Most people believe that the mind is separate from the physical world. But how do we actually know that? Maybe the mind is a physical object. Of course, to answer this question, we need a rigorous definition of "physical". Anyway, has any philosopher talked about this issue? Maybe some philosophers believe the mind is physical.


14 Answers 14


See: Dualism in the context of the mind-body problem (SEP). It appears to me that you're positing either physicalism (mental states are particular ways for the processes that make up your living body to be proceeding) or substance dualism (the mind is its own thing, made of its own kind of thing, which interacts with the processes that make up your living body). It's not clear which. The SEP article will provide you with a good introduction to the arguments for and against either.

Note that those two positions are not exhaustive.


I'd like to offer a biologist's perspective, and argue that we know the mind is a physical thing. It just makes us uncomfortable.

How do we know? Traumatic brain injuries.

A stroke can remove your ability to understand or speak language or move your body. It can also dramatically change your personality, your thoughts, your underlying ways of processing information.

If the mind was a separate entity, what we'd see is that, broadly, killing off a chunk of the underlying substrate it runs on does not affect its fundamental nature. It might be hard to control your body to communicate that, but it would not alter your reasoning, or essential aspects of your mind. And, yet, damage causes major changes.

Brain damage can remove the ability to reason logically, to do maths, to speak a language, to relate to other humans. I'd challenge anyone who believes in mind/brain duality to present evidence of something that damage to the brain cannot remove or alter.

We also see that, well, chemicals alter your thinking. I take medication for ADHD, and suddenly, my thoughts are organized. I've taken mushrooms, and my personality changes. We can effect fundamental changes to thought and basic cognition with chemicals and physical changes. This shouldn't be possible if the mind was a separate entity.


Most people believe that the mind is separate from the physical world.

In the general public, I think that's true, but I am not at all sure it's true within the academic philosophical community. Materialism is a very common position among philosophers of mind.

The accepted answer points you to a good resource for arguments on both sides of the issue (more than that, actually - as a commenter alluded to, "both sides" oversimplifies). But the idea that the mind is, in one way or another, part of the physical world is widespread in philosophy and I thought it was worth underlining that fact as kind of a frame challenge to the question.

  • In one way or another, yes. We just need to specify which way.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 15:10

We know that the mind isn't physical because it's software, or a property thereof, and neither software nor properties are physical. They're abstractions.

The brain (hardware, a computer) runs software that includes, among other things, your mind.

According to physicist/philosopher David Deutsch (the guy who discovered quantum computation), "computers are ways of instantiating abstract objects and their relationships in physical objects and their motion." He gives the example of using fingers to count. The brain does something more complex using neurons, but the basic underlying principle is the same.

I recommend you read Deutsch's book The Beginning of Infinity, particularly chapter 5, for more on abstractions and the mind.


The nature of the mind has been a topic of interest and debate for centuries. Here are a few key points to consider:

  1. Dualism vs. Materialism: One of the main debates revolves around dualism and materialism. Dualism suggests that the mind and the body are separate entities, with the mind being non-physical or immaterial. Materialism, on the other hand, asserts that the mind is a product of physical processes in the brain.

  2. The Mind-Body Problem: The mind-body problem is a philosophical dilemma that asks how the mind and the body are related. It explores whether the mind is a separate entity that interacts with the physical world or if it is inseparable from the body.

  3. Neural Correlates of Consciousness: Scientists have made significant progress in understanding the relationship between the mind and the brain. Studies have identified specific neural activity patterns that correlate with various mental states, such as perception, emotion, and consciousness. These findings suggest that mental phenomena have a physical basis in the brain.

  4. Philosophical Arguments: Philosophers have put forth various arguments to support the idea of the mind as a non-physical entity. For example, proponents of the "hard problem of consciousness" argue that subjective experiences and consciousness cannot be explained solely by physical processes in the brain.

  5. Advances in Neuroscience: Advancements in neuroscience have provided valuable insights into the workings of the brain and its connection to the mind. Techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) allow researchers to study brain activity and its correlation with mental processes.

Where is our thoughts ignition point? Where is the source?

