The Human Mind, Material Things and Argument
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The Human Mind, Material Things and Argument

The Human Mind, Material Things and Argument

William Newton FAITH MAGAZINE May - June 2016

The Human Mind, Material Things and Argument

William Newton explores a topic of ten raised in discussions with atheists

One of the most interesting areas of modern philosophy is the philosophy of the mind. This is because it brings the philosopher down from his (supposed) ivor y tower and into the thick of the bat tle raging bet ween the theist and the modern atheist. This rests upon the fact that if it is proved that the mind is immaterial, this implies its abilit y to live on af ter death. Now, while this does not directly demonstrate the existence of God, it does open up a whole world beyond the material universe and so it makes the average atheist refreshingly ner vous that his own position is nothing like as secure as he, misguidedly, tends to think it is.


Consider the following possibility: you wake up in the morning and discover that your head seems to be missing. You rush to the mirror in order to verify this unexpected turn of events. You see before you your headless body. In desperation you rush back to the bed, pull back the covers frantically searching for your missing head, and so on. If this is at all conceivable this would (it is suggested) imply that the mind and the brain are not the same thing: since we were able to conceive of mind-related activities – such as seeing, deliberating, and worrying – without conceiving of the existence of a brain.

It is important to note that this is not to say that, in the universe as we actually have it before us, one can actually sense, think and generally carry on without a head: the French Revolution has proved that this is not the case. Yet, such a scenario is not absolutely or, one might say, metaphysically impossible. It is only impossible in the configuration of the universe that we happen to live in. Compare this type of impossibility to the proposition that two plus two equals five. That is impossible in any universe. Now, the argument runs, what is conceivable cannot be metaphysically

impossible (even if it is actually impossible) and we can conceive of a mind-related activity (namely thinking) without a brain. Hence, the mind and the brain must be distinct realities.1

Conceivability arguments derive their heritage from Descartes (cf. Sixth Meditation).2

While they are more fun than many other arguments for the immateriality of the mind, they are ultimately not very persuasive because they conflate the world of the intellect with the natural world or, as Aquinas would say, intentional existence with natural existence. For St. Thomas, in any created reality, existence and essence are distinct and so something can be conceived as having a certain essence (or nature) without actually existing in the extra-mental world.

So, on further analysis, the conceivability argument, as a way to demonstrate the immateriality of the intellect, seems to crumble. Yet, the immaterialist need not panic. While conceivability arguments are popular with those wishing to defend the honour of the soul, there are other more credible arguments for the immateriality of the intellect: less fun for sure, but more robust. So let’s take a short tour of these alternatives.

Intellectual concepts

A better argument comes from a consideration of the properties of intellectual concepts. Here I am referring to the numerous ideas we have of different things, such as the idea of dog, apples, tables and so on. In all cases, the idea we have of these is to be distinguished from the images we might have of a dog, an apple or a table in our imagination. The difference is that in an idea or concept all the particulars are stripped away. My idea of “dog” fits all cases of dog and so does not include any particular size, shape, colour, location and so on. In contrast, any image I might have of a dog, either in my imagination or on some media (a painting or a photo, for example), must include at least some of these characteristics. If I imagine a dog, it is of a particular shape, colour, orientation (standing/sitting/jumping), and so on.

Another way of expressing this is that concepts are universal whereas images and any other material representation are particular. The consequence of this is that any material representation of a thing cannot possibly be what we mean by a concept because it will be, by definition, particular and not (like a concept) universal. Take as an example a triangle: no material representation of a triangle (such as a triangle drawn on a blackboard) can ever capture the essence of what a triangle is. Not only will it have imperfections – not quite straight lines, and so on – but it will also be either an equilateral, isosceles or scalene triangle: and hence not representative of “triangular-ness” in general.

But if our conceptualising depends on a material representation of a thing (say a neuron-firing sequence in the brain) it simply cannot be universal knowledge. As a material representation, the neuron-firing pattern is no different from the chalk marks on a blackboard. Neither escapes the world of the particular.3


As we have seen, concepts are immaterial since by definition they are devoid of material characteristics. This statement can be understood in two ways: first, that concepts are entities that capture the essence of a given thing but remain aloof from its individuating material particulars (such as shape, size, colour); second, the concepts themselves do not have material characteristics: my concept of “tree” has no flavour, location, smell and so on. So from both points of view, a concept is immaterial. In fact, there are some concepts that cannot even be represented in the particular: such as justice and eternity. These are unimaginable – though not inconceivable.4

But a power that could produce and deal with an immaterial thing like a concept must itself be immaterial according to the axiom “to act follows to be” (agere sequitur esse). This axiom itself seems sound because the range of possible actions of which something is capable is truly determined by its nature. A human can reason because he has human nature while an apple tree can grow apples because it has the nature of an apple tree. Accordingly, if there is an immaterial action (such as ideo-genesis/ conceptualising) it must be the product of an immaterial power. Another way of saying this is that no effect can be greater than its cause.

Material things

The two arguments above for the immateriality of the intellect rest upon the alignment of the universal with immateriality and the particular with materiality.  The world of the immaterial and the material may also be distinguished on the  basis  that  the  immaterial  is  determinate whereas the material is indeterminate.

A famous artist paints his wife, Anna, and calls the painting “Woman in a Blue Dress”. It becomes famous and, accordingly, valuable. An unscrupulous art collector arranges for a cat-burglar to steal it. So that the thief will know what to take, the art dealer employs a skilful artist to copy the painting. Now we have the original, which is a representation of the wife, and the copy which is a representation of the original painting. Placed side-by-side they are indistinguishable and yet they represent different things: one represents Anna while the other represents “Woman in a Blue Dress”. The paintings themselves give no indication of what they represent: only something outside of the painting (e.g. the painter) can determine this.

