Of Moles and Men: The Division of Spirit from the Body

So this is the first of my school essays that I’m posting here. I took an ethics class last year and this essay is from that course. I can’t, off the top of my head, remember the question that the essay is supposed to be answering – only that I found the essay saved under the title “dualism.” And I haven’t re-read the thing because I really hate reading any of my writing that I’m not working on. I decided to start with this essay because, well, it has pictures. Who doesn’t like pictures? Pictures seem like a good place to start. I remembered there being pictures. Anyway, I hope you get something out of it and don’t plagiarize. I was told to say that.

Of Moles and Men: The Division of Spirit from the Body

There’s some validity Lin Yutang’s view that the Platonic division of matter and spirit has caused conflict between humans and the Supernatural, humans and nature and a conflict between the mind and body but the problem is not one of the spirit’s division from the world of the senses but of its translation into it. The conflicts that he assigns to the division of body and spirit are not inherent in their division but are a product of a translation of the realm of spirit being built on the scaffold of the same human sensory apparatus that he celebrates. It is a conflict exacerbated by the organization of these senses into a hierarchy. The naturalization and politicization of this hierarchy of senses has proven fundamental to the production of and maintenance of power and this has divided humans against themselves and their own representations. In spite of these conflicts, for which the division hold partial responsibility for – irresponsible power being an idea latent in an idea of objective unaccountability– the division remains salvageable and necessary. Translated without hierarchical organization, the realm of the spirit is, perhaps, even desirable.

When we close our eyes and feel ourselves, the being we feel is not an accurate representation. Perhaps, we have banged our little finger in a shopping cart earlier in the day. Our attention focuses there. Maybe we have a headache from re-reading the syllabus of a philosophy class. Our throbbing temples distort our perception of our head’s size. And perhaps we are enjoying a bowl of Haagen Daas ice-cream. Our sense of taste takes over and we can, briefly, forget the rest of these problems. At least, until we suffer the inevitable indigestion from eating too much of it. Should everything be functioning fine and in silence, without injury or irritation, our image of ourselves would still be distorted, at least, when compared to what other people see. What we may look like, to ourselves and without the benefit of a mirror, even at the best of times, might resemble a sensory homonculus. That’s to say, this:


Figure 1: A sensory homonculus sculpture. (Sharon Price-Price James.)

That “grotesque creature”1 is not a product of random enlargements or distortions. It’s not a creation of injury or psychological pathology. Rather, it is an attempt to “objectify human brain function.”2 In this creature’s body, we see a simplified representation and embodiment of the amount of brain and nerve power devoted to each part of the human body. It’s how we feel to ourselves within our sensory apparatus. And, if that thought bothers you, just be happy that you’re not a naked mole rat.

Figure 2. A mole rattunculus shows the amount of somasensorty cortex devoted to the animal’s body parts in chart and drawing. (illustration by Laura Finch)

Unlike the naked mole rat, we don’t think we feel like that. Part of this is because we’re just used to our feelings and part of that is because our experience of our bodies is tempered by other factors. We are aware of how other people see us. We have seen pictures of ourselves and mirror images. Our sense of sight, represented by the large eyes of the homonculus, is enough to orient us away from this everyday dysmorphia and into another, sight-based, version of reality. But to orient ourselves further, to come to a better understanding of reality, to even to be able to construct this representation of our own senses, we must go further still: We must enter the world of the spirit. Not a world of ghosts, seances and souls – but the abstract world of Platonic ideals. A world of unclouded objective reality that exists beyond the illusion of our senses. A world that we share with the naked mole rat. Although neither we nor the naked mole rat can directly see this world, being imprisoned in the very senses that define our own realities, it is a world that links us both. It exists outside of our perceptions. It is the common ground below all things in the universe. Unspeakable, it can only be represented.

