In search of the immaterial: A short discourse on the mind.


Prior to the enlightenment movement of the late 17th and 18th Centuries (a movement towards rationalist logic, usually characterised by empirical research and reasoning) there was a place in philosophy (and science in general) for the concept of ‘immaterial substance’, or the soul if you prefer.

This view dates back to Aristotle (and beyond) and still persists today in some branches of philosophy, but to a much lesser degree than the alternative ‘mind-function identity theories’ that were popularised by scientific rationalists (in which all states of the human mind, our capacity for reason and such like, are equated purely to the physical function which performs them, and nothing else).

To put it in more accessible language, the prevailing theories (that have undoubtedly been of use to science) is that we are merely a bag of bones and matter, nothing more, whereas dualists (as coined by Rene Descartes and following in the Aristotelian tradition) believe there is an unseen, (as yet) immeasurable quality to our being that works in conjunction with the body but is a distinct entity.

One of the features of the enlightenment and subsequent thinking is that it allows for atheism and the absence of a deity, indeed this is a prerequisite for much of the work it achieved. Prior to this it was not only a cultural assumption that had to be built into theories, it was often enforceable by law and punishment.

Due to this there has been a kind of conflation between the notion of the immaterial soul and the existence of deities in subsequent discourse. To believe one, the assumption goes, is to believe the other. Furthermore, to believe in the notion of deity, one is usually assumed to be prescribing to one of the many cultural doctrines that have formed around this concept. So, it follows in our culture for example, to believe in the immaterial, is to believe in a deity (or deities), and to believe in deities is to believe in the ‘God’ from the Christian tradition and to ascribe to the teachings and laws of the Bible.

This makes having a sensible debate on the issue of the immaterial soul rather hard to have, as the existence or otherwise of a God and the cultural implications (perceived or otherwise) that these beliefs have caused are contentious issues.

The trajectory of logical empirical thinking is to ‘reduce’ (reductionism). So for the functions of the mind responsible for high-reasoning and creative thinking (key areas of study for philosophy as these abilities seem to mark us out from other biological life), a reductionist can simply scan a human, ask them to make a series of reasoned or creative decisions, and identify areas of electrical activity in the brain that appear to correspond. The hope of such endeavour is that we can then make statements such as “when the human mind is reasoning about x, the brain state y is evoked, therefore, reasoning about x is the same thing as brain state y” and so on.

As a result, we have the ‘demystification’ of the human condition. Identity matches are catalogued, described and reproduced as reference for further study. As science continues to advance, the ability to trace these states down to smaller and more specific conditions increases. In theory, we should eventually have a blueprint for a human mind and be able to understand from scientific methods alone, all we are thinking, feeling and how we view the world.

The problem is, we haven’t arrived at this unified theory, and many would argue, each layer of reduction reveals such complex interrelations between all the component parts, that in fact, it becomes harder and harder to comprehend the whole in any useful way.

I will try and demonstrate what I mean with a little diagram.


/          \

A1                           A2

/\                            /\

A1(a)     A1(b)             A2(a)  A2(b)

/\             /\                    /\         /\

A1(a)x /A1(a)y    A1(b)x /A1(b)y  A2(a)x/A2(a)y  A2(b)x/A2(b)y

Okay, so my mathematic conventions may not be strict here, but hopefully it should follow. If we say M = mind (the thing we are trying to look for a unified theory of), and A1 and A2 represent such a simple binary decision matrix for an action-decision, such as ‘Shall I go for a walk?’.

So it could follow along these lines:

A1 = I will go for a walk. where

A1(a) = Is it cold? And A1(b) = Is it warm?

A1(a)x = Do I need a jacket or A1(a)y = Don’t I need a jacket?

A1(b)x = Do I need sunscreen or A1(b)y = Don’t I need sunscreen?


A2 =  I won’t go for a walk and

A2(a) = Should I go later today? And A2(b) = Should I cancel the idea?

A2(a)x =  Do I have anything else to do later today? And A2(a)y = Is the rest of the day free?

A2(b)x = Does not going for a walk make me feel good? And A2(b)y = Does not going make me feel bad?

And so on. Now the point of this little diagram is to demonstrate that even with a massive simplification of a basic decision tree like this, it is hard to see how identifying each mind state involved with each variable in isolation is of much use to anyone. If I spent my life studying the part of the mind that is responsible for A2(a)x (Do I have anything else to do today) – I am not going to be much closer to understanding what it is to be ‘M’ having decided to go for a walk.

