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Question of the Month
How Are The Mind And Brain Related?
The following readers’ answers to this central philosophical question each win a random book.
How are the mind and brain related? Several different but overlapping kinds of relationship obtaining between mind and brain are evident in recent literature:
1. Straightforward causality – Brains cause minds. This relationship is disconcertingly unproblematic. It is very clear, especially from neuroscience, that brains are entirely capable of causing minds, and do.
2. Direct correspondence – Minds consist in or are the same as brain activity. With this option, the question doesn ’t really arise – what occur in brains, amongst other events, are minds. It seems at the moment that the kind of language we typically use to discuss minds will increasingly be supplanted by that which describes brain events – ultimately perhaps brain algorithms.
3. Neural correlation – Neural activity correlates with consciousness. This seems to be about hedging bets. Not prepared entirely to accept a direct equivalence of mind and brain (2), a comfortable position is correlation. Neural activity correlates with consciousness and its characteristic patterns generate mind. This means for every mind state there is also a brain state.
4. Overwhelming incompatibility. This can be the result of two diametrically opposed positions:
a) The brain and the mind are different types of entities – physical and mental.
b) The extraordinary complexity of brains succeeds in persuading us to believe that minds are metaphysical when they are not.
Proposition a) is supported by the use of the word ‘the’ in the question, presupposing the independent existence of ‘the mind’. Cartesian dualism provides a root for this way of thinking: there is no way that a material thing – the brain, can be related to the mind – a metaphysical or non-material thing.
Concerning b): our evolutionary history is significantly characterised by increasing capacities for intense, vivid experiences, etc, which represent profound survival value. The advantage of sense-perception and other mental abilities unavoidably entails the increase in human cognitive ability until we are unwittingly beguiled by our brains, so that now we are compelled to believe in a metaphysical self and mind somehow independent of the principal organ that has undergone this process of improvement – the brain. It seems likely that many existing accounts may well appear somewhat excessive, and in need of revision.
Colin Brookes, Woodhouse Eaves, Leicestershire
Following Gilbert Ryle’s ghost-busting The Concept of Mind, it became chic to argue that there is no Wizard of Oz, and the brain and mind are one and the same. In Mapping the Mind, Rita Carter documents research that demonstrates how and where the brain stores memories, accommodates language, captures sensory information and creates the avenues that channel understanding. Her thesis is that the mind is merely a complex biological system housed by the brain, and that free will is an illusion.
Understandably Carter’s well-researched and well-argued hypothesis is discomforting to those who hold that the brain is merely the organ that generates the music we recognize as the mind. Contrary to Carter, they argue that as the music is not the organ, the mind is not the brain. But there is much evidence to suggest that the mind as a separate and distinct thing is a myth, and little or no evidence to show otherwise.
Gerald Edelman (Bright Air Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind, 1994) proposes two types of consciousness, one building on the other. The first is what he calls Primary Consciousness, which is animal consciousness. It “emerged during evolution as a new component of neuroanatomy.” Creatures with Primary Consciousness (such as chimpanzees, most mammals and Neanderthal man) are always in the present. They are aware of things, have mental images in the present but have no sense of being a person, with a past or a future. Homo sapiens evolved with a higher-order or Tertiary Consciousness. This allows for “the recognition by a thinking subject of his or her own acts or affections.” Homo sapiens evolved a well-developed language that became the means for memory, providing a sense of the past and the ability to symbolically model the future. Language use promoted the development of a sense of self through interactions with other language users. So the mind we experience is our conscious language activity; thinking, speaking, writing, imagining, and how this informs our sensations and what we hear, see, touch, taste and smell. All of these exist as a direct result of brain activity.
Central to the issue of the mind/brain relationship is an explanation of consciousness that satisfies the demands of science and promotes the opportunity for further research. While there is good reason to believe that consciousness is created by electrochemical activity within the brain, we still don ’t know how the functions of the brain produce consciousness.
Launt Thompson, Armidale, NSW
The currently predominant philosophical view of mind is a physicalist one, which assumes that everything will eventually be covered by a neuroscientific explanation. Here the brain is a physical entity, but the mind is a common sense or ‘folk’ concept that refers to the collection of conscious mental events, states, and acts (hereafter just ‘events’) and to their causal influence on our actions. Physicalism is an assumption shared by eliminativists (or reductionists), so-called because of their somewhat implausible claim that folk concepts like ‘mind’ are irrelevant to this investigation. These reductionist philosophers have gone on to identify the folk ‘mind’ with neural events, claiming that each type of mental event is identical to a type of neural event. Others have been even more refined, and suggested that particular mental events are identical to particular neural events. However, both views fail to explain why the explanatory distinction between the mental and the physical has arisen.
