Minds and Brains: Justification for Immaterialism about the Mind

I have made this point a few times in various discussions, but I’d like to make it here again. Often the Naturalist will argue that we have never observed minds without brains. For every mind we observe, we observe a brain. There are two conclusions often drawn from this, one more modest than the other:

(i) We have no justification for believing that there are any brainless minds.
(ii) We cannot have any coherent concept of a mind apart from a brain.

The second conclusion is argued to be justified precisely because coherent concepts are formed by empirical experience, and there is no empirical experience of a mind without a brain. I want to offer a response to these two conclusions in turn, starting with the second.

To say that we cannot make sense of a mind without a brain is to say that the concept of a mind is bound up with the concept of a brain. We may be able to imagine a brain without a mind, as in the case of a cadaver’s brain, but the reverse, the (hypothetical) Naturalist tells us, is not imaginable or intelligible. So far the Naturalist hasn’t committed herself to reductive materialism about the mind, so we cannot simply dismiss the Naturalist on those grounds. However, I think we all know a priori that the claim that the concept of the mind is conceptually bound up with the concept of a brain is simply false. Construed as a psychological fact about ourselves (i.e., that we cannot conceive of a mind apart from a brain) it is simply and obviously false. What is more, it is empirically false. The response I anticipate is that many people think they can make sense of a mind apart from matter or material extension, but that when pushed and pressed we find that they do not have any coherent concept of such a thing. What this really amounts to, however, is a disagreement about the philosophy of mind.

Allow me to illustrate with an analogy. When we think of grass we may naturally think ‘green’ for the same reasons that when we think of dogs we think of tails wagging. Our experience of grass is generally of green grass (perhaps sometimes it is brown). However, even if our experience of grass is such that it is never not green (or brown or whatever), we find no particular difficulty in imagining purple grass. Our ability to imagine purple grass demonstrates to us that our concept of grass is not conceptually bound-up with our concept of greenness, as though the latter were a necessary condition of the first. Even if we have never observed purple grass, it is completely intelligible to us that there be purple grass precisely because our concept of ‘grass’ does not essentially involve being green. On the other hand, when we are asked to imagine immaterial grass we do have trouble. It isn’t difficult just because we’ve never observed it, but rather because being material is a necessary condition of being grass. The concept of grass involves being material.

Note that the problem with imagining immaterial grass isn’t a problem of imagining (or perhaps better ‘conceiving’) of immaterial things – concepts of things immaterial. Consider, for instance, when we think of the number two, or when we think of the concept of the number two. We really do, I insist, have something in mind. However, we would be as hard pressed to imagine/conceive a material number two, or a material concept of the number two, as we would be to imagine/conceive of immaterial grass.

What is this thought experiment intended to show? It is intended to show that we can easily conceive of things which we have never experienced, like purple grass, and that the reason we can do this so easily is that we all understand that the association between grass and greenness is not a necessary one. The person who had lived their whole lives having never seen grass any colour but one single shade of green would still be able to imagine purple grass with ease. Similarly there is a meaningful distinction between the mind and the brain. Moreover, our concept of a brain is of a thing essentially material – we can no more conceive of an immaterial brain than we can conceive of a material number. Our concept of mind is of a thing essentially immaterial – we simply cannot make sense of a mind’s being material in the strictest sense. I think even a reductive materialist can admit this point – perhaps we can go on believing that the mind is just a material thing of some sort, but we can certainly make no sense of the concept ‘material mind’ anymore than we can make sense of ‘material concepts’. It’s just altogether bad grammar. However, if we can conceive of a mind being immaterial, which I think we must, and we cannot conceive of a brain being immaterial, then it seems to follow that we can conceive of a mind without conceiving of it ‘along with’ a brain. The concepts, qua concepts, are distinct.

I conclude, therefore, that we can not only conceive of a mind which is immaterial, but that our concept of mind is of a thing immaterial. Moreover, I believe that since the concepts of mind and brain are distinct in the relevant sense (i.e., since neither one is conceptually bound up with the other) we can conceive of a mind without a brain with relative ease. So long as we can just make sense of the idea that there be a mind without a brain we know that the claim that we cannot make sense of the idea of a brainless mind must be false. I know this to be false, and I think everyone else does too. To turn the tables; I think it is the materialist/Naturalist who thinks she has a coherent concept of the mind without actually having any coherent concept of the mind.

Well, that is my preferred response to (ii), but what of (i)? (i) is certainly a point about epistemology; it suggests that we cannot have a justified belief in brainless minds. The presumption seems to be that we can have justification for believing x if and only if we can have empirical justification for believing x. Thus, (i) should be more explicitly phrased as:

(i*) We have no empirical justification for believing that there are any brainless minds.

