Mind and Brain: Philosophy or Science?

Denyse O’Leary was the co-author (with Dr. Mario Beauregard) of a book on mind and brain I reviewed in the April issue of Touchstone magazine: The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul. Beauregard has published research (see links from here) challenging some neuroscientists’ view that spiritual experiences can be explained through physical brain science alone, and this book covers his work while also challenging those other scientists’ conclusions, and even their often-questionable research methods.

A few days ago on her Mindful Hack blog, Denyse raised a good question in response to my review, which, by agreement with Touchstone, I will not be posting on the web for at least three months. I’ll quote this much from near the end of it for context, though:

For my money, philosophical approaches are sufficient to put materialism* away for keeps. But that doesn’t make it any less satisfying to learn the heavily hyped “empirical evidence” for materialist neuroscience is distorted, weak, and contradicted by other research.

Denyse wrote,

On the whole, he seems to have liked the book, though he wonders why we cannot demolish materialism through philosophy alone…. Philosophy alone cannot decide the issue. We must look at evidence from science as well.

Well, of course she is right about this. I will not quote her reasons (they are in the ellipsis) since you ought to read them from the source.

She is right in that philosophy has not, in fact, dec ided the issue. “For my money” (as I said), I think it should have done so by now, because materialist views of mind seem to be utterly self-defeating. They place all causation in the literally mindless machinery of electrochemical activity. There’s no room left for any other causation.

Therefore things like reasons and thoughts, which cannot be identified with that machinery, don’t cause anything. If you disagree with that, your disagreement was not caused by any reasons you might have, but by that mindless machinery firing away inside you. That pretty much eliminates your ability to say you have reasoned your way to your conclusion. Your reasons don’t have any power to cause anything, including the conclusions you erroneously think you came to because of your reasons.

Those who try to disagree usually do so by saying that reasons and thoughts actually can be identified with the machinery; that the brain’s physical activity doesn’t have to be distinct from what feels to us like logical reasoning and free decision making. Others say that reasons and thoughts more or less “ride along” on top of the machinery. The first answer, however, makes an illusion out of our freedom to think and to decide, while the other retains the problem of thoughts and reasoning not causing anything at all.

I’m reminded of a comic strip from years ago in which a tiger (I think) jumped up on an elephant and growled out, “I’ve got you, I’ve got you!” The elephant, quite unperturbed, just continued on its way. Whereupon the tiger on top said, “Okay, now that I’ve got you, where am I taking you?” If thoughts “ride along” on top of the brain’s machinery, they’re as powerless to direct its ways as the tiger is to tell the elephant where to go. Less so, in fact: they don’t even have claws.

Though all this to me seems certainly to be correct, I know others disagree. I suspect that for many of them, it’s because they don’t like where this reasoning heads. If they jump on this elephant, it’s going to carry them (like it or not) toward belief in some kind of spiritual reality.

Therefore, with genuine appreciation I grant Denyse’s point: any support this position receives from science is more than welcome.

*”Materialism” here means a view of reality in which nothing exists except for matter, energy, and their interactions according to deterministic natural law or pure chance. On this view there is no spiritual reality.

Comments 11
  1. SteveK

    As always, I remain fascinated by this subject. I suppose a materialist/naturalist might explain it this way….one atom has no pressure, but many atoms together can create pressure. That pressure can cause other groups of atoms to do things. In the same way, an arrangement of atoms in your brain can create thoughts and those thoughts can cause other thoughts.

    This might work to explain the underlying mechanics of thought creation and causation, but it fails to address the all-important things that mere mechanics cannot.

    Thought and reason alone can be used to explain what we know about pressure, but thought and reason alone cannot be used to explain what we know about thought and reason – namely their truth value and connection to external reality. We went through a similar discussion with Paul about the laws of logic.

    Something else is necessary and it seems obvious to me that an uncaused/necessary Mind is that very something.

  2. Paul

    Materialism doesn’t defeat itself when one reasons to prove that it doesn’t defeat itself because one’s reasons are nothing but materialistic: that requires more from the idea of “a reason” than is necessary *under materialism.* Under materialism, a reason need not carry a non-physical ontological status. Under materialism, a reason is just a certain kind of neuronal firing, one that is different from other sets of neurons firing. When a materialist says that something makes sense, the materialist only means that sound waves that hit the ear have triggered certain neurons, the same ones that are triggered when other sound waves hit the ear, and that this group of sound waves fall under the category “making sense.” When “1+1=2” hits my ear, the “making sense” neurons fire. Of course, these “making sense” neurons need only be hypothetical for my purpose here to show how materialism need not be self-defeating. This is an operational definition of making sense and of reasons, and doesn’t reify them ontologically.

    I don’t mean to say here and now that materialism is true for certain, but I think that it at least doesn’t have to defeat itself.

