The word democracy is derived from the Greek root ‘demos’ which refers to the common people. It may sound trite to say that common people are humans and that humans necessarily have bodies but that is exactly where I want to start this.

The fact that we have a body is how we are identified as a citizen, how we are held responsible for our actions and how we are qualified to vote. But the importance of our bodies to democracy goes much deeper. We are not just minds, we are physical beings and our social and political worlds take place in the physical world with real physical impacts. Whilst our systems of governance are abstract, and our minds complex, the physical world is the proving ground for our imaginings.

Our bodies are important in a democracy because it is how we are counted. Online clicktivism is one thing but at some point real protests involve real bodies, activism requires real action. Democracy involves more than our minds, more than our opinions, it involves our very existence and to be truly political we need to show up in the world.

Our virtual worlds are just that, merely virtual, our legal and economic systems are maps but they are not the terrain. If we lose sense of this, we risk living in a dangerous collective fantasy unconnected to the fundamentals of our survival.

Urban living, the increasing virtuality of cyber space, and our minds’ capacity for self-delusion are all combining to promote disconnection from reality. The simplest antidote to disconnection is embodiment. Our bodies remind us that we are natural beings, born of this world. Our bodies connect us irresistibly to nature through the air we must breathe.

In our legal system, we humans are called ‘natural persons’ and this is to distinguish us from metaphoric legal persons such as corporations. Corporations have been invested with all of the legal rights and powers of a natural person, but problematically they have always lacked a body, and with that lack of a body they also lack the most important things that make us human. Corporations cannot feel pain, be deprived of their liberty, suffer from hunger, be assaulted, contract physical diseases, or suffer environmental discomfort. They have no emotional bonds with family, tribe or community, or with nature or the planet.

A famous quote by an English judge sums it up eloquently:  Did you ever expect a corporation to have a conscience, when it has no soul to be damned, and no body to be kicked?
Edward, First Baron Thurlow 1731-1806

Without a body, corporations lack the means to have a functioning moral faculty and are essentially sociopathic. There is a deep lesson here for humans. If we allow our minds to become disconnected from our bodies, we risk becoming sociopathic.

Corporations were effectively a very early form of artificial intelligence, but now there is a burgeoning field of AI in which decisions are and will be increasingly made by robots either imperfectly mimicking human intelligence or completely replacing it with new (disembodied) ways of thinking. Already the computational algorithms that drive everything from social media to investment decisions are driving a fractured social world and a growing environmental catastrophe.

Our economic and financial systems also reflect this abstraction of reality, we now have an economic model that has so let go of basic physics (yes physics is also about the physical) and runs on an ideology of unlimited growth, despite being on a finite planet.

But I really want to take us a step further, corporations, artificial intelligence, runaway algorithms and disconnected economic systems are problematic aspects of disembodied intelligence, but the problem is also much closer to home than that.

Our culture, particularly white western culture is predicated on a separation of mind from body and a privileging of mind over body. The disembodied mind is not just a problem with artificial intelligence, it is also something that we have done to ourselves internally.

French Philosopher Rene Descartes famously wrote (translated) “I think, therefore I am’ and (regardless of what he meant by it), for me this statement encapsulates everything dangerously wrong about the culture of the disembodied mind. For a start, if ‘I am’ then I really don’t need to question my existence, but apart from that obvious bit of physicality, the statement suggests that it is thinking that brings us into being, rather than simply the act of being itself.

The disembodied mind loses the humility that the body enforces, and permits the mind to embark upon a self-destructive ego fantasy that it can define the world for itself. Our minds are incredible creative tools but they are designed to operate as part of an integrated system of distributed intelligence, located throughout our body.

Our heads are not the only place where our thinking and our processing of intelligence takes place. Our bodies are systems of distributed intelligence operating in emergent ways arising as well in our bellies, our hearts our hands and our speech. Our bodies are not merely meat puppets that transport our self-absorbed and egotistical minds on their abstractified journey through life. Our entire body is our brain, it senses, it responds, it feels, it reacts and the brain is inseparably part of that distributed intelligence.

Yet our cultural and philosophical tradition has gone to such great lengths to diminish the importance of the body and to invest in the disembodied mind’s grand self-imagery. From the Judeo Christian religious tradition with its separation of ‘spirit’(pure)  from flesh’ (impure), and the consequent guilt that has been projected onto our bodies, as well our secular intellectual tradition that insists on ideas like ‘pure’ rationality disconnected from emotional wisdom. I even see it in our new age charlatans selling the idea that ‘everything we are arises in our minds’.

The cult of the disembodied mind ultimately lies beneath a lot of sexism and racism as well, as the extant connection of women and indigenous people to embodiment was often treated with disdain by those who believed their disembodied intellect to be somehow higher than an integrated intellect.

The cult of the disembodied mind separates us from what it is to be fully human, fully alive and fully connected to this existence.

Whether it is bureaucrats making disembodied decisions, corporations reorganising our planet without a road map for life, social media algorithms driving us to insanity, teenagers lost in a virtual world of gaming and screens, or disconnected post modernists telling us that text and language create reality, all of it screams of an invented world, unconstrained by real physical connectivity.

In the interests of our collective survival it is time to reject the cult of the disembodied mind and to reconnect. Our great planet and our great bodies are marvels of evolution. The intricate dance of the emergent properties of physicality, thought, emotion, spirit and imminence all combine in endlessly fascinating ways to produce a universe, a world and our bodies so complex that we can never fully understand it. It is only through reconnection that we can hope to find the wisdom to escape ideologies (isms) and try to heal the ‘body politic’.

Through our bodies we feel our own vulnerability and thus our capacity to perceive others vulnerabilities, it is how we feel empathy. It is no mistake that mythologically we experience love and empathy in our chest, or passion in our guts. We are fully integrated systems involved in endless nested clusters of distributed intelligence throughout the natural world.

Thinking does not create our universe, our universe is self-creating and we are part of that dance. Democracy, our shared political world is crying out for our full participation, crying out for us to finally show up, and the first place we need to show up is in our bodies, then we can get together and begin to make the real changes our survival depends upon.

Welcome home friend.




Comments are closed.