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Meat in the Machine

Doing away with culture’s dorm-room Platonists

At some point in his life, Aristotle must have suffered a toothache. Like all of us, the ancient Greek philosopher was a being constrained by the finitude of physicality. Aristotle was subject to injury, entropy, and decay—he was liable to feel the pain and throb of an injured tooth. From the supposedly incomparable mind of the Lyceum’s founder came the notes that constitute his Physics and Metaphysics, the Nicomachean Ethics, and Rhetoric. A philosopher who founded a dozen fields of study from biology to literary criticism, the central intellectual influence on both medieval Islamic thought and Christian scholasticism, the tutor to Alexander who would conquer the whole world—and yet how smart could Aristotle have been when he had the grooved fissure of a cavity, a bit of grit stuck to his tonsil, or an impacted wisdom tooth?

The incompatibility of higher forms of contemplation alongside dental pain was noted by William Shakespeare, who astutely observes in Much Ado About Nothing that “there was never yet philosopher / That could endure the toothache patiently.” Shakespeare had the fashionable Neostoicism of the English Renaissance in his critical sights, with Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius in mind, but there is something appropriate about considering Aristotle (and his cracked yellow teeth) in the dentist chair as well, since among myriad subjects he’s arguably one of the fathers of odontology. Of course Aristotle must have felt a dull ache and thrum in his mouth or jaw from time to time. And myself too—just a few weeks ago I had a nasty toothache, the kind that radiates from a back molar along the line of your jaw, inflaming your nasal cavity and ear canal; the sort of pain as visceral as it is physical, reminding you of how you’re ultimately a creature of meat, composed of crust, mucus, and plaque. We’re all cadavers with moist caverns in our heads. No doubt you’ve had the same sort of toothache; no doubt you’ve felt the same disgust at it.

Toothaches aren’t the only pains we’re capable of. Pain encompasses everything from the sickening slick of a paper cut to the ripping of childbirth; it ranges across an impressionistic spectrum of misfortune, including the burn of gout and the ache of the lumbar, the squeeze of pinched toes, the cortex stabbing of a migraine, the searing clenched fist of a menstrual cramp, the panicked hot spasmic pins and needles of a nocturnal charley horse, and the nautical sway of nausea. We’re continually surrounded by so much physical pain, both individual and collective, that when Kevin Brockmeier imagined in his magical realist novel The Illumination a “phenomenon so new and unforeseen” of “light, pouring from the injuries of the sick and wounded,” he presented an altered world awash in an electromagnetic glow.

We’re all cadavers
with moist caverns
in our heads.

Our great contemporary theorist on the subject, Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, notes that “physical pain has no voice.” That is to say that even the mildest of pain exists somewhere beyond human language, and philosophy is very much in the domain of language. Scarry writes that “whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language.” Both Scarry’s and Shakespeare’s observation about pain’s ineffability have the commonsensical about them; it’s obvious (or should be) that when the tooth aches, it’s hard to think of anything else, much less the Nicomachean Ethics. As Virginia Woolf claimed, language “can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear [but it] has no words for the shiver and the headache.” Just see how hard it is to describe a slipped disk or a pinched nerve to your nurse when you’re reduced to evaluating your experience on a one-to-ten scale.

Pollyanna’s Pancreas

Beyond his role in nascent dentistry, there’s another justification I had in making Aristotle’s toothache the central conceit of this essay. In contrast to the ethereal idealism of his teacher Plato, Aristotle is very much the philosopher of embodiment—the theorist of bodies. It may be a bit reductionist to collapse the man’s entire corpus into mere corporeality, and yet from anatomy to zoology (no matter how provisional and inaccurate his observations may have been), Aristotle’s concern was with matter, a subject that Plato had preemptively rejected. In the Symposium, Plato writes of how the abstract, universal, infinite idea of beauty won’t take the “form of a face, or of hands, of anything that is of the flesh,” but in our actual lived experience there is seldom the Word but often flesh (failing or otherwise). Plato may be the metaphysician of the Forms, but Aristotle’s philosophy allows for not just Truth, Beauty, and the Good, but phlegm, blood, bile, piss, puss, shit, milk, and cum as well. Whether or not the master himself would necessarily put it that way is one thing, yet in the Manichean dualism which has long defined Western philosophy, Aristotle is very much the thinker staring at the gutter while Plato gazes towards the sun.

