Arguments for the Immateriality of the Human Mind or Consciousness:
“Mechanists consider mind to be a part of the body, but this is a mistake. The brain is a part of the body, but mind and brain are not identical. The brain breathes mind like the lungs breathe air.”
– Huston Smith
Certain people today hold to a belief that the human mind or consciousness is nothing more than physical brain activity, and that such brain activity occurs deterministically – in which mechanistic particles and neural firings in the brain are solely responsible for human thoughts, beliefs, intentions, and behaviors. In such a worldview, free will is nothing but an illusion and human beings are nothing more than automatons controlled by the determinstic laws of classical physics. However, this belief in the material determinism and the denial of the substance of human consciousness can be defeated by a number of arguments – one of which is the immateriality of human consciousness.
The below arguments demonstrate that the human consciousness and its stream of conscious states (what can be called “mind”) are immaterial or non-physical. By “immaterial”, we mean that the human consciousness is not reducible to the brain or any kind of material object. Colin McGuin illustrates the general argument for the immateriality of the human mind using a generic example that mental events or conscious states lack the properties of material objects:
“Consider a visual experience, E, as of a yellow flash. Associated with E in the cortex is a complex of neural structures and events, N, which does admit of spatial description. N occurs, say, an inch from the back of the head; it extends over some specific area of the cortex; it has some kind of configuration or contour; it is composed of spatial parts that aggregate into a structured whole; it exists in three spatial dimensions; it excludes other neural complexes from its spatial location. N is a regular denizen of space, as much as any other physical entity. But E seems not to have any of these spatial characteristics: it is not located at any specific place; it takes up no particular volume of space; it has no shape; it is not made up of spatially distributed parts; it has no spatial dimensionality; it is not solid. Even to ask for its spatial properties is to commit some sort of category mistake, analogous to asking for the spatial properties of numbers.”
– Colin McGuin, (Consciousness and Space, Click Here to Read)
Below is a list of the ten arguments – each argument is further explained below:
1. Conscious states or mental events lack the spatio-temporal properties of material objects
2. Conscious states are not divisible into parts or components as are material objects
3. Conscious states possess an aboutness or intentionality directed toward other things while material objects are not “about” anything.
4. Conscious states possess qualia or qualitative characteristics
5. Conscious states, in certain cases, include abstract ideas like mathematical objects or logical operators
6. Conscious states, in certain cases, are logically structured and ordered in their sequence, i.e. 2 + 2 = 4
7. The correlation between brain activity and conscious states breaks down in certain cases
8. Certain conscious states like Near Death Experiences occur when no brain activity is present (this is verified in peer reviewed studies)
9. The human consciousness is self-aware or reflexive while material objects lack self-awareness.
10. There is no explanation of how material brain events such as neural firings give rise to the qualitative and non-spatial features of conscious experience.
1. Conscious states lack spatio-temporal properties: Thoughts, sensations, feelings, and intentions do not have mass, momentum, shape, spatial location, spatial extension, or temporal location and they are neither particles nor waves. Meanwhile, material objects do possess some spatio-temporal properties. Since conscious states lack the properties of material objects, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.
“Matter is located in space; one can specify precisely where a given tree, let us say, resides. But if one asks where his perception of the tree is located he can expect difficulties. The difficulties increase if he asks how tall his perception of the tree is; not how tall is the tree he sees, but how tall is his seeing of it.”
– Huston Smith, (Forgotten Truth, 1985,67)
“We perceive, by our various sense organs, a variety of material objects laid out in space, taking up certain volumes and separated by certain distances. We thus conceive of these perceptual objects as spatial entities; perception informs us directly of their spatiality. But conscious subjects and their mental states are not in this way perceptual objects. We do not see or hear or smell or touch them, and a fortiori do not perceive them as spatially individuated.(2) This holds both for the first- and third-person perspectives. Since we do not observe our own states of consciousness, nor those of others, we do not apprehend these states as spatial.”
– Colin McGuin, (Consciousness and Space, Click Here to Read)
2. Conscious states are not divisible into material parts or components: Material objects are divisible into parts, but one cannot divide sensations like seeing redness, the feelings of joy, the intentions to stand up, or a logical deduction into material parts. A red object may be material and contain parts, but the perception of the red object that occurs in the mind knows no such division. Since conscious states are not divisible as are material objects, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.
