Tuesday, November 22, 2011


We inhabit a culture in which things are of consummate value and in which the mind as an entity is not taken seriously. This is an anomalous situation since we do in fact take minds seriously in our relations to other human beings, in our legal system, in our art, religion, ethical reflection and indeed in every context in which consideration of the person without any attempt at reduction is vital. But then as soon as any theoretical discussion of mental events arises, we fall back with tedious knee-jerk predictability on scientific mantras to the effect that mind is ‘of course’ nothing but brain. There is a deep-seated fear in our culture of appearing to take the mind seriously as mind, but the simple and obvious reason for this is that we are unable to talk of anything but objects. We are hidebound by this convention even though we know in our deepest being that there is more to us than mere tangible things. So the intention here, and in subsequent posts, will be to follow the consequences of taking the existence of the mind seriously. Taking the mind seriously involves having the courage of our convictions and allowing what strikes us as completely obvious (until we begin to theorise) to impose certain types of conclusion. The essence of these conclusions is to allow, without prejudging the issue on theoretical grounds, that the mental is a form of existence in its own right and can be treated as a real aspect of the world. Once this is allowed, a host of consequences begin to flow – most of which will be unacceptable to the physicalist and materialist assumptions  of the  neuro-scientific  and biological establishment –, the most fundamental of which is the postulation of a real distinction between those aspects of our being that are brain-determined, and those aspects of our being that are not.

The trouble with all talk of minds, selves, souls, persons, psyches, and so on, is that although the existence of such is obvious to us from our own intimate experience, we are not equipped by our brain even to think of such putative entities, let alone talk of them. Evolution gave us a brain honed for our survival in a world of hard knocks and has thereby equipped us to think of things with great precision and clarity. We do this wonderfully well.  Our discrimination between things and between parts of things is magnificent, but the downside of this is that we can think with any precision only of things. Having adapted us to perceive and handle things mentally, evolution also gave us the massive handicap of preventing us from mentally manipulating anything else with the same degree of lucidity. The result of this is that we have powerful hunches concerning entities in the universe that simply cannot be things and yet we tend to reify them nevertheless because that is how our mental apparatus works best. And yet we are clearly able to get beyond our own obsession with the 3D object. Our minds have persistently grappled with the non-physical and physicists have recently come up with the startling thesis that things might not exist in the way we believe, that the fundamental levels of reality cannot be thought of as material. So while we are apparently handicapped by our innate empiricism, we also, surprisingly, have the means to overcome this handicap, at least to some extent. The belief here is that it is the possession of a mind, distinct from its brain, that not only allows us to perform such feats but that drives us towards them. While the brain convinces us that the world has to be thought of as a collection of objects, the mind tells us a different tale.

The postulation of two separate substances – mind and matter – is as misguided as the reduction of the one to the other. It is futile to commit ourselves to some metaphysics of mind or matter because such a policy entails prejudging what can and cannot be the case, and this practice has notoriously failed in the history of thought. We have to work  with experience and it is unnecessary to pontificate on what can or cannot come into its purview. As ‘thinking things’ to use Descartes’s phrase, rather than as bodies, we immediately suspect that we are not ourselves things, or at least that we are rather special things lacking the most obvious properties of the things of our sensory experience: three dimensional geometry, solidity, space occupancy and so on. The result of this most crucial aspect of our experience is that though our sensory experience provides us only with notions of yet more 3D things, our experience of the self (Hume was simply wrong in believing that we do not have any) provides us with at least one example of an entity in the world which is not a 3D thing. We try to get around this problem in ways that are illustrative of our evolutionarily determined handicap: we reify the self. We either imagine that the self is a special kind of thing (a ‘substance’, a  ‘subtle body’ a ‘soul’, ‘ a mind’ etc.) which we imagine we understand on analogy with the 3D thing of our sensory experience; but the difficulties are insurmountable  and we get into insoluble muddles because of category errors. Small wonder then that the materialists and physicalists, who rely absolutely on our brain-determined tendency to think only of 3D things and regard it as completely authoritative, continue with Hume and the Behaviourists to deny the existence of a self completely.

