Quick notes on mind, brain, will, action, etc.

As John Broughton’s surveys show, physicalism and dual-aspect theory of mind are as naively intuitive (i.e., in the child psyche) as dualism. Cf. Rieber, Body and Mind, pp. 188ff.

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One man, call him Johann, stands before another man, call him Gunther. Johann shouts repeatedly at Gunther’s legs, “Walk now! Go on, move! Walk forward!” But Gunther remains standing.

Johann’s then shifts his gaze to Gunther’s face and tries shouting again. “Go on, move! Hurry up! Walk past me, over there!” But Gunther remains motionless as before.

Finally Johann leans towards Gunther and shouts directly at his forehead, “I’m ordering you, walk away now!” After a moment or two of this, Gunther does walk away. Johann appears relieved.

What can we learn from this?

The brain is a physical organ of the human body. The legs are also human bodily organs (i.e, organoi somatikein (Greek?), tools of the body). According to some, it is the brain itself that perceives, grasps, computes, analyzes, and responds to stimuli, such as Johann’s shrill orders. If this were so, however, why does shouting at a man’s legs seem any more (or less) bizarre than shouting at his brain to compel action? It is the man, not his legs or brain, that initiates motion. Presumably the brain is wired “correctly” to grasp linguistic cues, while the legs lack sufficient complexity or neural sensitivity to “grasps” language. But if the legs are so dumb (or should I say deaf?), then how does the brain, ex hypothesi, “communicate” with them? Presumably, the same auditory “signals” sent by our words to a man’s brain are but coded differently as electrical “impulses” applied to the legs. (Again, though, do we really want to say the legs ‘have’, or perhaps ‘resist’, ‘impulses’ to ‘action’??) If so, this is just a vindication of hylopmorphism, insofar as the same formal order can dematierialize various tracts and levels of matter in the same way.

If the brain “causes” human action based on human signs and orders, how do the legs “respond to” such elevated things as speech and volition? Legs are but bone, nerves, and muscle stitched together, and we all know bones, nerves, and muscle are anything but cognizant. Yet, if I can “talk to” a man’s brain, and his brain can “talk to” his legs, why can’t I talk to his legs directly? (Is speech really just an electrical emisiion??) Do we really want to attribute such ‘translation’ skills to the brain, as one organic clump of matter among many?

Meaning is neither reducible to nor deducible from its constituent elements, not any more than a triangle is reducible to or deducible from its constituent elements. In the same, but metaphysically inverse, way that the phoneme “c” cannot and does not convey “cat”, the single neurons in the parietal auditory cerebral regions cannot and do not grasp the meaning of “cat.” Since neurons can only grasp distinct auditory inputs in spacetime input (viz., “c…a…t”), they cannot grasp “cat” without there being a synthetic organ of cognition. Presumably this is the brain itself, but even then, grasping what “cat” refers to is not the same as grasping what “cat” means. Otherwise, every time we heard “cat” we would look around for a small animal to feed, pet, or disdain. Words are not indices of objects, like bleeding holes are indices of gunshots, but rather signs (Gk., semeia, wonders) which possess an irreducibly intentional and immaterial dimension in which meaning exists––exists as neither a neural nor a cerebral, but rather a whole-person, phenomenon.

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I would also like to note how the title of Ted Honderich’s book How Free Are You? in and of itself seems to vitiate his thesis, namely, that determinism is true and humans lack free will. Free will is predicated on, among other things, the ability to grasp rational directives and truly deliberate between possible rational alternatives and options. In the very act of asking “How free are you?” Honderich presupposes a human capacity for deliberation––which makes no sense on determinism qua lack of a libero arbitrio. My ability to ponder just how free I am itself unveils my theletic dynamism as an agent susceptible to alternative replies to that question. As, I believe, Grisez, Finnis, anfd Boyle argue, the effort to convince non-determinists of determinism performatively undermines determinism. If it’s not up to the readers, or anyone else, to come to an answer on their own, freely and rationally, why bother asking the reader––or, indeed, oneself––how free we are? Why ‘ought’ a determinist get pissed at me, as a metaphysical libertarian, if, according to his own position, there is nothing I can do about my beliefs?

“So you say I kicked you,” he answered…

A boy is seated on a doctor’s medical examination bed, his shoeless feet dangling over the edge. His doctor approaches and gives him a perfunctory greeting. He then removes a small rubber hammer from his white coat pocket. The boy is in a frisky mood. Just as the doctor crouches to examine the man’s joint reflexes, he gives him a small kick in the chest.

“HiiiYA!” he screams, in his best Bruce Lee.

“Hey! You kicked me!” snaps the doctor, amicably.

“Just don’t tell my mom,” the boy replies, with a giggle.

“Fair enough, Mr. Kung Fu,” says the doctor.

The doctor then takes his seat on the black foam stool, raises the boy’s thigh a little off the mattress, and gives his knee a good thump with the hammer, whereupon the boy’s kung fu foot snaps up and kicks the doctor’s stethoscope.

“Why, you did it again!” softly roars the doctor.