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    Right. There is a difference between matter and an arrangement of matter. You can't unscramble an egg.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 15:09
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    I wonder if this is answer is produced by generative AI?
    – LarsH
    Commented Dec 5, 2023 at 10:58

I will argue that the mind is physical in the same way software on a computer is physical. First I have to argue that software is physical.

Physics has proven that all information is physical in that there is a minimum energy to store a piece of information and energy is a measurable physical entity. As someone mentioned in the comments, you can literally see software on a CD and you see its logical algorithm in the hardware memory stored as a series of zeros and ones. The software might seem ephemeral but it is inexorably tied to the hardware and ceases to function if the hardware is destroyed or damaged just as the mind ceases to function if the brain is significantly damaged. The software requires energy to operate (it stops functioning if the power plug is pulled) just as the mind requires energy to operate in the form of food input.

Someone has argued that the mind (unlike a computer) has emotions and this is not physical. However, if you subject someone to stressful images then even if they suppress their facial expressions, these emotions can literally be seen on MRI scanner images. You can even tell if someone is lying on a MRI scanner but that is not something we want to use in the courts, because it would put lawyers out of work :-P

Soon we will be able to create a mind using AI. AI is still in its infancy but it is developing fast. It has already demonstrated creativity and imagination when you ask it draw images of a certain subject. Soon, you will not be able to tell the difference between a human mind and an AI mind. Character and ingenuity and inspiration will basically be simulated by inserting tiny random fluctuations into the AI algorithm and who is to say your character is not the result of tiny random fluctuations in your genetic makeup in the lottery of conception and inspirations and ideas are the result of tiny random quantum fluctuations in your brain?

EDIT: In principle it would be possible to duplicate a biological brain with transistors and other electronic hardware and software and the digital brain would in fact believe it is the original biological brain trapped in a machine and it would have all the memories of being a biological human being. This artificial brain would pass the Turing test with flying colours.

If the technology was available when Einstein was alive they could have made a copy of his brain in his later life. When Einstein died his biological mind would have died with his biological brain, but the copy of his mind would still believe it was Einstein and was still "alive" today. The electronic copy would have the benefit of an additional 100 years of advances in scientific knowledge and could even still be collaborating with other scientists and contributing to advances in our understanding of physics.

Prolific and successful authors and song writers could continue to produce new material long after their natural deaths and continue to satisfy demand from fans while supporting their families from beyond the grave for many generations.


Like some others I discriminate between “mind” and “brain”.

  • The brain is a part of the body located in the head. Hence brain is a physical object.
  • Mind is the capability of the brain, its capability of information processing.

The concepts physical object and capability of information processing refer to quite distinct ontological levels.

  • Second point would be better stated: Mind is the capability of the nervous system, whose main localization is the head, then spine, then throughout the body You may care to check out embodied cognition
    – Rushi
    Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 9:42
  • @Rushi right, two thirds of the cells in the heart are nerve cells, not muscle cells. The gut has more neurons and produces more neurotransmitters than the brain. The "second favorite organ" isn't everything!
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 15:13

An argument that the mind is a physical entity is how readily it is affected by drugs. You can be the rich, talented, good looking, successful and yet still be depressed or suicidal because of a chemical imbalance in the brain. (With no disrespect, Robin Williams was an example). Your mood can be changed by simply by the use of drugs. Your perception of the world and what you see can be changed by hallucinogenic drugs. Truth drugs can make you tell the truth even if you don't want to. The uncomfortable reality is that what you think and what you feel is just a result of chemical reactions responding to stimuli from the outside world. If you believe that the mind is some sort of metaphysical entity that exists outside reality and exists even after death, then it would not be possible to alter how it works by using chemicals. The thing that exists after death (if it exists at all) is a soul that that is a different question.

  • We just need to find the chemical that gives us the answer to this question. It is as simple as that.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 5, 2023 at 17:41

We don't know.

Well, we don't know in any rigorous scientific sense.

As per the first sentence of your question:

Most people believe that the mind is separate from the physical world.

These "most? people", those who believe that the mind is separate from the physical world, can perhaps be expected to believe that the mind is related to a spiritual world, if they have developed conscious beliefs about this matter at all.

