Do We Have Minds?


Okay, some would say, “I have lost my mind (literally)  to even ask this question.” Or, when you hear my conclusion, “He has gone mad—mad as a hatter (Alice in Wonderland stuff). Why would I even question what seems so obvious—that do we have minds? For one, nobody has ever seen a mind. And two, what do we mean by “mind” anyway? As a noun, has nineteen definitions. Almost any philosopher of note has her or his own notion of what the mind is. And, scientists do not even look for it. Conscious yes, the mind no. This is mainly because the mind is seen as an conglomerate of functions: feeling, willing, believing, judging, and thinking (another vague term). These are only some of the functions the mind is thought to have.

My main goal is to defend eliminative materialism to a degree. Or at least a version of it: one similar to that of Patricia and Paul Churchland,s ideas. Seeing how this is a form of materialism as a solution to the mind/body problem, I will also give some of my ideas on some other forms of materialism as well. Before I do this I will talk about its two main opponents as solutions to the mind/body problem. One is monism, and the other is dualism. To me the mind/body problem is a bit of a misnomer for me because I see no problem from my point of view.

So, let me talk about monism in philosophy of mind. Monism holds that there is only one substance as opposed to dualism which posits two types. So actually, eliminative materialism is a form of monism, since it claims that only the brain exists. The “mind” is considered a term of convenience here. But, the most commonly thought of form of momism is the one that posits that there is only the mind. I suppose most idealist in philosophy are monists. George Berkeley was certainly one. To him there was no material world at all. Whatever exists, exists in the mind, so the only thing that exists is the mind. But, what guarantees an individual mind’s existence? To Berkeley it was god, who to him was the ultimate mind.

So, that is monism, what about dualism? The main form of dualism is called substance dualism. This is there are two substances that have independent existences; although, in some forms they do interact. These substances can be thought of as mind stuff and physical stuff (in philosophy of mind this would be brain stuff). The most famous dualist was Rene Descartes (famous for his statement on mind – “I think, therefore I am.”), who in my opinion made more important contributions in mathematics, than in philosophy of mind. Some dualist say that these two substances (mind stuff and brain stuff) interact with one another. Again, Descartes supported this viewpoint. He even thought that the pineal gland deep within the brain was were this interaction occurred. How it actually occurred he never could answered it as far as I know.

Because of this lack of explanation of how the interaction is supposed to take place, some dualists claim that the two substances do not mix—they occupy two completely different spheres, were never the twain shall meet. In this form of dualism they operate as if one is from Venus and one is from Mars. I suppose the brain in this view is only responsible for bodily functions. Thinking is a totally independent activity. Where they place emotions and feelings I am not sure.

There is one more form of substance dualism that I am aware of. It is parallel dualism. Both substances do the same things, but they run alongside each other. They do not actually interact. Perhaps it is supposed to be some kind of backup, so if one failed the other one would still be able to carry on. It kind of reminds of Kalam philosophy, developed by Islamic scholars in the Middle Ages. Part of this philosophy claims that there is no cause and effect. It only appears this way because god causes both the cause and the effect to occur. I do not know if this philosophy supported a parallel dualism of the mind and the brain or not, but it seems likely that it would.

With monism and dualism out of the way (discussed) I will now describe some of the different materialist theories with the exception of eliminative materialism, in which I will give a much fuller discussion after these other forms of materialism are presented. I will probably not cover all of these other forms. I will describe epiphenomenalism, identity theory, and functionalism, which are within a reductionist program (seeks a reduction to a physical description of brain states). There are some non-reductive materialist approaches, but to me they are not strict materialists. There is something more than the physical states of the brain to them. There are those that are based on complexity, which is probably the most attractive form of such theories today.

I will cover the last of these first. The complexity clan believe that there is some emergent property that allows for mental states or components of the mind. They see no way that even a mild reductionism of the mind to the brain is possible because some emergent property intervenes. Somehow the complexity of the brain allows for another level of organization. There is only one problem with this stance. It has absolutely no scientific testable hypothesis to offer. So, they have not come up with any concrete theory of how all this emerging is suppose to take place. What rule or law dictates how the mind as an emergent property works. There must be something there to test experimentally. Without this it is hopelessly lost in wishful thinking. Complexity, complexity, it is all brought about by complexity. But, I say show me the goods. It seems to me that this is just a wild goose chase for a holy grail (that may not even exist as we understand it).