But once one has realised that belief in 3D objects is something that is forced upon us by our brains, something that we have to entertain because of our sensory-cognitive apparatus, it is surely legitimate to reflect that our primary experience of the self may well be a reason for learning to believe that not only may 3D things be possibly the illusory, but that our minds conceivably reveal a feature or property of reality that our object-obsessed thinking cannot deal with: its mental or non material nature. We may legitimately begin to reflect that our mental experience gives us access to levels of reality that our brain-imposed thinking about things cannot cope with. We may then proceed to reflect that contrary to the deliverances of our sensory-cognitive apparatus, things do not exist at all, but that reality is perhaps intrinsically mental. If things have no real existence beyond our belief in them, if things are constructions of our minds, then minds are possibly primary and the one we possess may be our particular access to levels of reality that transcend our ability to think or talk about. On the other hand, we may not have to go this far, for this is an extreme view. There may well be a rational middle ground between the old alternatives of materialism and idealism.
Given the state of modern physics and its non-material conception of the fundamental levels of the material world of our sensory experience, I can see nothing wrong in:  

a) believing in mind as a reality on the basis of our raw and fundamental experience of it;
b) rejecting materialism and physicalism as creations of our particular cognitive handicap; and
c) assuming that as the basis of our very existence, mind is a fundamental  aspect of reality.

Pontificating on what can and cannot exist in the universe is a risky and unwise business. The universe is not as small as we are and not as limited as our sensory-cognitive apparatus would lead us to suppose; and our minds are prima facie evidence that reality is more complex than our brains allow us to imagine. To dismiss thinking of the mindlike properties of the universe as a ‘category error’ or ‘epiphenomenon’ or to dismiss it by some such effort to discredit the notion merely demonstrates the power of our tendency to think in terms of 3D things alone. It is mistaking a handicap for an absolutely valid and exhaustive set of assumptions. It is as unjustified as declaring that non-visible electromagnetic radiation does not exist because we cannot see it. We need to liberate our thought and concede that we have in the experience of our own minds reason enough to conclude that our thinking in terms of 3D things is now leading us astray and should be held more lightly, if not abandoned. The development of a little discipline in conceiving non-material reality would be of great benefit. This is indeed done with reasonable rigour by studying in an unprejudiced way the wealth of stored insight found in religious and poetic language across the world and throughout the ages. The problem is that official science does not take such studies seriously because their conclusions cannot be reduced to things and their uses.

We think of things, we love things, we delight in making more things, in amassing things but fundamentally we know that we ourselves are emphatically not things. We, as selves, are fundamentally different from things. So much is clear to us in the differing values we place on items of our experience. The entity of highest value is unquestionably the self. Though as bodies we are things, we know as a feature of our most fundamental experience that the self cannot be a thing or a collection of things. This dichotomy at the heart of our being is the origin of all thought of a religious or poetic nature. It was this that led Kant to propose thinking of the world in terms of phenomena – or things accessible to our senses – and noumena, or entities not accessible to our sense (called by him - with a reificatory impulse that is quite characteristic of us - ‘things in themselves’). We cannot escape from the immaterial mind and maybe the immediate reality of the immaterial in our conscious awareness is our entrance into levels of reality that are above and beyond or behind the material presented to us by our brains. Maybe it is not just our possession of minds that gives us our obsession with the spiritual, the psychic and so on, but also our position at the edge of dimensions of reality that have always been there but that now we can begin to conceive.

In the book The Self and its Brain (Routledge London 2000) by the philosopher Karl Popper and the neuro-scientist John Eccles, Popper takes the mind seriously in that it has causal effects upon the world of matter that cannot be reduced to purely material causes. He accounts for the mind as an ‘emergent’ phenomenon, a reality that has ‘emerged’ from the process of evolution as a reality in its own right and that has in its turn given rise to the additional ‘emergent phenomenon’ of what he calls ‘World 3’ – that is to say culture and language. But he refuses to concede that mind might be a constant and universal feature of the universe. It is difficult to see why he is opposed to such a notion – called by him ‘panpsychism’ – for emergent entities with their own ontological status are no easier to understand than universal mind. His refutation of panpsychism in his section of the book (cf pp 67-71) is weak and half-hearted; and his own notion of an emergent phenomenon is no easier to understand than that of a universal mind. One must assume that his hostility to the notion of a universal mental reality – with which his fellow author Eccles has no problem at all – arises from his inability to shake off entirely the effects of his early devotion to Logical Positivism. At all events this book allows one to begin thinking in terms of a non-material mind; and once this is allowed (why should it not be?) it becomes clear that it is impossible to understand the human without postulating an immaterial self – with its own class of mental events – on the one hand, allied to a physical brain, which provides us with its particular class of mental experiences, on the other. Put crudely, brain-thinking is distinct from mind-thinking, the self is distinct from and to a real extent independent of its brain, and understanding this is vital if we are to grasp the essential features of our nature.

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