Some non-reductionists have suggested that mental properties ‘supervene’ on neural properties, such that if two brain processes are indiscernible they will be indiscernible in their (supervenient) mental properties – but that although such mental properties depend on their bases, they are not reducible to them. Experience cannot be described in physical terms,
Functionalists have suggested that brain states interact with one another to effect behaviour, and that the kind of causal relationships involved in mental processing might also be active in computers for example. This ignores the phenomenal –the experiential or ‘felt’ aspect of mind. But the supervenience of mind to brain may seem merely like a re-statement of the basic relationship problem, as opposed to an solution of it.
Could awareness arise in computers? Much depends here on the nature of the properties upon which the supervenient experiences are said to depend, because such properties might not be confined to neural events, but might also emerge from other physical systems. Also consider: a particular piece of music or a particular scent may routinely evoke images of episodes in our personal history, and so it seems necessary to supplement neuroscientific explanations by contributions from the social sciences and the humanities to account for the contents of experience –as is now occurring. Brains, after all, are located in the bodies of human beings who find themselves in physical and cultural environments that provide content, activity, and phenomenal character to their developing minds.
Maurice J. Fryatt, Scarborough, Ontario,
The brain is clearly a biological, physical organ. But it is not clear what ‘mental functioning’, what we call ‘mind’, consists of. Is it some kind of force or substance that exists apart from the physical realm, or is it merely a product of the physical functioning of the brain, and nothing none-physical?
It seems most likely the mind is not any kind of substance apart from the brain. There are two kinds of support for this conclusion. First, there is no empirical evidence in the brain of a force moving from the realm we call the ‘mental’ to the physical brain.Second, there is a strong body of evidence showing that mental life is absolutely dependent upon a functioning brain.
On the other hand, there is continued support from our own experience for the idea that the mind is some stuff apart from the physical brain. We feel certain that we are acting as independent agents who take the information from our perceptions and other experience and use it to make decisions. But if the mind is just a by product of brain functioning, it cannot be an independent causative agent, by definition. Materialistic science seems therefore to reduce us to automatons, whose actions are determined by physical processes over which ‘we’, as conscious agents, have no control, despite appearances.
Perhaps there is a way out of this dilemma. The mind could be described as the entire set of the activities of the brain. We are not conscious of most of these activities, but perhaps they give rise to conscious thought when part of the brain is focused inwardly on the various functions of the brain. Thus our con scious mental life is the brain observing itself (to the extent that it can) while it carries out its complex decision-making functions.
The mind is not just the part of the brain doing the observing – the conscious part – but rather the whole brain, functioning in the body. We make a mistake if we take the mind to be only the conscious part of our brain’s functioning, and then assume that it is directing the underlying machinery. Rather, conscious thought is only the observing part of the mind. We should think of ‘mind’ as the whole set of activities of the brain acting in the body. Then we can see our whole organism as being the proper causative agent acting in the world.
Greg Studen, Novelty, Ohio
Humans act on intentions. It seems that an ‘intention’ requires an acting agent – it requires ‘one who intends’. The full idea of an acting agent, ‘one who intends’, seems further to require a conscious mind with its contents, so that the intention can have content, and not merely a brain state. So mental operations may very well have neurobiological mechanisms undergirding them, and yet still the mind is non-corporeal.
We should not identify the mechanisms of the brain with the mental operations these mechanisms subserve. The argument from irreducibility for the existence of a non-corporeal mind seems to remain viable: even supposing that all mental events are causally correlated to brain events, such a correlation would not mean a reduction of mental events to brain events. Although the use of Ockham’s Razor to trim away the non-corporeal might be considered clever here, a non-corporeal mind is still necessary if there are elements of human experience which require the existence of a mind rather than a brain. Can you think of any? A good example would be the understanding. Does a brain as such ‘understand’ what it perceives? How? If not, a non-corporeal mind is still necessary.
There is also a sort of a posteriori ‘cosmological argument’ concerning motivations and intentionality on the part of other people. If people act intentionally upon motivations, other people can observe these actions and thereby infer the existence of other acting, intentional minds. As Aquinas writes regarding his fifth cosmological argument for God’s existence, “We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end... Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence. ” If human bodies act as a result of intentions, such intentions must arise out of intelligence, not out of the physical bodies alone (including the brains of the physical bodies). Therefore one can infer the existence of intellectual minds animating the bodies.
Craig Payne. Ottumwa, Iowa
Recent findings strongly suggest that physics is reducible to ‘finite time sequence patterns’. The brain, in that case, is a time-ordered sequence of events, like everything physical. A human mind is a time-ordered series of momentary experiences. Human moments occur at a rate of about 10/s, as determined by experiment. This very human series is dependent upon the more elaborate time sequence of its host brain.
The reduction of physics to time sequence patterns is obtained from Russell and Whitehead ’s eventism by restricting physical activity to finite sets of events, as in quantum mechanics. It yields quantum theory in terms of the definition of a quantum as a discrete temporal transition, or ‘step of time’.
