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. 
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:
- Idealism : Matter is really mind.
- Cartesian dualism : Matter and mind are entirely different things.
- Hylomorphic dualism : Matter and mind are different things, but they are tightly intertwined.
- Neutral monism : Matter and mind are different, but they are also two types of a third “neutral” substance.
- Supervenience materialism : Mind is really matter.
- 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.
- 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.