Throughout history, the mind has been one of the most talked about and debated topics in philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines. From Socrates to modern day neuroscientists, the mind seems to be just as mysterious to us since it was first discussed by people thousands of years ago.
This isn’t to say that people haven’t come up with theories that try to explain the mind. However, even the most popular theories have their own sets of problems that still to this day don’t seem to be sufficiently answered. The question “Where is the Mind?” is not simple to answer, because it depends on what you view the mind to be. In this post I hope to inform you a bit on the subject of the mind, two popular theories (Dualism and Monism), and what it means to us if either is true.
§1. What is the mind?
The mind is a difficult thing to explain. Its functions, abilities, and other attributes are quite vast and numerous. Instead of trying to define it myself, I have shamelessly quoted Wikipedia’s definition below:
Mind is the aspect of intellect and consciousness experienced as combinations of thought, perception, memory, emotion, will, and imagination, including all unconscious cognitive processes. The term is often used to refer, by implication, to the thought processes of reason. Mind manifests itself subjectively as a stream of consciousness.
Quite a mouthful, right?
To many people, the mind can also be thought of as the person’s soul. Eternal, indivisible, and altogether the very essence of our being, throughout history people have regarded it as being separate and distinct from our body.
Many religions assert that the soul is what goes on to the afterlife, or gets placed into a new body during reincarnation. The topic of the soul seems to be one of the key points of almost every religion in history.
One of the topics that frequently comes up when talking about the mind is free will. Positions like Hard Determinism state we have no free will, but others might say determinism is true, but we still have a choice. Recent quantum theory suggests that the universe might not be as determined as we once thought according to physics, but as Searle puts it, “randomness is not the same as freedom.”
Many branches of thought exist within the philosophy of mind. Artificial Intelligence, neuroscience, and the first person perspective are just a few of these. While this post explains just a few of the very basic ideas of certain positions, I’m confident in saying that you could easily spend the rest of your life learning about different ideas that have been proposed on the topic.
§2. Two theories
Although there are many theories on the mind, Dualism and Monism have come to be the two main branches of thought on the subject. Both ideas are presented below, with short introductions to their beginnings, famous philosophers who held to them, and the problems each one faces.
The belief that the mind is separate and distinct from the body has been held for thousands of years. Dualism tells us that by our own intuitions we can come to the conclusion that our mind is separate from our physical body (and thereby the brain).
Descartes showed this by asking if we could imagine our mind existing without our bodies. Since it seems obvious that this is at least possible, there must be a difference between our mind and body. Since we can’t seem to determine the physical location of our mind, it must be something non-physical.
While this demonstration seems pretty straightforward, it has its own set of problems. One of the most difficult problems Descartes dealt with was how the mind and body were able to interact. If the mind is non-physical and the body physical, there must be a place where the mind is able to communicate to the physical body. Descartes believed this point of interaction to be in the pineal gland. While modern day neuroscientists laugh at this idea, back then it was the best answer Descartes could give to this big problem.
This is just an extremely basic introduction to Dualism. If you’re interested in learning more about it, there are several different types of Dualism, including Substance Dualism, Property Dualism, and Non-reductive Dualism, among others.
This theory states that there is no sort of fundamental difference between the mind and body. Most monists believe that the physical is all that really exists. However, Idealism (put forward by Berkeley) states that the only real stuff is mental. Since this type of monism is uncommon, I’m going to spend the rest of this short introductory time explaining Physicalism.
As science has advanced, the idea that the mind being a sort of non-physical, non-material thing has garnered harsh criticism. Only in the last 20 or 30 years have neuroscientists been able to peer into the brain to see how it works. By observing the brain while it goes through various mental states, we can capture a picture of it and compare it to other mental states. For example, when I think about my pet dog, my brain’s neurons are firing in a specific, measurable way. This might not always be exactly the same, but it will definitely look different from when I, for example, work through a test in school.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein believed in a type of monism called Behaviorism.
Now, Physicalism isn’t without its own set of problems. As problems have come up, new theories of monism have replaced old ones. One of the more recent and popular monistic theories is Functionalism.
§3. What does it mean if Dualism or Monism is true?
If Dualism is true, then there is something about us that is eternal, immortal, and we will in some way or another live beyond our physical body’s death.
If physical Monism is true, then all we have is our body. When our body dies and our brain stops operating, that’s it.
It’s important to note that whether you hold to Monism or Dualism, believing in either one won’t necessarily cause you to change how you live your life in any dramatic sort of way. Our actions and the intentions we have when making them are more important in the world than our beliefs. This assertion is debatable, so if you want to talk about it let me know!
Edit: I realize now that I could have worded that sentence about actions and intentions versus beliefs a lot better. I didn’t mean to say that beliefs aren’t important. I think they are extremely important. What I meant was what happens in the real world, cause and effect, happens because of our actions. These actions are guided by our beliefs or intentions. Surely killing an innocent human is wrong, but doing it with the intention of wanting to murder someone versus accidentally causing an accident that kills someone are two very different situations. The outcomes are the same, but the intentions are different. That is all I was trying to say.
§4. Concluding thoughts
In a way the title of this post is misleading. In Dualism, the mind is non-physical, outside of our normal physical existence. In that regard, it isn’t anywhere we can define, like we can with physical objects. With Monism, there is no actual or real mind. It’s not that it doesn’t exist physically, it just doesn’t exist as an actual thing at all.
I won’t try to argue which one of these theories is right, because I myself am still undecided. I wanted to make this post so others might understand the positions a bit more, and maybe learn something new through it. If nothing else, I hope you can see that the mind is a very complex and fascinating thing to think about. If you have any thoughts, questions, or concerns, feel free to post a comment below and I will do my best to answer you.
§5. Further reading
If you would like to learn more about the mind, here are some interesting links to articles and videos that led me to be more interested in the mind:
Minds, Brains, and Programs by John Searle – Searle’s Strong AI and why he believes it to be impossible. I wrote a paper arguing against this, and said it is possible for Strong AI to be created.
A Real Science of Mind – Article that goes into more detail about the psychological phenomenon that goes on in the mind. If anything, this article shows that we really don’t know much about the brain.
Molyneux Problem – This thought experiment deserves its own blog post, which is something I might do eventually since I wrote a paper on this as well.
How Does the Autistic Brain Work? – A pretty fascinating video on how the brain of an autistic teen works. Very interesting if you like to know more about the neurological goings-on of the brain.
The Brain: The Mystery of Consciousness – This is a pretty long article about consciousness and the questions surrounding it.