Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis

CategoryPhilosophy of Mind

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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…

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Quantum Theory of Consciousness Gains Support From Recent Study

The researchers were testing principles that underpin the Penrose–Hameroff theory

Cristiane de Morais Smith, a condensed matter physicist at the University of Utrecht in Belgium, has teamed up with colleagues from China led by quantum physicist Xian-Min Jin at Shanghai Jiaotong University to test principles that underpin a quantum theory of consciousness. Many dismiss the idea, originally proposed in the Nineties by Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, because it is assumed that quantum mechanical laws (as opposed to classical physics laws) apply mainly at very low temperatures, for example at – 272 C, which is just below – 273 (absolute zero, when all classical movement stops). De Morais Smith and Xian-Min think, however, that they may have come a bit closer to validating the idea: Our brains are composed of…

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Why Neurosurgeon Mike Egnor Stopped Being a Materialist Atheist

He found that materialism is just not working out in science

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor did another podcast with Arjuna Das at Theology Unleashed, “where Eastern theology meets Western skepticism.” Among other things, Egnor talked about why he ceased to be an atheist as he learned more about science and its dependence on mathematics, which is not a material thing. A partial transcript follows, taking us down to 15 minutes, with notes (more in a further installment): Arjuna Das: (00:01:49) Today, I’ve got Michael Egnor on. I’m very delighted to have him on for a second time. He’s a neurosurgeon, a Christian, and he’s quite good at arguing philosophy too… W So we’ll start out with him telling a little bit of a story, how he changed his metaphysical views through things…

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The Day Philosophers Started To Take Consciousness Seriously

Of course, once they did, they found themselves deep in huge conundrums

We sometimes forget how far we are from solving the mystery of consciousness. An anecdote from 1994 might help us understand. Picture an utterly boring, pointless conference in Tucson, Arizona, one of whose attendees was an obscure philosopher from Australia, scheduled to give the third talk. And shook everything up: The brain, Chalmers began by pointing out, poses all sorts of problems to keep scientists busy. How do we learn, store memories, or perceive things? How do you know to jerk your hand away from scalding water, or hear your name spoken across the room at a noisy party? But these were all “easy problems”, in the scheme of things: given enough time and money, experts would figure them out.…


Do Birds Really Understand What They Are Saying?

Remarkable claims are made for some birds

Perhaps because parrots can carefully mimic human voices (and many other sounds), many claims are made for their intelligence For example, that they understand abstractions like currency: After training eight African grey parrots and six blue-headed macaws to barter metal rings for walnuts, the researchers paired the birds up with same-species partners. They then put the parrots in clear chambers joined by a transfer hole, and gave one bird—the donor—ten rings, while the other was left with none. Even without the promise of a reward for themselves, seven out of eight of the African grey parrot donors passed some of their available tokens through the transfer hole to their broke partners, usually shuttling them beak to beak. On average, about…

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Do Only Western Religious People Have Near-Death Experiences?

Even famous atheist philosopher A. J. Ayer had a near-death experience

Gregory Shushan, author of Near-Death Experience in Indigenous Religions (2018) notes in a recent article at Psyche that near-death experiences are not a new discovery: NDEs have been popularly recognised in the West since the mid-1970s, but people from the largest empires to the smallest hunter-gatherer societies have been having them throughout history. Accounts are found in ancient sacred texts, historical documents, the journals of explorers and missionaries, and the ethnographic reports of anthropologists. Among the hundreds I’ve collected are those of a 7th-century BCE Chinese provincial ruler, a 4th-century BCE Greek soldier, a 12th-century Belgian saint, a 15th-century Mexica princess, an 18th-century British admiral, a 19th-century Ghanaian victim of human sacrifice, and a Soviet man who’d apparently killed himself…

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Claim: “Evolution” Explains Near-Death Experiences

The problem is, there is no evolutionary reason to believe the claim

Some researchers believe that near-death experiences are a biological mechanism like the fight-or-flight response, a means of pretending death to avoid a predator. They call it thanatosis: The authors propose that the acquisition of language enabled humans to transform these events from relatively stereotyped death-feigning under predatory attacks into the rich perceptions that form near-death experiences and extend to non-predatory situations. Of note, the proposed cerebral mechanisms behind death-feigning are not unlike those that have been suggested to induce near-death experiences, including intrusion of rapid eye movement sleep into wakefulness,” Daniel Kondziella explains. “This further strengthens the idea that evolutionary mechanisms are an important piece of information needed to develop a complete biological framework for near-death experiences.” No previous work…

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Is Our “Number Sense” Biology, Culture — or Something Else?

