The mind is not identical to the brain, therefore materialistic naturalism is false

In order to avoid the reality of substance dualism some Atheists make the claim that the mind merely describes the functions of the brain, that there is no fundamental difference between the two.  I’ve been told the mind can be equated to chemical reactions that are governed by very physicalistic processes. created by the ordinary thoughts and intentions we have.  I don’t think this can be the case for at least two reasons.

First, if there is any property held by either the brain or the “mind”, they cannot be identical.  Thoughts have content, physical objects do not.  A chemical reaction in itself does not contain informational content, however, the thought standing in causal relation to it does posses content. You can examine the physical contents of a brain, but, you alone have private knowledge as to the content of your thoughts.  There is no way to examine the brain to discover the content of a thought.

And second, if thoughts are merely the sum of chemical reactions, every propositional thought would produce identical synapses in each person’s brain.  For example, organs in the human body operate by an ordered process, i.e., the production of saliva is done the same way for anyone with salivary glands.  Urine is produced by the same process in everyone’s kidneys.  This is not so with the brain.  The proposition “I am wearing white socks” does not produce an identically measurable chemical reaction in each person’s brain; each of us produces a different set of reactions for identical thought propositions.  Moreover, an identical thought may produce different reactions within our own brains.

The mind cannot be reduced to the brain precisely because the two are not identical.  we are more than the sum of our physical parts. Therefore, naturalistic materialism is a false philosophical view.  If the universe were purely made of physical objects, a phenomenon such as consciousness or the mind could not exist.


  1. The irony is that Reductionism with it’s intent for understanding leads to meaninglessness.

  2. Interesting John, but unconvincing. For starters, is there really anything such as an “identical proposition”? Take your example: “I am wearing white socks.” First, the “I” will obviously always be unique, as its referent is always an absolutely unique individual. “Socks” and “white” conjure infinite slight (but meaningful) variations in different people. Human communication is always intractably ambiguous in this way. We manage a measure of mutual understanding because we can generally get into the same semantic ballpark — but “same semantic ballpark” is certainly not the same thing as “identical synapses.”

    Moreover, it’s not at all clear that it is, and always will be, impossible to examine brain activity and identify specific thoughts. That’s a little closer to science fiction than science fact right now, but our understanding of the brain is still in its infancy — certainly compared to our understanding of other organs. I’m not promoting substance dualism, simply noting the apparent deficiency of your objections. Nevertheless, as noted, interesting polemic.

    • Well, the term I will always refer to the one doing the thinking. Therefore referring to the self it should be the same. And if we understand what white socks are, I think we can work off that as well. But pick anything that is universally understood. The word Dictionary. Just that word should produce identical brain activity in each brain.

  3. Actually no. The word “dictionary” (perhaps even more than “white” or “socks,” because it is a more complex object) would produce infinite slight variations in meaning. There’s really no way to simplify down to identity. Again, we can generally get to the same semantic ballpark (and thus communicate in a mutually intelligible way) but that does not mean identical synapses are occurring (or would be expected to occur). “Universally understood” is shorthand for same semantic ballpark — NOT identical synapses.

    Moreover, keep in mind (pun intended) that mental processing can operate with what might be called “working understandings” of referents — partial, incomplete, fragmentary grasps of a referent for the sake of immediate usable understanding. “Dictionary” is a good example. We don’t conceive every page and every entry in the dictionary when we use the term. We have a more generalized (fragmentary) sense of it when we use it — and that fragmentary grasp will vary greatly by individual (and thus produce synaptic variations) — even though we’re thinking of the “same thing.”

    And finally, we’re not even yet trying to factor in the enormous role of emotions and potentially infinite emotional dimensions of referents. This too would presumably yield wide variations in synaptic events. Our own dense and personal world of associations — emotional and otherwise — will always skew synaptic events in unique ways, even for those referents we conceive as “universally understood.”

