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The Mind’s Reality Is Consistent with Neuroscience

A neglected “dualist” theory offers some insights

In a recent podcast, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor talked with Robert J. Marks about the mind and its relationship to the brain and about different theories as to how the mind works. They talked about eliminative theories (the mind doesn’t really exist) and emergent theories (the mind arises from matter) earlier and then the conversation turned to dualism:

Here’s a partial transcript:

17:49 | Dualist theories of the mind

Robert J. Marks (right): Well, there is materialism and panpsychism. What other theories of mind of the mind are on tap?

Michael Egnor: Well, there are a number of dualism theories of the mind. And dualism, generally considered, is the viewpoint that mental states are not the same thing as material states, as brain states. That is, what you consider material aspects of a human being, there is a remainder that is mental, that is not material. But there are a variety of ways of looking at dualism.

18:29 | Cartesian dualism

The classical dualism way of looking at things, at least in modern philosophy, is Cartesian dualism, which was proposed by Descartes back in the 17th century. he proposed that human beings are composites of matter extended in space and spirit, which he thought of as a thinking substance. So he thought that there were two separate substances that were joined to form a human being, basically the material body joined to the immaterial spirit.

René Descartes (1596–1650) was a creative mathematician of the first order, an important scientific thinker, and an original metaphysician…

It is sometimes said that Descartes’ dualism placed the mind outside nature by rendering it as an immaterial substance. That is a retrospective judgment from a perspective in which immaterial substances are automatically deemed “unnatural.” For Descartes and his followers, mind–body interaction and its laws were included within the domain of natural philosophy or physics (in the general meaning of the latter term, as the theory of nature). Descartes spoke of regular relations between brain states and the resulting sensory experiences, which his followers, such as Regis, subsequently deemed “laws” of mind–body relation (see Hatfield 2000). In this way, Descartes and his followers posited the existence of psychophysical or psychophysiological laws, long before Gustav Fechner (1801–87) formulated a science of psychophysics in the nineteenth century.

Gary Hatfield, “René Descartes” at Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

There are certainly good things to say about the Cartesian understanding of the mind and body. But I think it’s fundamentally misguided from a philosophical and logical standpoint and that it has actually done quite a bit of harm philosophically because it was described in the 20th century by a philosopher named Gilbert Ryle as “the ghost in the machine.” And that is that Descartes understood human beings to be basically biological machines that were inhabited by a ghost which was the spirit or the mind. And materialists have simply said, well, there’s no ghost. So we’ll just understand human beings as biological machines. That’s a profound error but Descartes opened the door to that.

Note: Gilbert Ryle (1900–1976) used the phrase “ghost in the machine” in an influential 1949 book, The Concept of Mind. His own behaviorist theories are not now much regarded though they were influential in encouraging other materialist approaches, for example:

With his remarkable ability to turn a phrase, what Ryle even more famously did was to stigmatize “mind” as the “Ghost in the Machine.” Unfortunately, the phrase greatly advanced the enlightenment idea of “Man a Machine.” And it helped prepare the way for today’s revolution in cognitive science based on the “computational theory of mind,” with the digital computer the model for intellectual operations.

Gilbert Ryle” at Information Philosopher, retrieved February 21, 2020

20:00 | Hylomorphism

Michael Egnor (left): The perspective that Descartes cast aside was that of hylomorphism. That’s the view that all of nature consists of a composite of form and matter. Morphism means matter and hyle is the Greek word for form. Everything in nature is a composite of form, which Aristotle would call a principle of intelligibility, and matter, which is a principle of individuation. It’s a rather profound metaphysical perspective and in that perspective, the soul or the mind is the form of the body. But it’s a different perspective from Descartes’ perspective and it doesn’t see mind and body as being separate substances. It sees a human being as being a unitary thing, with different principles involved but not different substances.

Note: For more thoughts on hylomorphism (hylemorphism) see Michael Egnor, How can mind interact with matter? (Mind Matters News)

21:17 | Comparing theories of the mind

Robert J. Marks: One of the criteria that you mentioned for establishing a good model of the mind-brain problem is consistency with the results of neuroscience. How do these three different theories stack up, materialism, panpsychism, and dualism?