This shows that the representations themselves are indeterminate; and this is true  of  all  physical  representations  (including  brain-state  representations).  But when you think about something – such as your wife – you are definitively thinking about only that thing, not about a representation of that thing or a representation of a representation of that thing. Hence, something other than a mere physical representation must be at work in order to do this determination.5

The Essence of things

The above example is an example of indeterminacy at the level of knowing the essence of things: knowing what something is. In addition to knowing essences (the “whatness” or quiddity of things) the intellect also reasons, deriving new truths from ones already known. A simple example of this is mathematical reasoning. We start from a knowledge of what “two” means and what “three” means and what “addition” means and from this we conclude, “five”.

“Ah ha” shouts the materialist! Now, surely here we do have a case where a mental process is nothing more than a material process because even the most basic of modern computers, such as a calculator, can do this. After all, in a calculator, the pressing of “2” followed by “+” followed by “3” followed by “=” leads to a sequence of purely material (electronic) events that produce a final electronic signal to display the number 5.

However, the truth is that the material processes underlying the operation of the calculator are indeterminate because we can use the very same material (electronic) sequence to do a completely different logical procedure. We might make the “2” key to mean “8” and the “+” key to mean “-” and then we will end up with the logical sequence

8-3 equals 5, which is correct but it is a different logical proposition from 2+3=5 yet with the same physical causal sequence. This shows that there is a disconnection between  the  material  process  and  the  logical  process  and  that  one  cannot  be reduced to the other. This disconnect comes from the fact that mental processes are determinate, e.g. 2+3=5 is a unique logical truth and completely distinct from 8-3=5, whereas material processes are indeterminate and open to multiple applications and interpretations.6 Ergo, mental processes cannot be purely material processes.

Reasoning and Causality

The relationship between a physical cause and its effect is different from the logical relationship between a principle and a conclusion. To put this point another way: X causes Y is not the same thing as X entails Y. When we say that fire causes smoke and that smoke entails fire, while in both cases fire and smoke are being related to each other, we are talking about essentially different types of relationships.7

The  relationship  between  two  truths  (a  logically  relationship)  is  a  necessary relationship and it exists even if it is never thought of. The relationship between a physical cause and its effect is contingent in the sense that it only exists if the cause actually produces its effect.

Again, physical causes bring about effects that are distinct from the cause itself, whereas when a conclusion is derived from a principle it is nothing more than a deeper insight into the principle. For example, heat in the flame brings about heat in the boiling water: the cause and the effect are distinct realities. But when we derive the conclusion that the internal degrees in a triangle are one-hundred and eighty degrees from the principle that a triangle has three sides, the conclusion is not really a separate truth since it is nothing more than greater insight into the principle.

The point here is that we simply cannot reduce logical relationships to the relationships that arise between physical causes and their effects: hence, reasoning cannot be based on a purely material process of causality.


One obvious characteristic of mental activity is the mind’s ability to point to, or to be about, something other than itself. Hence, when the mind is considering something like “justice” or “Paris” it is pointing to something beyond itself

since  neither  my  mind  (or  mental  state)  nor your mind (or mental state), or indeed any mind (or mental state), is justice or is Paris. This phenomenon is called intentionality.

But a physical phenomenon just does not seem to be able to point to, be about, or to mean anything in and of itself. Take the words “Paris” and “Wuspib” written on a piece of white paper in pencil. At a purely physical level these words are nothing more than a collection of meaningless particles of graphite. Certainly the word “Paris” means something to me when I read it and, as it happens, the word “Wuspib” means nothing at all. But just at the physical level (as a collection of graphite particles) neither one nor the other has any meaning: it points to nothing beyond itself.

But if physical phenomena have no intentionality then intentionality cannot be explained by appeal to a brain state alone because all we have there are physical phenomena such as chemical and electric events.

And finally…

In conclusion, let’s note that none of the arguments offered here deny that mental activity has some relation to brain activity. Rather, they demonstrate that mental activity cannot be reduced to brain activity or indeed any system of purely material causality.

Moreover, this is not a matter of not yet knowing enough about the brain. At least some of these arguments demonstrate that it is metaphysically impossible to make such a reduction. The immateriality of the mind is not just the last stronghold of the gallant immaterialist-theist that shall (given time and more scientific research) inevitably fall to the onslaught of materialism. Despite a popular perception, it is not just part of the mopping-up exercise in a war that has already been won by the materialist. Rather, the truth of the immateriality of the mind is an impregnable fortress.


1 It should be noted that the counter argument does not work.  Perhaps the materialist says that he can conceive of a purely material thing that is able to think, e.g. CP30.  Hence, he concludes, no immaterial reality is needed for thinking.  The answer is that our materialist is not, in truth, concieving of “thinking without an immaterial substance” but rather he conceives only of “thinking with matter present”. But, just because we can conceive of two things existing together (e.g. warmth and humidity) this does not mean they are the same reality in all respects.

2 For a detailed discussion of this argument see Edward Feser, Philosophy of Mind (Oxford: OneWorld, 2005), 29-38.

3 Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Questions on Truth, 10.8, Summa Theologiae I 75.5.  See also Edward Feser, Aquinas (Oxford: OneWorld, 2009), 155ff and Herbert McCabe, “The Immortality of the Soul”, in Aquinas: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Anthony Kenny (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), 297-306.

4 Thomas Crean, God is No Delusion (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007), 27.

5 Cf. Feser, Philosophy of Mind, 220.

6 For a similar argument based on the indeterminate character of material processes, see James Ross, “Immaterial Aspects of Thought,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 89, No. 3, (Mar. 1992): 136-150.

7 C. S. Lewis, Miracles (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 24-25.


Faith Magazine

May - June 2016