Perhaps (i*) is true. However (i*) does not entail (i) without the presumption that justification is empirical justification. It may also turn out that (i*) is false, depending on how one construes empiricism. For instance, if one construes empiricism as involving analytic truths known a priori then one may argue that since we know that it is logically possible for there to be a brainless mind we know with certainty that there may be such a thing. Moreover, even on a stricter version of empiricism, if there turns out to be some empirical proof of God’s existence (to the satisfaction of ’empiricism’ however construed), and if God turns out to be a mind without a brain, then there would be empirical justification for believing in at least one mind without a brain. I am inclined to think the real problem is that we have no justification for believing  (i*) to be true in the first place! I am adamantly not an empiricist, at least not in any robust sense.

Maybe there is another way to accept  (i*) along with believing that we have a justified belief in minds without brains. If one asks the question ‘under what conditions would the thesis that minds are independent of brains be verified’ and then proceeds to set up empirical tests to determine whether brainless minds exist, then we may find that we do have good evidence for minds being independent of brains. I have in mind here the growing body of evidence from out of body experiences, near death experiences and such like. The empiricist may dogmatically scoff, which she is entitled to do if she likes, but scoffing will do nothing to adjudicate the matter in her favor.

Finally, I want to end with the suggestion that we all apprehend ourselves to be immaterial minds. The fact that we are, at bottom, immaterial minds, seems to me to be clear and distinct in an almost Cartesian sense. It seems self evident to me, the contrary seems absurd. At very least it seems to me that it is a natural thing to believe, and more natural than its alternative(s), and thus that (being thus, presumably, properly basic) the burden is on the one who rejects it to offer us some defeater for it. I can see no realistic hope of doing that. Thus we should consider ourselves amply justified in believing in immaterial minds without brains. If we also find the arguments of thinkers like Plato and Leibniz convincing, that the mind must be a simple non-composite thing and that as such it cannot be destroyed (unless God miraculously annihilates it) then we will also be inclined to think that there are plenty of instances of minds without brains in the world (every time somebody dies that person’s mind continues to exist, and does so independently of that person’s brain).

To draw the point out any further would require that we enter into the philosophy of the mind explicitly, and I have avoided that on purpose, since I think one can make the aforementioned points as significant preliminaries to any and all more substantive points about the philosophy of mind. However, it may be worth advertising that when we actually do philosophy of mind what we find is that, by far and away, the better arguments are on the side of the possibility and plausibility of the mind’s being ontologically independent of the brain.

Caveat lector – I am adamantly not a substance dualist!


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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5 Responses to Minds and Brains: Justification for Immaterialism about the Mind

  1. Thanks for this, Tyler. I have often wondered how the theist responds to (i). (I agree with you about (ii), by the way.)

    I don’t really see how your response works, though. “Out of body experiences, near death experiences and such like” are always associated with a brain as well as a mind. Similarly, though we may apprehend ourselves as immaterial minds, we again always find that such minds come with brains attached.To assert that, because we can conceive of an immaterial mind, therefore our minds are immaterial, is simply a non sequitur. I know that’s not quite what you wrote, but it almost seems as though that’s the argument you are making.

    Finally, as far as the “thesis that minds are independent of brains,” we have quite a lot of empirical evidence that contradicts it. Things that affect the brain, from moderate amounts of alcohol in the blood to massive injuries to it, are also found to affect the mind.

    • It’s been a while since I’ve seen you frequent this blog, welcome back, and thanks for the comment. By the way, you may be interested to know that, since I’m graduating this semester, and I am set to jump into graduate studies next semester, I have started a new blog which I intend to take more seriously. It’s still in the ‘building’ stage, but you are welcome to check it out: http://www.tylerjourneauxgraham.wordpress.com

      Now, in response to your response, I should note that (i) is a point about epistemology, and not ontology. Thus, where you say “To assert that, because we can conceive of an immaterial mind, therefore our minds are immaterial, is simply a non sequitur” I find myself in some measure of agreement. However, I think that if we assert truly that we can and do naturally conceive of a mind as immaterial, then we do have epistemic license for holding the belief (absent a defeater) in the mind’s immateriality. The question is about warrant, and all I am here suggesting that this belief is warranted.

      Furthermore, the thesis that minds are independent of brains which I advance is not the same thesis as the Platonic or Cartesian view of the division of mind and brain. In fact, I am (surprise surprise) Thomistic on this point, thus I reject substance dualism (in preference for hylomorphism), and I claim that there are causal relations in both directions from brains to minds and minds to brains. In fact, I take it that the mind is not a substance apart from the body (pace my hylomorphism), so I am not surprised to find that minds seem inexorably bound with brains – at very least that the empirical observation of minds is always bound up with observations about brains. Note, however, that the only purely ’empirical’ access we have to minds in principle is through brains, so there shouldn’t be any surprise about the extent of our empirical data. What I meant by minds being independent of brains is something like this: that there is at least one feature of the mind which cannot be explained by or reduced to the physiology of the brain, namely consciousness. Perhaps I’m wrong about that (I don’t think I am), but either way, that is at least justificatory for the claim that the mind is ontologically distinct from, and not entirely dependent upon, the brain.

