I'm confused about what the mind-body problem means. On some accounts the mind-body problem is specific to dualism. The dualist has to explain how the mind, a non-extended substance, interacts with the body, an extended substance.

And on some other accounts it seems to be more general. In these accounts, the mind body problem arises because the mind seems to be so fundamentally different from any physical substance, yet it is obviously correlated with the body. So naturally this relationship leads to the question of what is the mind? is the mind the body or not? (please correct me if I'm wrong)

So which is it? I've looked up the mind-body problem on encyclopaedias like IEP and SEP and they didn't really help me.

2 Answers 2


In these accounts, the mind body problem arises because the mind seems to be so fundamentally different from any physical substance, yet it is obviously correlated with the body.

This is the main problem. The question is how certain physical properties - say, certain brain cells firing in a particular order - can give rise to certain phenomenal properties, such as seeing, tasting, etc. Here's a relevant quote from Chalmers:

The impressive progress of the physical and cognitive sciences has not shed significant light on the question of how and why cognitive functioning is accompanied by conscious experience. (The Conscious Mind, p. 25)

A pithier way I've seen him put this is as "why should this (physical property) feel like that (phenomenal property)." Note that there's a problem only if there are such things as phenomenal properties, and they coincide with physical properties in the way that people like Chalmers think they do. You can avoid this problem altogether by denying that there are phenomenal properties. Eliminitavists like Daniel Dennett take this approach, as do the Churchlands. Most people think that this is a non-starter, however.

With respect to your main question, you note that the dualist has to account for how the mind interacts with the body. This is correct. But it isn't the core of the mind-body problem (if it exists, assuming we're not eliminitavists). This is less of a problem for the materialist. Note, however, that your second question applies to both the dualist and the materialist alike - their positions are distinguished by how they answer the question of the relationship between the mind and the body.

  • Oh so the mind-body problem is the same problem as the hard problem of consciousness. But are there philosophers who use the term "mind-body problem" in a different way? Also am I confusing the mind-body problem with the mind-body interaction problem, which is specific to the dualist?
    – liyuan
    Apr 20, 2015 at 2:38
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    The terminology in this area definitely leaves something to be desired. Depending on their lineage philosophers may use 'mind-body problem' to talk about the hard problem of consciousness, or they may use it to talk about the mind-body interaction problem. Other than a close and careful reading of the text there is no hard and fast way to tell which use they're employing. Do you have some specific examples of passages which confuse you? Seeing those might help us to diagnose where the problem is. Apr 20, 2015 at 16:12
  • I agree with your assessment, but feel compelled to note that "Most people think that is a non-starter, however." is not a very strong argument against something as non-intuitive as philosophy. Most people can't intuitively tell what is a patterned sequence and what is a random sequence, for instance.
    – Rex Kerr
    Apr 20, 2015 at 21:10
  • You're right. Here's a better way of making the point. We seem to be bombarded by prima facie evidence - the fact that we have certain experiences - that rules out eliminitavism from the start. Since most philosophers accept that there are phenomenal properties, eliminitavism doesn't get off of the ground. This is why it's a non-starter. Apr 20, 2015 at 22:08
  • "The real distinction of mind and body based on their completely diverse natures is the root of the famous mind-body problem: how can these two substances with completely different natures causally interact so as to give rise to a human being capable of having voluntary bodily motions and sensations?"
    – liyuan
    Apr 21, 2015 at 15:35

The mind-body problem is essentially the question of whether mental states and events are fundamentally different from brain states and events (the way light and sound are different from each other, even if they go together sometimes) - or are mental states and events just different aspects of the same thing (the way musical notes and frequencies are different ways of describing sound waves).

Mind-body interaction doesn't become part of the problem, unless you've answered the first question already with "mental states and brain states are different". "If so, then how can something non physical influence something physical?"

The mind-body problem can be considered an issue for dualists only, because many dualists assume the answer to the first question and head straight to the second.

  • The musical notes analogy might be in-apt, because that we think of them as musical notes seems to be something that is partially about culture and partially about physics. i.e., sound wave frequencies are pure physics but music notes are physics + something qualia-like (at least potentially)
    – virmaior
    Apr 20, 2015 at 4:39
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    For Descartes, the problem is how mind and body communicate, not if there is a correspondence relation between states of the mind and states of the body/brain. And for Plato, the notion of 'brain' you're using would've been far over his head. Could you elaborate on this? Are you describing the mind-body problem from a contemporary perspective only, or also from a historical perspective?
    – user2953
    Apr 20, 2015 at 5:26
  • Perhaps we're talking about the same thing though, with different terminology. Or perhaps my understanding is simply incorrect. But this is how I had it explained to me.
    – user2953
    Apr 20, 2015 at 5:28
  • @Keelan Yes I am describing the mind body problem from a modern perspective. The fact that all solutions to the problem ultimately amount to answering the questions "Which is correct, dualism or monism? And if so, which type of dualism or which type of monism?". Communication and interaction are just two ways of saying the same thing. Apr 21, 2015 at 13:24
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    From the same page "discretizations of musical phenomena that facilitate performance, comprehension, and analysis" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_note). That middle C is 440hz is physics. That it is middle C and thus means something to us in music is not. (Different cultures have different scales and respond differently to the same series of sounds -- this is an extremely well-studied point).
    – virmaior
    Apr 22, 2015 at 4:51

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