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Minds and Brains

Is the Universe Devoid of Purpose?

Banishing mind from the universe is not even the worse consequence of the mechanist theology. Remember: if mechanistic determinism is true then we are all nothing but unconscious automata. The universe is not only bereft of mind, it is also devoid of purpose. To claim that mind does not exist may seem obviously absurd (at least to those of us sadly lacking in boxtops), but the existence of purpose is a somewhat more thorny philosophical issue. Even philosophers who stoutly defend the existence of the mind, like John R. Searle, are flummoxed by it. Only the completely boxtop-challenged, those insanely willing to abandon all certain knowledge, can see their way clear.

Mind and purpose are intrinsically interrelated. Purpose is about mind changing matter, about conscious intent to change the world outside the mind. It can also, less obviously, be argued that mind exists for the sake of purpose, that its reason for being is to change the world.

This is an argument that immeasurably outrages the mechanists, and it is easy to see why. The less dogmatic among them might be persuaded to accept that mind has properties that physics cannot now explain, because it is possible to imagine (at least at this present state of our ignorance) that future neurological investigators might be able to identify exact correlations between specific activities in the brain and any conceivable conscious state. That is, we can envision a perfect “mapping” of neurological activity to every possible property of the mind. This would still not be a perfect theory of mind and matter, which would be a theory that brings mind, matter, and energy together in one grand construct much like the much-sought “theory of everything” that physicists hope will unite quantum mechanics and general relativity.

The mechanists could argue that mind is a “side effect” of certain specific physical processes, but that it does not do anything physical. That is, that matter effects mind, but mind does not effect matter. Physical law, as presently understood, would remain essentially unchanged.

To understand how that would work, imagine a series of physical events labeled “A,” “B,” “C,” etc. Mental events we will refer to as “Alpha,” “Beta,” “Gamma,” etc. Physical events are all part of a causal chain: A causes B which causes C and so on. Under certain complex circumstances (e.g. in human brains) A also causes Alpha, B causes Beta, and C causes Gamma, but Alpha, Beta, and Gamma do not in any way themselves cause anything physical. In this view, physical processes cause mental ones, but not vice versa.
Causation Diagram for Epiphenomenalism
This argument is known to philosophers as “epiphenomenalism”: mind is an epiphenomenon, something that is just tacked on, as it were, to certain physical processes, but is not itself part of the causal chain (epi being the Greek for “upon”).

But if mind (something outside the understanding of physics) actually causes change in the physical world— is part of the causal chain for physical events—not just riding along on top of it, then the laws of science are either wrong or incomplete in a profound and fundamental way.
Diagram for Teleological Causation
This is utterly intolerable to the mechanists because it means that the have got hold of the wrong boxtop. And as Thomas Kuhn pointed out, people do not abandon their boxtops until they can replace them with others they find equally satisfying (Yes, yes! I know. He did not call them boxtops. He called them “paradigms,” but that is a word so bandied about that no one any longer knows what it means).

[Next Page: The Contradiction of Epiphenomenalism]