Immateriality of thought

Warning: Amateur philosophy ahead. Counter-arguments exist. Also counter-counter arguments etc, all in absurd levels of detail, because philosophy is a bottomless pit.

How to understand the mind? Are our minds and our brains the same thing using different words? Is the mind wholly a material thing, or something else altogether? This is a question that has vexed people for millennia.

It’s also way too big a topic for one blog post, so let’s zoom in a little: can we know whether our thoughts are material?

We will start by examining materialism, after which I will put forth my own view that physical things can be about other physical things. For example, I am holding three crystals. The first crystal is about the sun, the second crystal is about the moon and the third crystal is about consciousness. Groovy, man!

“You’ve gone right off the deep end!”, I hear you cry. (Do you have to yell so loud?) But wait – I kid! What I’m describing is actually a consequence of the materialist position. For you see, to be a thought just is to be about something. Your thought about a cat is ‘about’ that cat while your thought about the idiot who writes these posts is a thought ‘about’ me. So if materialism is true and thoughts are physical, this means that physical things can be ‘about’ each other. (In philosophical jargon, this ‘aboutness’ is called intentionality.)

Already we can see that materialism is a long way from the simple common-sense view that most people hold it to be. But there’s more. If thought is material, it follows that thoughts are made up of neurons and atoms and quarks, or whatever. If you were to peer into someone’s brain and see their neurons firing, in a sense you would be seeing their thoughts. Also, abstract ideas such as truth are just neurons firing in your brain. But if truth is nothing but a physical state of people’s brains, what to make of statements such as “the theory of evolution is true”? Even if physical things can be ‘about’ each other, there is no such thing as physical truth, which means there is nothing for a thought about truth to point to. And if materialism is true, if truth is not material it doesn’t exist at all. So what “the theory of evolution is true” really means is “the theory of evolution is a bunch of neurons in my brain”. But this is nonsense. So if this analysis is correct and materialism is true, any possibility of human knowledge is utterly destroyed. [1]

Before we continue, I’d like to make one thing clear: Rejecting a materialist philosophy of mind does not in any way commit you to believing in God, spirits, healing crystals, astrology, The Matrix, Bigfoot, homeopathy, Reincarnated Steve Jobs, five-dimensional goldfish on Mars, Donald Trump or anything else like these things. There is no contradiction in being an atheist and having a non-materialist philosophy of mind, and many well-known and highly respected atheist philosophers have done just that.

Abstract thoughts and materiality

There is a line of thought that says it’s impossible for abstract thoughts to be stored in anything material. Abstract thoughts are abstract (duh) and universal, while material things are concrete and particular.

Perhaps an example will help. Draw a triangle with pen and paper. If you look closely at it, it will not be a perfect triangle. The lines won’t be straight enough, or whatever. It will also have specific features that go beyond what it is to be a triangle, such as being in paper and pen. It could have been in chalk on a blackboard, or different in other ways. So your triangle and the abstract idea of what a triangle is will be entirely different things.

You could write down a precise definition of a triangle. Does this count as something concrete storing something abstract? To write it down, you need to encode it using a language. This can only be read by someone else using the same language. If there is no-one around who speaks that language, the definition is lost. If anyone finds it who uses a language that looks similar but isn’t, or doesn’t truly understand your language, they could misinterpret it entirely. They might think that triangles have four sides, or have fur, or devour their prey at midnight.

Nevertheless the encoding idea is worth exploring. A computer programmer writes code in a programming language, which is then compiled into a language the computer can understand. If the brain is like a computer, perhaps it ‘compiles’ abstract thought somehow using a language it can understand.

The trouble with this is that computers don’t understand anything. If some software has a bug, the computer will run it anyway. You could in principle design a computer where blue screens of death and electric shocks through the keyboard are the expected outcome. It takes a mind to assign meaning to the physical state of a machine.

This means that the mind and the brain can’t be the same thing. If materialism is true and the brain is like a computer, it follows that you don’t have a mind, and you aren’t thinking at all but just following your programming.

If materialism is not true and the brain is like a computer, the mind is like a computer user that analyses and interprets the computer’s output.