Anthony Gottlieb in The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance writes of how Aristotle “did not think of the soul as some sort of ghostly substance temporarily occupying the body,” as Plato did; rather, he “thought of it as whichever arrangement of physical characteristics makes the body alive and capable of perception and thought.” For Aristotle, “to have a soul was to have a body,” so that to understand the concept of the embodied soul is to know that the idea is redundant. Such zesty materiality is in keeping with much ancient thought, such as that of the Hebrew prophets for whom the soul always had a physical component. Tertullian rhetorically asked what Jerusalem and Athens had to do with one another—the response could be “quite a bit” when Aristotle was an inhabitant of the Greek metropolis.

Something about Plato has proven more enduring in the Western imagination, however. His universalism, his abstraction, his idealism, his rationalism all find favor in the most ostensibly philosophical of philosophies. Plato haunts the mystics of antiquity, Augustine and the Church Fathers, the first millennium of Christianity, and René Descartes, whose metaphysics posited the relationship between mind and body as being comparable to a “ghost in the machine,” to use a later formulation of Gilbert Ryle. Descartes’s concept of mind-body duality is simply a secularized soul, or at least an understanding of the soul as mediated through Plato. For more than a thousand years, Plato reigned supreme as the preeminent pagan thinker in the orthodox canon, so much so that he was enlisted as a sort of ersatz Christian-before-Christianity, his position unaltered save for that medieval interlude when Aristotle was reintroduced to Europe from Islamic sources. Renaissance humanism was in some ways the counterattack from Plato’s partisans, where, despite the burgeoning scientific revolution, a certain dogma of the soul would triumph.

Aristotle’s philosophy allows for not just Truth, Beauty, and the Good, but phlegm, blood, bile, piss, puss, shit, milk, and cum as well.

Medical historian Roy Porter explains in his study Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul that early modern philosophy, particularly of the Cartesian variety, holds that the “animal soul was material, the rational soul immaterial and immortal, divinely implanted”—obviously barely secularized Christianity, but the Christian dogmas about the soul were themselves barely concealed Platonism. Nor has the schema which Porter elucidated disappeared in modernity: from our presuppositions to our favored metaphors, we still can’t help but think of mind and body as something separate, as the soul being the liquid held by the glass of our anatomy.

We still imagine thoughts as being something separate from bodies, we extol the myth of mind over matter, and, in a postmodern twist, we increasingly talk of ourselves in terms of “hardware” and “software.” Positivist technocrats, like the so-called “transhumanists,” use Platonist language when they preach a gospel of the Singularity, when digital reality will supersede the physical. One such enthusiast, the computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, notes in the documentary Transcendent Man that in the near future “virtual reality will go inside the brain and then we really will be full-emergent with all the senses.” When such a moment arrives, your new avatar will allow you to “be someone else, you [won’t] have to pick the same boring body every time . . . our biological bodies will become obsolete.” In our cultural life, it remains very difficult to exorcize the immaterial soul (or to fully delete the proper files as the case may be).

Any sufferer of a toothache can tell you that it’s a convenient memento mori for the absurdity of Kurzweil’s Pollyannaish predictions. How can our biological bodies become obsolete when we are our biological bodies? We don’t experience toothaches; we are our toothaches. As indeed we’re our headaches, sore throats, and carpel tunnel, our coughing, sneezing and itching, but also our laughter, embraces, and orgasms as well. In the ecstasy of intoxication and the penitence of hangover there is evidence that we’re alive. Both pleasure and pain remind us that we’re embodied souls, and that ultimately that concept is itself tautological. In his The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Kurzweil conjectures that within fifteen years we will have “eliminated the heart, lungs, red and white blood cells, platelets, pancreas, thyroid and all the hormone-producing organs, kidneys, bladder, liver, lower esophagus, stomach, small intestines, large intestines, and bowel.” This, it would seem to me, is a rather large assemblage of that which defines what it means to be human. Nothing really new has been ventured by Kurzweil; rather, he repeats an assertion of Western philosophy going back to Plato: the fantasy that the mind and body can be easily separated from one another. Such is the central error of Western philosophy, psychology, and theology. Such a position forgets that pain has supposedly been our warrant since Eden, but pleasure has always been there as well. Any theory which should forget that Aristotelian earthiness courts a dangerous fallacy.