Nuh-uh, Doc, not this time,” retorts the boy. “You kicked yourself with my leg!”


A woman is prone on an operating table under bright lights. Her upper skull is completely numb, and good thing too, for the entire dome of her skull has been opened for a minor surgery. The surgeon enters the room and greets his team.

“Mrs. Weatherby, my name is Dr. Lanfeld. Our head nurse today is Nurse Mesham.” He then walks over to his equipment tray to verify everything is in order and to get in synch with his assistant nurses. Meanwhile, Mrs. Weatherby glances at the head nurse, who is smiling back at her. She notices Nurse Mesham’s first name is June. Her eyes well up with tears. Her mother, June, passed away only a month earlier.

“Oh, dear, Mrs. Weatherby, is something wrong?” asks Nurse Mesham.

“No, I just thought of my mother,” explains Mrs. Weatherby. “Her name is also June–– I’m sorry, it just reminded me how much I miss her. She passed away in April.”

Nurse Mesham strokes Mrs. Weatherby’s cheek and reassures her Dr. Lanfeld is a highly qualified and considerate surgeon. She is in good hands.

As the operation begins, Dr. Lanfeld explains that he wants to do a brief “diagnostic” of Mrs. Weatherby’s brain. “It will help me rule out any possible distractions during the surgery,” Dr. Lanfeld explains, “and it should help you feel more comfortable with your brain. It can be kind of, well, heady for people to be awake while their brain is being operated on, so it usually helps them to get some reassurance that everything is okay.”

“Well, all right,” says Mrs. Weatherby, “I trust you, Doctor. I’m actually pretty curious to see how my brain works naked!”

“That’s the spirit!” replies the good doctor. “Now, you see this little instrument? I’m just going use it to stimulate a few areas of your brain and I want you to tell me what comes to mind. What you feel, or hear, or see, or think of when I say ‘On’. It will not hurt, but you should be ready to tell me what each stimulus triggers in your mind, okay?”

“Wow… wow, okay,” answers Mrs. Weatherby.

Dr. Lanfeld gently probes Mrs. Weatherby and says “On.” “Anything?” he asks.

Mrs. Weatherby is silent. Her eyes well up with tears and she glances at Nurse Mesham, who gives her a sympathetic, doe-eyed frown. “Did you think of your mother, Mrs. Weatherby?” asks Nurse Mesham.

“My mother,” says Mrs. Weatherby, “No, I didn’t think of her this time. Dr. Lanfeld made me think of her. She passed away in April.”


A man tightens his patellar tendon every time he takes a step or kicks a sock out of the way on his bedroom floor. A man also gives a small kick, as if at an invisible sock in midair, every time a doctor strikes his patellar tendon. The same mechanical occurrence happens, but the actions in question are vastly different. In the first case, a man kicks something by means of his patellar tendon. In the latter case, a man’s patellar tendon causes him to kick. The mechanical necessity of the latter action in no way compromises the intentional autonomy of the former. The same efficient causes are at work in the man’s sock-kicking and his involuntary kicking motion, but that does not mean he cannot freely kick a sock for some purpose, however trivial it might be. Just because I can be made to do something with my body, does not entail that I cannot do something with my body. To put it bluntly, a man has basically two ways of getting a woman’s body to produce a child. He can love her and be loved by her in the sexual bond, or, if that’s too much trouble, he can rape her in an alley. In either case, the exact same physiological occurrences take place, although radically different events caused them. In the first case, we say a woman wanted to have a child so she had sex, and her body began the process of childbearing. In the second case, by contrast, we say her body was forced to become the vessel of a man’s physiological wantonness, and her body began the process of childbearing. Biologically, these are effectively indiscernible, but in reality, they could not be more different forms of causation (of the same effect, no less). So it is with an induced kick and a freely kicked kick.

Analogously, a woman activates a cluster of neurons every time she recalls her late mother. A woman also recalls her late mother, as if seeing her while driving past an advertisement, every time a specific region of her brain is electrically stimulated. The same neurochemical occurrence happens, but the actions in question are vastly different. In the first case, a woman remembers her mother with love by means of certain amounts of her brain tissue. In the latter case, a woman’s brain tissue causes her to reminisce over her late mother. The physico-chemical necessity of the latter action in no way compromises the intentional autonomy of the former. The same physiological efficient causes are at work in the woman’s daughterly nostalgia and her involuntary recall of her mother, but that does not mean she cannot freely recall something for some purpose, however fleeting it might be. Just because my brain can be made to make me do something, does not entail that I cannot make my brain do something. If it is denied that it is the same matrix of neurons and synaptic weights that trigger, and indeed constitute, the woman’s memory of her mother, then the whole quest of pinpointing the contents of human consciousness goes out the window. For if the woman’s so-called free recall of her mother is not identical with the purely physical stimulation of her brain qua the involuntary recall of her mother, then, in at least one case (which is all that is needed), the woman‘s brain is not identical with her mind, and, in turn, the human brain is not identical with the human mind. If, on the other hand, one insists the mental events really are identical with the same patch of neural tissue, then one must still clarify how two distinct mental events can be identical with one patch of brain tissue. In other words, even if the forced recall and free reminiscence did share exactly the same physical basis, a claim for the identity of the mind and brain would still be unvindicated, insofar as the formally diverse actions (call them R and Rf) are numerically different from the oneness of the identity of their neural substrates (call them Nr and Nrf). Identity is a extremely demanding claim to support, such that even the slightest divergence between the proposed identicals renders their identity totally non-identical. Suffice to say that “two things” (viz., the disparate mental actions) are, by definition, glaringly not identical with “one thing” (viz., the same neural event).

