What is the mind?

Every once in a while, when I am overwhelmed with just how gob-smackingly beautiful humans can be and wonder at our amazing capacity to think, I remember why I’m a scientist but not a reductionist. 

Some of the brightest minds have been brought to bear on what is called “the mind-body problem.”  And some truly noteworthy discoveries have been made about just what influences our thinking.  But nobody has yet succeeded in explaining how it is that thought – an apparently immaterial thing – is created by the brain, a set of complex bio-chemical and electrical connections that are wholly material.

Most of the scientific attempts have tried to show how the mind is really only a sophisticated physical reality.  So brain research has discovered some amazing things about which parts of the brain are connected to various capacities – what parts of the brain are used principally for short-term memory, for recognition of pain of for faces, for speech, or for spatial analysis, for instance.  This research has been outstanding and immensely helpful in medical treatment.   It has demonstrated that consciousness is dependent on a functioning brain.   But it doesn’t, ultimately, explain how the mind – thought and consciousness – can be reduced to be the same thing as the brain.

Richard Dawkins has tried to reduce mind to what he calls “memes,” cultural units that are passed from generation to generation in the same way that Darwin has shown that genes are past from parents to children.  This is why, he says, we learn our particular ways of dressing and talking, how we learn what is considered to be polite in our particular culture, how we learn to count and read and drive a car.  It’s a kind of mechanical process by which information is supposedly passed down through the ages. 

Of course it is true that we learn far more than we usually realize from the generations before us.  As Newton said “We stand on the shoulders of giants.”  Even the giants do.  But meme theory doesn’t explain how matter becomes mind – it simply ignores the question of consciousness and of human effort and will.

Trying to reduce consciousness to a set of physical and/or mechanical processes is the pursuit of a certain kind of scientific thinking.  It’s officially called “reductionism,” for reasons that are probably obvious.  Reductionist scientists tend, also for probably obvious reasons, most often to reject the idea of God.

There is undoubtedly something to learn from cultural studies and brain research.  But it doesn’t explain everything.  I think it doesn’t even explain the best, most astonishing thing about our existence.


About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
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