Thou S.H.A.L.T Shit

There are more gentle manifestations of this fallacy; most of the favored dorm room bullshitting sessions provoked by freshman philosophy have Platonist origins, including the “brain in a vat” thought experiment and the anxious conjectures that we’re all living in a computer simulation. These are the sorts of pseudo-problems a certain class of (normally male) students are enraptured by, a type of narcissistic, neurotic valorization of mind above matter—call it the solipsist’s ecstasy.

A degree of control can be imagined in the myth that the whole world, your very body itself, is but a dream unfolding in some version of you pickled off in a vat somewhere; or more horribly yet, that you’re God fantasizing the whole sordid mess into creation. But solipsism’s fatal (but thankful) flaw is obvious, even if it doesn’t conform to the Procrustean strictures of some imagined logical system—that’s to say that the moment somebody rightfully punches you in the face, all pretensions that you may be the world’s only dreamer and the world your dream must immediately evaporate. Pain is a sort of abstraction-beyond-abstraction, a crucial and powerful materialist reminder that your body is not your carapace, but rather that you’re your body. For the freshmen throughout culture, Plato truly is the patron saint of the Matrix. Everybody else has the reality of physical pain to keep them honest.

There are more serious implications to the fallacy of mind-body duality than just making undergraduate philosophy majors insufferable. We’ve predicated our ethics on a misunderstanding of how the body relates to the soul, seeing them as distinct when they’re inseparable. The results can be seen in everything from how we’ve pushed the world to ecological collapse while pretending that we’re somehow distinct from nature itself, to our cruelty towards animals, derived from Descartes’s absurdity which claimed them as being mechanical automata. How would we approach climate change if we didn’t separate the soul from the body so much? Would we reject those fantasies which pray of virtual salvation, the digital turning of the soul? For that matter, with what new sensitivity would we approach both mental illness and addiction? How would we live our lives knowing that the head and heart aren’t the seat of the soul, but the very thing itself?

There are more serious implications to the fallacy of mind-body duality than just making undergraduate philosophy majors insufferable.

When I quit drinking, one of the helpful little clichés that I learned to live by went by the acronym H.A.L.T. There is a certain wisdom attributed to Carl Jung which holds that addiction is a spiritual problem that manifests itself with a physical solution, but there’s an even greater wisdom that does not extricate such issues so conveniently. The wisdom of H.A.L.T. asks the sufferer in the midst of existential despair to first inquire if they’re actually just hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Sometimes you find yourself in the throes of a philosophical crisis, suffering from a lack of meaning and in desperate need of intervention. Sometimes the form that intervention takes will be a hoagie. With interests gastrointestinal, the only amendment I’ve made to the acronym is an addendum that makes it S.H.A.L.T. Whether eating or defecating should alleviate my dark night of the soul, the usefulness of the exercise goes beyond its therapeutic intent, for it reminds me that I’m not a brain in a vat, but fundamentally a body occupying space and time for a bit, just like everybody else.

Peter Manseau in his account of traveling to sites which hold religious relics, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead, writes that the “people are drawn to relics . . . because they make explicit what we all know . . . that bodies tell stories; that the transformation offered by faith is not just about, as the Gospels put it, the ‘word made flesh,’ but the flesh made word.” We’re supposed to be embarrassed by these artifacts, by the right hand of Stephen of Hungary, the arm once connected to the great Aristotelian Thomas Aquinas, the hand which once belonged to James the Apostle, or the tooth that had sat within the jaw of John the Baptist. Espied within jewel-encrusted reliquaries, these macabre objects are often configured as evidence of a more credulous past, but though some version of them exist in all faiths, I wonder if there is a connection between their medieval popularity and Aristotle’s resurgence during those centuries? If they don’t signify an understanding of what it means to be a body as much as it does to have a soul?

Plato’s persistence endures in our culture like a haunting, yet a toothache’s throb remains more powerful still. Because in the chipped, broken, bruised, and marked reality of relics there is less superstition than in all of the Panglossian predictions of being able to one day download your brain into the cloud. We may read relics as primitive, but they convey the experience of embodiment, the wisdom that you have a body. Aristotle wrote in his notes later collected in De Anima that “it is not necessary to ask whether soul and body are one, just as it is not necessary to ask whether the wax and its shape are one.” Any hypothesis, any ethic which separates what it means to be human from what it means to have a body is anemic. Our pains are the antidote to such reductionism.