Quotable – Why Mental States Are Not Physical (Brain) States

  • There is a raw qualitative feel or a “what it is like” to have a mental state such as a pain. [No physical state has this quality]
  • Many mental states have intentionality—ofness or aboutness—directed toward an object (e.g., a thought is about the moon).  [A physical state can’t be of or about anything]
  • Mental states are inner, private and immediate to the subject having them. [No physical state is private or limited to one individual’s perception]
  • Mental states fail to have crucial features (e.g., spatial extension, location) that characterize physical states and, in general, cannot be described using physical language). [A thought, for example, doesn’t occupy space, possess mass, or obey the laws of physics]

J. P. Moreland, “The Image of God and the Failure of Scientific Atheism,” in God is Great, God is Good (IVP 2009), p. 38.

Thus, mental states cannot be merely physical events in the brain.  The better explanation for these qualities of mental events is a substantial self that transcends the physical world – i.e., a soul.

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5 thoughts on “Quotable – Why Mental States Are Not Physical (Brain) States

  1. Pingback: Top Posts of 2010 « Cloud of Witnesses

  2. Pingback: Consciousness Remains an Intractable Problem for Naturalism « Cloud of Witnesses

  3. Still for one and two, this is simply conceivability about the physical world. I’m sure you, like all of us do, have difficulty in comprehending the motion of subatomic particles according to quantum mechanics. It is bizarre and contrary to our commonsense view of the world. That alone does not make it false.

    Additionally, your analogies are presenting a strawman argument. Yes, chemical reactions, like the ones in a test tube, do not alone have intentionality. And gravity, something that is not cognitive, does not have a qualitative feel. This does not mean that there cannot be physical things with these properties. Furthermore, you paint the materialist as advocating that these things would have qualitative properties, which is utterly false. Materialists specify that specific configurations of highly complex neuron structures will give rise to consciousness, like we see in animals.

    As for three, you still don’t get it. If you had a complete physical read out of a hard disk platter, and then someone asked “where is the mouse” you wouldn’t know simply from looking at the magnetic data what it is doing. Same applies for our neurons. It is only after we have reverse engineered the brain or the hard disk that we understand the relations that are happening and can say “oh, he’s thinking about the civil war right now”

    And if you respond that the observer won’t have a qualitative feel of thinking about the civil war, that misses my initial thrust which was that the observers are not properly wired into the system.

    Finally, computer programs do not have weight or charge. Their physical programming does have these properties, but Windows XP does not. This is analogous to the brain being the hard disk and having physical properties, and the thoughts being an emergent property, like Windows existing only as an interface.

    As for rationality and free will. Whether we have free will or not is not an argument about the truth or falsity of physicalism. This is like arguing for the existence of god on the basis that we want him to be there. I also want santa to exist, but reality doesn’t respond to our wishes like that. Furthermore, free will poses horrifying challenges to the causal closure of the universe. Read up on it, it’s rather interesting. And as for rationality not being accurate. That’s incorrect. Evolutionary theory selects things that can properly predict external events and interact with them. If you couldn’t properly interact, you would die much quicker.

    I don’t expect this to persuade you. Neither is the debate between certain forms of dualism and physicalism a resolved debate. What I am saying is that JP Mooreland reveals his insensitivity to a complex issue by using these arguments which even at a philosophy of mind undergrad level are easily demonstrated to be naive. Not to mention, even if all these arguments were true, and dualism was correct, it still wouldn’t point you in the direction of god, much much less any specific god. So Mooreland again displays his intellectual prejudices by making such a silly philosophy 101 leap by presuming a false dichotomy between christianity and physicalism.

  4. As for one and two, these simply beg the question of why a physical state couldn’t have it. It presupposes that a physical state or organization could not have intentionality (whatever that really is) and that physical states cannot give rise to qualitative states.

    As for three, we shouldn’t be surprised that others cannot see what is happening inside our brains any more than we should be surprised that two computers that are not networked would not know what processes are being computed in the other.

    And as for four, this is a category mistake. A computer program doesn’t occupy space or obey the laws of physics anymore than a thought does. What it does have is have physical components that are identical to the program’s functioning. Thus, simply looking at the magnetic encoding on a platter will not reveal Windows XP. Just like looking at a collection of neurons will not reveal the thought. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between the mind/Windows XP and the brain/hard-drive. Nor does it mean that the mind/Windows XP isn’t simply the brain/hard-drive; it only means that the physical description is so convoluted and complex that we use different manners of speech. Plus this presupposes that neurobiologists will not be able reverse engineer the brain just like a hacker would reverse engineer the hard-drive to find the programs.

    Finally, even granting these arguments, it doesn’t mean that there is a world transcending soul. All it means is that we are lacking a current natural explanation for it and we would probably develop one to explain the mind. Minds could simply be a feature of the natural world and we were wrong in a materialist assumption. I believe Thomas Nagel holds this position while still remaining an atheist.

    • Hi James,
      I appreciate those thoughtful observations. But I think Moreland has a pretty good list here, the purpose of which is to show that mental and physical states have very different properties and thus can’t be the same thing.

      As for one, I can’t think of any counterexample to the claim that only mental states have a “raw feel” or “what it is like” property. The force of gravity, for example, doesn’t have such a property, and it seems that it couldn’t, even in principle. But the mental state of having an itch does have an irreducible raw feel. Consequently, a mental state appears to be very different from a physical state.

      Intentionality is the of-ness or about-ness of a mental state, or the state’s being directed toward something, like my thought about having lunch. But again, even in principle, it seems impossible for a physical state to be of or about anything. A physical state simply is. A chemical reaction, say, couldn’t be about something. Since a physical state can’t exhibit intentionality, mental states must be something other than physical states.

      Concerning three, the interesting thing about this point is that even if you had a complete physical description of my brain, down to every subatomic particle, you still wouldn’t know that I was pondering why the U. S. had a civil war or that I was regretting not taking music lessons at an early age. Only I know the content of my thoughts, and I know them immediately. But no physical state of affairs is like that. Any purely physical state can be observed by any number of people (e.g., watching a cell divide, measuring the electrical resistance of a material, etc.). So again, mental states look very different than physical ones.

      About four, I suppose this could be a category mistake if we knew at the beginning that the mind was nothing more than brain states — but that’s the very issue in question, and the three points above provide reasons to doubt that. The software code embedded magnetically in a hard drive platter does possess physical properties like mass, electrical charge, and the like. But thoughts don’t appear to possess any physical characteristics. A thought possesses no physical description and seems unaffected by any laws of nature. The language of physics and chemistry aren’t able to capture the essence of thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.

      Two other significant problems also arise if we limit mind to brain states (or, ultimately, matter and the laws of physics): We lose our ability to trust the deliverances of reason, and we give up free will. If our thoughts are the by-products of biological chemical reactions, I can’t see any reason to trust them. I don’t see how a mass of tissue in my skull that evolved by accident could somehow produce reliable beliefs about the world. If the wind blew a sign together that said “Pittsburgh ahead 10 miles,” I wouldn’t believe that either. And, if physicalism is true, every aspect of us is determined, and we have no free will. Thus, whatever we say, do, or think, is ultimately determined and beyond our control.

      But, if we possess a free, rational soul, made in God’s image, we don’t face these difficulties.


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