A reader on the mind-body problem?
March 15, 2013 3:10 PM   Subscribe

I'm working on a creative project about somebody who gets his brain removed and put in a vat. What should I read?

That is, what are your suggestions for readings that would help me flesh this out? Looking for philosophy, literature (particularly drama), journalism, and/or anything else that would fit. I have a very rudimentary understanding of philosophy, so though I know Descartes is a good starting point for mind-body problem stuff, I am frankly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of philosophy of mind writing that is out there.
posted by HeroZero to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Mind's I is a very entertaining and informative philosophical and literary anthology on mind-body stuff and would definitely give you some interesting ideas.
posted by shivohum at 3:12 PM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

This piece by Daniel Dennett, Where Am I?, is a classic, I think.
posted by daisyk at 3:13 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

William and Mary, by Roald Dahl
posted by scody at 3:17 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding the Danny Dennett piece. It's brilliant and entertaining.
posted by alms at 3:25 PM on March 15, 2013

The Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle.
posted by Ouisch at 3:28 PM on March 15, 2013

A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality by Perry.

This is an introductory philosophic text, written like a play. It covers a wide variety of views about how mind relates to body (the idea of brains being removed from bodies is specifically discussed in the third part, called Night Three). It is clear, precise, easy to read, and even entertaining. It is the perfect way to start looking into philosophic issues related to persons, minds, and brains.
posted by meese at 3:48 PM on March 15, 2013

Another classic addressing the mind/body problem is Thomas Nagel's What Is It Like To Be A Bat?
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:00 PM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Part 3 of Derek Parfit's book Reasons and Persons is good relatively contemporary stuff about what constitutes personal identity. Plus it has sweet sci-fi thought experiments!

You're right about Descartes, but there's also good and important (if slightly ridiculous) early modern stuff on the topic of identity by Hume and Leibniz. If you want specifics on that let me know and I will dig up my old readings.
posted by papayaninja at 4:02 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are some short stories in Stanislaw Lem's Memoirs of a Space Traveler that deal with this. They are thought-provoking and horrifying and have stuck with me over the years.
posted by baho at 4:06 PM on March 15, 2013

Just in case, the Leibniz I have read that may be interesting is Monadology and the Hume would be his Treatise of Human Nature, specifically Part 4 of Book 1.
posted by papayaninja at 4:09 PM on March 15, 2013

Watch the Star Trek Episode "Spock's Brain"
posted by bottlebrushtree at 4:27 PM on March 15, 2013

Read the Harlem Heroes comic strip.
posted by biffa at 4:35 PM on March 15, 2013

In a class I took on the mind/body problem we read multiple essays of Dennet and Nagel so I suggest them as well. We also studied thought experiments such as the Chinese room from Searle, and the philosophical zombie. Check them out! You will get sucked in to many differing views.
posted by missriss89 at 4:50 PM on March 15, 2013

The Knowledge Argument (aka Mary the super-scientist) and its refutations are good to know, here. Seconding philosophical zombies, Nagel, and the Chinese room, too. For fiction, the first Matrix movie (really!) is a good one.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:52 PM on March 15, 2013

The short story "Fortitude" by Kurt Vonnegut. It is contained in the compilation Wampeters Foma and Granfalloons.

It is about a rich elderly woman that has a team of doctors hook her up to a glorified life support system. She's nearly to the point of a brain in a jar. This is more about the mental state of the patient and doctors (narrator is an outside observer who visits).

I'm sure my description doesn't quite do it justice as I haven't read it in a few years.
posted by Feantari at 5:13 PM on March 15, 2013

Best answer: I am assuming from your title that you're interested in dualism and personal identity, rather than epistemology (see my last paragraph).

The Mind's I is a great place to start - it's an introductory reader full of super-accessible short pieces on this. It's less focused on the technical than some other introductory anthologies. The Dennett piece linked above is a must-read for your project too. The Parfit is slightly trickier reading but very relevant.