But it’s a world that must be treated with caution. While it is a provides us with things such as mathematics and, the very language that Lin Yutang represents his thoughts in, it is also a world that must be translated into our daily lives. In this act of translation, we feel some need to organize these ideals into a form that we can understand. We can do that in math, in an area that appeals more to reason than the senses. “According to the platonic viewpoint, mathematical ideas have an existence of their own and inhabit an ideal platonic world, which is accessible via the intellect only.”3 In math, the equations can possibly be judged through intuitive acts of “seeing”4 but also upon their own merits and the logic of their relations rather than their ability to please the senses. But we need not be able to understand the chalkboards of Einstein, nor do we have to like them, to appreciate their truth or his principle that “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”5 Or we can side with Neils Bohr, his contemporary, who did not view the universe as at all comprehensible and, instead, viewed mathematics as an exploration of our limited human understanding of our own brains. (It remains possible to believe both if one only accepts that the human brain is part of the universe.) Taking a step further away from pure symbolic logic and into the sensory world, we can use sight and sound (and in the case of brail, touch) to translate these ideals into words. But it is in this translation of ideals into the world of the senses, that we must be most careful. Here, they become arranged not only along the scaffold of our senses but that of our prejudices. Our dislike of a food’s taste is not evidence of its lack of merit or truth. (Except in the case of pineapples on pizza – that abomination can go straight to hell and I will fight you about this.) It is only evidence of a recipe’s appeal to our senses. A naked mole rat might enjoy something else. (Still not pizza with pineapple – they would prefer to eat their own feces.) This division from our senses of what is sometimes called spirit but is better viewed as a realm of abstract ideals, does no harm in and of itself. Indeed, it makes much of life interesting and worth living. It has very real technological benefits and offers a variety of insights that would not, otherwise, be available. Dividing this realm from the senses does not, by itself, separate humans from the animal (a separation that the insights afforded by this division render impossible) but it does make humans into interesting animals capable of interesting things – even if some of these things are not quite as interesting as the diet of the naked mole rat. While Lin Yutang might view the love of “this abstract perfection” as “almost a freak” and a “gratuitous” outgrowth of human thought6, the same could be said of his writing, the language that it is written in and the means of production and supply that brought it to our attention all these years later. The division is not the problem. The translation of this realm into reality can be a problem. When considering that problem, we have to think about our senses. Just as we think of a body politic, we must also think of a politicized body.

These senses are often organized into a hierarchy. Look at the head of the homonculus. Here we can see an incredible density of our sensory apparatus. It is home of the mouth, the eyes, the ears and the nose. Its skull houses the brain that makes sense of all these things. Now, note its location. It is at the top of the creature. How often have we heard expressions related to “being on top”? That’s often seen as a good thing and understandably so. Not only does the top provide the best view, the higher ground is an advantageous position for inflicting violence on those below. It is also where the head is located. This head provides the view we have of our own bodies when we look down upon them. As such, it seems reasonable to start organizing the functions of the bodies into a hierarchy with the head at the top and the top, well, at the top too. It seems so reasonable that it is a line of argument that has been used to form an understanding of human society. It has been used to justify some of the worst atrocities of human history and the many situations where one group has held otherwise unjustifiable power over another. As early as 494 BC, a view of the body politic was was used in Rome. The plebs, angry about their constant wars, their debt burden and the economic and political inequality that had resulted in the abuse of their liberties by the ruling classes, went on a general strike. They left the city and refused to work. In response, the ruling class dispatched Agrippa Menenius Lanatus to do what threat of force and punitive measures could not. He was to bring the workers back to Rome. To do so, he told them a fable of the body politic:

“In the days when all the parts of the human body were not as now agreeing together, but each member took its own course and spoke its own speech, the other members, indignant at seeing that everything acquired by their care and labour and ministry went to the belly, whilst it, undisturbed in the middle of them all, did nothing but enjoy the pleasures provided for it, entered into a conspiracy; the hands were not to bring food to the mouth, the mouth was not to accept it when offered, the teeth were not to masticate it. Whilst, in their resentment, they were anxious to coerce the belly by starving it, the members themselves wasted away, and the whole body was reduced to the last stage of exhaustion. Then it became evident that the belly rendered no idle service, and the nourishment it received was no greater than that which it bestowed by returning to all parts of the body this blood by which we live and are strong, equally distributed into the veins, after being matured by the digestion of the food.”7

The fable worked and the plebes returned to their jobs. It worked because of the comprehensibility of our own senses –we all have bodies– but also because, although it still argued for the stomach being served, it showed some unity of the body and promised a redistribution of wealth. It showed the ruling classes not as the exploiters they were but justified their existence as a redistributive agency. They were stomach rather than head. And, when Li Yuang bemoans the division of spirit from body, he is not bemoaning this re-distributive unification of the body, but the retreat of power into an untouchable realm located in and beyond the head. In this, he rightly detects a division that makes the spirit unaccountable to the body and one that results in conflict between the two modes of being. In this conception, the healthy body operates with “amazing success” and “in absolute silence, without the usual racket of a factory, so that our superfine metaphysican may not be disturbed and is free to think about his spirit or essence.”8 While the spirit requires the body, the body has no real requirement of the pure spirit. It can live, quite happily, as a naked mole rat.

