Mind and God

For all you New Atheists out there, a little compare and contrast exercise. Tell me if you think this proof makes sense:

  1. My mind is identical to certain neurochemical processes in the brain.
  2. We have observed these neurochemical processes, and have verified that they exist.
  3. Therefore, my mind exists.

If that one sounds valid, how about this one?

  1. God is identical to the whole of nature.
  2. We have observed the whole of nature, and verified that it exists.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

I can think of two objections to the second proof. The first is that a lot of modern theists might not be able to sign onto our working definition of God. Fair enough, but I should note that our pantheistic account is not wholly without precedent — Baruch Spinoza believed in deus sive natura (God or nature) as interchangeable properties, and much of Eastern philosophy contains roughly analogous concepts. (Replace “God” with “tao,” and the proof still holds.)

The second, stickier objection is that “God” in this proof has a form, but not much content. (Same goes for tao.) We can point to physical properties we believe to be correlated with God as much as we’d like, but the deity’s most important properties are entirely spiritual. So demonstrating the existence of certain physical phenomena that we’d expect to exist in a God-created universe really tells us absolutely nothing.

So for atheists who believe in the existence of their own minds, here’s the dilemma: why does that rebuttal apply to the second proof, but not the first?

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66 Responses

  1. Thanks for this. I am thinking now!!!!

  2. “but the deity’s most important properties are entirely spiritual.”

    I see no reason to believe that anything spiritual exists, whether in my mind or in the universe. Unless you’re using the term metaphorically (or I’m not understanding the argument, which is always a possibility).

    • But that’s the point of the thought experiment. Do you believe that I have a mind? Do you believe that you do?

      • What does that have to do with spirituality? I legitimately don’t see that.

      • Maybe it would be clearer if we used the word “metaphysical” instead of “spiritual.”

  3. “Maybe it would be clearer if we used the word “metaphysical” instead of “spiritual.””

    I still don’t see it.

    Are you trying to argue that part of the mind is non-physical? Or all of it?

    As we have, last I checked, no evidence of a mind existing without a physical brain, there seems to be no reason to conclude that there can be a mind (or even part of one) without a physical brain of some kind.

    • Out of curiosity, what sort of evidence would you need to establish the existence of a mind absent a brain?

    • Also: Doesn’t your comment implicitly concede that a “mind” and a “brain” are different things?

      • “Doesn’t your comment implicitly concede that a “mind” and a “brain” are different things?”

        Implicitly, perhaps, but only in an effort to help understand what you’re saying. Also, it’s a way of differentiating a physical object and what that physical object does. What it is, is the brain. What it does is called the mind.

        “Out of curiosity, what sort of evidence would you need to establish the existence of a mind absent a brain?”

        I don’t know. Discovering that evidence is the job of someone who claims that there is or can be a mind absent a brain.

      • So mind is an action, not an entity? That’s an idiosyncratic definition right there.

        So how do we differentiate between “mind” and just plain “thinking?” Or between “mind” and “firing synapses that produce a certain reaction in the body?”

      • They’re different things for the purpose of discussion, but not that meaningfully different. The brain is the lump of stuff, the mind is something you get when that lump of stuff is in action (the neurochemical processes). Brain : mind :: magnet : electric field, maybe? But they’re still all physical phenomena.

        I think most believers don’t consider God physical, which is one way your analogy breaks down. It MIGHT work if you posit mind being some metaphysical thingie, which…yeah, no. ;)

  4. “So mind is an action, not an entity?”

    No. Mind is a label that we use to describe the brain when we are trying to say what it does, as opposed to what it is.

    “So how do we differentiate between “mind” and just plain “thinking?” Or between “mind” and “firing synapses that produce a certain reaction in the body?””

    Sub-definitions, scientific definitions and semantics, really. I think we may be sliding away from the original point, however.

    • Okay, so you DO basically think that mind is identical to brain. In which case we’re left back where we started: does the second proof prove the existence of God? Why not? How can you disprove the second proof without also disproving the first?

      • Honestly, the second proof looks like a semantic argument. It looks just as valid as “God is identical to cake, cake exists, therefore god exists.”

        If god is identical to nature, then all you’ve done is rename nature, which seems unnecessary and potentially confusing. If you claim that nature has more attributes than can be determined or has been determined, then you have to give a good reason or good evidence for someone to accept or believe that to be true

      • So if I understand you’re two objections, they are as follows:

        1.) The “God” label is being applied arbitrarily.
        2.) The “God” label implies more attributes than are already observable. We have no empirical reason to believe those attributes are present.

        I acknowledged both of those points in my post. Then I asked why those same objections didn’t apply to proof #1 if you replaced “God” with “mind.”

