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Do Our Minds Own Our Bodies?

Own?

We're so used to the mind/body problem that people rarely consider where it came from. Philosophers have debated it for a long time and we are so used to it that it seems like a natural and even obvious problem. And as has been often pointed out, our whole legal system is based on a concept of mind and responsibility. It makes no sense to punish things for transgressions because things without minds cannot transgress since they don't act of their own volition.

David Graeber in his book Debt: The First 5000 Years inverts this problem. He proposes that our very concept of a mind apart from a body arises from ancient Roman common law and it's concept of dominium.

A dominium is something over somebody has complete control. The empire was the emperor's dominium and within that the household was the householder's dominium. Freedom is defined largely by the freedom of the head of the dominium. Freedom is the natural faculty to do what ever one wishes that is not prevented by force or law. Slavery is an institution according to the law of nations whereby one person becomes private property (dominium) of another, contrary to nature. (from a medievel digest)

Graeber says: "Medieval commentators immediately noticed the problem here. But wouldn't this mean that everyone was free? After all, even a slave is free to do absolutely anything they are actually permitted to do. To say say a slave is free (except insofar as he isn't) is a bit like saying the earth is square (except insofar as it it is round. ( "

Graeber goes on to note a strangeness about the Roman idea of slavery:
"What made Roman slavery so unusual in historical terms, was a conjuncture of two factors. One was it's very arbitrariness. In dramatic contrast with, say plantation slavery in the Americas, there was no sense that certain people were naturally inferior and therefore destined to be slaves. Instead, slavery was seen as a misfortune that could happen to anyone. "
As a result, there was no reason that a slave might not be in every way superior to his or her master: smarter, with a finer sense of morality, better taste, and a greater understanding of philosphy. There was no reason not to, since it had no effect on the nature of the relationship, which was simply one of power. (end quote)

Slavery is itself based on the systems of debts that were used to enforce the power of men over their women and children and slaves. For the emperor had absolute power over his empire. The householder absolute power over his household. In all cases there is a master in control of subordinates.

But what was the power relationship of a freeman in that case; a person with no master. Graeber proposes that because of their structure of overlapping dominia the Romans came up with a unique solution. That person was master of himself - that is, both master and slave at once. And it seems that this produced right away the idea that there was a mind that is controlling the body - an idea that has plagued us ever since. As we know, when you really get into it, the idea is not nearly as simple or obvious as our familiarity might make it seem.

My point here isn't to really go into that history much - I'm not a historian. But it did draw to my attention that the whole mind/body problem is very much a historical artifact of a particular social development. Which is interesting to me because in the last hundred years our perspective on the whole mind/body problem has shifted a lot . . . To the point that lots of thinkers don't make the distinction any more having found that the distinction actively interferes with grasping new information about how we can be as we are.

Which brings up an interesting conjecture: If structures of debt and power produce the mind/body distinction as a part of the world view people need to function within those structures, Then what happens to those structures if the mind/body distinction becomes one people don't make anymore?

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.