Armando asked:

Do you find a weakness with the following proof considering the nature, or essence, of consciousness as immaterial.

I write a note to my assistant to lift a 20 pound weight. He performs the action. I have caused a movement and work without any transfer of energy to my assistant. This psychological energy, the transfer of information, is a nonphysical ‘energy’. I find the mind to be the utilizing of the physical brain by the consciousness, as defined as that which knows, or is aware. That is, in the brain, somehow the phenomenon of consciousness can interact with the physical nature of the brain to produce effects and thinking. But the knowing (awareness) is preverbal (not limited by thought), and most likely outside of time and space constraints. It seems contradiction to have consciousness be nonphysical and affecting the physical but so is light also waves and particles at the same time.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Good question, interesting suggestion.

I do find a weakness with your proof. You fail, as did Descartes and all others who have tried, to explain how an immaterial mind and the material (physical) world interact. Your scenario misplaces where the explanation is required. The transfer of your wish from you to your assistant does involve energy in the usual way – muscle actions by you to type the note, send it electronically or walk to his desk; patterns of photons from the paper or computer screen enter your assistant’s eyes, nerve impulses travel from his eyes to brain. The unexplained bits are how your thought ‘I want my assistant to lift the weight’ makes something happen in your brain to set off the train of nerve impulses, muscle actions etc, how brain events in your assistant looking at the note produce his thought ‘I will lift the weight’, and how this thought makes things happen in his brain to produce the needed muscle action. All very mysterious if mind is immaterial.

Far more plausible (to me) is to say either that thoughts are brainstates, or, better I think, that thoughts are properties of brainstates. Thus, just as a postbox has the property of redness, so certain brainstates have the property of ‘feeling a wish that my friend lift a weight’ in the person whose brain it is. Now there is no interaction problem. The mind is just the mental aspect of the brain’s activity, felt in the person whose brain it is. I’m not suggesting that this property dualism is agreed on all sides, but the notion that consciousness is a feature of special states of matter seems to me to be on the right track.

You talk of the mind utilizing the brain. The mind being ‘out there’ as it were (outside time and space you suggest) and the brain tuning in to it, rather than the brain producing consciousness. This is just another way of stating dualism versus physicalism. The idea of the brain as a receiver/ displayer (a bit like a TV set) has been held by some famous philosophers, for example William James. It’s a popular idea for those who think souls can enter/ leave bodies, and can exist in a spirit world ‘on the other side’ (I suppose this would be outside time and space), and that I was, say, a Roman centurion in a previous life, or that near-death experiences can occur when there is no brain function.

I am unconvinced by it all. Of course if you pursue the tuning-in idea you have to ask whether there are many separate minds out there, each getting paired off with a brain. And are the minds all identical at the start, differing later according to the particularities of the brain, body and environment that lodges each – questions here for Descartes, Plato and Christians. Or is there just one mind (Universal Spirit, God, the Absolute), and each human brain gets a bit of it – Spinoza was keen on something like this. Maybe some animals also get tiny minds or teensy bits of the Big Mind. Some scientists, notably those working on near-death experiences, speculate that brains are indeed receivers of consciousness, the latter ‘stored in a non-local dimension as fields of information’ to quote van Lommel (2013). But it turns out that this ‘wave aspect of our indestructible consciousness in the non-local space is inherently not measurable by physical means’, so his hypothesis is safely immune from refutation. He may as well say, with you, it is stored outside space and time. How Karl Popper would have lambasted such pseudoscience.

I’m unsure how the particle/ wave theory of light bears on the mind-brain problem. Is it that it’s a genuine example of a dualism? (it does seem to be). Incidentally I’m not sure that light is waves and particles at the same time. I think any particular experimental setup either shows light behaving as waves (interference effect), or shows light behaving as particles (no interference effect). I suppose if you had an experiment of the one type running on one table in the lab, and an experiment of the other type on another table, one would show light as waves, the other would show light as particles, so that in that sense light behaves as waves and particles at the same time, but in different setups.