While the conflicts he detects result from this division, they are not a necessary or inevitable results of this division. Rather, these conflicts are a result of ideals mapped onto a human sensory apparatus and then arranged into a hierarchy. In the work of Aristotle, we already see this mapping and its self-serving purposes. According to this free male Athenian, “free male Athenians have the greatest amount of logos in their being – they are at the top of pyramid.”9 This is where Aristotle, a free male Athenian, not so surprisingly, believes free male Athenians belong. Like Plato before him with his idea of a “philosopher king”10, Aristotle helping to lay the groundwork for a body politic rooted in unaccountable notions of the spirit. The apex of this power is in the head. Specifically, the upper-class male head. To say that these ideas of Plato or Aristotle caused monarchy in medieval Europe would overstate the case but it certainly provided intellectual justification for those monarchs. And the effects of this location of the unaccountable spirit in the upper-class male head, has continued to provide such cover for many years since. We can easily see that the senses and qualities associated with this homonculus’s head, are viewed with higher regard than the rest of the body. We often speak of “the vision” of our leaders, their “good taste” and their ability to listen. These days, we even go so far as to celebrate them for their ability to totally divorce intelligence from the human body and locate it in machines and algorithms. And when these leaders discuss the classes they oppress, they often associate them with what they consider the lower senses – the ones outside of the head. The oppressed subjects become related to the genitals, being portrayed as oversexed, to the anus, being portrayed as filth and, if they are lucky, to the hands, becoming useful but unthinking appendages of power. Rather than being organized by the “reasonable” and unaccountable ghost in the upper-class head, they are instead portrayed as being organized by the irrational stomach, being portrayed, ultimately, as creatures not of taste or sense but of endless ravenous appetite. That, to this day, the richest are able to portray the poorest as gluttonous, shows the continuing power and currency of this self-serving representation of ideals. This lie results not only in conflicts between humanity and the supernatural, the natural and itself, but also in conflicts between any given human being and their own representation by others. (If naked mole rats were capable, I have little doubt that their queen and reproductive males would attribute to themselves the power and the glory of their teeth while reserving, for their subjects, the role of hindquarters and bottomless stomach. They would build busts of those teeth and claim their teeth were too precious to be damaged doing the work that their teeth evolved to perform. In time, they may totally lack teeth but create enormous mechanical teeth which they would then display on ceremonial occasions so that all the worker moles might see just how wonderful their teeth were. So the worker moles might remember the damage those teeth can inflict and cower before them. But I digress . . .)

These conflicts are not, as Li Yuang would have us believe, solely the result of division from the spirit from the body. Left alone, understood properly, this realm of ideals is the ultimate commons. It is an area that unites us with the naked mole rat, if only in our inability to actually access it. It is only when we translate this realm into the world of senses that Yutang celebrates that we run into trouble. It is then that we not only destroy the unknowable and unspeakable realm and compromise the indifference of objective reality but invest our senses with mystical attributes. We are floating through space on an orb. There is no such thing as an up, down, top or bottom in space. Yet we take all the power of this objective reality and assign it to certain positions to ensure that we think they exist. We end up making the head sacred and the rest of the body profane. Having inscribed this lie upon our own flesh, we then, through politics, inscribe it upon the flesh of others. This lie of hierarchical sensory organization becomes reified. We become the subject of various powerful gazes, including but not limited to the white, the male, the cop, the priest and the algorithm. These gazes are fortified by institutions of varying degrees of violence. While we need to translate this realm into areas understood by our senses, in order to make it comprehensible at all, there is no need for this idealized realm to be organized as a hierarchy. To do so, causes no damage to it but plenty to us. There are better ways to translate the realm of spirit into the body. Just as the earth must be regarded as a globe, the entire body and mind can be seen as both and simultaneously sexual and intellectual, without anything but provisional priority given to one feeling or the other. It can be both hungry and smart without one feeling looking down at the other and both being accountable to each other. These qualitites should, perhaps, be viewed as informational transfers within a fluidic body. But this requires a spiritual view rather than a simple biological reductionism and certainly not a sacralized biological reductionism. Whatever their physical purpose, there’s no need to think our heads or genitals are holier than each other. They are a part of each other. And they are all connected through a realm of spirit that we share with the naked mole rat – even, if only, in our shared inability to directly enter it.