    • Kendrick

      I think youre doing a good job exposing the semantical problems here. But I think the point still stands. You could substitute ambiguous and loaded terms with nonsense words that arent real. “Sklerful” for another example shouldnt have any personal interfering background. You get my point I think. If you could control for personal factors, my basic argument should stand.

  4. In response to your first point, we often refer to the same thing in two different ways. For example, Marilyn Monroe’s original name was Norma Jeane Mortenson. A person, call him Bob, could have become acquainted with Norma Jeane Mortenson in high school before she became famous, maybe thinking of poor Norma as a reserved, plain looking girl. Then later, Bob could learn of Marilyn Monroe the actress, and think that she was outgoing and beautiful, never realizing that Norma Jeane Mortenson is the very same person as Marilyn Monroe.

    In this scenario, Bob has ascribed incompatible properties to Norma Jeane Mortenson and Marilyn Monroe even though they are identical. Similarly, you might have inferred that chemical processes cannot have content and that mental properties cannot be examined publicly because you simply have not recognized the identity of mental processes with physical processes yet.

    Your second point overlooks the wide variety of theories of mind available to the naturalist. A naturalist could say that a thought is a type of physical process rather than a single mental process, and conclude that while no two people can have the same physical process going on in their brains at the same time, two people can have the same type of physical process going on in their brains. In other words, the two brains don’t have to be exactly the same in every respect to produce the same thought – they just have to be similar in certain relevant respects.

    • William

      In your first example, everything that is true of Norma is true of Marilyn. They are the same person regardless of their changes in persona. The incongruity isnt with Norma/Marilyn, its with Bob. There might be differences in Bob’s mind because he doesnt have all the available information.

      I realize that no two brains must be exactly the same. But the way organs function are the same. My kidneys operate the same way as yours. But with the brain there is more to it that pure function.

      • You appear to have conceded my first point, which was precisely that “there might be differences in [your] mind because [you] don’t have all the available information.” So how do you know that the differences are real and not due to ignorance on your part, like with Bob in my analogy?

        I don’t know what you’re saying in response to my second point. If the brains don’t have to be in exactly the same state to have the same thought, then your second argument in the OP clearly fails.

    • Then there is the fact that as our lives progress, all the cells in our bodies die and are replaced, yet we have continuity of self. I have memories of when I was 10 years old, yet that person doesnt physically exist anymore. Moreover, I have explicit memories of being in the hospital at 2 years old with pneumonia, who wasnt the same person physically as the 10 year old, who isnt the same physical me right now.

      • Your mind is a process on naturalism, not a specific chunk of matter. Naturalism is perfectly consistent with identity through time.

        • How could it be if the physical components are constantly replaced?

          • Just like a waterfall persists through time even though the water running through it is constantly changing. The process persists through time while the material components change.

            • The waterfall is only described as the same waterfall. It is a cliff that water flows over. But as far as absolute identity the waterfall changes absolute identity at every moment.

              Likewise, if you replace every plank of wood on a ship piece by piece, you could still call the ship by the same name, but with each replaced plank, it is a different ship.

              • Okay, but now you’re making a much more controversial claim than just saying that the matter in our bodies changes over the course of our lives. You’re positing that a specific answer to the ship of Theseus paradox is true, and while you may find your answer to that paradox intuitively compelling, it has not been established to the satisfaction of all philosophers.

              • How could it not be the case that if a thing is altered, especially to the point where there are zero original components, that it is continuously identical to the original thing?

              • I don’t know, but your answer is no more convincing. How could it be that the mind is really an immaterial entity, unlike everything else that we know about, and interacts with matter by an unknown process?

              • I do think I am the same person I was when I was 2 and 10. I also think the SS Hypothetical is the same ship even with all the replacements, but thats because I think dualism is true. I dont think you could affirm continuous identity if you affirm philosophical naturalism.

  5. Interesting rejoinder John, but I don’t think it rescues your argument. In fact, “sklerful” — precisely because of its relative lack of identifiable semantic content — might be expected to yield even more synaptic variation, as the brain struggles to “put” it somewhere. I tried to think of examples along the line of your argument (e.g., an article like “a” or “the”) and really couldn’t come up with anything where identical synaptic activity would be a necessary consequence (and of course, we’re using “synaptic activity” as shorthand for several physiological activities, including chemical interactions, involved in cognition — which, if we “de-simplify” that shorthand, further complicates your argument).