The essence of the immaterial

If abstract thought is not material, then what is it made of? Many philosophers of mind who have thought about this question say the answer is – wait for it – nothing. While this is very odd, it seems to be a logical consequence of thought being immaterial. To be material just is to be made out of ‘stuff’. To be immaterial just is to not be made of anything other than itself; it is to be simple and indivisible.

This might seem like fantasyland territory, but is it? Consider that according to materialism, the material world must have a ‘base level’ with nothing underneath it. This base level could be quarks or strings or something else, but ultimately unless there is an infinite number of physical layers it simply must exist. This means that you could compare an immaterial world to a material world that consists only of its base layer; perhaps not so ridiculous after all.

Immateriality of thought also fits in with how we experience our thoughts. We don’t experience them as physical objects such as hands or chairs. The reason we experience chairs as physical objects is because they are. Perhaps we don’t experience thoughts as physical objects because they aren’t.


How to make sense of immaterial thought? A brief overview of the major positions in philosophy of mind might help us here. Here we go:

  1. Idealism : Matter is really mind.
  2. Cartesian dualism : Matter and mind are entirely different things.
  3. Hylomorphic dualism : Matter and mind are different things, but they are tightly intertwined.
  4. Neutral monism : Matter and mind are different, but they are also two types of a third “neutral” substance.
  5. Supervenience materialism : Mind is really matter.
  6. Eliminative materialism : Mind doesn’t exist.

This post is already getting too long, so perhaps we should stop there. But I think there is one more point worth making.

Thus far, this post has talked about what mind is, while assuming that “matter” is understood. But is this really so? The notion of what matter is changed drastically with the discovery of quantum mechanics. We know that physics is still incomplete, so future discoveries could radically change our ideas about matter yet again. However, all discussions on this topic inevitably presume a concept of matter based on our current understanding of it. That is a dangerous assumption to make.

All of this raises enormous questions that hopefully will be addressed in future posts.


  1. That this is controversial goes without saying, but there is a philosophical position that bites the bullet on this and says that the mind doesn’t exist, truth doesn’t exist, ideas don’t exist, knowledge doesn’t exist and so on, but that one day science will tell us how that makes sense. It’s called “eliminative materialism” and is held by Daniel Dennett among others. It remains a minority position among materialists for obvious reasons, who have arguably more plausible strategies for dealing with the question of truth.

Consciousness, iPhones and canaries in coal mines

Science. How good is it? Since it’s beginning several centuries ago, it has increased our knowledge about the world around us a thousand-fold. In almost every way imaginable, science has transformed not only our understanding of the world, but how we live our lives. But despite this, there is no scientific theory of consciousness. Why might that be?

Imagine this: A young girl grows up colourblind. She lives in the future when science knows everything there is to know about colour and how our brains process it. She pores over textbooks; learns all of it. She understands everything science can tell her. Then one day she is suddenly able to see colour. Does she learn anything? Surely she does: she learns what it is like to see colour.

Why is that so? Because science is the study of third-party objective facts. Consciousness, on the other hand, is your experience of first-party subjective facts. The two just don’t seem to fit together.

Science can’t even see consciousness. If you put two sophisticated robots in front of some scientists and told them that one was conscious and the other was not, they would have no way to tell the difference. Science can’t explain what it can’t detect.

In short, when it comes to explaining the origin of consciousness, science has no starting point, no ending point, no clues, no viable hypotheses, no way to test its ideas, no idea what it is studying.

How else can we put this? Imagine trying to explain the evolution of humans from apes – when the apes only exist in your mind.

Attempts to explain consciousness inevitably head down some very strange roads. The Guardian recently published a good overview of the topic. My favourite quote from it: “Your iPhone could have feelings“. It’s just hard to know where to draw the line between conscious things and the unconscious.

To avoid the weirdness of consciousness, it has been suggested that consciousness is an illusion. But what does that even mean?

It should be remembered that despite its successes, science is not limitless. This is because human brainpower is not limitless, and neither is human technology. Even if a scientific theory of consciousness is possible in principle, it may never be found in practice.

What does this mean? I should mention what it doesn’t mean. There is nothing about this that requires belief in God. There is no contradiction in agreeing with everything I’ve just said and being an atheist, and many renowned atheist thinkers have done just that.

