The mind is the brain, and why that’s good

Source: Wikicommons
Source: Wikicommons

Mind body dualism is the theory that mind and matter are separate substances.  It’s an ancient theory discussed in various forms by philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, and theologians such as Thomas Aquinas.  In 1641, Rene Descartes put forth his views, usually referred to as Cartesian dualism which laid important foundations for modern philosophy in this area.

Descartes saw the brain, or something in it, as being a type of antenna with which the non-material mind interacted.  He focused on the pineal gland as possibly being that antenna, since it appeared to be the only structure which was not duplicated in both the right and left hemispheres of the brain.  Today we know that the pineal gland’s function is to produce the hormone melatonin, but the idea of the brain as an antenna, through which a mind residing in a spiritual realm interacts with the physical body, remains a popular idea.

Dualism is a powerfully intuitive notion.  Scientific studies have shown that children are natural dualists.  Fantasy movies and TV shows often have stories where people’s minds transfer between bodies.  Whether or not this is ultimately possible is usually not questioned by audiences.

Dualism’s intuitiveness leads to vigorous resistance to the idea of it not being true, either by philosophers defending that intuition, or religious believers concerned about the implications for an afterlife.  However, like many intuitions about concepts outside of our familiar every day life, it can’t be trusted.  And the implications of the mind being in the brain aren’t as bleak as many claim, or as others fear.

How can we say that the mind is the brain?

Men ought to know that from the brain and from the brain only arise our pleasures, joys, laughter, and jests as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears.

Consider mind altering drugs.  When we drink alcohol or take other drugs, our coordination is affected, but so is our judgment, notably our social, tactical, and moral judgment.  When we’re drunk, stoned, or high, our minds aren’t separately looking on, frustrated by our lack of control.  Instead, our very mental processing is altered.  If the mind is separate, then what are mind altering drugs altering?

Also consider brain damage.  We can lose an arm, a leg, have our heart replaced with a pump, or lose our eyesight, without fundamentally changing who we are.  However, if we suffer damage to the brain, depending on where and how severe that damage is, we may lose not only the ability to control parts of our body, but the ability to recall memories, to form new memories, to recognize faces, to speak or understand language, to hold our sense of self, to exercise self control and moral judgment, or any other mental faculty.

No part of the mind seems to be immune.  As parts of the brain die, as tragically happens with Alzheimer’s patients, parts of the mind, of the self, also die.  When the entire brain is dead, the mind is gone.

A response I sometimes hear to the above information is to bring up the Cartesian idea of the brain as an antenna.  Any apparent mental impairment is simply the antenna not functioning properly.  Aside from the problem that people often aren’t aware of their own mental impairments (which they presumably would be if there were a separate mind), there’s the issue of split brain patients.

At times, patients who suffer severe and devastating epileptic seizures undergo a procedure where the connecting tissue between the two hemispheres of their brain are cut.  The operation often cures the seizures and leaves the patients remarkably functional.

However, scientific tests conducted on patients after the operation show that the two hemispheres of their brain no longer communicate with each other.  Using the fact that each hemisphere controls a particular side of the body, scientists were able to communicate with only one brain hemisphere at a time, and demonstrate that each hemisphere didn’t know what the other hemisphere knew or was doing.   In other words, these patients effectively had two minds.

The fact that the patients were still functional, and had no cognition of the separation, is remarkable.  It has profound implications for consciousness, and for self awareness in particular.  But the more important implication for this post is that there was no evidence of a separate non-material mind communicating between the two brain hemispheres.  The hemispheres effectively coordinated, but only by watching what each other did, rather than by any internal communication.

Credit: US National Institutes of Health via Wikipedia
Credit: US National Institutes of Health via Wikipedia

Is there still philosophically logical space for a non-material mind?  There is, but that logical space is shrinking rapidly as neuroscience progresses, and it’s fair to say dualism is on life support.  Consider what the split-brain patients demonstrate.  Which hemisphere of the brain does the non-material mind communicate with?  Which one of the minds survives death?

