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The Final Materialist Quest?: A War on the Reality of the Mind

Going to war with the very concept is an approach even George Orwell did not think up

One of the stranger articles we’ve seen in a long time at Aeon proposes a war on the very concept of “the mind.”

“The terms ‘mind’ and ‘mental’ are messy, harmful and distracting. We should get rid of them,” Joe Gough, a philosophy student, says. Here is his reasoning:

The terms mind and mental are used in so many ways and have such a chequered history that they carry more baggage than meaning. Ideas of the mind and the mental are simultaneously ambiguous and misleading, especially in various important areas of science and medicine. When people talk of ‘the mind’ and ‘the mental’, the no-mind thesis doesn’t deny that they’re talking about something – on the contrary, they’re often talking about too many things at once. Sometimes, when speaking of ‘the mind’, people really mean agency; other times, cognition; still others, consciousness; some uses of ‘mental’ really mean psychiatric; others psychological; others still immaterial; and yet others, something else.

Joe Gough, “The mind does not exist” at Aeon (August 30, 2021)
Joe Gough

Of course, all general terms are like that. Singling out “the mind,” as opposed to “a free press” or “wise financial management,” for special criticism is not clearly reasonable. We can’t just get rid of such terms because people are always reinterpreting them or moving the goalposts. That’s part of the very nature of abstractions. Abstractions are, by their nature, easier to just constantly reinvent than something wholly material like furniture or stonework.

And his recommendations?

When we see the concepts of mind and mental doing such harm, we have good reason to get rid of them. Rather than talk about ‘minds’ and ‘the mental’, we would be better off discussing the more precise and helpful concepts relevant to what we’re doing. The good news is that they already exist for the most part, and work perfectly well once their connections with mind and mental are broken. Psychology has psychological, cognitive science cognitive, and psychiatry psychiatric. Outside these areas, there are many, many more –consciousnessimaginationresponsibilityagencythoughtmemory, to name but a few. Feminist work on relational autonomy and the relational self, and historical precursors such as Homer provide promising avenues for developing conceptions of people that don’t call on the notion of mind – notions according to which people are coherent wholes, not because they have some unifying inner core, but because of the way they, their relationships and their environments conjoin.

Joe Gough, “The mind does not exist” at Aeon (August 30, 2021)

So we are to remove the single most important concept that separates humans from sand dollars from our language? For what purpose?

Analytical philosopher Galen Strawson came to the opposite conclusion recently. It was precisely the irrefutable fact of human consciousness (the “Hard Problem of Consciousness.”)

Perhaps each of us knows for certain that he or she exists—fine—but the only other general thing we know for certain is that consciousness exists …

Step one is: one thing we know for sure is that consciousness is real.

Step two—this is an assumption, technically— [is] I believe there’s only one kind of stuff and I call it “physical stuff.”

So, I’m a physicalist and I know that consciousness is real. I have to say that consciousness is physical. That’s step three.

Robert Wright, “What is it like to be an electron? An interview with Galen Strawson” at NonZero (June 28, 2020)
Galen Strawson

In short, whatever proposition about consciousness one wishes to go with (Strawson chose panpsychism), there is no escaping the reality of the mind.


You may also wish to read: How a materialist philosopher argued his way to panpsychism. Galen Strawson starts with the one fact of which we are most certain — our own consciousness. To Strawson, it makes more sense to say that consciousness is physical — and that electrons are conscious — than that consciousness is an illusion.


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The Final Materialist Quest?: A War on the Reality of the Mind