A technician explains measurements whilst a scientist explains observations.

A ghost in your machine!

I saw a crowd stand talking
I just came up in time
Was teaching the lawyers and the doctors
That a man ain't nothing but his mind
Blind Willie Johnson

According to many philosophers the mind is unnecessary for the functions of the brain and so does not exist. At first sight this does not sound too serious. However, what are you if you are not your mind? Get rid of the mind and you can dismiss all talk of spirituality, undermine the mind and you can treat people as human resources, mere products of social interaction that can be disposed of by the state. As Blind Willie Johnson put it "a man ain't nothing but his mind", in other words, take away the mind and you remove the man.

The arguments for the proposal that your mind is non-existent run as follows:

The modern argument is that all the functions of a human being could be performed by a mechanism, nowadays the mechanism is likened to a computer or robot. This argument was proposed by La Mettrie(1745) and gathered strength in the nineteenth century (esp. Huxley 1874). If all of the functions of a human can be performed by a mechanism why should we propose an entirely superfluous entity like a mind?

The historical argument is that there is no need for a mind to look at what is happening in our lives, just to have things happening should be enough - in fact seeing yourself doing things is absurd because if you could see yourself doing things then you would see yourself seeing yourself doing things and so on ad infinitum. This historical argument was first spotted by Aristotle in his brilliant book called "On the Soul" (he rejects the argument).

These arguments convinced Gilbert Ryle (1949) that there was no place for a mind and he called the mind a "ghost in the machine" of the brain.

The amazing thing about these arguments is that they use theory to disprove observation. The hubris of some philosophers is breathtaking.

As scientists we should take a step back from the debate and ask what it is that we are trying to explain. Fortunately those who have dismissed the mind have described it quite well, they talk of the "Cartesian Theatre" (Dennett 1991). The Cartesian Theatre is the impression of viewing the world as if it were a stage that we see from a single observation point. Our dreams and visual imaginings appear in a similar "Cartesian Theatre". So, this is what we must explain, how could we have sensations, dreams and imaginings in a Cartesian Theatre?

The detractors from the notion of mind describe this Cartesian Theatre, which they know that all their readers experience, then mock even the possibility of such a thing. The reason they mock such a possibility is that they believe in the pre-twentieth century idea that everything is due to lumps of matter moving from place to place. If the world were like this pre-twentieth century description and only due to flows of matter then the mind would indeed be inexplicable. However, even though this archaic description of the world is attractive in its simplicity it would be absurd to abandon our observation to accommodate it. Instead we should change our theory of the world, moving on from the sort of theories that were current in science at the end of the nineteenth century so that the mind might be explained.

Lumps of stuff flowing from place to place will obviously be inadequate to explain the mind. Lumps of matter are different from the space and time of our Cartesian Theatre, the Theatre is a geometrical structure that requires an explanation in terms of geometrical theory rather than the dynamics of flowing lumps of stuff. If we have an observation point in our dreams then lumps of matter do not flow into this point. Any such point would be a geometrical phenomenon, not a simple flow of stuff and any explanation will require advanced geometrical theories, not nineteenth century dynamics. As a geometrical phenomenon conscious experience will not have a materialist function but is more likely to be involved with more subtle phenomena such as selecting the state of the brain.

Lets return to the arguments reported above. The proposal that everything that we believe to be done by a human might be done by a machine would leave us with a problem of a superfluous mind, or ghost in the machine. So the argument reduces to a statement of belief, the materialist believes that simple machines operating on materialist principles can do everything that a person can do. This belief is now known to be incorrect because in the twenty first century we know that simple materialism cannot really do anything. Hard though it may be to believe, we don't really fully understand the quantum mechanical and relativistic basis of how even simple machines operate so the argument that the mind is superfluous to the operation of human beings is "folk physics" (See Time and conscious experience). It is extraordinary the way that most people have no idea that mechanistic, nineteenth century physics cannot actually explain anything. For instance, can you explain the difference between a moving ball and a stationary ball? What is it about the moving ball compared with the stationary ball, at this instant, that makes it move to a different location in the next instant? If you were moving alongside the "moving" ball would you consider the "stationary" ball to be moving?

So the "modern" argument is really a nineteenth century argument that is no longer applicable; but what of the historical argument? In the historical argument the observation of ourselves observing our actions leads to an infinite cycle of observations. This argument relies upon the pre-twentieth century idea of time. In pre-twentieth century physics time was mysterious, thought to be universal and people questioned whether it existed (See McTaggart's unreality of time). In the twentieth century it became possible to propose that (dimensional) time exists and in the twenty first century there is even experimental evidence for the existence of time. If time exists then people extend through time so a past observation can still be available without replaying it in the present instant. You can check this argument by saying "Now!". Every part of your experience that contains the word "Now" is in the past yet it is still in your experience.

