Mental Mentality

Greta Christina, this is for you.

Specifically, the article you wrote today about the words we use to describe the mind, and about how they need to not have supernatural connotations. As I was reading it, I thought about writing a comment response. But then I decided to do a post response. Because this is way more fun!

Even more specifically, here is the part of your text that I want to respond to most. (Footnotes are all mine.)

“But I want to be able to do that in a way that doesn’t invoke Cartesian dualism*. When we say “mental versus physical,” it implies that the mental isn’t physical. I want to talk about the distinctions and connections between the mental and the non-mental parts of our bodies, without that implication. I want to talk about it in a way that acknowledges that the brain is part of the body.”

The problem here is not that the words physical and mental are isolated from one another. As you point out excellently, some of the words which perform their function best are words that are repurposed from other sources. The reason why this works is because it makes new words infinitely more accessible. People who don’t recognise a word’s meaning in the current context can use their understanding of the word in another context to draw some conclusions about what the new meaning is.

Science is particularly brazen in it’s repurposing of words. The world of particle physics alone is full of quarks defined by their up and down spin (which does have an angular component, but in no way resembles the spin of a football or a wheel), and being held together by gluons (which do, thankfully, stick one thing to another). If we zoom out, then we’ll find an atom, which is just nicked from the latin word “atomos”, which means uncuttable; and back when it was first discovered, that’s what we thought it was.

A useful guide, but there is no "up".


Now, back to talking about words…

Like with science, we could easily do precisely the same thing with the word mental; redefine it for a new purpose. In our new definition, mental would imply that whatever we were talking about is connected to our thoughts, feelings and emotional responses, and causally linked to the way our body is working at the time. We wouldn’t even need to change the definition very much at all; the only new part is the last clause about the body.

As it is, there is a major barrier to that even sort of redefinition, no matter how slight the changes are. You’d have a hell of a hard time getting people to change their use of the word mental, as people are comfortable with a definition including a separation between material bodily stuff and immaterial mind stuff. Mainly because so many people are convinced that there is an immaterial world in the first place (and for no good reason, I might add). If fewer people believed that there was an immaterial world for all this mind stuff to exist in, then it would be easy enough just to add an extra descriptor to our definition of mental.

But as it is, talking about mental phenomena becomes difficult when you try to use mental, or any other word of the sort, in any way that doesn’t sever the connection between the mind and body, as so many people seem intent upon doing.

P.S. If you’re actually reading this, Greta, I’m sorry for not answering your question, and instead only discussing the problems. I hope you enjoyed it anyway!

P.P.S. Actually, screw it! Here’s a new word for mental phenomena with material, causal links: Menterial. Now I’m being helpful!

* Yeah, I can see why. As someone who has read Meditations, I can honestly say that Descartes was an irritating dick.


Posted on September 16, 2011, in GLOOP, Stuff I found somwhere on an Internet. and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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