mind over matter

The mind/matter issue is centuries old, and is probably here to stay.

The philosophy of naturalism says that mind is not a distinct category of existence (ontology), but is rather some kind of emergent property or state of purely material elements.  It actually proposes not that matter ‘makes’ or ‘gives way to’ mind, but that mind actually is nothing more than matter behaving in a certain way.  It’s the classic naturalistic insistence that – at the end of the day – there is only one kind of substance/stuff, and it’s natural.  All phenomena can be explained in terms of the most indivisible units of matter.

One of the most interesting corollaries of this view is that the view that if everything can be explained in terms of, say, atomic behaviour, then this would include the view of naturalism itself.  Naturalism can be explained by atomic behaviour.  After all, at the end of the day, there’s no ‘evidence’ that ideas or truths or values or logical contradictions are in any sense ‘real’; and it can all be explained in terms of atomic activity.

If true, then all views (whether ‘facts’, ‘opinions’, ‘hunches’ or just plain silliness) and all statements which express them…

  • God is a meanie
  • I am God
  • The universe is all that there is
  • You’re a kind person
  • I hate orang-utans because they’re so darn smart
  • Spiders make better webs than I can
  • It’s mean to eat animals – coz they’ve got feelings too, ya know?
  • Everything is meaningless
  • We make our own meaning – yay for us!
  • Naturalism is true
  • Naturalism is self-refuting
  • We are an evolved species
  • Evolution is a jerk
  • etc.

…are all meaningless at bottom, and are the result of atomic collisions or some other material phenomena.

The funny thing is that not only is there not one shred of ‘evidence’ that naturalism is true (well certainly not ‘natural’ evidence, anyway!), but the sheer weight of reason, passion for truth, logic and the experience of thinking and relating gives us every reason to take it for nothing other than (at best) a bad joke or (at worst) an evil distortion of the truth.

17 replies on “mind over matter”

Yeah man. So true. Its so weak reducing things to simple categories. Not only does it BORE me, but it is academic/philosophical arrogance to claim a single understanding/explanation (naturalism) can wholly describe any one thing, let alone describe everything!

That view assumes that each item on earth has only ONE true value, and that is it’s “raw natural information”. I think that idea is very far from human experience. How does naturalism account for communication? Verbally abusing someone and making them angry is a pretty raw and real thing, though naturally speaking, how do those soundwaves fire our neurons they way they do? The explanation lies outside of naturalism, I think.

On another note, there are of course some Christians who need to make sure they don’t make the same mistake (again)!
The mistake of believing one’s area of study (which certainly becomes one’s personal worldview, in academic study as well as spiritual study and experience) satisfies every intellectual need and every heart need in terms of making planet earth work and finding/embracing human purpose.

I was speaking to someone tonight who has been studying Chemistry and he was saying that he had trouble understanding a few of his lecturers simply because they were so absorbed in their specialty subject within Chemistry.

I think this is a good example of what we tend to do with our worldviews. We become entrenched in our ideas because we get used to them or they just make sense to us. Our ideas interpret the world and the people we love in a way that makes the most sense to us or in a way that we simply become used to and these ideas don’t necessarily translate to other people or other circumstances, which is something we forget.
The ideas we surround ourselves with aren’t necessarily a shared understanding, even though a lot of them are.
Basically we need to be prepared to make our worldview an integrated and compromised one, otherwise I don’t think we’ll see all the colours.

Laban writes The explanation (about how sound of verbal abuse fires neurons to make someone angry) lies outside of naturalism, I think.

Oh? You mean in supernaturalism obviously. Good luck studying that area of ‘expertise’.

You look. You see. You interpret. You tell another about your experience.

The funny thing about this simple exchange is that your eyes don’t see; your brain does, and it uses the eye to a remarkable extent. But, believe it or not, you can train your skin to see. Because your brain has to alter light into electrical signals and then into meaningful symbols for comprehension, your brain has to interpret. Another part of the brain accepts the symbolic representation, translates these meaningful symbols into another symbolic representation and activates your vocal chords to transmit by sound what your brain saw to another brain! That’s one of the major jobs of our brains – to engage with the world in a meaningful way. This process has everything to do with the interaction of our biology with the world in which it finds itself immersed.

