The beginnings of the modern Western fanaticism with the notion of the mind (and all its processes) as separate from the body is normally traced back to and vehemently pinned to 17th Century French philosopher Renee Descrates. His brand of property dualism was particularly strong in its insistence that consciousness was a thing above mere flesh and blood, and his ideas are seen as one of the most pervading influences on modern views in both philosophy and science. While I feel that this is in some ways beyond debate, as it has been acknowledged by many time and time again, there is an important source from which the disembodied mind could have got its first legs (apologies) which I believe is often overlooked.
The source of which I speak is the well known institution of Western Christianity, and the multiplicity of branches, churches, chapels and leaders which have kept it functioning throughout the Middle Ages right up to the today.
Before discussing where one can find the seeds of dualism within this religious tradition, it is very important to note and remember that Christianity, and especially the Roman Catholic Church, was hugely influential throughout medieval and modern history (although obviously to a lesser extent), with many wars being fought in its name and nearly all Western academic and scientific pursuits being carefully ‘guided’ by its hand. Examples of its total control over the development of scientific thought during the Middle Ages are in abundance; Galileo being forced by the Church to recant his very correct observation that the Earth travels around the Sun and not the other way around immediately comes to mind here.
With this in mind, it is now time to consider the actual beliefs and core ideas which permeate this teaching tradition. In what some may call a selective manner, I will examine what I believe are the two central (interconnected) tenets of Christianity (and many other religions also).
The first is the idea that the short physical time-span we spend on this planet is a transient period. It is a time which although is necessary, it is not the only phase in our existence and what is done on earth (while obviously important if you’re planning on pearly gates being in your future) will come to an end which is not The End for us as an existing and conscious individual. This first tenet sets the ground-work for the basic ideology that physical existence is finite in a way that existence of the self (the conscious thinking self that is) is not, that existing within the physical realm will end long before existing itself will.
The second accompanying idea which is held by those who follow this doctrine is the period of existence which begins at the end of our transient corporeal one is one where we as a person still exist, but the physical limitations of our previous existence has been stripped away. In this ‘afterlife’ we are still the same individual consciousness agent even though we have been separated from our physical bodies. Surely the fact our mind goes on existing in full without need of our bodies indicates that they are not one in the same, and that the mind is of a different calibre and substance altogether.
It is this idea, which permeates all the teachings of Christianity, which I believe is a strong contender for the guilty party in the prevalence and adherence to the view of a disembodied mind within Western philosophical and scientific tradition. Influential academics such as Descartes, who (as a quick scan of his ‘First Meditations’ will tell you) was deeply religious, could not have avoided themselves being influenced by the core ideas which held together the Church they followed. The idea of Heaven has inherent the makings of a dualistic conception of body and mind or in a more modern wording brain and cognition and it seems prudent to assume that Christianity has itself been one of the strongest influences throughout Western history and has more right than most to lay a claim for ownership on what has now become known as the classic cognitivist view of human existence.