Monday, December 09, 2013

Why things happen, like eating


Somewhere I came across this quotation from the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid (1710 - 1796):

Though man knew that his life must be supported by eating, reason could not direct him when to eat, or what; how much or how often. In all these things appetite is a much better guide than our reason. Were reason alone to direct us in this matter, its calm voice would often be drowned in the hurry of business, or the charms of amusement. But the voice of the appetite rises gradually, and, at last, becomes loud enough to call off our attention from any other employment.

On the face of it, this quotation is a simple statement. Who can deny what Reid asserts here? Maybe we can object to some details of the quotation, for example to the first sentence, but this will not affect the essence of the idea expressed, namely that basically our body decides that we have to eat and when. I think that nothing can undermine this idea as it stands. However, the quotation contains not only a fundamental fact of life. A closer look will reveal a complete ontology of man. I’ll not try to develop such ontology from these few sentences, but I’ll make a few arbitrary remarks which will show the depth of these words.

Many people think that they are free, but this quotation shows that freedom has its limitations. We are free to choose lettuce or endive or other vegetables to eat but our body says that we need vegetables in order to stay healthy. On the other hand, would we be free, if we hadn’t any limitations at all? If we could choose anything we liked? Elsewhere in my blogs I have argued that we need limitations in order to be free. Without them we had nothing to chose. Our body gives us such limitations and makes us free in this way.

In my last blog I talked about Dretske’s distinction between triggering and structuring causes. A drop of certain body parameters causing us having the feeling that we are hungry while this feeling makes us looking for food is an example of a body related triggering cause of what we do. The structuring cause in this case is that we are going to prepare a meal and not going to take a nap. And this is so because nature structured us that way that taking food and not going to sleep is a solution of our hunger problem. That’s how we have been made.

Descartes contended that body and mind are two different things. Many people still think so. However, Reid’s instance shows how they are intrinsically related. The mind is not a kind of free floating spirit. It is an aspect of the body or a way to consider the body at most. When the body becomes hungry, the mind can push this feeling to the background for some time, but in the end it can only think of how to get food and how to satisfy the hunger. Then our mind is governed by our feeling of hunger and it loses its feeling of independence that it thought to have. Some people will object that hunger strikers (like Gandhi) can suppress the feeling of hunger. But isn’t this just an example of the intrinsic relation between mind and body (but then in the opposite direction)? If such a relation didn’t exist, there was nothing to suppress and the mind could go its own way without giving attention to any feeling whatever.

It’s the same for pain, and that’s why I once asked here in a blog: “When I stumble, and I hurt my toe, is the pain then in my toe or in my brain?” It’s the same for noise, too: One cannot think when hearing a drill. Or rather, one can think only “Stop!” or “I must go away!”.

We can never act without taking care of what our body wants. If we try to do so, sooner or later the body will call us to order and guide – if not determine – what we do.

And so on. These are just some thoughts of me triggered by my structural habit to read what other people write.

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