It’s a fascinating subject, this neuroscience, and so counter-intuitive in so many ways that it is difficult to grasp just how revolutionary are the times we are living in when it comes to how we are just beginning to understand why our minds are what our brains do.

As for reducing everything to atoms, so be it. Read and ponder The Myth of Sisyphus if you need Camus’ help over the speed bump of absurdity that is life. In the meantime, there’s meaningful and purposeful living to be done if you can figure out how to find it… all atoms of the universe notwithstanding.

Dale, you had me in full agreement right up until the last sentence of your opening paragraph, All phenomena can be explained in terms of the most indivisible units of matter.

Out of what hat did you pull that conclusion? All matter can be explained in terms of the most indivisible units that make it up, but all phenomena? Can I explain the concept of ‘seven’ by looking at atoms? I don’t think so.

You then write something astounding: there not one shred of ‘evidence’ that naturalism is true.


There is nothing but evidence for the truth of our natural world! Go ahead and stick your finger in your eye and test whether or not cause and effect in the ‘natural’ world is meaningful and knowable. Then, consider that there is nothing to indicate that there exists anything beyond the natural, residing somewhere we shall call the unknowable supernaturalism zone, we shall reconsider your assertion philosophically: is it not quite reasonable from a philosophical point of view to conclude that there is no reason to believe in anything unknowable? Or does believing in the unknowable a necessary condition for finding meaning in life???

I’ve read some of Camus’ short stories. Haven’t read The Myth of Sisyphus though, but I studied absurdism in school a few years ago.

I think you have made an assumption that anything outside of naturalism is ‘super’ naturalism. This isn’t so. Of course there are natural explanations of what goes on when we communicate and verbally abuse someone. We have pretty savvy science that turns this event into observable data. And so we can bear witness to the natural side of this event, but more immediately we bear witness to hurt feelings and a rising temper.

Natural explanations convey the mechanism, but serve no purpose in the reality of this situation. There is something more going on. Not that natural explanations cannot grasp this event, but they cannot grasp it enough, and not in a meaningful way. It isn’t that natural explanation of the angry person simply ‘won’t do’ its that it ‘won’t do enough’. There is something MORE than natural going on, or to avoid confusion with ‘super’natural, there is something ‘other’ than natural going on as well as the natural.

If there is not more than natural going on, then we can plot this event on a graph and it can just be senseless information. And then our friend can be left angry and it’ll just be a plateau between two dots. If that is all you choose to see, then that’s all you’ll see. But even raw data has a context, and that context ISN’T simply more data, but it is other.

One of my psychology professors once talked about how offended he is by pictures of brains acting in certain ways that he forever sees at conferences. Because this insults the fact that this brain comes from a particular person in a particular environment. The brain that exists in a specific space is divorced from it’s reality, trying to be understood. There is outside information that is more than data.

Again, only time for a quick comment,
Interesting thoughts, Laban, about language – thanks for your extended comments! Indeed language (from time-wasting blabbing to the most loving/kind/encouraging word) would be nothing more than noise if there is no meaning.

You seemed to have conflated the statement that ‘there is not a shred of evidence that “natural-ism” is true’ with some unstated (and untrue) position about the truth of the natural world not being supported by evidence? There is an infinite gap between the two statements. One says ‘nature is all there is’ and the other says ‘nature is true and knowable’. I deny the first, and not only affirm, but celebrate the second.

Laban, I am having difficulty imagining what might be outside of the natural world, whether we call it ‘super’, or ‘un’, or ‘other’ or ‘more than’. Because I am having this difficulty, I wonder how we can know anything about it coming equipped as we do for dealing only with the natural world. Your point sounds suspiciously more like a circular assumption that “There HAS to be more to it so there MUST be more to it…” than an honest inquiry into the ontology (what’s actually going on in the brain) of experience.

For example, your emotional feelings are a product of your limbic system cascading various chemicals through your body causing a physical effect you interpret to mean ‘anger’ or sadness’ or whatever. That’s what’s going on when you feel an emotional response. But the limbic system itself can be activated and controlled by all kinds of means. How we do that (the epistemology) is quite varied but the important point here is to not get confused between the ontology of brain function and the epistemology of its usage. It’s also important to understand that emotions are neither outside of nature nor merely expressions of nature. Emotions are physical and natural and subject to our influence (or lack thereof). Learning how to deal effectively with our ability to influence our physical responses can be meaningful and purposeful within the context of naturalism.

