dismissively “I felt like I was reading about the thoughts of a profoundly mentally ill person” and went on in similar vein to say “I am going to call it out for the utter nonsense it is

    Finally, when pressed, he produced an actual argument “Wittgenstein’s rule-following and private-language arguments demonstrate that rule-following is irreducibly social. Meaning is social “all the way down” one consequence of which is that speaking of it being “inherent” in organic or inorganic matter is not possible.

    And he clarified further by saying “In the absence of a social framework it is not possible to follow a rule. Hence the impossibility of the “meaning is intrinsic to matter” view.

    And this is where we find the fatal flaw in his argument. As it happens, all matter and energy in the Universe is rule following. We call this the Laws of Nature. They act everywhere, all the time, without exception. They are omnipotent. As a consequence, meaning and purpose emerges from the Universe. We know this because we exhibit it and we are a natural part of the Universe. Therefore meaning and purpose are inherent to the Universe.

    People like Kauffman will point to a stone and ask how that can possibly exhibit meaning and purpose. I am always surprised that they can make such a simplistic argument and point out that they are asking the wrong question. By way of analogy consider the Notre Dame Cathedral, a truly wonderful piece of architecture. I could point to one of the foundation stones and claim that it exhibited no architectural beauty, and that would be true at that level. But that would be the wrong place to look for evidence of architectural beauty. And if I insisted on that point of view, refusing to look upward to see the full picture, I would be a bigot.

    The existence of the Laws of Nature, their unchanging nature, their exceptionless and universal power, is the great mystery of the Universe. We completely and utterly lack even the smallest hint of an explanation for this mystery. The more science progresses the more it confirms these properties of the Laws of Nature. And these Laws of Nature inevitably produce meaning and purpose. We are the evidence of that. Therefore meaning and purpose is baked into the Universe at its very foundation. But the myopic view which only looks at the foundation stones won’t see that.

    This is the problem that atheism must confront and it has failed to do so. Pointing at the foundation stones will never be an answer.


    • “As it happens, all matter and energy in the Universe is rule following. We call this the Laws of Nature. They act everywhere, all the time, without exception.”

      There are different senses of rule following. One is where the stone “obeys” the laws of nature in falling down. Another is where a language user follows the rule for how to use the word “stone”. A third is where an embryo follows the rules of development in turning into a baby.

      The first is not really meaning. There is no life in stones – so there is no inner telos to their being. The same laws that apply to stones apply to others objects like sticks, boxes, etc.

      The second is social meaning. The telos is given by communal activity – of what the community deems right. So the telos of an action is to match that sense of rightness that is instilled by the community.

      The third is meaning but not social as in the second kind. The telos of the embryo is not determined by a social community – in fact, until a century ago, humans didn’t think at that scale.

      So I would say the place where telos and nature come together is in the realm of life – in the inner direction of the human being. And social meaning is actually an extension of the biological kind of meaning. Insofar as life is intrinsically a part of nature – as it clearly is – then telos is also a part of nature. I don’t think we need a bigger sense of telos, as in the telos of the universe as a whole, or of the telos of the stone as it is falling, etc.

      One of the main achievements of modern science is to develop laws of nature that are free of the idea of telos. But – and here I agree with you – most atheists conclude that this means there is no telos intrinsically in nature. That doesn’t follow.

      A side point: I think of myself as much as an atheist as a theist. So I don’t think there is something that theists can explain that atheists can’t, or vice versa. Mainly I find the atheist-theist distinction is not illuminating for many of the issues – practical or theoretical – that humans care about. It is, to echo Wittgenstein, a kind of conceptual trap we fall into in thinking the resolution of the debate matters; when in fact what matters is moving beyond the debate and growing in our consciousness and in our practices.

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  7. There are different senses of rule following.

    I would rather classify it as follows:

    1) involuntary rule following. This is typical of inanimate matter.

    2) adaptive rule following. This is typical of plant and animal life. They respond to changes in their environment within a framework of rules.

    3) free-willing rule following. Humans respond to changes in their environment with the additional freedom provided by free will, but always within the basic framework of rules.

    Here we see increasing degrees of freedom, starting with the appearance of life, and finding its highest expression with free-willing rule following in humans.

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  8. I think of myself as much as an atheist as a theist.

    I find it impossible to unpack such a contradiction in terms without appealing to the Red Queen of Lewis Carroll(Through the Looking Glass):

    “I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
    “Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
    Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
    “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

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  9. So I don’t think there is something that theists can explain that atheists can’t, or vice versa.

    Religion is not, and never has been, a science textbook. It is a moral framework that guides behaviour. It provides only as much explanation as can be both (1) time and context independent and (2) is sufficient to sustain hope and purpose(faith).

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  10. To continue my previous remark. When one reads the words of Jesus Christ it is overwhelming clear that God’s primary concern is with the manner we treat each other. This is the heart of religion.

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    • I would say this is / can be the concern of atheism as well. It’s important not to mix atheism and science. Not that you are doing that, but it’s worth highlighting.

      Wisdom isn’t the same as religion, since atheists can make wisdom the center of their lives. And science isn’t the same as atheism, since religious people can embrace all of science.

      The usual clashes between theists and atheists arise from making both these conflations, as if the other side can’t have what one values. When this is given up, a whole new realm of possibility and togetherness opens up. The realm of grace.

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