  6. If the mind and the brain are one and the same, then it would only be possible for the physical to affect the mental (chemical reactions controlling our thoughts, for example) and thoughts would never be able to affect the physical (deliberately forging new neural pathways). Since we now know we *can* deliberately rewire our own brains, we know that the mind and brain must be seperate.

    To illustrate: people with OCD. I’ll use handwashing as an example. A person with OCD *knows* that their hands are clean, yet cannot stop themselves from washing their hands to often, they are being destroyed. Every time we do something, a neural pathway is created. The more often we do something, the larger/stronger the pathway. This is what allows us to learn and develop habits. For someone with OCD, that pathway has become the equivalent of a superhighway, and they can’t get off. One could use this as an example of how the physical brain controls us so much that, no matter what our thoughts, it overrides them and demands a physical response; the OCD brain insists that the person’s hands are filthy and covered with germs, therefore the person persistantly washes their already-clean hands.

    Yet OCD treatment can be successful by deliberately forging new pathways. An OCD patient trains themselves to replace the OCD behaviour with something else. When feeling that their hands are filthy and need washing, the patient might pick up a book, a craft or anything else that allows them to use their hands in some other way. This creates a new neural pathway. With time and effort, eventually the OCD superhighway begins to reduce from disuse, while the alternate pathway becomes stronger. In time, the patient is able to remove the OCD urge to wash their hands and becomes able to wash their hands only when they really are dirty, and not fall back into the old obsessive behaviour.

    It is very difficult to do this and it is not successful with all patients. One thing that was noticed is that the more successful patients had a much stronger desire to succeed; their very strong emotional investment made the difference. Others may have wanted to overcome their OCD, but they were not as emotional about it, so while there may have been improvement, they were not “cured.”

    The Spiritual Brain is well worth reading.

  7. Kunoichi, couldn’t the mind be a creation of the brain, and therefore separate from it, yet still subsumed within it? Or, put another way, to more specifically address your engaging observation, couldn’t the brain create a “self-correcting system” called for convenience “the mind”?

    • “couldn’t the mind be a creation of the brain”

      If the mind (our thoughts) is a creation of the brain (a lump of tissue with chemical activity), then it should not be possible for our thoughts to physically change the brain, and *that* is what neurology is finding. As much as chemical changes can affect our thoughts and emotions, our thoughts and emotions can – and do – create physical changes in our brain. An illusory mind that exists only because of spurting chemicals within a meat popsicle cannot physically change the meat popsicle. If it *does* change the meat popsicle, then it cannot be an illusion of the meat popsicle. Since we can actually study and measure physical changes in the brain that result from deliberately chosen, non-physical thoughts, we know that the mind and brain are seperate entities.

  8. Good threads here. I would encourage metaphysical naturalists and physicalists to think about supervenience. The hard problem of consciousness must surmount intentionality. How can a piece of matter be of or about something? Or, if mind is an emergent effect of a physical process, how do we explain subjective experience? I am thinking of Mary in the black and white room. Although she has studied the electromagnetic spectrum comprehensively, she learns something new when she sees color for the first time.

    Some say consciousness is illusory, but to propose an illusion is to suppose a beholder who can be deluded. But who is doing the beholding? Naturalism just does not seem friendly to human experience.

    We may compare a mind to a candle or a waterfall, and throw our hands up at Theseus’ ship and the problem of continuity over time. But we can proceed by staking a mereology. A physicalist would strike me as being like a mereological nihilist. On physicalism, humans don’t exist as distinct entities; they are just one localized phenomenon in the greater, unitary happening of matter in motion. But on dualism-interactionism, at least we talk about humans as actually distinct entities who are irreducible parts of reality.