Okay, so perhaps we don’t want to be looking in isolation then, no, we need to understand how each component relates to those above and below it in the chain of reasoning. But remember that this is a ridiculously simple rendering of a decision that pays no attention to multiple factors that could be considered. For the sake of demonstration I have manufactured a binary example, but in reality, we would be checking (consciously or not) a whole series of considerations, each leading to the unified ‘M’, and each with their own multiple conditions. On top of all that, our decisions seem to be modified by moods and emotions, which can alter states of thinking for none rational reasons and lead to unexpected outcomes – where do they come into the picture?

Now the purpose of this isn’t to ‘set the bar’ or turn away in defeat from nature’s complexity. This approach (as I mentioned) has led to some broad and specific advancements in science and psychology. What I am attempting to demonstrate it that as an absolute approach to understanding what it is to be mindful, to be of a mind, it is inadequate.

It strikes me that when considering the mind, we need to be expansive rather than reductive, in order to make sense of it, find out it’s limitations and abilities, and appreciate the holistic functions it has so brilliantly evolved. If we compare this to something that we do understand fully, like a television (because we invented it), it might make more sense. After all, a TV is nothing more than a series of lights being triggered in a particular pattern and order, repeatedly, to give the impression of a unified set of images. The show on the TV may be the most informative and life changing documentary ever to be broadcast. I am unlikely to get much from it if I am concentrating on one specific diode, relating to one specific pixel, in one corner of the screen. Indeed, learning that that one pixel goes from green to red to blue, isn’t going to tell me anything about the show.

But TVs aren’t like human minds are they, because a TV, without charge or signal, is just a vessel waiting to be activated by a force from somewhere else. To all intents and purposes, a force we can’t usually see, that carries information useless to anything but the device designed to receive it. We would find the notion of a TV operating without the added element of a signal to be ridiculous, and in comparison to the operations of the human mind, it is simple to the point of primitive.

What then if we replace the TV with a computer? Much the same in basics, but with added complex functionality. The reason I mention this is because one of the prevailing reductionist theories of mind is the ‘Computational Theory of Mind’ (CPM) – in which, as per my diagram above, the hope is to find the ‘programme’ behind our mental states in such a way that  is useful to the sciences. But as I have hopefully raised here, there are at least two problems:

1.            The programme of reduction in the time given:

A simple analogy should work here. You sit two people down in front of two identical computers and ask each to make use of it. One (the reductionist), proceeds to dismantle the facia, remove the motherboard and study the component parts. The other, the expansionist, switches it on and starts experimenting with the buttons and functions that have so obviously been presented for such use.

Now, in time, the reductionist may emerge with a detailed knowledge of the machine, down to the last microchip, but in the end, they are still going to have to switch it on and use it as intended to find out the rest. In the time given is important here, because when it comes to the human mind, the most complex computer we know of, if we give too much time over to the reductionist and neglect the expansionist, we may be missing valuable insight.

2. The implication of outside force.

What strikes me about the CPM and the whole notion of an ‘inner-language’ of thought, is that it leads logically to an agent, capable of using the mind in the way we would use the computer. Yes we can explain where the energy comes from to power it (we are after all, just walking furnaces of sorts), but that wouldn’t be enough to explain a computer. A power source is just one thing, we also need a useful functionality and an operator for it to mean anything. Now, I’m not going into design theory here, I’m sure the brain has evolved, but we do end up with a causal circularity between what is the programme, what is the programmer, and who is using it.

I’m not saying that proves anything, but if the reductionist programme is going to insist on using the computer analogy as a basis for theories, does it not have to solve this problem?

Dualism on the other hand, could explain this problem. As I said before, we would find it absurd for a TV to work without having a signal to contextualise the functions. And for the computer, if the programmer is evolution, the agent using this programme could be the immaterial substance. Drop a TV on an island isolated from the rest of humanity but within range of a transmission tower. Give it an incorporated power source and make it constantly ‘on’. Would we believe that the inhabitants of this island (presuming they don’t yet understand about frequency transmissions or TVs) would be wrong or stupid  to come up with the theory of a designer and a source substance? The fact that we don’t yet understand the spatial-temporal (or even dimensional) source of this agent, doesn’t imply it isn’t there.

Neither does it prove it is there, but the point of all this is to open up some more ideas and thoughts on the subject. I am not one for absolutism in theory, and I find that assumptions against dualism have crept in to modern philosophy and culture to a degree where we may be in danger of ‘taking the computer apart’ without even switching it on.

As with all things a balanced approach is preferable. We should perhaps give as much credence to those looking to expand our minds by exploring its functions (through meditation and spiritual practice for example) as those looking to reduce it to component parts. In the end it is all part of our thirst for knowledge and each is useful.

Thanks for reading. I would be happy to respond to any arguments or thoughts on these ideas.


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