Start there and then go looking for the heavier stuff.

Descartes - the first place to look is the Meditations 6 - detailed article from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Descartes and the mind-body relation and very very short intro with some tips for further reading. If you're interested in reading the whole Meditations, and it's a very quick book although dense and rewards careful re-reading, here's a nice summary of the major arguments (see the bottom for the mind-body stuff; Descartes spends most of the book building to that point).

Here's an overview of mind-body dualism, gives a quick pass over what some major thinkers said and where they said it, and what are some of the main problems with dualism.

(Some of the other things mentioned are fun and interesting, but are on different aspects of philosophy of mind. The Nagel paper, Jackson's paper on Mary, philosophical zombies, and Turing test stuff (Alan Turing's paper "Computer Machinery and Intelligence", John Searle's reply paper "Minds, Brains, and Programs") are not really important to your project -- they are about related issues, but not the exact issue you're looking at. But all of these are commonly assigned in a class on the general subject and they're accessible, if you want to get into other issues in the general area. If you pick up a philosophy of mind reader, like the one by Chalmers, these essays will be in there.)

Incidentally - the "brain in a vat argument" is used for a somewhat different purpose. It's not used to talk about the relation between mind and body, or which of those is really our "self". It is used to talk about skepticism - which in philosophy refers to the possibility that we are mistaken. So, it is a topic in epistemology, the study of knowledge, rather than metaphysics, the study of the nature of things. The brain in a vat argument is basically about whether we could be in the Matrix right now and not realize it: how could we prove otherwise? This kind of "global" skepticism (the possibility of doubting everything you know) was first and most famously raised by Descartes. So - if you are reading about Descartes and brains in vats, be sure you know which aspect of Descartes's views the author is focusing on!

The movie City of Lost Children has a character who's a brain in a vat (although the movie isn't about him).
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:11 PM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

You might also be interested in embodied cognition.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:13 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

The old time radio program Suspense did two versions of Donovan's Brain, which can be downloaded at this blog. The Wikipedia entry about the 1942 novel they were based on has a plot summary and more links that might interest you.
posted by marguerite at 7:39 PM on March 15, 2013

Response by poster: I am assuming from your title that you're interested in dualism and personal identity, rather than epistemology

Yes, that is correct -- I'm less interested in "what if my reality isn't real?" questions than in "how are the mind and body connected or not connected?" questions.

These are great suggestions. Keep 'em coming! Thanks.
posted by HeroZero at 9:59 PM on March 15, 2013

For comedy....
posted by NikitaNikita at 10:06 PM on March 15, 2013

On Having No Head is at least somewhat relevant, and a fun read.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 12:06 AM on March 16, 2013

I teach this stuff regularly.

Seconding the Perry dialogue and the Chalmers reader in phil mimd that LobsterMitten mentioned.

Also, there are various readers on personal identity. The Perry anthology is a classic. This is a newer reader. Both have Parfit (though I don't recall if they're his Phil Review papers or selections from Reasons and Persons (which is an amazing book)).
posted by professor plum with a rope at 1:50 AM on March 16, 2013

Rebecca Goldstein's novel, The Mind-Body Problem, is a coming-of age novel with the mind-body problem woven in. The main character is a philosophy graduate student working on the problem, which you will see on every page in different guises. Not necessary for the kind of project you seem to be doing, but it's charming.
posted by BibiRose at 3:35 AM on March 16, 2013

Ghost in the Shell.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:21 AM on March 16, 2013

"how are the mind and body connected or not connected?"

This is a little more pop-sci, but you might be interested in "The Body Has a Mind of Its Own" by Sandra Blakeslee.
posted by Calicatt at 9:10 AM on March 16, 2013

A Living Soul (En levande själ) by P. C. Jersild is a very surreal story about exactly this.
posted by teremala at 1:28 PM on March 16, 2013

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