Sometimes the most elemental mistakes lead to the grossest edifices of error. Such is the case with physicalism and mind-brain identity theory. As Mario Beauregard, author of The Spiritual Brain, notes (via Denyse O’Leary’s blog, Mindful Hack):

“It is important to bear in mind… that neural correlates do not yield an explanation of mental functions and events, i.e., they cannot explain how neural processes become mental events. Indeed correlation does not entail causation. Therefore, the results of neuroscience studies performed using either imaging, lesion, stimulation, pharmacological or recording techniques should not be presented as leading to, or validating, physicalism/materialism.

Just because a man, call him Henry Parm, has lost all his friends in an airplane crash, and consequently “all the friends of Henry Parm died” is a true statement, it does not follow that Henry was the cause of all his friends dying. So while this or that neural phenomenon may be correlated in every instance with that or this mental phenomenon, it does not therefore follow that the former is the cause of the latter. Indeed, as my examples above indicate, an induced cause for some mental state is empirically distinct from a genuine activation of that mental state by subjects of Penfield-RamachandranPersinger style experiments. To repeat: Correlation is not causation.

Beauregard places the errors of materialism in the larger perspective of the history of science by saying:

“The physicalist/materialist ontology is based mainly on principles of classical physics that have been known to be fundamentally false for over three quarters of a century. According to the classical physical conception of the world, all physical behavior is explainable in principle solely in terms of local mechanical interactions between material entities. This conception was rejected by the founders of quantum mechanics, who introduced into the basic equations choices that are not determined by local mechanical processes, but are attributed rather to human agents (2).”

Moreover, Beauregard adds, “there is mounting evidence that the intentional content of mental events (e.g., thoughts, feelings, beliefs, volition) significantly influence the functioning and plasticity of the brain (3). This implies that mentalistic variables have to be seriously taken into account to reach a correct understanding of human behavior (as in the case of the placebo effect).”

No man can walk without the proper function of his patellar tendon, but this does not equate to saying a man walks with his patellar tendon. On the contrary, the tendon walks with the man as he goes. Similarly, while no human can think (in the manifold ways that characterize normal cognition) without the proper function of his brain, this does mean that the human person thinks with his brain. On the contrary, the brain thinks with us as we navigate both inner and outer reality. Just as no one walks by virtue of (i.e., by the power of) his tendons, yet cannot walk without them, so no one thinks by virtue of (i.e., by the power of) his brain, yet cannot think without it. (Or at least, in most cases, cannot think without a brain!)

As far back as 1975 (and earlier) Wilder Penfield saw this for himself, after decades of study as a neurosurgeon. In his book, The Mystery of the Mind (Princeton University Press, 1975), Penfield notes:

“When I have caused a patient to move his hand by applying an electrode to the motor cortex of one hemisphere, I have often asked him about it. Invariably his response was: ‘I didn’t do that. You did.’ When I caused him to vocalize, he said: ‘I didn’t make that sound. You pulled it out of me.'” (p. 76)

As Robert Augros and George Stanciu put it in The New Story of Science, “These involuntary are like a patient’s leg jumping in response to the tap of a physician’s hammer. Everyone recognizes that such movements are not acts of the will” (Lake Bluff, IL: Regnery Gateway, Inc., 1984, p. 28).

To cite Penfield again (op. cit., pp. 76–77):

“The electrode can… cause [a patient] to turn head and eyes, or to move the limbs, or to vocalize and swallow. It may recall vivid re-experience of the past, or present to him an illusion that present experience is familiar, or that the things he sees are growing large and coming near. But he remains aloof. He passes judgment on it all. He says ‘things are growing larger’ but he does not move for fear of being run over. If the electrode moves his right hand, he does not say ‘I wanted to move it.’ He may, however, reach over with the left hand and oppose his action.”

At this point, the reader may be induced, by the optical and semantic stimuli being emitted by this post, to think he is free; to believe that, while his brain crucially shapes his experience of, and autonomy in, the world, it nevertheless is not simply who and what he is as a person. Induced though the reader may be by these crude physical stimuli impinging on his brain, he is still free to say, “But I don’t believe that. You are merely leading me to think that.” And he may, like the patient just mentioned above, freely oppose the argument of this post in favor of being a convinced determinist.

But then what does that mean for determinism?


“The greatest gift which humanity has received is free choice. It is true that we are limited in our use of free choice. But the little free choice we have is such a great gift and is potentially worth so much that for this itself, life is worthwhile living.”

–– Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1968, in an interview with the Paris Review (as cited in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, 2005, ed. Robert Kane, p. 563).