Frequency ratios are inherent in time sequence patterns, and these ratios are the measures of relative energy in accord with Planck ’s E=hf. This equation is at the heart of quantum physics. It means that energy is proportional to quantum frequency. Its reciprocal is wavelength. Frequency and wavelength can thus be obtained from time sequence patterns without reliance on either waves or particles. Space-time is thus made of temporally-defined quanta, as is everythingin this theory. A 4-D time lattice of events can be constructed, which corresponds to the space-time continuum. (I’ve published this theory in a 28-page booklet, A Theory of Everything for Physics.)
As well as providing a superior foundation for physics, this eventism solves the mind-body problem. The elimination from physics of spatial relations means that ‘extension in space’ does not need to refer to anything external to the mind. Space instead becomes a purely phenomenal entity, like color. Russell’s focus on different meanings of ‘space’ as the key to the solution of the mind-body problem is thus vindicated. We are led abruptly, by this way of understanding physics, to a panpsychic view of the world. The brain is thus a mental phenomenon.
Carey R. Carlson
The perfect starting point is Descartes’ irrefutable cogito; I think therefore I am. I know I have a mind –but I am not sure that I have a body; or sure of the physical world at all, actually.
But what of this body? Does the physical plane exist?
Well, my mind exists, but do other minds exist? I seem to come into contact with other beings with minds constantly, but do they exist like mine? Either a) these minds are independent minds, b) they are figments of my mind, or c) they are figments of another mind (God?). But a) and c) have the same relevant implication, because both assert that I am not alone and that other minds exist. And it seems to me that my own mind cannot be the source of other minds because these other minds frequently act in ways I cannot predict or comprehend. Therefore other minds exist independently of my own and of each other. These minds are distinct from each other. This means they cannot overlap, for then they would not be distinct.
Now, we can say that the apparent external world must either be a) physical, b) mental with my own mind as the source, or c) mental with another mind as the source (God?). Yet b) and c) cannot be the case, because if a mind was the source of the world, other minds could not exist within it, as minds can not overlap and remain independent, separate minds. Yet minds do exist within the world (I know mine and believe in others): therefore the logical conclusion is that both a mind-independent physical plane and my physical body exist.
So what of the relation between mind and body? Mind is what makes us human; our mind is us. The purpose of the physical plane is to allow minds to meet and interact, which they could not do in a purely mental reality. Our bodies are anchors in this physical plateau for minds, and allow us to operate within it. Whether the mind withers away at our body’s death or continues to exist, no longer with the ability to enter the physical plane, is unknown. I would say, however, that as interaction between minds is the purpose of physical reality, the mind might as well die with the body if it cannot interact with anything.
Andrew Hyams, Isleworth, London
‘Three-dimensional space’ is a mental creation: this is symbolic language useful for communication. The brain is similarly a creation of the mind: it is the mind’s own symbolic expression of mind’s existence. So the brain is an idea of a non-spatial truth in perceptive terms, symbolizing the mind in the physical world: the brain, in 3-D space, manifests the mind to our senses. Thus the brain is the mind viewed in threedimensional (physical) space. The mind is of no physical space.
From the mind arises all creation. Yet the mind operates both within and without this world of appearances where you and I reside and communicate with one another by way of the five senses. But our senses merely represent the non-spatial reality that exists in perpetuity. The spatial reality we create by our minds has both beginning and end. The mind enters the world, interacts in it for a while, and then leaves. The brain faithfully symbolizes the activity of the mind, as the body does the person – entering the spatial reality seemingly from nowhere, growing into a flourishing being, and finally turning to dust, perhaps leaving an inanimate trace for a time.
Thus the mind plays a role within three-dimensional space, taking on form and building a life story – the brain that takes up space merely being the mind manifested into physical flesh. But without the mind the brain fails its purpose. And without the brain the mind finds its door into the physical play shut. It may perhaps still be able to observe the physical world of space, but it cannot interact in it. It has lost its role in the play. It can be nothing more now than the audience. Its means of communication can only be non-spatial. It cannot say “here am I.” It is without voice. Yet it exists.
Arthur Telling, Berkeley, CA
If our consciousness stems from the brain, we must confront the idea that simple atoms which ordinarily make up the rocks and the stones can, when arranged in a particular way, think for themselves, and feel complex emotions such as pride and jealousy. We must ask ourselves what is so special about the construction of the brain which allows non-living matter like water and carbon atoms to decide its own future? If you examine the living brain with the most powerful tools, you find none of its constituent molecules behave any differently to how they would under sterile laboratory conditions apart from the brain or body. However, if we cannot find evidence of our mind’s origin inside our brains like this, perhaps that suggests that the mind resides as an entity fundamentally separate from the body. In short, our mind is conveyed by our brains like light is conveyed by glass. But what we can never know is whether the light is contained within the glass, like a lantern, or if the light simply shines through, like a window.
Kevin Andrew, Tadcaster
Next Question of the Month
The next question is: Is There A God? Answers should be less than 400 words. One word answers will be filed in the bin. Subject lines or envelopes should be marked ‘Question Of The Month’, and must be received by 16th April. If you want the chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. You will be edited.