Insisting that consciousness will be explained by science can only be done with a straight face if you ignore everything we know about consciousness, while looking at science with your rosiest rose-tinted glasses.

I think that consciousness is the canary in the coal mine of the Western worldview, telling us that the way the world works is far stranger than what we know; far stranger than what we can imagine.

Aquinas Explainer: The First Way

Moving on from our last instalment, which covered the Fifth Way, today let’s explore the First Way.

The first three of the Five Ways are cosmological arguments: in other words, they argue for the existence of God as a First Cause, but despite that they are nothing like the typical First Cause argument that people are used to. Instead of positing God as kickstarting the universe eons ago, Aquinas wants to prove that God is causing everything here and now. To find out how this works, and why “what caused God” is not a good response, read on.

The First Way is about change. Aquinas bases his metaphysics on that of Aristotle, which was primarily concerned with explaining change philosophically. It works like this: every substance has “actualities” that describes what it is like now and “potentialities” that describe what it has the potential to become but is not yet. Change is when one or more of these potentialities becomes actual.

According to Aquinas, it is not possible for anything to change itself; its potentialities must be made actual by something else. Note that this is about simultaneous “here and now” change. So if your hand changes, it is being changed by the muscles within your hand. But your muscles are also changing, so they are being changed by your cells, which are being changed by atoms, which are being changed by quarks and so on.

Aquinas argues that there cannot possibly be an infinite number of layers of physical stuff with potentialities doing the changing. That would be like an infinite number of train carriages without an engine. Thus at the very bottom there must be something driving it all – a First Cause that has no potentialities whatsoever, and can change others without itself changing.

What makes this interesting (at least to me) is what Aquinas says about the physical world. We assume the bottom layer of the world we live in – be it quarks or strings or whatever – can carry on on its own without anything propping it up. It’s buried so deep in our thinking we don’t even realise it is an assumption. But this is odd when you think about it. We know that all the other layers are dependent on the one beneath. Why would the bottom one be any different? Shouldn’t it be the same as the others? Unless it has some specific property that allows it to cause itself, on what basis can you assume that the bottom layer “just is” and doesn’t depend on anything?

What would a First Cause be like? Since all physical things have potentialities, the First Cause cannot be physical. Since potentialities are required to explain change, the First Cause must be unchangeable. Aquinas goes on to argue that the First Cause must be eternal, conscious and all-powerful. In any case, it’s not hard to see how to get from the First Cause to God.

Okay, so what caused God? If Aquinas’ metaphysics is correct, most things need causes but not all. God, being unchangeable, does not need a cause on that basis. Anything that is changeable or has a beginning needs a cause, as does anything that is divisible into parts or could possibly not exist. Because of this, Aquinas argues elsewhere that the First Cause must not have a beginning, could not possibly not have existed and must be simple – and therefore not only does not have a cause, but could not possibly have one.

The last point there – that God must be simple (in the sense of not divisible into parts) is deeply strange and hard to comprehend. It deserves a post of its own. Nevertheless I think the above shows that Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence have more to them than most people realise and that they deserve consideration.

That’s all for Aquinas Explainer. There’s a lot more that could be said here, but I think you get the idea. For more on Aquinas, I recommend Aquinas by Edward Feser.

Further reading

A Defense Of Aquinas’s First Way by David Haines

Aquinas Explainer: The Fifth Way

Warning: amateur philosophy ahead!

Aquinas’ Five Ways arguments for the existence of God are usually misunderstood nowadays. It’s not so much that they are complicated; rather, because they are so different from modern Western thought, it takes a little while to wrap your head around them.

Most people assume his argument from design (the Fifth Way) is a god-of-the-gaps argument that has been refuted by evolution. Not only is that not the case, but the argument cannot possibly be refuted by any scientific theory. To find out why, read on.

Imagine if you will, a group of scientists performing an experiment on water. They heat the water but instead of boiling at 100 degrees as expected, it boils at 75 degrees.