It’s a surprisingly controversial question with a — perhaps unsettling — answer

British science writer Philip Ball, author of How to Grow a Human, offers an even-handed account of a controversy on the origin of our ability to understand numbers (numeracy). Numeracy is the beginning of mathematics, the most abstract of all human pursuits. It isn’t possible to get very far in mathematics without some ability to abstract. Ball cites as an example the difference between 152 and 153. Many life forms, competing for a pile of food items, can distinguish between 2 and 3. But distinguishing between 152 and 153 clearly requires abstraction. It’s the same principle as the chiliagon, a geometric figure like a triangle except that it has 1000 sides. A triangle can be envisioned concretely. A chiliagon can…

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The Reality of the Mind: The Argument From Epilepsy

Why do epileptic seizures evoke many odd behaviors but not abstract thought?

In the recent debate between neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and philosopher David Papineau, “Atheist Philosopher and Christian Neurosurgeon Debate Materialism” at Theology Unleashed, there was sort of digression at 49:30 on the nature of thought. Dr. Egnor talks about what he learned from his experiences with treating epilepsy and Dr. Papineau responds. Note: Dr. Papineau is a “physicalist.” On that view, “the mind is a purely physical construct, and will eventually be explained entirely by physical theory, as it continues to evolve.” (Philosophy basics) He is considered to be one of the best defenders of naturalism (nature is all there is), often called “materialism.” Michael Egnor: There are three metaphysical questions that I think can be answered in an inferential way,…

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Will We Soon Be Able to Test Theories of Consciousness?

Proponents of two leading theories of consciousness are trying to develop tests for their models, in a hitherto baffling field

Science journalist and author Anil Ananthaswamy has written a thoughtful piece at New Scientist on the leading models of consciousness and their relationship to quantum mechanics (quantum physics). Are we reaching the point where we can test at least one of them? Ananthaswamy is well qualified to assess the arguments. He is the author of both Through Two Doors at Once (2018) on quantum physics and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2015) on the nature of the self. Models of consciousness that assume that “consciousness isn’t separate from the material reality that physics explains” (materialist or naturalist theories) fall into three general classes, as he explains. Analysts like Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett and Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano argue that consciousness…

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New Find Pushes Symbolic Thinking Further Back in Human History

A Neanderthal find from 51,000 years ago is another piece in the puzzle of the origin of abstract human thinking

At one time, scientists believed that only some groups of humans possessed the ability to think symbolically. Neanderthals were held to be an example of humans who could not do so. But more recently, as George Dvorsky tells us at Gizmodo, a 2019 finding at the Unicorn Cave in the Harz Mountains in central Germany challenges that belief: Patterns deliberately etched onto a bone belonging to a giant deer are signs that Neanderthals possessed the capacity for symbolic thought. Neanderthals decorated themselves with feathers, drew cave paintings, and created jewelry from eagle talons, so it comes as little surprise to learn that Neanderthals also engraved patterns onto bone. The discovery of this 51,000-year-old bone carving, as described in Nature Ecology…

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Can Traditional Philosophy Help Us Understand Mind vs. Brain?

Michael Egnor asks us to look back to the traditional idea that the soul is the “form” of the body

Yesterday, we published the fourth portion of the debate between materialist philosopher David Papineau and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, where the key issue was “Is the mind simply what the brain does?” Today, we look at the portion which starts roughly at 36 min where Papineau and Egnor start to talk about traditional philosophical ways of thinking about the soul and the body (partial transcript): Note: Dr. Papineau is a “physicalist.” On that view, “the mind is a purely physical construct, and will eventually be explained entirely by physical theory, as it continues to evolve.” (Philosophy basics) He is considered to be one of the best defenders of naturalism (nature is all there is), often called “materialism.” Michael Egnor: In the…

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Egnor vs. Papineau, Round 4: Egnor Defends the Mind vs. the Brain

Philosopher David Papineau does not feel that neurosurgeon Michael Egnor is being “entirely helpful” at this point…

Yesterday, we published the third portion of the debate between materialist philosopher David Papineau and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, where the key issue was “Could there have been a material cause for the Big Bang that is held to have started our universe?” For Egnor’s opening statement, go here. Here’s Papineau’s reply. Today, we look at the portion which starts roughly at 26:30 where they start to talk about the human mind. Is the mind simply “what the brain does”? Papineau begins: Note: Dr. Papineau is a “physicalist.” On that view, “the mind is a purely physical construct, and will eventually be explained entirely by physical theory, as it continues to evolve.” (Philosophy basics) He is considered to be one of…

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Round 2: Philosopher Papineau Replies to Neurosurgeon Egnor

Dr. Papineau is considered to be one of the best defenders of naturalism (nature is all there is), often called “materialism.”