In conclusion, while I often find it difficult to agree or disagree with anything, preferring to describe and complicate, a style of thinking that can, itself, often be viewed as disagreeable (just ask my beleaguered wife), I can, insofar as Li Yuang says that the spirit should be assigned no exalted position, agree with him. Insofar as he prioritizes the senses over the spirit, I disagree. Li Yuang may be right that “all human happiness is biological happiness”11 but, it then follows that, all human horror is biological horror. These are functions of the senses and they are not to be trusted. Quite often, something that feels bad will improve a person and something that feels great will kill them. Our senses would have us believe that we are on a flat earth in the center of the universe. That the naked mole rat is a lower creature than ourselves. But, the mere attempt to put these sensory lies aside, to view ourselves and the world without the prejudices of sensory judgment and certainly without elevating those delusions to any exalted position, allows us to better understand ourselves and our planet. This understanding is a function of spirit and of spirit’s division from the world of sense, which allows to access parts of an objective reality. Once spirit is divided from the body, both can regard each other from some distance. That space allows them to better enjoy and benefit from the perspective of the other. As long as one does not forget the other and things are redistributed throughout the whole, this mutual understanding has no inherent conflict with pleasure. It may even increase it.

Bibliography

Price-James, Sharon. (1994-2018) Homonculus. Sharon Price-James, B.A (Hons.). https://www.sharonpricejames.com/the-original-homunculus-company.html Accessed on June 17, 2018

Finch, Laura. (2002) Somatosensory cortex dominated by the representation of teeth in the naked mole-rat brain Kenneth C. Catania, Michael S. Remple Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences http://www.pnas.org/content/99/8/5692.full Accessed on June 17, 2018

Stuart Wilson and Chris Moore (2015). S1. Somatopic Maps. The Somasensory Homonculus. Scholarpedia http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/S1_somatotopic_maps Accessed on June 17, 2018

Cortical homonculus. (2018) Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cortical_homunculus#Discovery Accessed on June 17, 2018

Penrose, Roger. (1989) “The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and the Laws of Physics.” Oxford University Press.

Panek, Richard.(2012) “A Simple Universe.” The Cosmos. The Nature of Reality. Nova. PBS Socal. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/blogs/physics/2012/05/a-simple-universe/ Accessed on June 17, 2018

Smith, Steve. (1983) “Ways of Wisdom.” University Press of America, Inc. 1983

Livius, Titus. “Ab urb condita 2, History of Rome.” The Romans. Www.theromans.eu http://www.the-romans.eu/books/Ab-urbe-condita-2.php#fable Accessed on June 17, 2018

Kaplan, Richard, Dr. (2018) “No Title.” Announcements. West LA College. https://ilearn.laccd.edu/courses/47446/discussion_topics/401960 Accessed on June 17, 2018

Lane, Melissa. (2016) Philosopher King. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/philosopher-king Accessed on June 17, 2018

1Stuart Wilson and Chris Moore (2015).S1. “Somatopic Maps.” The Somasensory Homonculus. Scholarpedia http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/S1_somatotopic_maps

2“Cortical homonculus.” Wikipedia, 2018 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cortical_homunculus#Discovery

3Penrose, Roger. (1989) pg. 428 “The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and the Laws of Physics.” Oxford University Press.

4Penrose, Roger. (1989) pg. 428 “The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and the Laws of Physics.” Oxford University Press.

5Panek, Richard.(2012) “A Simple Universe.” The Cosmos. The Nature of Reality. Nova. PBS Socal. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/blogs/physics/2012/05/a-simple-universe/

6Smith, Steve. Pg 65. “Ways of Wisdom.” University Press of America, Inc. 1983

7Livius, Titus. “Ab urb condita 2, History of Rome.” The Romans. Www.theromans.eu http://www.the-romans.eu/books/Ab-urbe-condita-2.php#fable

8Smith, Steve. Pg 60 “Ways of Wisdom.” University Press of America, Inc. 1983

9Kaplan, Richard, Dr. (2018) “No Title.” Announcements. West LA College. https://ilearn.laccd.edu/courses/47446/discussion_topics/401960

10Lane, Melissa. (2016) Philosopher King. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/philosopher-king

11Smith, Steve. Pg 60 “Ways of Wisdom.” University Press of America, Inc. 1983

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