3. Conscious states have an “aboutness” or intentionality: a thought is about something, an idea is of something, a desire is for something, an image is an image of something, an abstract proposition refers to something. Meanwhile, material objects, i.e. tables, chairs, brain cells, do NOT possess any intentionality: they have no “aboutness” and do not refer to anything. Thus, while a belief or proposition in the mind can be true or false, a material brain state is neither true nor false due to lacking intentionality. Since conscious states have intentionality and material objects do not, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.
4. Conscious states possess qualia or qualitative features: these qualia cannot be fully described by or reduced to the correlated physical brain activity that occurs at the same time as the conscious experience. For example, one can know about every neuron firing that occurs in the brain when the colour red is being perceived, including the molecular composition of the red object represented mathematically, but none of this data will provide the actual experience of seeing red. Consequently, even if a person knows all of the empirical data about the colour red, they will still attain new knowledge when they actually perceive red in conscious experience. Since conscious states contain qualia and material objects lack qualia, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.
5. Certain conscious states include abstract concepts and categories to immediately interpret sense-data. For example, when the conscious subject has the sensation or experience of touching an apple, he also interprets this sensation as signifying an actual external object as opposed to nothing more than an impression. Thus, the mind interprets sensory impressions by resorting to abstract concepts and imposing them upon the sense impression in order to situate the impression in an intelligible context. Another example is that when the conscious subject notices that two perceived objects are similar and two objects are different, the mind is resorting to abstract notions of similarity and difference to make this judgment. But these abstract concepts – of similarity, difference, equality, inequality, etc. are not themselves material and cannot be provided or created by mere aggregates of material objects like atoms, molecule, cells or neurons. Indeed, the converse is more true – our very understanding of atoms, molecules or cells relies on abstract concepts to begin with. Since some conscious states employ abstract concepts that are not present in material objects, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.
6. Certain mental events, such as propositional thought processes, are logically ordered: With respect to abstract propositions in the mind there is a logical relationship between the content of one thought and the content of the subsequent thought. For example, two plus two equals four or “All men are mortals; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal” are propositions whose content is determined by logic and not by neuro-biological brain events. Meanwhile, neuron firings in the brain are organically related and not related conceptually or logically. But the thought content of abstract propositions are related logically and conceptually. Therefore, certain mental states such as rational and logical thought are clearly not governed by the same parameters as the corresponding brain events (if there is such a correlation). Since conscious thinking has logical form and structure while material brain states do not, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter.
7. The correlation between conscious experience and neuro-biological brain events breaks down in several cases. Scientists have so far discovered a correlation between certain conscious states and neurobiological brain events. This correlation should, however, be expected if consciousness is immaterial and has causal influence on the states of the brain. Nevertheless, certain kinds of conscious experience which are more intense, transpersonal or transcendent (than ordinary conscious states) are inversely correlated with brain activity because they take place with less or diminished brain activity. Some examples given by Bernardo Kastrup are listed below:
a) Fainting caused by asphyxiation or other restrictions of blood flow to the brain is known to sometimes induce intense transpersonal experiences and states of non-locality.
b) Pilots undergoing G-force induced loss of consciousness – where blood is forced out of the brain, significantly reducing its metabolism – report experiences similar to Near Death Experiences. (Whinnery and Whinnery 1990)
c) Certain Yogic breathing practices increase blood alkalinity levels, thereby constricting blood vessels in the brain and causing hypoxia and dissociation. This leads to significant transpersonal and non-local out of body experiences. (Taylor 1994)
d) Psychedelic substances cause intense, non-local transpersonal experiences (Strassman et al, 2008). But a recent study showed that these substances do not increase brain activity, they actually decrease brain activity by decreasing cerebral blood flow, where the magnitude of decrease predicted the intensity of the conscious experience.
e) Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) can inhibit cortical function in certain locations of the brain and subjects reported Out of Body Experiences when neural activity in the angular gyrus of patients with epilepsy was inhibited in this way.
The full descriptions of the above examples are given here.