Let us look at epiphenomenalism. The supporters of this view find no function to what we perceive as consciousness and self-consciousness. The fact that we see a red object (maybe an apple) or hear “hello” (from someone talking) does not entail that the experience of seeing red or hearing “hello” has any effect on the brain. It is like we are watching a picture show or listening to the radio. However, I see a role for consciousness. I look at it as a magnifying glass that helps the brain focus on an important task or alert it to the fact that action is needed. Could not this happen without consciousness? Well, we do do a lot of actions in an unconscious mode. When we ride a bike we do not pay attention to all the details that are needed to operate it. And, for a while we might not pay attention to our destination. But, beforehand consciousness allowed us to focus on a destination, and will do so again at future moments in time. And, it will recognize our destination—home sweet home—when we arrive there. I think it is at least plausible that without the experiences we consciously have, it would be harder to function well in our world. And, we are also aware of our own thoughts, which might alert us to the need to be thinking. Also, do not forget that consciousness is actually a physical process or processes of the brain

I think language allows us to do this (being aware of our thoughts). While other animals may have consciousness that allow them to focus on particular activities, they do not have the capability of monitoring their thoughts. But, we do not think in language (I find this most likely), but without it we could not focus on our thoughts, and thinking would be an unconscious affair left without an ability to focus on our thoughts. It is like language functions as an organ of sense. I could be wrong and all our conscious experience is nothing but watching a movie of which it has no effect. If so, epiphenomenalism could be true. I am not sure how you could test my idea about the function of conscious experience, but then again I am not a neuroscientist. But, maybe one group (the control group) would be allowed to experience consciousness normally, and the other group (the experimental group) would have their consciousness interfered with, maybe with drugs or in some other way.

Now onto identity theories. These theories say that mental events (which are thought to actually exist) are caused by certain brain states. Of course, with the current state of neuroscience our deepest mental states like thinking or feeling to a large degree  have not been cracked. However, how the brain produces our perceptions of hearing, touch, smell, sight, and taste are known to a greater extent. With certain emotions like fear we know what brain areas are involved and when they are in operation. There are more complex emotions, so what is involved with an emotion like love is far less certain. But, regardless of the difficulties in understanding how the brain elicits love, awareness is coming to be understood, which is a key component to consciousness.

But, philosophers are hung up on what they call qualia. What does it feel like to see a red apple or a cat on the mat (a typical philosopher’s example). They also say that we cannot tell what it is like to be a bat or a cat. They say these events are not physical. However, I do not agree. These qualia or feelings of experiencing something are nothing but physical phenomena, just like all things that inhabit the universe. There are forces that control the happenings, but they are now thought to be fields. Are these fields physical? I am not certain, but they seem like they would be more physical than a force that operates at a distance.

So, why do I think felt experiences are physical. First, all sensing is physical. Touch is felt by direct pressure on the skin; hearing is felt through sound waves of air entering into the inner ear; sight is felt through photons (which are physical – they are particles after all, or excitations in the electromagnetic field) impinging on the retina; smell is felt through chemical molecules interacting with the neurons that function as the upfront receivers in the nose; and taste are felt like smell through chemical molecules interacting with receptors on the tongue. From these initial interactions they travel to processing areas of the brain like the visual cortex for sight. All this is through neurons, which are physical. At some point they reach their final destination(s) in the brain and the experience is felt. What is not physical about these things? It is only a trick and shallow thinking that deems these experiences to be nonphysical.

In my opinion identity theories do not falter on the sharp rocks of qualia. Every experience can be thought of in physical terms, when the whole process is taken into view. The end product is just as much physical as the triggering event. My problem with identity theories is that the mental states are said to exist—but where? Separated or not separated from the brain.? This will be seen when I take on the exploration of eliminative materialism.

Finally, to finish up the other common form of materialism I want to focus on what is called functionalism. This is probably the preferred form of materialism of cognitive scientists and artificial intelligence (AI) researchers. This is because they do not in general believe thought can come from the human brain only. Any physical object that can do the type of mental functions that the brain performs is adequate. It also does not really matter if some other biological or other natural physical objects do the work. These may produce functions like our brains. These are thought be equivalent.

I attached the term “mental” to functions. This is because the researchers and philosophers that argue for this view are not interested in the “non-mental” functions of the brain, like breathing, digestion, and heart functioning. Most of them I think ignore feelings as well. One functionalist, however, Daniel Dennett, is now researching how to have a computer that feels. His project (a student of his really) is to have a machine that can understand jokes, which to them entails having feelings.¹ Hilary Putnam, Jerry Fodor, and David Lewis are a few that take the functionalism view. Putnam is the only one I have actually read, but it has been years.

Is functionalism a correct or valid approach to understanding the mind? Does the brain actually work like a functionalist machine? Are there dedicated brain modules doing different mental functions? There are brain circuits. Are these the functional units of the functionalists? I do not have the answers to these questions. The last seems a likely candidate. However, what are these mental functions? Are these components of a mind? Our minds? Well, let us just see.