      • Yes, I haven’t had time to check in recently. Congratulations on your upcoming graduation – I look forward to what you’ll be doing on the new blog. (Does this mean you’ll be dropping 3rdMT?)

        “However, I think that if we assert truly that we can and do naturally conceive of a mind as immaterial, then we do have epistemic license for holding the belief (absent a defeater) in the mind’s immateriality.”

        As a naturalist, I think of the mind as a property of a brain. If I think of other properties of material things – “redness”, say – your argument doesn’t seem to work:If we naturally conceive of redness as immaterial, then do we have epistemic license to think that redness can exist apart from material objects? It seems to me only a die-hard Platonist would say so.

  2. Well, I don’t think we need to be die-hard Platonists in order to be sympathetic to the intuition at play here. I think the the conceptualist alternative to the debate over nominalism on the one hand, and full-blown platonism on the other, is not only tidy, but also saves the intuitions which are, I take it, the only real impetus for Platonism in the first place. So, I would say this: prima facie, Platonism does look better than nominalism (which, I take it, you would need to subscribe to – I’m not sure about this, maybe you could work some kind of neo-meinongianism into your position instead, but I think it’s a safe assumption that you’re probably a nominalist). So, let us say that the fact that we have concepts of things like redness, to take your example, and that our concepts of those things are concepts of non-material (indeed, immaterial) things, presents us with a good reason to be inclined to something like Platonism, or at least something more like Platonism than the nominalism which so easily marries materialism. Maybe we do indeed have defeaters for Platonism (I think we certainly do), but that doesn’t get us to nominalism – that would be too simple a slide. In fact, let’s just stop and think about properties themselves, in principle. Having a property (as opposed to being identical to a property or set of properties) seems to me to necessarily involve immaterial entities – if one rejects bundle-theory in metaphysics, where substances just are identical to a set of properties, so that, ultimately, there is no underlying ‘thing’ which ‘has properties’ then one should accept that in order for anything to ‘have a property’ it must be distinct from that property! But being material, it seems to me, is to have a property – namely, the property of being material. So it seems to me like materialism just slips into incoherence if one attempts to make sense of properties like these classical Platonic go-to examples of abstract objects, like redness or justice (I say this, of course, because I cannot, and have never been able, to make any good sense of bundle-theory; I think the whole talk in which materialists who support bundle theory are engaged is fundamentally confused).

    One final thought for the night; even if you don’t buy either of these two point about properties (i.e., first, that the fact that we have concepts of immaterial things like Platonic forms is at least prima facie good reason to tend towards something more like Platonism than materialism, and second, that even the ascription of any ‘properties’ necessarily involves a conceptual immaterialism in the case of the thing which ‘has’ the properties), perhaps you can think about a third option as well. You’ve probably seen my post on Bertrand Russell and Prepositions, but in case you haven’t I’ll provide the link here: https://thirdmillennialtemplar.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/bertrand-russell-prepositions-and-theism/

    The point I try to make in that post is that Russell has a compelling argument for the conclusion that even if one can negotiate away the abstracta which the Platonist holds so dear, and argue that such things can be accounted for on a materialist metaphysic, surely not all abstract objects can be. After all, just because adjectives can be (and it’s not clear that even they can be successfully, but we can grant it for the sake of argument), it doesn’t follow that prepositions can be! Indeed, as Russell points out, the favorite empirical façon de traiter of abstract objects such as those represented by adjectives is precisely in terms of prepositions! Thus, even if there are good arguments to get us to nominalism about properties like ‘being red’ there certainly are not comparably good arguments to get us to nominalism about properties like ‘resembling.’ Or, at least, I don’t know what they are (of course, as always, there is hardly any stone un-turned by some philosopher somewhere, so there may be some argument to get us there as well, but I don’t know what it is, and I’m skeptical about how persuasive the argument would be in any case, even if there were such an argument).

    Oh, and yes, I do plan to leave ThirdMillennialTemplar alone once I make the full transition to the new blog. I’m proud of some of the articles I had on here, but other articles are much weaker, and I just have the heart to delete them, but I also don’t want people thinking that they represent the level of work I want to produce at the graduate level. I want to strive for better quality, one step at a time.

    It’s always a pleasure to have you visit the blog.

  3. I don’t see that conceptualism is in conflict with materialism (in non-eliminative versions, for example Melnyk’s). However, I don’t think we need to solve the problem of universals to make sense of my point.

    If I take a red ball and burn it to ash, then, whatever we might say about “redness” in general, it seems clear that the redness OF THE BALL is gone. Likewise, when a brain ceases to function, there is no reason to think that the mind associated with that particular brain continues to exist.

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