Yesterday, we published a portion of the transcript of the debate between materialist philosopher David Papineau amd neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, in which Egnor explains how, despite early atheism, the practice of medicine led him to believe that there is a God and that the mind is not simply what the brain does. He offered three reasons. Today, here’s a transcript of David Papineau’s reply. Starts, roughly, at 9:00 min: Note: Dr. Papineau is a “physicalist,” a form of materialism according to which “the mind is a purely physical construct, and will eventually be explained entirely by physical theory, as it continues to evolve.” (Philosophy basics) He is considered to be one of the best defenders of naturalism (nature is all…

Mind Atoms

Neurosurgeon Egnor Takes on Philosopher Papineau Round 1

In the debate, Egnor begins by offering three fundamental reasons why the mind is not the brain

Recently, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor debated philosopher David Papineau at Theology Unleashed. Papineau is considered “one of the best defenders of naturalism” (actually, as he admits, physicalism). Egnor talks about how science and the practice of medicine persuaded him that there is a God and that the mind is real. The host is Arjuna and the show is billed as “Eastern theology meets Western skepticism.” What follows is a partial transcript of the first portion, with notes: Michael Egnor: Just as a little background about where I’m coming from, I was raised as a functional atheist, and I was educated as a scientific atheist, so I was an atheist for most of my life. I was a biochemistry major in college,…

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Is Fear the Same Thing for a Human Being as for an Animal?

Psychiatrist Joseph Ledoux has thought about that; it’s a complex problem

Recently, we looked at consciousness from the perspective of Joseph LeDoux’s recent book, A Deep History of Ourselves (1919). Psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett situates his work at Nature, offering an interesting qualification: LeDoux, an academic at New York University in New York City, is best known for his research on fear, and for carefully mapping the brain circuit centred on the amygdala — a knot of neurons in the medial temporal lobe. The amygdala, he showed, has a crucial role in non-conscious, defensive behaviour responses such as freezing or fleeing. His conclusion, based on the assumption that all mammalian amygdala circuits are structurally similar, was that all mammals (including humans) share these responses. He described this work in The Emotional…

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Emotion Recognition Software Use Spreads While Science Is Doubted

Emotional recognition software has been coming under fire for misuse and racial bias for some time

An editor at AI Trends notes The global emotion detection and recognition market is projected to grow to $37.1 billion by 2026, up from an estimated $19.5 billion in 2020, according to a recent report from MarketsandMarkets. North America is home to the largest market. John P. Desmond, “Market for Emotion Recognition Projected to Grow as Some Question Science” at AI Trends (June 24, 2021) But the software has been coming under fire for misuse and racial bias for some time: “How people communicate anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise varies substantially across cultures, situations, and even across people within a single situation,” stated the report, from a team of researchers led by Lisa Feldman Barrett, of Northeastern University,…

Charting Consciousness.

Consciousness Is Mainly a Problem for Materialists

If you are not a materialist, there is no problem with understanding consciousness

Psychiatrist Joseph LeDoux, author of The Deep History of Ourselves (2019), offers an extract at Aeon, musing on the mystery of consciousness. In a way, his approach typifies the problem with the wholly materialist approach to the mind and the brain: Like all living things, humans are organisms, biological entities that function as physiological aggregates whose constituent parts operate with a high degree of cooperation and a low degree of conflict. But unlike other organisms, humans possess a rogue component – a brain network that can, at will, choose to defect and undermine the survival mission and purpose of the rest of the body. This is the network that underlies human consciousness, and especially our capacity for autonoetic, or reflective,…

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Do Larger Brains Make Us Human? Is That All?

Brain organoid studies suggest a “key genetic switch” that makes human brains grow larger than ape brains

In a study of “mini-brains” (brain organoids), the size of a pea, grown in a dish and incapable of further development, researchers have discovered a “key genetic switch” that makes human brains grow three times larger than primate brains: This new research, published in the journal Cell, used brain organoids to show that this transition occurs more slowly in humans compared to gorillas and chimpanzees – over seven days, compared to five. The progenitor cells in human brain organoids not only retained their cylindrical shape for longer, but also split more frequently so more cells were produced. This was linked to a gene called ZEB2, which switches on sooner in gorilla brain organoids than in human. By delaying the effects…

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Can Implanted Computer Chips Cure Depression?

Brain–computer interface (BCI) is promising for paralysis and prosthetics but raises concerns in the treatment of depression

Brain computer interface (BCI) shows promise in treating paralysis or enabling prosthetics to work almost naturally. But BCI for treating depression sounds like hype: Say goodbye to pills, therapy, and all that. With such gloomy prospects, it was only a matter of time scientists realized there must be better ways to treat depression rather than pills. After all, drugs only work because they act on certain brain regions to modulate the concentration of certain neurotransmitters, like serotonin or dopamine. Therefore, in the end, the regulation of mood depends on stimulating brain signals in certain parts of the brain — that is, neurons firing — and this can be done more accurately by just zapping the neurons directly with electricity. Diego…