  3. Tom Gilson

    That amounts to the first objection I named, which is that thoughts can be identified with the machinery. Free will–choosing to decide what you believe–goes out the window with that. You can accept that if you choose to (or maybe you don’t have that choice?).

  4. Paul


    1. I think you’re saying that materialism might entail certain conclusions (no free will) that may or may not be appealing, but that materialism is not self-defeating. Is that right?

    2. What a choice is would similarly be defined-down. We choose, in the sense that, when I choose, it is the atoms in my brain, not yours, that must reconfigure somehow in order to act on or verbalize a decision, but the choice is ultimately determined by my past history, which is encoded to some extent in the brain, and my genetics, etc. I know I choose not to eat sweet potatoes because my father demanded that I do so as a little child, and I gag even now when I try to eat them. My choice is to not eat sweet potatoes, but that choice was determined by my past history. What proves that any choice is not like that, however obscure the determinant may be?

    This may be a stupid question, but do you know anyone who contends that free will is possible under materialism?

  5. Tom Gilson

    1. Heavens, no, that’s not right :). If you can’t choose to believe materialism on the basis of reasons–emphasis on “choose”–then you haven’t chosen to believe it at all. And I haven’t chosen to disbelieve it. My computer did not choose to type this sentence, either. Does it have good reasons to agree with what I’m saying?

    2. What proves every choice is not determined? Human experience, repeated jillions of times per human per day. That, coupled with the fact that attempts to override the evidence of human experience are self-defeating (see 1.)

  6. Paul

    Tom, aren’t you still judging whether materialism is self-defeating on an extra-materialistic view of “reason?” That is, you’re (incorrectly) judging that to “really” be “choosing” for a “reason,” one can’t be doing so materialistically. But, if you accept (for the sake of argument) a materialistic definition of choosing and a reason (merely some brain state that occurs when we do what we call choosing and giving a reason), then why isn’t that definition sufficient?

    It’s a bit like relative morality: you claim (I think) that relative morality is no morality at all, but that just says that relative morality is not absolute morality. So choosing materialistically is merely not choosing non-materialistically, duh. It doesn’t defeat itself, it’s just semantics and definitions.

  7. Tom Gilson

    Paul, I don’t think that even for the sake of argument one can accept a materialistic view of choosing. At least, I can’t, and I don’t know how anyone can, in any coherent sense. Material entities do not choose. They are subject strictly to law and/or chance.

    You suggest, possibly, that we can define a reason as a “brain state that occurs when we do what we call choosing and giving a reason.” You do not say whether the brain state results from the reason–which is roughly what I would agree with–or whether the reason results from the brain state. If the first, then fine. If the second, then the reason is what? a property of the brain state? Properties have no causal efficacy. Is it something that supervenes on the brain state? That’s the tiger saying, “Okay, now where am I taking you?”

    By the way, I definitely do not say that relative morality is no morality at all. That would be rather ridiculous. I say that relative morality is morality without a solid grounding. It’s a “you ought to…” without an adequate “…and this is why.” But it’s still a “you ought to.” Or if you are uncomfortable imposing on others, it’s at least an “I ought to…”

  8. SteveK


    it’s just semantics and definitions.

    Choice requires knowledge, and knowledge requires awareness. Unconscious matter doesn’t have either – hence rocks can’t choose to roll downhill and a grouping of atoms in the brain can’t choose to make the body move. Of course, rocks do roll downhill and atoms do make the body move. Is this just semantics and definitions? Can someone say rocks have knowledge and choose to roll downhill and actually be incorrect, or is it just semantics?

  9. Paul

    Tom, what about the animal world, especially the lower forms of animals? Don’t they choose? Would you say they have a non-material mind or not?

    I’m not sure how to approach the question of whether the brain state causes the reason or vice versa. I’d say the brain state *is* the reason. I think that’s you’re #2 above.

    Thanks for your clarification about morality, I misunderstood, However, for my purposes, let’s pretend someone (not you) holds that about morality: that’s analogous to what I’m saying is your position about reasons.

    SteveK, I agree that the problem of consciousness is one that materialism hasn’t solved. I’m not sure that it is crucial for reasons and choosing, given experiments that show that we decide things before we’re aware that we’ve decided. Although, it could be, I think that’s still an open question.

  10. Tom Gilson

    I don’t know if the animal world chooses or not. Whether they do or not, the rationality argument only applies to human rationality–the rationality by which you chose to believe what you chose to believe.

    The morality analogy does not apply, because the argument I’m making about here is about rationality, which requires something other than determinism running it. I don’t see a parallel with morality.

  11. Paul

    Tom, my morality analogy only applies in a superficial fashion, it’s not crucial.

    But, back to the main issue. I last said that the brain state *is* the reason; that is, the name we give the brain state that produces the behavior (verbal or otherwise) that expresses a decision is “the reason.” Materialism might be wrong for other reasons, but I don’t see the self-deafeat you mentioned.

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