  9. I am horrible at mind-body philosophy. It also happens to bore me to tears. But you seem to set up a strawman argument.

    Take this sentence:

    The game of soccer merely describes the functions of the human body.

    and your sentence:

    [some Atheists make the claim that] the mind merely describes the functions of the brain

    The brain does far more than just act as a tool for mind, just as the human body does far more then act as a tool for soccer.

    Of course you run into problems equating a process with a substance.

    Also, you said:

    And second, if thoughts are merely the sum of chemical reactions, every propositional thought would produce identical synapses in each person’s brain.

    This shows a misunderstanding of how the brain works. Having a thought is only a slight showing for the state a brain is in at any moment. So that, one could have the same propositional thought and have completely different brain states occurring (emotive components, balance, energy levels and much, much more.) Not to mention that unconscious “thoughts” could be occurring simultaneously of a completely different mix.

    You set up a strawman position on physicalism using your intuitions on the issue which are very limited.
    What sort of degree to you have in neuroscience and cognitive science. ;-)

    • @Sabio

      I know the brain does more than just act as a tool for thinking. This post was about a specific function of the brain, as it relates to thinking. I didn’t know it wasn’t obvious that I understand that the brain does more than consciously think.

  10. @ John,
    The brain does not produce one “thought” at a time. The notion of a homogenous brain with one thinking player is mistaken. Awareness of one thought at a time may happen, but much more is going on cognitively than one thought. With only a small amount of meditative practice, for instance, this is revealed. But cognitive research has confirmed the same.

    I can see how in Believism religions, a simple model of the brain hold set beliefs would be essential — afterall, you base salvation on it. But it is wrong. Thus, your argument is set up on a false understanding of the brain.

    Or at least that is my contention.

  11. vincedeporter says:

    As Descartes famously said, ” je pense, donc je suis” (I think, therefore I am.”)

    I also yawn at the philosophical gymnastics required on the subject.
    My goodness can we bloviate savant prose to give the appearance of being well-learned!
    I don’t want to vulgarize the debate, but it seems obvious that the brain produces conscious and unconscious thoughts, amongst many other functions.

    A damaged brain will produce damaged thoughts. Period.
    There is no magical consciousness or spiritual alter ego that will kick in in to help the physical brain. If it did, we could call it a “soul” — but no — no soul in sight when alive. Which by the way disputes the idea that our soul can be judged for what we have done while alive.
    Once the brain is dead, thoughts flatline.

    Even the Bible agrees to that in Ezekiel 18:20, with added precision in Ecclesiastes 9:5.

    Why is this such a problem?
    I would suggest the fear of death makes most humans bubble over with scenarios that will ease their fears — all subjective and apologetic.

    All arguments are all naked in front of the Great Equalizer.
    My guess is just as valid as yours, and vice-versa.
    Nothing more.

  12. @vincedeporter,
    Very well stated.

  13. “I think, therefore I am.”
    Which could just as easily be “I am, therefore I think.”

    “Once the brain is dead, thoughts flatline.”
    And yet, there are people who were clinically dead – flatlined – who have come back to life, able to describe details they saw, what they heard, felt and thought.

    “A damaged brain will produce damaged thoughts.”
    And damaged thoughts can produce a damaged brain (e.g. the measurable affects of someone who is OCD or addicted to porn).

  14. @John,
    Brain dead people don’t come back. Heart stopping is like holding your breath, you can get away with it for a short while.

    • “Brain dead people don’t come back.”

      Right. So you know better than all the mecially documented cases out there. I suppose the machines that showed they were brain dead and for how long were just faking it? The hospital staff were lying. The people who returned and recounted details they could not have know were somehow… what? Coached? Ah, but Sabio says it doesn’t happen, therefore they are all liars or fools!

  15. Yep, would need high order of evidence.

  16. None of my dead patients have come back but I have limited data. I’ve seen quite a few shot in the head, and like amputees, it seems God never heals those guys.

    Unless you got reports of legs growing back? Do you?