8. Near Death Experiences occur when there is no brain activity at all: Near Death Experiences, perhaps the most intense and transcendent of reported transpersonal experiences of consciousness, occur when the subjects are brain dead and brain activity is totally flat. While scientists have tried to attribute the cause of NDEs to anoxia of the brain, release of endomorphines, or fear of death, a recent study published in the Lancet December 2001 Issue called “Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest; a prospective study in the Netherlands” put these theories to rest. The author of this peer reviewed NDE study, Pim Van Lommel, writes that:
“In our prospective study of patients that have been clinically dead (VF on the ECG) no electric activity of the cortex of the brain (flat EEG) must have been possible, but also the abolition of brain stem activity like the loss of the corneareflex, fixed dilated pupils and the loss of the gag reflex is a clinical finding in those patients. However, patients with an NDE can report a clear consciousness, in which cognitive functioning, emotion, sense of identity, and memory from early childhood was possible, as well as perception from a position out and above their “dead” body. Because of the sometimes reported and verifiable out-of -body experiences, like the case of the dentures reported in our study, we know that the NDE must happen during the period of unconsciousness, and not in the first or last second of this period. So we have to conclude that NDE in our study was experienced during a transient functional loss of all functions of the cortex and of the brainstem. It is important to mention that there is a well documented report of a patient with constant registration of the EEG during cerebral surgery for an gigantic cerebral aneurysm at the base of the brain, operated with a body temperature between 10 and 15 degrees, she was put on the heart-lung machine, with VF, with all blood drained from her head, with a flat line EEG, with clicking devices in both ears, with eyes taped shut, and this patient experienced an NDE with an out-of-body experience, and all details she perceived and heard could later be verified. There is also a theory that consciousness can be experienced independently from the normal body-linked waking consciousness. The current concept in medical science states that consciousness is the product of the brain. This concept, however, has never been scientifically proven.”
– Pim Van Lommel
The main author of the Lancet study, Van Lommel, concludes that prominent atheist Michael Shermer’s view that consciousness is material is incorrect and contrary to the results of his study:
“Michael Shermer states that, in reality, all experience is mediated and produced by the brain, and that so-called paranormal phenomena like out-of body experiences are nothing more than neuronal events. The study of patients with NDE, however, clearly shows us that consciousness with memories, cognition, with emotion, self-identity, and perception out and above a life-less body is experienced during a period of a non-functioning brain (transient pancerebral anoxia).”
9. In human beings, consciousness is self-aware or self-reflexive: Consciousness in the human being is self-aware; that is to say, human beings are not only conscious, but they are conscious of their consciousness. A person has a direct knowledge of his or her own selfhood or “I-ness”, as Aristotle writes:
“There is something in us which is aware that we are in activity, and so we are aware that we are sensing and we would be thinking that we are thinking.”
– Aristotle, (Nicomachean Ethics, 10.9.1170a31-3)
The “I-ness” of each human is his rational soul (nafs al-nāṭiqah) and this self-aware rational soul is, in no way, reducible to the brain or matter in general. This is evident for the simple reason that material things, including whatever the human brain is composed of, totally lack the property of being self-aware. Materialists like to argue that a complex arrangement of matter can somehow magically produce consciousness but offer no explanation of how unconscious, unaware material entities produce immaterial and qualitative conscious experience, let alone self-aware consciousness.
“But if someone says that it is not so, but that atoms or other partless units can produce the soul by coming together in unity and identity of experience, he could be refuted by their juxtaposition, and not a complete one, since nothing which is one and united with itself in identity of experience can come from bodies which are incapable of unification and sensation, but soul is united in itself in identity of experience.
– Plotinus, (Ennead 4.3.1-6, tr. Armstrong)
Since human consciousness is self-aware while material objects are not self aware, it follows that consciousness is neither identical with nor reducible to matter. In fact, a recent study conducted at UCLA published in Nature 467 (28 October 2010) which shows that human beings can control neuron firings with the act of thinking. The authors of the study write in the abstract that:
“Recording from single neurons in patients implanted with intracranial electrodes for clinical reasons here we demonstrate that humans can regulate the activity of their neurons in the medial temporal lobe (MTL) to alter the outcome of the contest between external images and their internal representation… Subjects reliably regulated, often on the first trial, the firing rate of their neurons, increasing the rate of some while simultaneously decreasing the rate of others.”
10. There exists no material explanation of how the material brain can solely create or produce subjective consciousness – this is known as the “Hard Problem”:
“The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation. The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution would look like or even is a genuine scientific problem in the first place. And not surprisingly everyone agrees that the hard problem (if it is a problem) is a mystery.”
– Steven Pinker, (The Mystery of Consciousness, Mind & Body Special Issue of Time Magazine, January 29, 2007)