These final two questions lead into my exploration of eliminative materialism. The main bug-a-bear of this theory is folk psychology. The philosophers of this bent, including the Churchland’s, think that folk psychology is false. They believe that there is no empirical support for it. So, what is folk psychology? It is the usage of intentions to understand someone’s, even ourselves, behavior. Intentions here are used in their philosophical sense. In this sense intentions are things like believing, feeling, thinking, judging, desiring, perceiving, knowing, and, of course, intending. These could be considered as states of mind.

Eliminative materialism wants to eliminate folk psychology and replace it with brain states alone. Despite folk psychology’s apparent successes, it has, according to this form of materialism, no experimental backing. Hence, it is not a valid theory (at least scientifically). But, it works in understanding the doings of humans, possibly other animals (especially mammals), and, even to a certain extent, non-animate objects, such as computers and other machines. Daniel Dennett, a main proponent of this kind of explanation, calls using this approach “the intentional stance.”² Richard Dawkins in his The Selfish Gene uses the intentional stance, giving genes some of the intentions that human beings are deemed to have. If eliminative materialism is correct, mind states would be more metaphor than reality.

We use folk psychology fairly well. It can give us some good explanations of what we think is going on in someone’s “mind.” And, it is the mind we are talking about here, not machines, or genes, or any other animals’ behavior. In some sense folk psychological explanations are what we want. Most of us, except for the scientifically “minded” (and most people are not), are not interested in how the brain accomplishes these intentions, and what explains behavior and “thought.”*

Does the fact that there is not any experimentally verifying support for folk psychology give it enough black marks for us to want to seek to eliminate it? And, also the fact that we do not currently have anything like the knowledge of the brain for what the Churchland’s hope to have in the future. In other words eliminative materialism has a huge promissory note hanging around its neck. I think it is theoretically possible for future neuroscience to produce the needed results. A neuron to neuron description may not be needed, but certainly brain circuits and actions of these circuits will be necessary.

Given that in the future the necessary knowledge of the brain and its states will come to fruition, will we ever want or be able to give up folk psychology? For some probably not, but we cannot see that far in the future, if that is the future ahead of us. Will it be possible to only to speak of brain states (what is the brain up to?)? It might, but I think it would take a sea change (a big one) to make this switch if at all. I wonder if the Churchland’s could even make the switch (I do not think that I could).^

Still, if eliminative materialism is correct and possible, the answer to my title question would be no. How odd it is that everyone, or maybe practically everyone, believes they have a mind, but eliminative materialism claims that we do not. I am also aware that I have never read either of the Churchland’s making this claim for the mind’s nonexistence. But, I think it follows from the jettisoning of folk psychology. After all what makes up the mind are the mental states that folk psychology talks about. Without these mental states the mind would be empty. If it is empty, why claim we have minds at all?

Mind or no mind?

¹ Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind by Matthew M. Hurley (the student), Daniel C. Dennett, and Reginald B. Adams is their introduction to this project.

² See his book the The Intentional Stance.

* See Could I Use a Little Reducing? for more on wanting explanations at different levels as well as reduction to particles or forces. or more accurately, fields and excitations in these fields.

^ There are signs in Patricia’s book Braintrust that she may be more hesitant to dump folk psychology then in the past.


4 thoughts on “Do We Have Minds?

  1. Good job, Steven! I agree the answer is no. I think mind, like soul, is just a convenient term for explaining different states of being or aspects of our consciousness, by which I mean how we perceive ourselves. But unlike you, I am no deep thinker!


    1. Thank you Denny,

      I am pleasantly surprise that you or anyone else would agree that we do not have minds.

      For me there is a difference in the non-existence of the mind and the non-existence of the soul.
      The soul is based on the concept of god for which I see no good reason for believing in, while at least the mind is based on the brain for which we have plenty of evidence for..

      Oops. I cannot be a deep thinker than anyone else, since we do not think because this is another folk psychology concept, which needs to be rejected according to eliminative materialism. And, remember thinking is one of those things the mind is supposed to do. So, no mind, no thinking either. This just illustrates the massive task it would be to eliminate folk psychology from our usage of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It appears as an impossible task. I read Sam Harris and Hector Avalos each suggest this as necessary for a better future. Each time I thought yeah right; these guys must be having a pipe dream. Of course, pipe dreams do become effective in some cases – think of Martin Luther King. However, I must admit I am cynical about this becoming the future, but then again I find myself thinking it just may happen, no matter how slim the chances seems at present; after all England becomes more secular with each passing survey.

        Liked by 1 person

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