I recently rediscovered a conversation on the mind and the brain that I had with a friend on Facebook a little while back and I thought it was interesting enough to share here.

It all started with a Q&A session from Deepak Chopra on the issue of memories:

Deepak Memories

Now, while I categorically disagree with Chopra’s worldview, I think he’s got it right with his characterization of memories as being “nonlocal and nonphysical”.  My view is that the mind/soul is a separate, spiritual entity from the brain and has the capacity to be aware, have thoughts, and retain memories independently from the material body.  Case studies in medical journals that investigate near death experiences prove that there is mental activity after brain death and, in my opinion, the Christian view of substance dualism is the most compelling explanation for such phenomena.

I, then, posted a tweet (that connects to my Facebook page) stating:

Tweet on Deepak Memories

To which my friend on Facebook responded thus:

Interesting response…..evidence strongly supports memories as being a completely physical phenomenon. Alzheimer’s, dementia,head trauma lead to a complete loss of memories and personality. From what I understand, the neurons record imprints (much like a usb) from our five senses, therefore the brain is like a CPU and hard drive. Memories are definitely temporal and are proven to be incredibly inaccurate.

I thanked him for his response and answered with this rejoinder:[1]

The question I ask is this:  Are memories phenomena of the brain (i.e. are they the same thing) or is the brain helping to facilitate memories that exist in your mind (as two separate things)?

It seems to me that the brain is not identical to consciousness because, if it were, everything that was true of consciousness (including your memories) would also be true of the brain.  But there are things that are true of your consciousness that are not true of the brain.  I’ll list two (but there are more).  First, there is intentionality to your thoughts that are not true of your brain states.  For example, your thoughts are “of” or “about” things while your brain states are not “of” or “about” things.  You are having a thought “about” what I’m writing to you now while the physical state in your brain, that is the added blood flow and/or electrical impulses that have activated a region of your brain, is not “about” what I’ve written.  This applies to all objects.  You can have a thought “about” lunch (that it tasted good) but your car cannot be “about” lunch.  Likewise, your brain is a physical object (like a car) and cannot possess the intentionality that your thoughts possess.  Therefore, your mind is not your brain (Law of Identity).

Second, there is a privacy to consciousness that is not true of what is happening in your brain.  A neuroscientist can know everything that is happening in your brain.  But a neuroscientist can never know the content of your thoughts until you open your mouth and tell him.  There’s also the subjective “what it is like” that is an experience available only in the conscious state of an individual and not available for anyone else to know.  Let me give you an illustration:  Let’s say there was a scientist that was finally able to know every single fact (such that no fact was left out) about physics, chemistry, the human body, and consequently the brain.  But say the scientist was deaf.  And, one day, she began to hear.  I think that scientist would learn some brand new facts that she didn’t know before – and that’s “what it is like” to hear.  She already knew everything there is to know about the physical act of hearing including the brain states associated with auditory stimuli.  But the new facts she would learn would not be physical facts, they would be mental facts.  So the subjective experience of “what it is like” to hear (or see, taste, touch, etc.) is an example of a conscious state that is different from your brain states.  Therefore, your mind is not your brain.

How would you have responded?


[1] My answer is heavily influenced by the work of J.P. Moreland and his argument from consciousness. Therefore, all credit is due Dr. Moreland.

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  1. […] This idea may seem too commonsensical for anyone to bother postulating it as a formal law of logic, but don’t discount its simplicity. Being aware of the law of identity can actually save your life. Imagine waking up in the morning and stumbling into your bathroom where you open up your medicine cabinet and see two bottles of pills in tablet form. One says “Tylenol” and the other says “Arsenic”. The Law of Identity states that Tylenol is Tylenol and cannot be anything other than Tylenol. The same is true for the bottle of arsenic. So we could say, then, that a person is not justified in swallowing a couple of tablets of arsenic while pretending that it’s identical to Tylenol. As an aside, the Law of Identity really becomes useful when figuring out whether the mind and the brain are identical. For my thoughts on that issue, click here. […]