The reason for this belief is not scientific; it is a conviction of something that is otherwise invisible 1. There are no physical science laboratories that can constrain spiritual variables; therefore, no physical science has been successful in providing evidence with regard to this belief.

Many wise men and philosophers have talked about this, some of whom were qualified, and a few of these, reasonable. More information about some of their doctrines can be found at 2 John Watson, 3 Belbase, and 4 Mind-body problem

We have very little scientific data about the mind itself. Well, we have generated a great deal of data, but when we try to draw conclusions from it, it seems to always be not enough. This is, perhaps, one of the greatest reasons why people believe that the mind is non-physical.

It is rather excessive to say that the mind is separate from the physical world, since the only minds whose action we can see are certainly related very closely to the physical world. That is why some people believe that the mind is not only related to, but is a physical entity.

However, there is not enough evidence to scientifically "prove" this stance, either. Since the tools that science gives us are so relatively dull, this area of study is rather like investigating a radio using a set of hammers, as was mentioned in the comments at another user's answer, or perhaps a Moog synth (or a player piano, which can be played interactively simultaneously with the preset song). Using our hammers, we can turn the knobs on the machine, and we can observe changes that are to an extent reproducible, but we can't really say much about how the music is produced, and if we hit the knobs (or keys, or even any apparently "non-interactive" part of the machine) hard enough, it stops making (or in the radio's case, "playing") music. You might change its behavior with foreign substances, too, or by altering its power supply, but this too returns limited useful information about the music itself.

In this analogy, the mind is the music. Whether the brain is the radio or a synth (or a player piano) is another question, as is the composition (or not) of the music.

2: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Hebrews%2011%3A1&version=NIV

3: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_B._Watson

4: https://www.scirp.org/pdf/OJPP_2013100914094894.pdf

5: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind%E2%80%93body_problem

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    Commented Dec 5, 2023 at 16:51
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    I find the whole discussion "relatively dull" :-)
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 5, 2023 at 17:39

The mind has no measurable physical properties. You cannot describe the workings of the mind in physical terms, physicists cannot do any psychology with their tools and knowledge. A brain scan is not a mind scan.

The mind deals with information, knowledge, emotions, preferences, imagination, memories, future plans, etc. The mind does not deal with matter or energy.

The whole idea of a physical mind is downright absurd.


The usual arguments for the immaterial aspect of the mind demonstrate that there are activities it can undergo which aren't reducible to material processes. James Ross provides a basic general argument in Immaterial Aspects of Thought which can be summarized as follows:

  1. All formal thinking is determinate.
  2. No physical process is determinate.
  3. Thus, no formal thinking is a physical process.

This can be exemplified in the following cases:

  • No matter the constantly changing internal arrangement of your brain, the concept of circle which you grasp will always be the same. Your neurons, atoms, etc. are indeterminate insofar as multiple arrangements of them can be used for the same concept, but the concept itself is determinate.
  • Though the concept of triangle encompasses an infinity of possible particular triangles, you can grasp the concept even if you can only really imagine a handful of triangles at a time. Indeed, even if while thinking about the concept you imagine an equilateral triangle, the concept will still also include non-equilateral triangles. Particular triangles may be indeterminate between multiple possibilities, but triangularity will always be determinately one thing.
  • You can grasp that a chiliagon is different from a myriagon even though they're visually indiscernible. The visual representations are ambiguous, but the concepts are unequivocal. This is the example used by Descartes.

Ross' argument is expounded upon and further defended by Edward Feser in Kripke, Ross, and the Immaterial Aspects of Thought.


We simply don't know. But we know that it is more a physical entity than non physical.

Here are some recent findings for the question:

Scientists identify mind-body nexus in human brain April 19, 2023

The relationship between the human mind and body has been a subject that has challenged great thinkers for millennia, including the philosophers Aristotle and Descartes. The answer, however, appears to reside in the very structure of the brain. Researchers said on Wednesday they have discovered that parts of the brain region called the motor cortex that govern body movement are connected with a network involved in thinking, planning, mental arousal, pain, and control of internal organs, as well as functions such as blood pressure and heart rate. The researchers called this system the somato-cognitive action network, or SCAN, and documented its connections to brain regions known to help set goals and plan actions.*



Last month, materialist neurologist Steven Novella made a rather astonishing claim in a post at his Neurologica blog: A recent open-access study of learning and decision-making in mice shows that the human mind is merely what the human brain does.What is not in doubt is that, to some extent, thoughts correlate with brain activity. On that, dualists and materialists agree.