Some have tried to broaden the remaining logical space by proposing that quantum effects are important for mental processing.  Synapses are indeed very small, on the order of tens of nanometers, but quantum effects, except in carefully isolated lab conditions, are usually only significant at the subatomic level, at several orders of magnitude smaller than a synapse.

There is not any compelling evidence that quantum effects are any more relevant to mental processing than they are for any other physical processes, such as the operation of micro-transistors in computer chips.  Even if quantum effects are significant, it would only mean that mental processes are not deterministic, not necessarily that they are dualistic.

Does this mean that we don’t have a soul?

If you define the soul as a separate ghost that is automatically freed from the body when it dies, then no, we do not have a soul.

On the other hand, the information in the brain, the information encoded in the neurons and synaptic connections, sometimes referred to as the connectome, could be considered our soul.  Unlike the classic conception of the soul, this one isn’t an irreducible mysterious core.  It’s distributed throughout the brain.  While it can be damaged, as the brain can be damaged, it can also be studied, analyzed, and possibly someday soon, recorded.

But still, many will argue, this isn’t the soul of Christianity or of other faiths.  Interestingly, in its early centuries, Christian doctrine was not that we had a soul separate from our body, but that those found worthy would someday be bodily resurrected, similar to how Jesus had reportedly been resurrected.  The idea of a separate soul that survives death developed as a result of the influence of Greek philosophy and other cultures.  Conceptions of the afterlife, including Christian conceptions, have changed over the centuries.

If I were a believer, the mind being the brain wouldn’t, by itself, stop me from believing.  If you already believe in an afterlife, then there’s no particular reason why a connectome, a soul, couldn’t be restored in some heavenly version of a virtual environment, or a reconstructed brain.

But if the connectome’s existence eventually allows us to technologically restore it, again either into a virtual computer environment or into a new brain, then understanding it might eventually deliver effective immortality in this world, instead of having to count on it in the next.

21 thoughts on “The mind is the brain, and why that’s good

  1. Great and informative writing as always, a pleasure to read.

    You certainly have laid out many reasons to reject SUBSTANCE dualism, but among philosophers, substance dualism is not in favor, PROPERTY dualism, or emergentism, is. I don’t think your arguments cast any doubt on property dualism.

    The most plausible versions of property dualism hold that the mind emerges from the brain when the complexity and circuitry of the physical structure of the brain become sufficiently complex, such that there is bottom-up causation from a brain state composed of neuron firing patterns to a mental state, say of pain. Without downward-causation this would just be epiphenomenalism, but the proponent of property dualism posits that conscious mental states affect neuronal activity in the brain and down through other mechanisms of the organism. Roger Sperry, the Nobel Prize-winning neurophysiologist has written that “in the brain, controls at the physico-chemical and physiological levels are superceded by new forms of causal control that emerge at the level of conscious mental processing, where causal properties include the contents of subjective experience” (“Changing Priorities”, in Annual Review of Neuroscience (1981).

    If the mind is an emergent property of the brain then it seems that if we alter the usual firing patterns of neurons through the use of drugs, that such effects would flow up the chain through bottom-up causation and result in altered mental states. The same holds true for irreparable brain damage; if the facility that realizes mental states is damaged then it is not surprising that mental states will be changed from traumatic brain injuries, Alzheimer’s, etc.

    The split brain evidence is a little more difficult to accommodate, but I do think it would be fair to say that the two hemispheres are enacting separate causal processes, and that each process features in a bottom-up causation model resulting in mind. In a lot of these split brain experiments, the patient does not know what object they are holding in their left hand. The right hemisphere is not able to communicate that information to the left hemisphere, and as the left hemisphere normally controls speech, the patient is unable to communicate what they are holding. Amazing stuff. More importantly, the right hand might do things without the patient wanting them to be done; it has a “mind of its own”. The question being of course whether there is a mind behind the hand; if there is a mind behind the hand then something somewhere in her brain is having the subjective experience of controlling and willing the hand to move.