  5. “Then I asked why those same objections didn’t apply to proof #1 if you replaced “God” with “mind.””

    Because I don’t think ‘mind’ is a necessarily arbitrary label, and I don’t believe that it implies more attributes than are already observable.

    You might believe that. But as I don’t, I see no valid connection between the two ‘proofs’.

    • If you want to establish that the “mind” label is non-arbitrary, it’s incumbent on you to make that case. But I will note that if you really believe that “mind” is reducible to “firing synapses,” then you’re using a definition that virtually no one else would sign onto. Your position means, for example, that the sentence, “I am sad,” means only, “Synapse X is firing in my brain,” and has no other content at all.

      • “If you want to establish that the “mind” label is non-arbitrary, it’s incumbent on you to make that case”

        Whether or not the word is arbitrary doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that, when I use the word ‘mind’, I don’t use it to mean ‘spiritual’ or ‘metaphysical’.

      • Doesn’t matter whether you want to describe the mind as “metaphysical” or not. If we are to acknowledge the existence of mind, we must acknowledge it as a metaphysical property — your position thus far has been that mind exists only in physical properties, and that just seems a priori false to me. When I describe attributes of my own mind, I’m not describing physical phenomena — it might correlate with physical phenomena, but I don’t know anything about the actual chemical processes occurring in my skull. All I can do is try to describe certain non-physical sensations. Sure, we can try to articulate those sensations using only the language of the physical phenomena with which they correlate, but we’ll end up with woefully weak and insufficient descriptions.

        Let me be clear: I am not arguing that the mind exists. I am only arguing that materialism and belief in the existence of your own mind are incompatible positions.

  6. NotAScientist would be more convincing if not for the non-trivial difficulties of using an instrument (the brain) to observe itself. He or she is far too confident in his/her ability to meaningfully observe an instrument in action while using that very instrument to perform the observation.

    • Well, the brain as well as, like, MRI’s and things. But aside from that, we wouldn’t be talking about minds if we didn’t have the subjective experience of having them.

      • I think you just hit on the problem right there with materialists who defend the existence of minds.

  7. “If we are to acknowledge the existence of mind, we must acknowledge it as a metaphysical property”

    I see no good reason for this to be so.

    “it might correlate with physical phenomena, but I don’t know anything about the actual chemical processes occurring in my skull.”

    Your lack of knowledge doesn’t change whether or not your emotions and thoughts, for example, are being caused by chemical processes. And I still see no good reason to think they aren’t.

    • You’re still muddying the waters here. Are thoughts physical processes, or are they merely caused by physical processes? And if the latter, then what are they?

      • Agree with NAS on pretty much everything, FTR. And I also see no reason to acknowledge it as a metaphysical property.

        A METAPHORICAL property maybe. We use terms like “thoughts” and “mind” to help us know what we are talking about and describe what we are experiencing, but that doesn’t change the cold hard basic fact that our thoughts are physical processes.

        Also, one possible piece of evidence for mind being a physical process: the experience of patients who go under general anaesthesia. They feel like they go to sleep one second and wake up the next. There isn’t even a sense of time having passed. It is complete unconsciousness, because the physical processes that give rise to our experience of mind aren’t functioning. Or something. Anyway I know of one blogger whose experience with that directly caused her atheism.

      • This comment makes it sound like you’re conceding that minds don’t exist. I mean, the butterflies in my stomach exist as a “metaphorical property” as well. But I do not, to my knowledge, have any real-life insects in my digestive system.

      • No, they exist. They’re a series of physical processes that somehow give rise to consciousness. It’s just handier to call them “minds” than “a series of physical processes that somehow give rise to consciousness.”

      • So what’s consciousness, then? Instead of avoiding or resolving the problem, you just added an extra step.

      • Just like it’s handier to say “I” than “a series of physical processes that somehow give rise to consciousness housed in a massive structure of interconnecting cells and systems.”

      • Yeah, I realized that after I posted. It’s not much different from mind, actually, or is wrapped up in mind. But it’s all reducible to physical processes, which we experience as various stuff and then give names to various stuff.

      • I still haven’t seen a persuasive response to my comment about the a priori wrongness of treating mind as reducible to physical processes. In order to do that, you need to so warp the language we use to describe mind and consciousness that it’s basically unrecognizable. Probably a lot easier to toss it out and admit that you either believe or don’t believe in the existence of a metaphysical phenomenon.

      • Like, if you WANTED to say that God was just the interaction of all things in nature, then…OK? Sure? Have fun? But most claim far more than that. Not so with mind-asserters.

  8. “In order to do that, you need to so warp the language we use to describe mind and consciousness that it’s basically unrecognizable. ”

    Okay. Then we warp language. So what? Humans invented it…and quite a lot of those humans believed in things like spirits, souls and God.

    • It’s just that when you unilaterally change the meanings of words because it allows you to gloss over logical inconsistencies, it makes it impossible to have a rational conversation.

      • I see no logical inconsistency. I see a word that has a lot of implied spiritual meaning to a lot of people, but one that doesn’t have that meaning to me. Nor does the meaning seem to be implicit in the word, just in how people (like you) use it.

      • This has nothing to do with spirituality. It has to do with whether the words “thought” “mind” and “consciousness” describe physical behaviors (and nothing else) or not.

      • This is really the central problem — prescriptivist vs descriptivist conceptions of language.

  9. “It has to do with whether the words “thought” “mind” and “consciousness” describe physical behaviors (and nothing else) or not.”

    They do to me.

    • If I take an electrode and stick it in the brain of a corpse such that its brain has the same electrical impulse that my brain does when I have a thought, did the corpse also just think?

      • You can try, but as the brain tissue on the corpse is dead, I doubt you will get the same electrical impulse. And even if the impulse is the same, the brain is still dead.

        You need to have living tissue and an electrical impulse to have a thought. Not just one or the other.

      • “You need to have living tissue and an electrical impulse to have a thought. Not just one or the other.”

        In what sense is a thought reducible to living tissue and electrical impulse, then? Why not say that the tissue and electrons are reducible to a thought? Or better, that they’re two ways of describing the same phenomenon, neither one more basic than the other?

      • Sorry, actually misunderstood you — you mean that you need both living tissue and electrical impulse, not both of those and thought.

        Though my questions stand. I doubt reductionism even makes sense as an idea, at least when we’re talking about “metaphysical” properties being reduced to physical ones. Physical properties are metaphysical, too!

      • how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

        all this talk about “mind” and “god” is my balls. when you use language, and particularly forms of “to be”, there is an implication, unless otherwise noted explicitly, that you are either:
        1) talking about things that are falsifiable in the popperian sense
        or
        2) in-group signifiers

        since 2 largely equates to bullshit, there really is no room for this nonsense. when you say “mind” you may as well be saying “soul” because it’s just as well-defined. this is why scientists dont use the fucking term. if you reproduce the electrical impulses in a brain then you’ve reproduced the electrical impulses in a brain and nothing more. the fact that you use the terms “mind” or “soul” or “god” put your question by definition in the realm of theology and not science.

        christ, what an asshole.

      • Philosophy, not theology. But you are correct that this question is beyond the realm of science. The really baffling part is this notion that, since everything is reducible to empirical questions, that renders the whole discussion irrelevant.

  10. I said theology and dammit i meant it. when you talk about mind, or consciousness (in the abstract), or a soul, you are talking about the specifics of a particular dogma.

    philosophy at least has some grounding in observable reality. tenuous, perhaps, but that’s as may be.

  11. All it does is define God as nature, and since nature exists, then nature exists. It transforms to a tautology. If that’s how someone wants to define God, then fine. I believe in that god. But my criticism is that we already have a word for nature: nature.

    • Yeah, this seems about right to me.

      The key is that I don’t think the mind example is similarly tautological. We bother talking about minds in the first place because we have overwhelming subjective and reported evidence from human beings about being conscious and thinking. (That counts as empiricism too!) To my mind (ha), “mind” is just a handy way of talking about the processes of being conscious, thinking, experiencing the world from a particular point of view, etc. All of which stem from neurochemical processes. In that way mind is fundamentally different from “soul” or “God,” because 1) we can verify its effects (all people who are not severely impaired/in a coma/etc. are conscious and think) and 2) I’m pretty sure you could find a much broader consensus about what “mind” entails than about “soul” or “God.”

      But again, mind is not an entity. It’s just a way of describing stuff that happens and exists in our brains.

      Also, Ned: “The really baffling part is this notion that, since everything is reducible to empirical questions, that renders the whole discussion irrelevant.” Could you explain what you mean by that a bit?

      • Well to explain, let’s look at the issue of verifiability you bring up. How is reported evidence of the existence of a person’s mind different from reported evidence that they have the conscious experience of being looked down upon by a divine presence?

        The fact is we don’t really have any verification of the existence of minds. You might be able to hypothesize a causal relationship between electric impulses in the brain and the movements of the human body, but that link alone isn’t a “mind” as commonly understood. This is where the philosophical zombie problem comes in.

