Dialog on the Mind

A recent discussion reminded me of an old joke; adjusted for the current subject, the dialog goes like this.

“You spend all this time attacking creationist claims about ‘the mind,’ but you haven’t put forth your own ideas about what the mind is.”

“The mind is a product of the motion of atoms in the brain, constrained by but not directly predictable from physics and chemistry. To quote the famous philosopher Daniel Dennett, ‘Who are you and how did you get in my house?'”

“What?”

“Well, that’s what he said when I asked him about it.”

4 thoughts on “Dialog on the Mind”

  1. It’s worth talking about what everyone thinks without using the word “dualism.” Someone like Egnor thinks that there’s an unbridgeable gap between the mind and the brain. Given Egnor’s leanings, that’s probably because he wants to believe your mind goes on when you die and your brain gets turned into mulch.

    But you can also just think that “mind” is a useful idea to bat around even if it has no independent physical existence. It’s useful because when you’re talking about the mind you’re emphasizing cognitive function, emotion, and all the other high-level stuff we see in human behavior every day. When you’re talking about the brain you’re likely to start going on about electrical impulses, specialization of areas of the brain, the effects of adding or taking out neurotransmitters or other chemicals. It doesn’t matter that these two are the same thing. As long as we talk about it two different ways, there’s some function for having two different words.

    (To use a snippet from the OED definition, you can talk about “mind” and “brain” without believing there are separate “independent principles” involved.)

    And, more importantly, this kind of “dualism” doesn’t lead you into being like Descartes or Egnor. Egnor and Descartes seem to think that the mind goes on if you take a sledgehammer to the brain. Just using different words for “mind” and “brain” doesn’t require you to accept that.

    One legitimate gotcha about talking about a “mind”/”brain” distinction is that the words are quite tied up with popular ideas about brains and minds. People may read what you’re thinking and figure that you’re not simply using two words to talk about a physical object in different ways, but rather that you’re being a Cartesian or something. “The mind is what the brain does,” and all that’s wrapped up in that statement for neuroscience, isn’t part of the popular culture. But it’s hard to avoid those preconceptions no matter what words you use.

  2. Ah Blake, you know that won’t happen. I just posted below a part of the definition of mind from my dictionary – don’t make me post the whole thing! I agree with what The Algorithm says above, except these aren’t popular ideas of what the definition of mind is, they are its origins. Really, the most important thing is stating that the mind is a function of the brain…when the brain ceases to function, as with death, the mind ceases to function, so I think. Egnor’s desperate anologies to make one think otherwise aren’t working. When the mind can be downloaded into another form and a face appears in a dust cloud that can move atoms, I’ll consider otherwise. (-;

  3. Melusine:

    Ah, to work miracles and play forever in the fields of the City. . . .

    The algorithm:

    But you can also just think that “mind” is a useful idea to bat around even if it has no independent physical existence. It’s useful because when you’re talking about the mind you’re emphasizing cognitive function, emotion, and all the other high-level stuff we see in human behavior every day.

    In many circumstances, a statement like “I have just fallen in love” has more predictive power than the statement, “My brain is mostly water,” even though the latter is entirely true.

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