Michael Egnor: Well, panpsychism, I can see why some very intelligent people like Dr. Chalmers have made that inference [that everything is, in some sense, conscious], I don’t think panpsychism is a particularly scientific viewpoint. Realistically, there is no particular reason to think that electrons or grains of sand have minds.

See also: Are electrons conscious? A classical philosopher can explain why the belief that everything is conscious is wrong (Michael Egnor)

Robert J. Marks: I’m siting here thinking, how could you ever test something like that?

Michael Egnor: Well, you could ask an electron and people have tried but the electrons don’t answer …

Materialists have, of course, made the claim that neuroscience completely supports materialism. I had an internet debate with Dr. Steven Novella who is a neurologist at Yale a number of years ago and he’s a materialist. And Dr. Novella said that every single bit of evidence in the history of neuroscience supports materialism. Which I think is not the case.

The problem with that is that neuroscientists generally work from a materialist perspective and they ask questions of the mind and the brain from a materialist perspective. And, goodness gracious, it’s no surprise that if that’s they way you ask the questions, then materialism always seems like it’s the answer…

I think dualism is a much, much better explanation for many aspects of neuroscience.

Robert J. Marks: That was my next question: Do you, speaking as an experienced neurosurgeon who has played around with the brains of many, many people, what do you believe? Do you believe that the mind is distinct from the brain, as a dualist does?

Michael Egnor: I think that, first of all, if you want to understand the mind and the brain, you need to start with a solid metaphysical foundation. And I think hylomorphism is a solid metaphysical foundation. I don’t think Cartesian dualism is a good metaphysical foundation and I certainly don’t think materialism is a good metaphysical foundation.

I think the best explanation of the relationship of the mind to the brain is Aristotelian hylomorphism which is the viewpoint that the soul is the form of the body and that certain powers of the soul, particularly the intellect and will, are not generated by matter but are immaterial things—what Thomas Aquinas would call the “spirit.” But other properties of the mind, like perception and memory and imagination are physical. They are directly related to brain matter and they are generated by brain matter. I think that’s the best explanation philosophically for what we find in neuroscience.

Here’s a brief introduction to hylomorphism:

Form and matter considered on their own are merely concepts in the mind; in things they are two distinct principles that make the one unified individual thing. The substantial form makes a thing what it is and the accidental forms (e.g. quantity and quality) modify it to have the types of quantity and qualities it has. So a substantial form makes a cat a cat, but an accidental form makes it a “black cat.”…

What differentiates Seabiscuit from Secretariat is not horse-ness, since they are both horses; matter makes Seabiscuit this particular horse and Secretariat that particular horse.

JT Bridges, “Hylomorphism as a Metaphysic for Intelligent Design Science” at Evolution News and Science Today

Show Notes

00:37 | Introducing Dr. Michael Egnor, Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook
01:32 | We can use our minds to understand our minds
01:55 | What defines a good theory of the mind?
02:26 | The mind vs. the soul
03:51 | The self-refuting theory of eliminative materialism
07:12 | A reasonably good explanation that fits the facts
08:09 | What theories of the mind make sense?
08:32 | A materialist perspective of the mind
10:04 | The idea of emergence
11:26 | The wetness of water
13:27 | Qualia — the way things feel
14:17 | Two problems of explaining consciousness
15:40 | Panpsychism
17:49 | Dualist theories of the mind
18:29 | Cartesian dualism
20:00 | Hylomorphism
21:17 | Comparing theories of the mind
25:32 | The emerging field of neuroscience and its effect on theories of the mind


See also the earlier parts of the discussion: Why eliminative materialism cannot be a good theory of the mind. Thinking that the mind is simply the brain, no more and no less, involves a hopeless contradiction. How can you have a proposition that the mind doesn’t exist? That means propositions don’t exist and that means, in turn, that you don’t have a proposition.

and

Why the mind cannot just emerge from the brain. The mind cannot emerge from the brain if the two have no qualities in common. In his continuing discussion with Robert J. Marks, Michael Egnor argues that emergence of the mind from the brain is not possible because no properties of the mind have any overlap with the properties of brain. Thought and matter are not similar in any way. Matter has extension in space and mass; thoughts have no extension in space and no mass.


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The Mind’s Reality Is Consistent with Neuroscience