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Monday, 19 December 2011

Mind in the Meat - further thoughts about philosophy and sport

A Chess-boxing match is a remarkable sight.  Two fighters play alternate rounds of speed-chess and boxing until the end of the competition.  To ensure a fair and worthwhile event, all competitors must be proficient boxers and Masters-level Chess players.  Victory is won  by knockout, checkmate, by judges decision or if time runs out of the speed chess game.

Philosophers, like lawyers and plumbers, are able to find work almost everywhere.  We can take it for granted that Chess-boxing is a sight to behold.  We might also imagine a ‘Super Championship’ in which the world Heavyweight Boxing Champion takes on the top Chess Grandmaster (and imagine the Chess player’s self-talk: ‘if I don’t get checkmate straight away I’m in big trouble!’).  But the real interest of this scenario for a philosopher is that it takes to an extreme the two sides of any sporting activity: the physical and the mental. The body and the mind.

All sports by definition involve the use of physical activity and skills, and although exercise  is sometimes considered a refreshing alternative to intellectual work, it is difficult to envisage any sport that does not involve at least some element of thinking, decision-making, communicating or mental preparation: sports players need to engage in an almost continual process of thinking – about their play and that of their opponent; they must select appropriate skills and techniques and decide when to use them; and, of course, they need to construct and follow a strategy that maximizes the chances of their success and minimizes that of the opponent.

This is a common way of characterising the necessary elements of a sport.  For example, physical activity and skills are the features needed of an activity to qualify as a sport in the UK (and benefits from grants, etc..).

What do you think?  Does this definition exclude any activities or games that are often considered to be sports?  Does it include what many would think of as non-sports?
What about …?
- Darts
- Motor-racing
- Ultra-marathon running
- Chess

Sport is a great example of an activity that involves both mental and physical engagement.  As such, it offers insight into one of the oldest questions in philosophy: what is the relationship between the mind and the body?  More specifically, which is the boss?

By far the most influential answer to these sorts of questions is the philosophical positions called dualism, which is made up of two claims:

§  The mind and the body are distinct types of things;
§  The mind is the boss.

Dualist ideas go back at least as far as the Ancient Greeks, and have had a huge influence on religions like Christianity, but the thinker most closely associated with the dualism is the French philosopher René Descartes.  So-called ‘Cartesian Dualism’ suggests that mind and body are distinct and separate, but that they interact with each other.  The mind is indivisible, invisible and immortal unlike the body.  It therefore follows that the mind and body are totally different substances.

This view of human beings is sometimes labelled ‘The Ghost in the Machine’.  We might equally nickname it as the ‘Mind in the Meat’ theory: we are our minds; bodies are mere transporters of those minds.  The mind decides, directs and learns; it thinks and feels and reacts.  The body simply carries the mind around from place to place.  Of course, the body needs to be kept in order, much as a car needs to be fuelled and serviced from time to time.  This image of human beings has dominated ideas of schooling for so long that most people simply take it for granted.  And it has influenced the way that things like sport and physical education are understood and valued.  For example, among the most commonly stated justifications for the inclusion of physical education in the school curriculum by both teachers and parents are: 
  • makes children fit and healthy;
  •  It help them ‘burn off’ excess energy;
  •  It offers a break from the sit-down lessons.

These seem rather flimsy justifications which hardly warrant a place on a broadly and balanced over-crowded curriculum (fortunately, there are more persuasive arguments!), but significantly from the point of view of our present discussion, they reveal the influence of the Mind in the Meat view of persons: physical education and sport help keep the meat moving.

What do you think?  Are there better justifications for PE and sport?

Does it matter?


Ed said...

I think the three bullet points you have given as to the justification for Physical Education and activity say a lot about peoples philosophical position. How many times are the benefits of Physical Education and activity discussed from a 'mind' perspective or even better, from both 'mind' and 'body' as inseparable entities?

If appears that the 'physical' is very much over-emphasized at the expense of the 'education', which I think is partly responsible for the dualist beliefs that exist.

The big question is how we get away from such beliefs and promote sport as both a physical and educational process?

Richard Bailey said...

I agree Ed. The history of physical education seems to be the history of jumping on another people's bandwagons!

Jennifer Leigh said...

The emphasis on competition is not helpful either - approaches that would facilitate a mind/body connection tend to be non-competitive...

Matthew said...

I'm drawn to the idea do dualism having watched Prof. Brian Cox's lecture on BBC2 last night. The idea of quantum physics, everything working in harmony but effected by everything and anything in the natural world that is going on. I almost like this as some form of exploration for embodiment - what do the two idea offer each other? For example, what can science (physics) tell us, and what can the most common embodiment approach (narrative/life histories) also tell us. Are we able to do this without the full understanding of quantum physics, I.e. the Higgs boson?

May be very left field, but struck me as an interesting thought.

Gemma said...

I totally agree Matt, the idea of how quantum physics and psychology can help each other is something I've been thinking of for a while now too. Not just about how physics can help psychology, e.g. the use of the idea of complementarity, but also how psychology can help physics, e.g. the effect an observer has on a phenomenon. CERN have seen hints of a potential Higgs particle now though, so its exciting times (for us geeks!)

Matthew said...

Thank, some almighty being, that you replied, Gem. I was contemplating deleting that comment as no one else seemed the consider the same things!

Richard Bailey said...

Brian Cox was rightly critical of people 'using' quantum theory for all sorts of 'woo woo', wasn't he? He was talking about alternative medicine and stuff like that. But there is always a danger of us reading our own meanings into complex theories.

A few years ago, chaos theory was used by lots of people. I have no idea how successfully, but it struck me as a risky enterprise.

I feel much the same about quantum mechanics!