Old Habits Die Hard

Originally posted in November 2009

It seems that, even among people who should know better, it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking of oneself as a mind encased in a body. That is, thinking that there are two very different kinds of stuff in the world: mental stuff (thoughts, emotions, memories), and physical stuff (organs, bacteria, tables). This way of thinking, which expresses itself in platitudes like “mind over matter”, is called dualism, and it has been deeply unfashionable among philosophers for the past two hundred years or so. The cool kids have long ago moved on to monism, which is the idea that there’s only one kind of stuff in the world (nowadays, matter—i. e., atoms and molecules—but more on this later) and everything is made of it. Of course, the rest of the world generally takes longer to catch up with philosophy, so you still see people unashamedly espousing dualist metaphysics, unaware that it is the philosophical equivalent of wearing white after Labour Day.

This way of thinking is especially pernicious when it comes to matters of health. In some cases, the mind is thought to be “really you”, and your body is a thing that can conspire against you. “That’s the depression talking.” It leads to a kind of “love the sinner, hate the sin” mentality with regards to disability or chronic illness…but having been well acquainted with that mindset I assure you it’s just a long-winded way of saying “hate the sinner”. However, in other cases, “mental” things are considered less real than “physical” things. “It’s all in your head” (as if your head weren’t a part of you, or what goes on in your head isn’t “real”). Or the artificial distinction between mental and physical disabilities.

It’s all the same stuff, people.