So, we have minds and can only wonder at the impetus that drives various philosophers to deny this obvious truth. We do not need to look very far, the causes are Marxism and Augustinian Theology. Marxists need people to be cogs in the machine of society and Augustinians (western Christian theologians) need God to be eternal and people to be instantaneous. Indeed it is probable that the Augustinian idea of time was the ultimate origin of the Marxist interpretation of the world, as Marx and Engels (1845) put it "Just as Cartesian materialism passes into natural science proper, the other trend of French materialism leads directly to socialism and communism."

Marxism and certain western theologies are powerful forces opposed to the truth about you and I. They and their inheritance dominate philosophy and sociology on a global scale. Their influence is so widespread that even the mention of the "extended present" or "specious present" might sound cranky to the average reader even though their reality is an extended present moment that they can confirm whenever they see movement, hear a sound or think a thought. However, despite this antagonism there is a considerable amount of literature on the subject and few authors support the conventional view once they have considered the problem of time in our conscious experience (see references on time in conscious experience below).

One of the most telling comments about the experience of time is made by Kelly (2004), who realises that the understanding of physics amongst philosophers is not compatible with the problem. He says: "The Specious Present Theory, I will argue, simply makes no sense. It is committed to claims about experience that have no sensible interpretation." The response to this "no sensible interpretation" should, of course, be to find a sensible interpretation. To explain time in experience we must begin by understanding time in physics rather than pathetically declare that because of our limited knowledge of time we must reject our experience.


Huxley, Thomas. (1874) "On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata, and its History", The Fortnightly Review, n.s. 16, pp. 555-580. Reprinted in Method and Results: Essays by Thomas H. Huxley (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1898).

Ryle, G. (1949) The Concept of Mind. The University of Chicago Press, 1949

Marx, K. and Engels (1845). The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Criticism. Against Bruno Bauer and Company. Chapter VI 3. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/holy-family/index.htm


Durgin, F.H & Sternberg, S. (2002) The Time of Consciousness and Vice Versa. Consciousness and Cognition 11, 284–290 (2002) doi:10.1006/ccog.2002.0566 http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/fdurgin1/publications/CC_DurginSternberg2002.pdf

Kelly, S.D. (2004). The Puzzle of Temporal Experience. Philosophy and Neuroscience, eds. Andy Brook and Kathleen Akins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://ist-socrates.berkeley.edu/~hdreyfus/188_s05/pdf/Kelly-Time_and_Experience.pdf

Varela, F.J. (1999) The Specious Present: A Neurophenomenology of Time Consciousness.
Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science
Edited by Jean, Petitot, Francisco J. Varela, Bernard Pachoud abd Jean-Michel Roy
Stanford University Press, Stanford
Chapter 9, pp.266-329 http://www.as220.org/~neal/docs/RobertSpeciousPresent.pdf

1 comment:

  1. I do agree: theory cannot be used to deny observation. We observe our consciousness functioning; we observe it in a particular way. As Descartes (& the best philosophers) suppose(d), there are certain aspects of this functioning about which we cannot be mistaken. The homunculus /Cartesian theatre argument is invalid. (This argument seeks to disprove our self-awareness by falsely claiming that the latter entails an infinite regression.) The Cartesian theatre is the way we observe things. I.e. it is not a theoretical explanation, on the contrary it is part of the data. We therefore need an explanation not a refutation. To deny these data (as so many do) is like denying that one is a human being among other human beings. Data have to be examined and explained, not denied for ‘rational’ (i.e. purely theoretical) reasons.
    Certainly therefore I approve entirely of the empirical stance.
    Self-awareness is plainly reflexive: we observe ourselves observing ourselves, and it is absurd to try to deny an experience which everyone constantly has. This does not presuppose an infinite regression any more than looking at oneself in a mirror presupposes such a thing. It is simply a turning of the focus of attention on oneself. Reflexivity is simply one of the capacities of consciousness, just as reflexive verbs are natural to grammar.
    One should then notice that the basic split between matter & mind, i.e. between OBSERVED & OBSERVER is & can only be resolved within consciousness itself. (According to my view this basic split is between Matter (defined as that which can be perceived but cannot perceive) & Consciousness (defined as that which can perceive but cannot be perceived). As a conscious being, one can observe ONE’S OWN consciousness (not of course anyone else’s). This is the only case in nature where consciousness can be observed: it is the special case of self-awareness.
    But note -- it is not within the observeD that this fundamental split in nature is resolved, but within the observeR. I.e. it is not within matter that it is resolved, but within css. Matter, not being conscious in the first place, necessarily cannot be the unifying factor between the conscious and the unconscious. Whereas consciousness can.
    This indicates, I would suggest, the fundamental importance of consciousness.