    This serves as the best counterexample to property dualism. It seems to imply that given the separate causal processes occurring in the brain that the hand indeed does have a mind of its own. Our intuitions still us that the hand doesn’t have its own mind, so this counts as a mark against property dualism. I think, though, that the property dualist could hold out and respond that the hand does not have a mind because we haven’t seen real reason to believe in downward causation, which is a necessary condition for mind-ness in property dualism, such that as is this is only a case of ephiphenomenalism and not a counterexample to property dualism.

    All of this goes to say that I don’t think it’s quite so easy to dismiss dualism, as most academic proponents of dualism favor a view that escapes your counterexamples.


    1. Wow! You just taught me a new phrase for a concept that I think I had conceived of, but wasn’t aware there was an established label for. If I’m understanding property dualism correctly, I don’t think I necessarily have any objection to it. The information that makes up your mind has an existence independent of the physical neurons and synapses, in the same manner as the software that runs your computer has an existence independent of the transistor states and magnetic patterns on your hard drive (otherwise how can we give a name for a piece of software, such as Windows, that exists on millions of computers). This seems compatible with me equating the connectome to the soul.

      That said, my acceptance of it would be with a few caveats that many might consider philosophical bullets. One is that split brain patients may have two minds. The second is that when the brain is destroyed, so is the mind, unless/until someone has a way to record it and re-instantiate it elsewhere. The third is that, when someone is able to record the mind, it can then be duplicated in the same way that software can.

      Thanks for a thoughtful and enlightening comment! (Let me know if it reads like I’m misunderstanding property dualism.)


      1. Great questions. Mental states have an independent existence from brain states only in the sense that mental states are not completely reducible to brain states. Brain states are third-person objectively scientific observations, whereas mental states are first-person subjective qualitative states. Thomas Nagel argued (convincingly, I think) that you could know all the objective facts of the brain and not have a true understanding of the first person feel of consciousness; property dualism attempts to incorporate this non-reducibility while still positing that the brain is the foundation of consciousness.

        The idea is that the conceptual term ‘pain’ refers to some qualitative state that is more than just C-fiber firings; pain hurts, and while knowing that C-fiber firings are necessarily coextensive with pain explains why we feel pain, it doesn’t explain what pain feels like. As there is always some qualitative feel to being conscious (otherwise you aren’t immediately conscious), if neuroscience cannot explain this qualitative feeling, then neuroscience cannot explain an essential component of consciousness. It’s important to note that the property dualist appropriates Nagel’s argument, in order to make the case for a set of non-reducible mental states, but the property dualism might still claim that it is possible for neuroscience to one day explain what qualitative experiences feel like because mental states are emergent properties of brain states, though Nagel denies this.

        With this in mind you can see that the property dualist does not believe in souls, or minds, that can exist independently of brains, unless a complete mapping of the brain is completed and uploaded onto virtual reality. So property dualism does not run afoul of your (correct, in my opinion) intuitions here.


        1. Interesting. Great explanation of the hard problem of consciousness!

          I’m one of those people who suspect that the hard problem is insoluble. We can never know what it’s like to be a bat, or a pigeon, or an octopus. Even if someone invented a Vulcan mind meld device, we would still be ourselves experiencing their perceptions, not them experiencing them. I see this as an uncrossable divide.

          I do disagree with (what I understand is) Nagel’s position that science must figure out a way to cross that divide to make progress. It seems to me that neuroscience can go all the way without ever solving the hard problem: without having to explain the subjective experience of pain, or of seeing red. A person born blind can still get a working concept of the color red, even if they can never personally experience it.

          Again, please do let me know if I’m not understanding correctly.


          1. I think that’s spot on. I’m not sure, though, that Nagel thinks science SHOULD give us identity relations between third person brain states and first person mental states; I think his view is only that science can’t do this. But that is the hard problem. Nagel’s work precedes Chalmer’s by a few decades.