    • Ah, so you’re a doctor, now? Sorry, but for someone who practises homeopothy to ask for a “higher order of evidence” is laughable in the extreme.

      And the amputee fallacy has already been discussed elsewhere. Come up with something original.

  17. Oh, Kunoichi, it is far worse than you imagine. I am a licensed Oriental Medical doctor in Japan. I was also once a Marxist. And please don’t tell anyone, but I use to speak in tongues. All true.

    Thought the ad hominem stuff won’t get you far in rational conversation, I thought I’d give you more ammunition. Though I doubt we shall chat much more.


  18. Kunoichi,

    I didn’t want to get involved in this, but in the interest of fairness, you did issue an ad hominem attack. His belief in homeopathy is utterly irrelevant to the topic at hand. And that’s exactly what an ad hominem attack is: the rejection of an argument based on an irrelevant fact about the person making the argument.

    I’d also add that if Sabio’s autobigoraphical page is accurate – and I have no reason to believe it isn’t – then he does speak from a position of authority on this issue. I’m not sure how familiar Canadians are with Physician Assistants, but in the United States, they’re very common, and receive pretty much the same medical training as doctors. The difference is that while doctors go on to a residency program, physician assistants go out and begin working. They do all the same things as doctors (under the direction of a doctor). They diagnose and treat illness, perform surgery, et cetera… They’re very capable practitioners and without them our healthcare system would be much worse off.

    • Is pointing out his double standard an ad hom? Coming from his background in “alternative” treatments, it is absolutely relevant to question his demand for a “higher order of evidence” when there are patients who have been hooked up to equipment that measured their brains, hearts, etc., proving that they were truly dead, only to return to life and be able to share experiences, some of which were also provable. Yet that data is unacceptable because he, himself, has not witnessed it? There is no scientific evidence whatsoever for homeopathy; if anything, it proves the plocebo effect, which would be evidence for a non-material mind. Somehow, he cannot accept one thing that has hard data behind it, but does accept something else with no hard data to support it at all. That double standard is relevant.

      As for physician assistant, while we do have them as parts of hospital teams, they do not have their own patients, as far as I know. I believe our equivalent would be a nurse practitioner. They can have their own patients and give prescriptions without first going to a doctor. My husband’s primary care provider is an NP and I have been trying to talk him into getting a real doctor for months now, because his care needs are way beyond anything she can handle. Their training is not adequate for complex cases.

  19. Kunoichi,

    There is no scientific evidence whatsoever for homeopathy

    This blanket statement is obviously false. Before I go on, though, let’s clarify. If you’re talking about the homeopathic discipline, I tend to agree. But if you’re talking about homeopathic remedies, you’re plainly wrong. There is in fact scientific evidence supporting the use of many homeopathic remedies. Just recently I read articles regarding the use of Citrus Pectin, Frankencense, and Myrrh in killing certain types of cancer cells.

    So, I think it’s important to clarify and find out exactly what Sabio believes. Does he, for instance, believe, like I do, that homoepathy is generally unscientific but that some homoepathic remedies are proven effective? Or, does he disregard mainstream medicine in favor of homeopathy? Based on his chosen profession, I’d say the latter is out.

    Nurse Practitioners are often compared to Physician Assistants, but there’s a difference. NPs can’t, at least in Michigan, perform surgery; PAs can. This may have changed recently, because I know NPs weren’t allowed to write prescriptions in Michigan until a year ago. But still I don’t think they can perform surgeries in Michigan. Also, Nurse Practitioners do not receive the same type of training as Physician Assistants, either. PAs are trained in a medical disclipine whereas NPs are trained in a nursing discipline.

  20. Let me also add that while I believe Sabio is capable of speaking from a position of authority regarding brain function, I don’t believe he is capable of speaking from a position of authority on things that are by nature metaphysical, and I think it’s a mistake to frame this discussion as though it were legitimately scientific; it’s not.

    I, too, have heard of people coming back to life after being declared brain dead. But whenever I hear about it, it’s always said to be “miraculous” and there’s a reason for that: science can’t explain it.

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