Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
A girl in a hat on top of a hill in silence and loneliness admires the calm natural landscape and balloons.
A girl in a hat on top of a hill in silence and loneliness admires the calm natural landscape and balloons.

Why Consciousness Shows That Materialism Is False

The mind refutes materialism in a rather straightforward way

My friend and colleague Bill Dembski, a leading advocate of intelligent design of the universe and life forms, has done a superb short interview with Robert Lawrence Kuhn on Closer to Truth. Bill takes a position that will surprise many fellow Christians—he doesn’t believe that consciousness represents an insurmountable challenge to materialism:

Bill makes the point that much of the popular argument hinges on shifting meanings of “materialism” and “consciousness.” By contrast, he argues, the design inference in biology is a much more effective challenge to materialism.

I agree that design in nature is an effective challenge to materialism. But I also believe that the mind refutes materialism in a rather straightforward way—and in much the same way that evidence of intelligent design in biology refutes materialism.

But first, we need to define materialism. There are several varieties but all share the belief that the matter of which reality is composed is stuff extended in space, that immaterial substances don’t exist, and that a comprehensive explanation of reality can be given by the methods of the physical sciences.

Next, we need to define the “mind,” which is my preferred term for consciousness. I don’t like the word “consciousness” because I find it imprecise and because it emphasizes alertness over other, more fundamental, mental attributes. For example, dreams are mental acts, even though we are unconscious during sleep.

There is a consensus among philosophers of mind that the 19th-century philosopher Franz Brentano (pictured, 1838–1917) defined mental (as distinguished from physical) in a clear and simple way: Mental acts are intentional; physical things are not: Brentano explains:

Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction towards an object (which is not to be understood here as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity. In presentation something is presented, in judgement something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired, and so on.

Michael Egnor, “My Reply to Dr. Novella’s Critique of Intentionality as a Property of the Mind” at Evolution News and Science Today (December 15, 2008)

In other words, intentionality is the “aboutness” of thought. Every thought we have is about something—about the weather, about a car, about lunch, etc. On the contrary, no physical thing is inherently about anything. Rain isn’t about anything in itself. A car isn’t about anything. Lunch isn’t about anything. Physical things are just themselves, and don’t point to anything else.

Of course, we may use physical things to express the intentionality of our minds—we can use ink on paper or electrons on a screen to express what our thoughts are about, but it is our thoughts, not the ink or the electrons, that are about something and have intentionality.

The salient quality of the mind, which matter does not have, is that the mind is about something other than itself. In other words, the mind “points” to something else—to an object, a person, or a concept in a way that matter doesn’t.

So the mind cannot arise wholly from matter because intentionality is not a property of matter. The existence of the mind refutes materialism because the mind is characterized by a power that matter does not have. Intentionality, like design, is a shoal on which materialism wrecks.

In my opening paragraph, I said that design in biology and the mind both refute materialism is similar ways. Here is how they are similar:

In philosophy of mind, intentionality is the power of the mind to point to something other than itself. It is a goal-directed power of thought. In nature, we see the same goal-directedness, the same pointing to something other than itself, a quality that which metaphysicians call teleology. Teleology is a hallmark of change in nature and it is particularly evident in biology.

Molecular machines in living things—enzymes in metabolic pathways, DNA replication and gene expression, intracellular organelles, whole organs and whole organisms—all are teleological, in the sense that they act in goal-directed ways. Biology is saturated with goals—energy production, protein synthesis, locomotion, reproduction, among countless examples. Each process in a living thing is teleological, and the teleology—the purpose—cannot be denied. You can’t understand the heart or the eye or the ribosome unless you know their purposes—to see or to pump blood or to make protein.

Can matter, by itself, have purposes and goals? Thomas Aquinas said no. In his Fifth Way, he demonstrated that goal-directed behavior in matter presupposes a Mind that directs the process to its goal. Of course, Aquinas pointed out that this Mind is what all men call God.

Intentionality in the mind and teleology in biology are both manifestations of the same fundamental goal-directedness in nature. And matter alone, without mind (or Mind), can produce neither consciousness nor life.

Both mind (intentionality) and design (teleology) refute materialism, and for fundamentally the same reason. Minds and life manifest goals, which matter alone lacks.

You may also enjoy these articles on mind by Michael Egnor:

Neuroscience can help us understand why free will is real. Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder and biologist Jerry Coyne, who deny free will, don’t seem to understand the neuroscience.


Has neuroscience “proved” that the mind is just the brain?
This is hardly the first time that bizarre claims have been made for minimal findings. In neuroscience, materialism is the answer only if you don’t understand the questions.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Why Consciousness Shows That Materialism Is False