  12. “The fact is we don’t really have any verification of the existence of minds.” Eh. No more verification than we have of the fact that we’re not all brains in a vat, I suppose, but at that level I can’t give any more than two shits. How bout our ability to have this conversation? My ability to have the thought, “I am thinking”? The philosophical zombie problem is fun to think about, I suppose, but I think it’s of limited use because it doesn’t actually exist. Or maybe it could, but it’d be because there was some brain abnormality that cut off its sense of consciousness. (If I’ve learned one thing from Radio Lab, it’s that there are lots of weird brain abnormalities out there. Now I’m picturing a show where they interview a guy who had no consciousness up until puberty, and his shocked family who thought he was just a normal kid…)

    This part: “You might be able to hypothesize a causal relationship between electric impulses in the brain and the movements of the human body, but that link alone isn’t a “mind” as commonly understood”
    …takes me back to this that you said earlier: “But I will note that if you really believe that “mind” is reducible to “firing synapses,” then you’re using a definition that virtually no one else would sign onto.”

    As commonly understood? By who? You gotta do better than that. Of course a mind is reducible to firing synapses. How is it not? I’d call a fool anybody who thinks thinks a mind can exist independently of that.

    • The philosophical zombie problem is a thought experiment. It’s not supposed to tell us what is, only clarify what exactly we mean when we talk about “mind” or “consciousness.” The fact that you can imagine a philosophical zombie — i.e. a human with a functioning brain that behaves like a normal person despite not having a mind — means that when you say “working brain” and “mind,” you must be referring to two different things. Otherwise, the idea itself would be self-contradictory.

      • No, a mind is PART of a working brain. Just like balance or sight or hearing. There are bits of your brain that do different things in combination with one another. Remember that TED video of the woman who had a stroke? The concept of “I” is regulated by a certain part of the brain, which I’d consider part but not all of the mind. The mind is pretty much pre-frontal lobe stuff. Thinking, reasoning, remembering, experiencing.

      • So is a philosophical zombie unimaginable or not? I’m pretty sure I can imagine it.

      • It’s imaginable, yeah. But I think it’d be a stretch to say that its imaginability takes down the whole existence of mind.

      • But you do see the corner you’ve worked yourself into? Your argument is that “mind” is really just the function of a working brain, but you also admit that we can conceive of a fully working brain absent a mind.

      • Actually, I’d say a brain without a mind wouldn’t be fully working. Like someone with a damaged speech center of their brain, or a damaged personality/moral center (see Phinneas Gage), are alive and functioning but don’t have “fully working” brains.

      • But how would we even tell the difference between a philosophical zombie and a “fully working” brain?

      • Or it might be an animal brain. I doubt most animals have “minds” in the way we think of it. That’s a sticky one though.

      • I’d leave that to the neuroscientists. ;) There’d probably be some brain center or other that wasn’t lighting up the way it should.

      • Nope. There’s not. That’s not what a philosophical zombie is. Everything appears to be working exactly the way it should, but the zombie has no mind.

      • Mmk, in that case then I don’t think it’s imaginable.

      • Okay, well that’s what I mean by mind “as commonly understood.”

        Am I mistaken about my ability to imagine a philosophical zombie?

      • Still don’t follow you on “commonly understood.”

        Look…we can imagine all kinds of things that don’t work or make sense. (God included.) I can imagine an amorphous blob of metaphysics that floats around my head and that is actually my mind, separate from my brain. That doesn’t mean it’s relevant to any meaningful discussion of minds or brains.

      • It doesn’t matter whether it makes sense on the level of physical possibility. The point is a linguistic one: if I can somehow, in my mind, separate “consciousness” from “a properly functioning human brain,” then that can only mean that I am using the two terms to refer to different concepts. Strangely, when I detach those two concepts from one another, you seem to understand what I’m saying, even as you argue that it’s incoherent.

      • So I’m not concerned with what we can imagine here. I’m concerned with what could work or what could conceivably be true. And I don’t believe a philosophical zombie could exist absent some bizarre brain abnormality, which would have to be somehow detectable. And this is relevant to a discussion of mind, because the functions of mind are part of the functions of brain. You can’t separate the one from the other. A mind is not a unique snowflake.

      • HEAD! DESK!

        I’m not arguing that they’re not different concepts, linguistically or otherwise! I’ve already said that consciousness is a PART of a properly functioning human brain. They are not the same thing, yet one (mind) cannot exist without the other (brain). And a properly functioning human brain will have a mind, so I see the philosophical zombie idea as incoherent. And I don’t see how separating them linguistically means a damn as far as a thing’s existence goes.

        “Strangely, when I detach those two concepts from one another, you seem to understand what I’m saying, even as you argue that it’s incoherent.” What is it you think I understand about what you are saying? Because I sincerely have no idea.

  13. Er, prefrontal cortex I meant.

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