Continued progress in neuroscience has helped to clarify many of these issues, and its findings have been taken by many to support physicalists' assertions

Farah, Martha J.; Murphy, Nancey (February 2009). "Neuroscience and the Soul". Science. 323 (5918): 1168. doi:10.1126/science.323.5918.1168a. PMID 19251609. S2CID 6636610.

Over the past years, research in cognitive sciences has highlighted the importance of the body for cognition. Proponents of the embodied cognition theory of mind hold that cognition (and mental phenomena) is the product of active interactions between individuals and their surrounding environment. 2019

Shapiro, Lawrence A. (2019). Embodied cognition (2nd ed.). London. ISBN 978-1-138-74698-5. OCLC 1088600407. Archived from the original on 2022-07-30. Retrieved 2022-03-11.

So yes, science is very close to prove or provide evidence that brain is the source of the mind and Idealism seems the face strong arguments in contrast.

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    We know already that the brain ought to be the source of the mind, in principle, or perhaps the whole nervous system, since there are nerves all over our body. The mystery though is about how brain and mind interact in practice.
    – Olivier5
    Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 6:56

How are physical things physical ? They are physical because all physical things are made up of distance between any two points on the physical body.

What if I tell you that there is no distance between any two points on physical body , will you call it physical ?

In quantum physics , two physical bodies ,like electrons,can become entangled in such a way that concept of distance collapses. For example- In an entangled system of two electron, if we measure an entangled property ,like spin ,of one electron then the second electron shows up with opposite spin. This information of measurement travels instantaneously from one electron to another electron , as if there is no distance between them!! There is no physical distance between two entangled electrons. If there is no distance between two electrons,then can we call it physical system ?

Therefore there is a possibility of existence of non-physical connections.

Question is , does the concept of formless connection applies to consciousness as well? Science has no answer for this question. However religion says that God is omniscient. God knows everything about everyone without being physically present at any distance. According to religion, God’s mind is not a physical entity. According to science , nature of physical entanglement is without any concept of physical distance. Therefore we can say ,with full confidence, that formless connections exist at least ,if not formless mind.

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    Downvoted because your answer doesn't address the question; it's drivel. Also, spaces belong after commas, not before them. Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 5:56

(collected snippets for an answer, collected from my social networks)

The present state of the scientific consensus on conscious awareness is that it is a form of electricity somehow. There is only a single step, from here to ask when will they thus deduce that "ergo, the smartphone and computer [I own] are my best friends" ?

Contemplating the question of "What the heck might God be", I came to the conclusion given its synonymy with the term of Mystery that it must be "all those square stuff" that surround us... today TV, smartphones and computers screens, but one could also begin simply with advertising panels or cinema rooms : proof thereof, top technological equipment remain arcane to mere mortals, and fulfill the divine functions of omnipresence and omnipotence by connecting us all throughout the planet and at any point in time or space.

notes on the techno-system : [1] « Technology is the true metaphysics of the 20th century. » [2] « During the mechanical ages we have extended our bodies in space. Today... we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace. » [3] « In fact there is no such thing as MK-Astra in our plane of existence because our virtual reality is all "illusions" ans we are prisoners of it. » [4] « When we enter the virtual simulacra of the Internet we are in fact on an alternate and altered level of consciousness. »

[1] Ernst Jünger [2] Marhsall McLuan [3] (censored) [4] Anon

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    ChatGPT much...?
    – Graham
    Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 19:06
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    I think this answer is more social commentary than philosophy. Just because people don't understand something doesn't make it God. I don't understand custard but I don't worship it. Commented Dec 4, 2023 at 8:35
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    This "answer" is drivel. Commented Dec 4, 2023 at 14:57
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    @SodAlmighty, even worse: this anwser can be published in Social Text. Commented Dec 5, 2023 at 9:48
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    @sylvainsab No, I mean that your answer is word salad, poorly-written and without any kind of discernible meaning. Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 22:51

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