The physicalist/materialist (going forward I'll use the two interchangeably) position on the mind body problem is the following:

  • Nothing exits besides the physical and therefore the mind is just a combination of the various states and configurations of the brain. The mind doesn't have any independent existence of the physical brain.

The bundle theory of self:

  • A person is just a collection of mental states and perceptions. the ego doesn't have any independent existence, it is just an illusion arising from the combination of mental states.

Stated this way, the definitions are strikingly parallel, and it seems that the second definition is just a logical extension of the first one, or a restatement of the same definition expect for moving up one level of description: Mental states are just combinations of neural signals and brain configurations, and the ego is just a combination of mental states.

On the other hand, trying to imagine an physicalist theory of the mind which also allowed for a central ego seems hard: It seems to me that it would require a part of the brain to map explicitly to the ego, or for mental states to be modular enough that there is a stable 'ego state' that persists (and plays a role analogous to the OS on a computer). Neither of these positions seem to be corroborated by neuroscience or psychology (as shown by split-brain brain and multiple personality patients).

My questions are:

  1. Are bundle theories of self inevitable if one adopts the materialist position?
  2. Has anyone provided a 'non-bundle' materialist theory of mind, and described how the ego can be both 'real' and physical?
  • If I'm reading you right, if there were a stable "ego state" that we choose to identify with the "person" or "mind" or "central ego" then that would be a non-bundle theory of mind? This seems slippery to me, both in terms of your dismissal that this is a neurological possibility, and whether it is really not a bundle theory after all, albeit one that promotes one facet of the processing to have a special status.
    – Dave
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 18:58
  • @Dave "then that would be a non-bundle theory of mind?" Exactly. The key point is that this ego state should be stable over time. Bundle theories hold that the ego doesn't persist over time, "I" am not the same person "I" was 5 minutes ago, let alone 10 years ago. It is only the overlap and continuity of the perceptual experience which makes it look like there is stable locus of self hood. Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 19:21
  • Wouldn't identifying "self" as "physical body in total" be a stable-enough definition to be a counterexample? Mental states are transient phenomena of the self/physical-body, rather than some self/ego having to be "built up" of mental phenomena?
    – Jeff Y
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 20:01
  • @JeffY that might work if it weren't for split brain/split personality cases. Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 20:14
  • 3
    True, the "physical body" as such may not itself be "stable enough" for the purposes you're after either. But now we're into Ship of Theseus issues (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus). In a world where nothing is presumed "stable enough", there can be no theory of self other than "bundle", regardless of what mind/body theory is also chosen.
    – Jeff Y
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 21:00

1 Answer 1


First, the constructive part. Crick, who is as physicalist on neuroscience as one can wish for, in Astonishing Hypothesis discusses "the processing postulate":

"It suggests that we may be using the words conscious and unconscious for two many somewhat different activities. They may have to be replaced by some phrase like "processing unit", or, in some cases "awareness unit". Each of these units will have its own semiglobal representation, usually covering several cortical areas... Each particular thalamic region may handle its own form of attention, possibly by allowing neurons in its member set of cortical areas to talk to neurons in the thalamus, which in turn feed back to them, so that in some way their firing is coordinated... This does not mean that thalamus by itself can produce all different forms of awareness. Awareness requires activity of the various cortical areas as well as the thalamus, just as a conductor needs the orchestra to produce the music".

The thalamus may or may not be hosting mind's conductor, but the idea is perfectly physicalist, and even compatible with a mild form of bundle theory.

Second, just because a phenomenon is not fundamental (and that is relative anyway) does not mean that it is an illusion as colloquially understood. There is nothing more to elastic waves than vibrations of atoms in a solid, but they are no illusions. Classical objects are specialized states of quantum flux produced by decoherence and persisting under certain circumstances, but they are no less real than the flux. Wallace in Everett and Structure calls this "the fallacy of exactness", and illustrates it with example of a tiger:

"tigers are unquestionably real in any reasonable sense of the word, but they are certainly not part of the basic ontology of any physical theory. A tiger, instead, is to be understood as a pattern or structure in the physical state... A tiger is any pattern which behaves as a tiger... There is a concept of transtemporal identity for patterns, but again it is only approximate".

Even optical illusions like rainbows are as real as light and water drops that produce them. We treat them as "illusions" for pragmatic reasons, doing otherwise would lead to inefficient behavior, but there is nothing "metaphysically illusory" about them. As Berkeley pointed out there are no illusions in epistemology. There is also much more to collective states (whether or not 'I' is one) than combination of disparate processes. That would be intense interactions between distant parts due to feedback loops for example, a glue that produces highly correlated behavior of the parts with or without the conductor. And whether it is a conductor or a glue that does the deed is in the end secondary.

To paraphrase Hume, there is no valid path from function to implementation. File sharing could be implemented with a central server, as Napster did, or without it, as did Morpheus and Grokster. Inferring restrictions on implementation from functionality of mind (e.g. "soul is simple and immaterial") is an illegal move that already Kant criticized rational psychologists for. One does not have to reflect the other, it can just emulate it. We did not conclude that mind's host is more like a neural network than like Turing machine from what mind does, the two are functionally equivalent, neuroscience employed empirical means for that. We can not conclude that mind is material, ideal or dualistic from what it does either, so materialism imposes no restrictions on functional models of self. Kant's model is perfectly compatible with it (as long as "materialism" is understood in the usual sense, not in Kant's own special sense), for all he says we know things-in-themselves may well be material.

  • The comparison with elastic waves is spot on - but now has me thinking in the other direction: doesn't it pull the rug from under the bundle theorists 'the self is just an illusion' all together? Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 22:24
  • 1
    @AlexanderSKing - Personally I think the answer is "yes", or at least "you guys are using 'illusion' to mean something very different from what I and most other people use the word to mean".
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 23:08
  • 3
    I've come to believe the use of the word "illusion" is intended to be disruptive of pre-existing notions about reality which may be especially hard to dislodge, which one who follows such beliefs would consider determental. It's effective, but as a result, it can be overly aggressive when used too heavily. It does at least open the door for things which may be an illusion or may be real, and if in such cases it doesn't matter which, interesting options appear which do not appear if you presume one version is the reality and the other is not.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 28, 2016 at 5:55
  • 2
    This gets into a semantic argument, I think. If you take it too far in one direction, illusions don't exist at all because all experiences are real experiences. If you go too far in the other direction, everything is an illusion because nothing in the real world is exactly how we think of it. I don't think it's useful to talk about illusion in philosophy except as a rhetorical tool as @Cort suggested.
    – Era
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 18:56
  • 2
    @Era I agree. The idea goes back to Berkeley, who suggested that "illusion" in philosophy is based on a groundless extrapolation from everyday experience books.google.com/…
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 30, 2016 at 22:58

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .