Non-philosopher here. I apologize in advance for any imprecise language.

Why is the notion that mental states exist and arise from brain states especially perplexing? Aren't what entities exist and their properties (such as extension, temporality, causal properties, etc.) contingent? In other words shouldn't we be just as perplexed why physical objects have the metaphysical properties that they do as with the properties of mental states? Similarly, shouldn't we be just as perplexed about how physical entities interact with one another as we are about how mental states arise from brain states? Concisely, why is the nature of mental states treated as a particularly troublesome topic in metaphysics/causation?

If physics can satisfy us without explaining the exact nature of physical causality, then neural-correlate theory should as well. This discomfort causes philosophers to do seemingly absurd things, such as when the pan-psychists feel the need to reduce the problem of consciousness to one of combination, positing negligibly conscious electrons, or when Dennet tries to dispel the apparent existence of qualia to a misunderstanding of language.

I get the feeling that a lot of the confusion surrounding mind-stuff arises from centuries long training of rational people to reject certain non-physical absurdities, such as ghosts, fairies, magic, etc. and now saddled with a recently well defined seemingly non-physical phenomenon they are ill equipped to admit such a thing into their ontology.

Overall, does the hard problem of consciousness just reduce to a hard problem of general causation?


2 Answers 2


Similarly, shouldn't we be just as perplexed about how physical entities interact with one another as we are about how mental states arise from brain states?

We are! We are just as perplexed about how physical entities interact. We spend over a billion dollars every year throwing protons around in the Large Hadron Collider because we're so perplexed as to how all this stuff really works!

As it turns out, understanding how the world works is quite the interesting and complicated philosophical problem. As for the mind body problem, consider how you can "know" that the mind is actually just a brain state? The first step in doing so is to describe what it means for a "brain state" to "know" anything. That's actually harder to do than it seems at first. When most people try to deal with this particular problem, their first few attempts either prove that "they know they don't know anything," which can be an infuriating paradox, or they accidentally prove that "a rock might know the meaning of life," which is equally infuriating in another way. Penning down the meaning of this has been the subject of millennia of philosophers.

I get the feeling that a lot of the confusion surrounding mind-stuff arises from centuries long training of rational people to reject certain non-physical absurdities, such as ghosts, fairies, magic, etc....

One has to be careful with arguments like this. There are other non-physical absurdities, like self, morals, marriage, etc, which are valued highly by many people. If one is not careful, one accidentally banishes these along with the ghosts and fairies. Keeping the non-physical that you want while discarding the non-physical that you do not turns out to be a challenge that keeps cultures going. One of the tools that has been used to explain this is the separation of mind and body. If your mind is subject to different rules than your body, then it's easy to explain why the rules you use to make sense of the physical world don't apply to the non-physical. If you do not use such a tool, then you must use more difficult approaches.

Myself, I find the most important part of making sense of mind/body is abduction: the inference rule that assumes the most likely hypothesis is true. It's an inference rule alongside deduction and induction which gets a lot less press, but it's important here. Someone who argues that there is only body, and mind supervenes on the body, typically argues so along the lines of abduction: "physics has explained so much of reality, it is likely that it explains all of reality." Some people are comfortable with this inference, others are not. Part of it is because, while science is making tremendous leaps and bounds into understanding the brain, we still don't even have a scientific definition for consciousness which meets the needs of the philosophical community, much less an agreement that that definition is the only possible right definition.

I, myself, prefer to take a compatabalist stance, and argue that both models fit the data. The real answer, if one even exists, is an unknown. We, as a species, have many tools for dealing with the unknown. Physics is only one of them. Maybe it's not the most effective way to approach all questions. Maybe the "best" way to view the universe hasn't even been developed yet? Why limit our search?

  • "mind supervenes on the body" - Is that the same as the emergent hypothesis? (Also see: Emergent Properties ) Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 1:46
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    @MarkDWorthenPsyD I would argue that supervenence covers both emergence and reduction. It's a nice weak term which, in this context, simply says that the properties of the mind can be derived from the properties of the physical world, and nothing more. However, I think in practice most people who believe the mind supervenes on the body do indeed believe it is emergent. (but that might just be personal bias)
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 2:47

The dualistic position on the mind-body problem is something that is, in Western civilization, usually attributed to Descartes.

I believe it owes its popularity ever since the 17th century due to people wanting to believe that their consciousness will be able to survive their physical deaths. If mind and body are intertwined, it is hard to imagine how the mind can survive the death of the body. However, if these exist as separate non-entwined entities, it's easier to conceive the mind continuing to exist after the death of the physical body. Christianity, which dominated the entire Western world until recently, further feeds this desire by promising people the reward of eternal bliss in Heaven when their bodies perish.

In the East, mind-body dualism is less prevalent than it is in the West. In fact, the Advaita Vedanta (a Pantheistic Brahmin flavor of Hinduism that dates back to the 8th century) already describes the mind, body and the universe at large as just different manifestations of the same unchanging eternal conscious entity called Brahman. This notion remained very influential in the East today. Interestingly, it is pretty similar to and compatible with the scientific perspective of today!

I guess the main reason for dualism being less prominent in the East, is the difference between Eastern notions of reincarnation (becoming one with the Brahman only to be reborn later into a different form) and the Christian concept of Heaven (a place where you end up after death to live on as in individual in an eternal state of bliss). In the case of the former, there is only one realm that is both spiritual and physical. In the case of the latter, there are two different realms where one is both spiritual and physical and the other is purely spiritual. The Christian notion of Heaven is much harder to conceptualize than the Eastern concept of reincarnation without a dualistic framework.

  • "Christianity, which dominated the entire Western world until recently...". What do you mean by "until recently"? Are we dominated by Islam now? Or are you calling Western just a few islands where atheists are majority?
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 0:01
  • @Rodrigo : At least here in Western-Europe, Christianity has become largely irrelevant during the last couple of decades. The dominant belief system among the native population has become Liberalism, with Islam being the dominant belief system among immigrants. Christianity plays little to no role any more in our public life & culture. Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 7:54
  • So you think Western-Europe = "entire Western world"? I wonder if there's no more homophobia in there? No Manichaeism on movies? Non-christian drugs, like marijuana, are already allowed? Abortion is allowed too? Your universities are teaching world's greatest philosophers together, and on the same level, with Christian-European philosophers? Or do you still see much more Plato, Spinoza, Hegel, Kant...? How many billions of dollars are you giving Jewish bankers every year? I think I already know the answer to these questions, and if I do, then you are much more Christian then you think.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 12:02
  • @Rodrigo : I'm just arguing that Christianity isn't as relevant in the West as it used to be. I never implied or wanted to imply it's not relevant at all nor that there aren't parts of the West where it still is influential. Anyway, homosexuality is totally mainstream among people of my generation. So is marijuana. Even amphetamines and LSD are becoming mainstream among Millennials. We have legalized abortion and abortion is widely supported. I can't tell not sure about which philosophers are taught in our universities at the moment nor how many billions of dollars are going to Jewish bankers. Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 12:18
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    @Rodrigo : I was referring to the direct influence of Christianity. Does Christianity indirectly still have a major influence on the West through Liberalism? Sure! Many views held by 21st century Atheistic Liberals can be traced back to Christianity to some degree. And yes, many of those views separate us from nature, making them harmful to humanity and our environment alike. I think we're on the same page here ;-) Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 12:40

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