What caused this to happen? The scientists may consider the following:

– Something is wrong with their equipment
– There are impurities in the water
– Igor swapped the water with vodka again
– Under a specific set of circumstances previously unknown to science, water boils at 75 degrees

And here are some options the scientists will likely not consider:

– The water is conscious and sabotaging our experiment
– Glitch in The Matrix
– Water changes at random and just doesn’t make sense. Who can understand it?
– Water has stopped working. Guess we can’t drink it any more
– Looks like water is taking Tuesdays off
– Water has changed by decree of the secretive Water Committee. It will now boil at a lower temperature than what it used to

Why don’t the scientists consider the second set of options? It is because the natural world is extremely regular and predictable. If it wasn’t, science would scarcely be possible.

It is this regularity about nature that Aquinas is trying to explain.

Water being water, it has properties such that when it is heated to 100 degrees it boils. In Aquinas’ metaphysics, this means water has an essence that includes being internally “directed to” boil under the circumstance that it is heated to 100 degrees. This is called “intrinsic teleology”. “Teleology” meaning that it points to an end goal, in this case that of boiling at 100 degrees. “Intrinsic” because it is part of its internal nature, rather than being imposed by any outside forces.

Anything science can tell us can be described in this way. All material things, because they are what they are, can be described as having an essence, that is internally “directed to” behave in certain ways, in a predictable fashion that can be studied by science.

That’s all background. While it is part of Aquinas’ metaphysics it is not part of the Fifth Way and stands or falls on its own merits.

The Fifth Way

But why do things have this intrinsic teleology? It didn’t have to be this way. In an alternate universe, perhaps nature would behave in an arbitrary fashion which is not predictable, follows no rules and cannot be studied by science. Since logically nature could have been arbitrary, there must be a reason for why is isn’t.

Aquinas argues that since natural things are “directed to” their ends, and that they predictably meet those ends, this can be compared to arrows that always meet their targets. Arrows that always hit the bulls-eye tell us there is an archer. Likewise, since natural things are always “directed to” their ends, this is by design. But natural things don’t have intelligence, so they can’t be their own designer. “Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.”

Does evolution show that the Fifth Way is wrong? No, because evolution is simply natural things behaving in a predictable way just as Aquinas is describing.

What are the alternative explanations? Some might say that nature “just is” predictable and that there is nothing to explain, but I don’t think this will do. A policeman who discovered a dead body would not assume that it “just is” there with no need to investigate further. You can’t just assume that something requires no further explanation; you have to prove that.

I think the Fifth Way is still a good argument which deserves consideration and is not hard to understand once you understand the background assumptions.

There is a lot more that could be said here, much of it above my pay grade. There are further details, arguments, counter-arguments, counter-counter arguments, counter-counter-counter arguments and so forth, all in copious amounts beyond what any person could reasonably want, for philosophy is a bottomless pit.

For more information on the Fifth Way, this blog post is externally “directed to” provide you with the following links:

Can evolution justify human knowledge?

While science tells us a lot about the universe in which we live, it is built on a number of assumptions. One of these is the validity of human logic. Does the human capacity for abstract thought allow us to learn the truth about the world? Since science assumes that it does, it cannot give us a non-circular answer to this question. Nevertheless it may still be worth asking what support, if any, science offers for this idea. Specifically, can the theory of evolution give us confidence in human cognitive faculties?

It has been argued by some philosophers, such as Richard Swinburne, that since natural selection acts for advantageous behaviours rather than correct logic, that there is no reason to believe that natural selection has selected for abstract thought. The usual response to this is that brains that think correctly will over the long run be advantageous and thus selectable, even though survival does not always correspond to correct logic. I’m willing to assume that’s true; to me, it seems plausible enough.

Does that mean that the knowledge problem is solved? Perhaps not. There are two reasons to doubt this. 

First: we are the only species, as far as we know, that has the capacity for abstract thought. 1 is a very small sample size on which to base conclusions. We can’t really know empirically that evolution is good at producing abstract thought without being able to study it in other animals. If there were 20 or 30 other species with this capacity, we could make that assessment, but we don’t have that luxury.

There are currently 10 million species of animals on this planet and 5 billion that have gone extinct. If I took 5 billion attempts to get my first hole in a game of golf, I wouldn’t brag about my golf game.  It looks as though evolution is terrible at producing abstract thought and we are just a freakish coincidence.

Second: Even if we assume that natural selection can and will do the job, it will still do that very slowly. So if it takes 5,000,000 years to evolve abstract thought, we might only be 25% of the way through the process. In other words, it might take 2 million more years before humans stop thinking like jellybrains and there’d be no way for us to know.

Far from providing support for the human capacity for knowledge, then, evolution widens the problem from a gap to a chasm. There is no respite from the human knowledge problem here.


Goldfish Science

In the past, I have argued that there is no such thing as 100% confident human knowledge. Everything that we know comes laden with assumptions. There is no way around this.

Part of this is the question: How do we know that the human mind works? That human logic works? That science, which depends on human logic, also works?

While science must assume that science is possible and therefore cannot prove that, it does not follow that science cannot give us any confidence at all in our own abilities. In fact it has done just that: the astonishing successes of science and the groundbreaking technologies based on them have given those of us in the Western world immense confidence in our own brilliance and the brilliance of science.

The potential problem here can be shown using an analogy: goldfish science. Imagine a goldfish tank with a handful of goldfish, some pebbles and a novelty plastic castle. Goldfish Science believes that the entire world is made out of plastic castles. The evidence? That plastic castle in their fish tank! Also, goldfish can push the pebbles together to make castle-like structures. So the theory is proven, not just by the evidence but also by its practical usefulness.

Obviously this is terribly stupid, but who will tell the goldfish? Other goldfish certainly can’t. To be truly confident in their science, the goldfish need a superior intelligence to vet it for them.

It is highly likely that our science doesn’t have the extreme credibility problem that goldfish science has, but this doesn’t rule out more subtle problems. Until a superior intelligence vets our science for us, there will always be a reason to have doubts about the scientific project.

Paley’s Revenge

William Paley presented an argument for intelligent design using the watch analogy. It went like this: Imagine you found a watch lying on the ground. You would conclude based on its complexity that it had an intelligent designer. Given that plants and animals are far more complex than watches, it is reasonable to conclude that they too had an intelligent designer.

Nowadays this is considered as the ultimate god-of-the-gaps argument. Because evolution was then a “gap” in scientific knowledge that has since been filled, so the story goes, this design argument has been answered.

This is a prime example of the dangers of basing philosophical positions on science. You just never know when the gaps will close. (Or when they will open, which is possible due to the provisional nature of science. People forget that part.) If you want to argue God’s existence, then, stay away from arguments based on “gaps”.

Let’s rephrase Paley’s analogy for our modern evolution-knowing times, just to see if we learn anything.

It is 2050 and Paley is the first explorer to visit Mars, when he sees a watch lying on the ground. He picks it up in bewilderment. But as he keeps exploring, he finds a lot more watches in a vast variety of types and styles. He gets a team in and they investigate in earnest. He finds the remains of long-dead watches buried deep in the rocks. Some of them have little resemblance to the watches on the surface. As he travels to other parts of the planet, he finds watches of different varieties again. Slowly he comes to an astonishing realisation: the watches are all descendants of a common ancestor, changing into other types of watches over time! Somehow the watches are able to just change by themselves with no watch designer, driven by competition of different watch types against each other. There is nothing to it except lots of time, the watches somehow “finding a way”.

“As if!”, cried a disbelieving world as they read Paley’s report. But as the evidence came in, it soon became undeniable. As astonishing as it was, it was true. Slowly but surely, the world swallowed it’s incredulity and moved on, a few diehards excepted. But there was still much work to be done as the details of what was happening were yet unknown.

Years went by. Generations passed. Watch-evolution, far from being novel, was now part of the scientific furniture when Paley’s great-great-grandchildren finally pieced together the internal mechanisms of the theory. They found that the watches were not simply changing of their own accord. Rather, the change was enabled by the replication system within each watch. This system had been there since the first watch and had barely changed. In effect, what was happening was not types of watches turning into each other, but one watch system expressing itself in a trillion different varieties.

I wonder what Paley would have made of that?

Life truly is more strange, subtle and wonderful than anyone could have imagined.