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How we can know mental states are real?

Mental states are always “about” something; physical states are not “about” anything

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor did a recent podcast with Arjuna Das at Theology Unleashed, “where Eastern theology meets Western skepticism.” In this section, they talk about how we can know that the mind is real and how materialist philosophy has just plain gone bad:

Here is a partial transcript and notes for the twenty to thirty-one minute mark:

Michael Egnor: There was a philosopher named Franz Brentano (1838–1917) in the 19th century who proposed what I think is the best definition of what distinguishes a mental state from a physical state. Brentano asks, is there any unique thing that all mental states have that no physical state has? He said, it’s intentionality, and by intentionality he meant that every mental state is about something. There is a mental directedness.

For example, every thought you have is a thought about something. You can’t really have a thought that’s not about anything. I can think about Washington, DC. I can think about my family. I can think about God, but you can’t just think unless there’s some “aboutness” to it.

Whereas physical things are never about anything. This pencil in and of itself isn’t about anything. It’s just a pencil. I can mentally attribute aboutness to it, but the pencil itself isn’t about it. (00:20:07)

Franz Brentano (1838–1917) was a 19th century German philosopher

So Brentano says that intentionality is a cornerstone of what mental states are … a personal form of teleology. A purposefulness, a directedness.

In a way, there’s evidence for a Big Mind in nature, just like the evidence for an individual mind in human beings. (00:21:18) …

Arjuna Das: So maybe we could talk a little bit about the problems from materialism… Scientists have created this box for themselves. All their explanations need to be physical and fit within a certain metaphysical outlook of the world, which is very restricting. So they won’t look outside of that box… (00:23:39)

Michael Egnor: I think that’s exactly true, and it’s remarkable in our era, in the last maybe a hundred years, it’s certainly true that many, if not most of the leading scientists in the hard sciences have been atheist or agnostic. That’s kind of the fashion.

There certainly isn’t anything about the natural world that would lead an intelligent person to embrace atheism or agnosticism, I think just the opposite is the case. But it’s fashionable and, quite frankly, if you’re a professing theist of any sort in the scientific community, it doesn’t help your career. It doesn’t move you along. However, the great scientists of the past were almost all devout believers in God, and even those who weren’t even devout still believe God. Einstein was not an atheist at all. He said his career was trying to read God’s mind. Schrödinger was not by any means an atheist.

Heisenberg was not an atheist. Planck was a devout Christian. Maxwell was very devout man. Faraday was a what we would call fundamentalist. Newton wrote more about the book of Daniel than he did about physics and math. I’ve read some of his interpretations of the Bible, it was a very profound, biblical exigence.

So the great scientists were devoutly religious people, and it turned out that when materialism or physicalism came to dominate science in the mid 20th century, was when a lot of the great discoveries stopped happening when things sort of dried up. Doing science as a physicalist is like driving your car with a parking brake on; it’s a major impediment to science. (00:25:30)

Arjuna Das: Right. This relates to another question: Why is philosophy dead?

I heard someone giving a talk and they asked the audience ‘”Can anyone here name one living philosopher?’” and nobody was able to do it.

Whereas in previous ages, the philosophers were like the rock stars of society. When Immanuel Kant (I think it was) was dying, all these people gathered around, it was like what we might do for the Royal family today or something. One of the reasons why philosophy is dead is because scientists who are not trained in philosophy make philosophical statements. So it’s like there’s this hunger people have for philosophy, and they’re getting it met through the junk food of bad philosophy done by scientists. (00:26:22)

They have this urge for something philosophical and they think they’re getting it from science, but none of these people are actually doing it. So scientists are pronouncing on philosophy despite having no training in philosophy, which means they’re doing it minus. all the rigor which would normally go on in the discipline of philosophy. (00:27:40)

Note: Arjuna Das is, if anything, politely understating the case. In a rather ill-advised move in their 2010 book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow dismissed philosophy. Popular science figure Neil deGrasse Tyson has called it “distracting”) and popular physicst Larry Krauss has said, “science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.” All science begins with philosophical assumptions. Views like these make it easier to ward off good philosophy than bad philosophy.

Michael Egnor: Yes. I must say that one of the things that’s really helped me in my conversion to Christianity away from atheism was besides my Damascus Road thing, I spent a few years pondering these issues rather deeply and belief in God started to make sense to me for all sorts of reasons, but I was secretly kind of afraid of debates.

I was afraid that the atheist case was so strong that if I looked at it carefully, that it would sort of extinguish my faith. So I went at it kind of carefully, and I started listening or reading atheists debates with Christians and so on, and I was amazed. Frankly, I’m still amazed, even though I’ve been reading it and even doing it for years. The debates for materialism, the debates for atheism and let’s face it, atheism and materialism are peas in a pod, are the arguments for them are utterly stupid, meaning that these are really almost subliterate arguments.

A very good example is scientism, which is a degenerate form of logical positivism. Scientism is the view that the only thing we can know really for certain is stuff that can be proven scientifically that science is sort of the gold standard of knowledge. The problem with scientism, if you think about it for a moment, is that that assertion itself is not something you can prove scientifically. Scientism isn’t a scientific theory, so the assertion that science is the only way to knowledge is itself not a scientific kind of knowledge.

So scientism is self-refuting, but it has been hawked by any number of Nobel laureates and world famous scientists and it’s idiotic. It’s something that a clever 12-year-old could see through.

The materialism and atheism are intellectually vacant, vapid, ways of looking at the world and the fact that they are believed by a fair number of leading scientists is an enormous indictment of the scientific profession …

None of the good philosophy being done today is being done by any materialist. That is that whatever good philosophy is being done, and there is some, is being done by people who at least in part reject materialism. The good part of their philosophy is the part that rejects materialism. (00:30:55)

Next: What’s a good model for the relationship between the mind and the brain?

Here’s a transcript and notes for the first twenty minutes:

Why neurosurgeon Mike Egnor stopped being a materialist atheist. He found that materialism is just not working out in science. Most propositions in basic science are based on mathematics and mathematics is not a material thing.


How science points to meaning in life. The earliest philosopher of science, Aristotle, pioneered a way of understanding it. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor talks about the four causes of the events in our world, from the material to the mind.

You may also wish to read: Why the universe itself can’t be the most fundamental thing. Atheist biology professor Jerry Coyne is mistaken in dismissing my observation that proofs of God’s existence follow the same logical structure as any other scientific theory. (Michael Egnor)

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How we can know mental states are real?