Dale, because there is no evidence that we come equipped to deal with anything beyond the natural world, then it is a reasonable deduction to make that we come equipped to deal only with the natural world. Whatever may exist in some other supernatural world is therefore beyond our ability to know. And that’s why I write that it is reasonable from a philosophical point of view to conclude that there is no reason to believe in anything unknowable. Furthermore, we can also safely conclude that the natural world provides us with all we are capable of knowing.

But again, our subjective, immediate, obvious (and oft-overlooked) experience of (for example) reasoning (including, paradoxically, your reasoning against the supernatural!) is not only ‘evidence’ of it, but an everyday, normal, non-spooky/superstitious example of our being ‘equipped’ to deal with it and ‘know’ it (just as non-omnisciently as we ‘know’ anything – including the physical world).

We describe relationships with various terms and one of the them is the idea of negation: Being poked in the eye is not the same as NOT being poked in the eye. Our language is an extension of our ability to describe. But this word game about what is and is not natural requires YOU – not me – to communicate what you mean by this OTHER notion… that is OTHER than natural. Without that bookend of what is NOT natural to offset what IS natural, your argument collapses into obfuscating semantics. I assert that there is only the natural, that only the natural informs what is knowable, and that it is unreasonable to believe otherwise.

All I’m saying is that natural explanations (even if we could theoretically give a complete/’finished’/’full’ ones – which we cannot) don’t rule out or render silly super-natural things. And also that naturalism (the philosophy) cannot account for reason/logic – that is, apart from a reductionistic shrinking it down to brain activity.

Even if your point was true (which I don’t think it is), you have added nothing to suggest why ‘therefore god’ is any better informed than ‘therefore purple jello’ accurately describes the interior structure of unicorn wings.

Natural explanations are the only kind of explanations we have to work with if we are dealing with meaningful evidence to inform the explanations. Explanations that rely on some other kind of ‘natural’ are meaningless. To attribute mind or thoughts to some kind of super-natural explanation is not reasonable because we have no way to apply reason to what informs it. Hence, purple jello is just as applicable and informed an explanation for what fills unicorn wings as is god to explain soul. But when you introduce thoughts and mind to be BOTH natural and supernatural, you are making a scientific claim that has no evidence to back it up.

I sponsor us pushing explanations as far as we can at the natural level. This has not automatically positive/negative relationship to other-than-natural explanations. And your statement about not having any way to “apply reason” to other-than-natural things is ironic, because our acts of reasoning (again, ironically even ‘naturalist’ reasoning) are themselves an example of other-than-natural activity.

You continue to assert that mind/thoughts/acts-of-reasoning reveal other-than-natural examples. You are confused. These are not ‘things’ in and of themselves. These are words we use to describe what appear to be things but, upon closer examination, turn out to be expressions of natural material in action. And that cause can be shown quite clearly by the repeatable, testable, falsifiable and consistent effect that comes from interfering with the natural material. Jill Bolte-Taylor, a neurologist, has described in exquisite detail (My Stroke of Insight) how much insight she gained into her own mind/thoughts/acts-of-reasoning when she suffered a bleed in her brain. It’s a fascinating and quick read that should get you past this notion of requiring other-than-naturalism when it comes to how our minds actually work.

I’ve seen Jill’s TED talk – fascinating if nothing other than the unique opportunity occasioned by that happening to a neurologist of all people. I found her experience and neurological perspective to be completely harmonious with various kinds of non-physicalist understandings of mind.

I’m losing faith that this conversation will go anywhere fruitful. Clearly you don’t expect there to be physical evidence of an other-than-physical mind, do you? Our ‘evidence’ of the ‘more-than-physical’ mind is our own conscious experience, including our ability to discover logical contradictions, and reason. Please don’t tell me yet again about the brain activity corresponding to this. I get that. But are you a reductionist when it comes to reason? Do you (needlessly) insist that it must be seen in terms of only the brain?

Comments are closed.