          2. I think we do! This conversation has indeed been awesome.

            Admittedly I haven’t read mind and cosmos, just “what is it like to be a bat?”, so you’re understanding of Nagel is likely superior. Thanks for passing on the knowledge!


  2. Thank you both, ‘ausomeawestin’ and ‘SAP’, for the helpful discussion. I only made it about 1/3 the way through ‘What’s It Like To Be A Bat?’ before I had to stop for fear my head would explode. Philosophy, and it seems philosophy of mind in particular, are not my forte.


    1. Thanks. I know what you mean. I’m generally unable to read most of the source material, usually having to content myself with summaries. That seems to work well for analytic philosophy, but not continental, which I have to admit to finding incomprehensible.


  3. I think there is a confusion here regarding emergentism and property dualism. As an inveterate smart-ass I feel compelled to try to clear it up. Emergentism claims that as a system reaches a certain level of complexity, it exhibits causal properties explainable only by reference to the system itself rather than any sub-units. Property dualism, in terms of mind, claims that some observed quality of mental phenomena is actually a basic property of nature. Emergentism runs into some of the same problems with causation which substance dualism does. Theories espousing ‘top-down’ causation are notoriously plagued by ghosts – spooky looking things which turn out to be swamp gas or differences in refraction between layers of hot and cold air. If the system did it, and the system is explained by its components in context, then really the components in context did it, and the properties of the system are will-o-the-wisp. We may still refer to them in lieu of the more complicated, underlying process but they don’t do anything in an independent sense. I’m not sure that I think the properties championed in property dualist explanations of mind do anything either, but they don’t need to make that claim.
    Metaphysics isn’t built on observation, but it must be able to account for it. Failings in that regard are what killed substance dualism, and I think end up being toxic for emergence in the same ways. Hopefully I’ve got it right, if not I’m sure a bigger smart-ass will come along to correct me.


    1. Thanks. Excellent points. I actually was nervous about the emergence part of this conversation.

      There are, conceptually, two types of emergence: strong and weak. I think strong emergence has all the issues you raise. Weak emergence is the view that although we can’t currently understand a system by its constituent parts, it will eventually be possible, or at least possible in principle. An example would be trying to predict chemical reactions using quantum mechanics. Theoretically possible in principal, but not in practice. Strong emergence asserts that there is an actual ontological difference between the layers of abstraction, that actual properties come into existence from the complexity.

      I think weak emergence is definitely a useful concept. Strong emergence does seem implausible to me, however it’s worth noting that it has not been empirically falsified.

      Whether emergence is strong or weak, it seems to me that everything is emergent until you get down to elemental particles, strings, field excitations, or whatever the fundamental constituents of reality are, assuming it’s not structure all the way down.


  4. Somehow I missed the ‘7 Reasons Why It’s Easier for Humans to Believe in God Than Evolution’ link. It’s a good one – glad I happened back this way!

    Mooney starts out quoting Robert McCauley(‘Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not’) and finishes with Norenzayan on fear and doubt. Like much of our scientific understanding, evolution(like mind is brain) is counter-intuitive to our perceived experience.

    Biological Essentialism is #1 on the list, and more generally:

    ‘Essentialism – A Conversation with Bruce Hood’


    1. On the Mooney link, sorry, I think I added it after the initial post. I agree, it was a good article, although I had completely forgotten about the essentialism part. Thanks for pointing it out! (When it came out, it was interesting all the consternation caused by the one paragraph about science and religion compatibility.)

      I’m less sure now that the concept of the mind as software (which as information could, theoretically, have an independent existence from the brain) necessarily is the same thing as property dualism. For a certain interpretation, it could be, but I’m nervous that it’s the interpretation card carrying property dualists adhere to.


      1. “one paragraph about science and religion compatibility” – that’s too bad, but predictable.

        Sorry, can’t help with the philosophy of mind stuff, I’m giving it up for the holiday season 🙂


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