What is Mind? Is It Matter?

It is a classic philosophical question. And it has perplexed me for years now. What exactly is mind? Is it just an illusion created by the chemical reactions in your brain? Or is it something more?

You have to understand that the older I get, the more nontheistic and materialistic (i.e., looking for the concrete explanation) I get in my view of the universe. So I guess I am really looking for the nontheistic, materialistic answer to this question.

BTW I still believe in God (just barely) and I still consider myself a nominal Catholic.


All is energy, nothing is matter, according to Einstein.

Supposing it were an illusion, who would it be deceiving?

Other illusions, of course.

That’s pretty good.

I was not raised Catholic, so I speak as an outsider and possibly as an ignorant person.

I have often noticed that the Catholics I know (and who also have a philosophical nature) seem to be most troubled by this question that the OP poses. A few of these friends have delved into Hinduism/Yoga to find their divine inner nature. Recently, a friend of mine from India said there are a lot of similarities between Hinduism and Catholicism.

Anyway, these Catholic friends of mine still seem to be troubled by this concept of God and spirit as something outside themselves; what’s true, what’s an illusion, what does God want? They seem to be so troubled about something, and I don’t quite get what it is.

The question is insoluble. I prefer other frames of mind. My computer is whirring. I am typing. Every moment changes. I miss my friends from 20 years ago. I’m thinking about dinner. I wonder how I know things. I’m taking a breath.

I wonder why you refer to it being “just” an illusion… why “just”? I would have thought it was awe-inspiring to think that conscious awareness could emerge from biological matter and chemical processes. Since awareness is not possible without a brain, the brain seems the best place to start looking for “mind”. This does not exclude the possibility that consciousness is a gift from God, something to do with quantum theory (I don’t understand this, so don’t ask!) an electromagnetic force or whatever, but it seems more sensible to me to assume that mind obeys the same biological and evolutionary principles as all our other bits and pieces. Also, since neuroscience is in its infancy, searching for extra-brain explanations for consciousness seems premature.

One big problem here is that dualism is deeply embedded in our language - we make distinctions between brain and mind all the time unthinkingly (eg: mental/physical, biological/psychological, brain/mind, material/spiritual) which continually reinforces the notion that brain and mind are qualitatively different.

I had a longer more incoherent post about neuroimaging, models of consciousness and the like but decided it would be better to start over and question the assertion that if the mind is a product of brain it is an illusion.

Digestion is the function of a stomach. Is digestion an illusion? No it is a process, a real process that depends upon physical structures but is still real and can be talked about sensibly without reference to the underlying mechanisms.

Likewise computer programs aren’t illusions, they are functions of the computer’s machinery that have coherent structure and behavior that does not need to be reduced to the level of electrical impulse to be understood.

Like computers do programs and stomachs do digestion so do brains do minds. The mind is something you can talk about coherently without appeal to the brain. The aspect of mind that is conscious experience is like the rest of the mind, an emergent property from the neurological circuitry of the brain. It functions on the process of distributed representations of various sparseness and transformation of information by passing it through intermediate (hidden) layers from input to output.

Why we experience something as opposed to nothing remains unexplained in that we haven’t localized an area or proposed a mechanisms that has been tested. There exist models ranging from competition of high level representations to areas of the brain that represent what other areas of the brain are doing/have done. Many of these are plausible sketches for why a rich experience filled mental existence would emerge from a lump of nerves and support cells.

It occurs to me on preview that I should define representation in the psychology/neural modeling sense. A representation is the internal thing that signifies external things. Some psychological models of the mind include representations that are in the form of prototypical objects and other abstract things to compare stimuli against by various mechanisms. Neural network representations are patterns of neurons with each neuron coding either very basic features of the environment or weird conjunctions of these (the work of Tanaka on the visual system is especially interesting in this regard as it showed that in monkeys these very weird conjunctions are used). An example of an odd conjunction is a blob with a bulb with different brightness for blob and bulb. Things like that. As you get “higher” up in the brain you have richer representations that have more information drawn from multiple modalities of perception. The sum of activation of the neurons is the representation of a certain stimuli. The whole brain is constantly engaged in tug of war over representing what is going on in the world with inhibitory mechanisms allowing only the most excited neurons to continue tugging. While so far no explanation of consciousness has just fallen out of this like explanations of attention have there is a lot of hope for neural networks, especially ones that are embodied, to develop consciousness.

Yup, what The Tim said.
The OP is really asking about the relation between brain and consciousness. For inspiration on these matters, these days I tend to read Francis Crick, and Edelman.

Einstein said that? No, Idon’t think so. Einstein showed the equivalence between energy and matter. I think it was John Travolta who said “all is energy”.

** What is Mind? Is It Matter? **

No one has ever encountered matter so how could we know what the word refers to?

As I recall, Einstein did not say that exactly.
Anyway, you can’t just quote other people and assume that because they apparently said it.
How about backing the statement up? Proving it yourself?

Anyway, I’m assuming that by “mind” everyone means consciousness, so my personal belief on this is that “mind” is simply caused by the chemical reactions in the brain. Therefore it is closer to energy rather than matter.

And what’s all this about Catholics? Do they have some special claim to this discussion? (I mean no disrespect but I think it’s pretty much irrelevant what religion you or anyone else follows. Personally I think that rather than having religions people should simply make up their own minds rather than be influenced by ministers and churches and The Bible.)
I’ve just realised that last bit was a bit unconnected to the question so I’m going to leave it at that.

see! It will happen…
and even when your car and your toothbrush have got minds, none of us, human or haberdashery will know if mind is an illusion or not.
The question might even become irrelevant.