Non-Physicalist Views Of The Mind: Meet The New Vitalism, Same As The Old One

By, ‘non-physicalist’, I mean the rejection of the physicalist view (of the mind). Obviously, this includes a lot of views in the philosophy of mind. The most well-known rival of physicalism, when it comes to the mind, is probably dualism about the mind. Dualism itself includes positions like substance dualism and property dualism. Substance dualism is a position you see in many religions; it’s a view that posits an immaterial/incorporeal self.

I don’t think substance dualism is a view that should be taken seriously in light of what we now know from contemporary science, and I think it is a view that looks the closest to what vitalism was.

We know that the mind is what the brain does. Once you have all the physical parts in place and running, there’s nothing left to explain. Intuitions be damned! There were a lot of things in history that seemed counter-intuitive, but that did not (forever) stop science from making progress. And frankly, I don’t place much weight on intuition. Also, ironically, there’s nothing intuitive about an immaterial soul having causal interactions with a physical body.

If you read a lot of contemporary philosophy of consciousness, you will quickly get the impression that these philosophers are saying, “It doesn’t make sense to me that sentience is entirely physical. It seems strange. Therefore, sentience isn’t physical.” I’m not even kidding. These philosophers ran with the slogan, “No question is a stupid question” and made it their life slogan.

The takeaway is that any view of the mind denies something like “The mind is the brain” or “The mind is what the brain does” is literally pseudoscience at this point. It’s out of date and not even testable. I don’t mean to rule out artificial consciousness. All I am saying is that consciousness is realized in complex physical systems that are organized in the correct way. I don’t find consciousness anymore mysterious than baseball games; I don’t find consciousness anymore mysterious than digestion.

Sure, you can even imagine a philosophical zombie: an entity that behaves and acts like it is conscious but isn’t really conscious (though if it walks and quacks like a duck…). However, you can imagine a lot of things, and imagining something isn’t the same thing as conceiving of something. Not to mention, conceivability doesn’t entail logical possibility (any first year philosophy student can tell you that).

Since the mind is physical, the implication is that death is final. Once you die, that’s it. No second chances.



7 thoughts on “Non-Physicalist Views Of The Mind: Meet The New Vitalism, Same As The Old One

  1. Bertrand Russell thought that the experience of sensations was strong evidence against physicalist accounts of consciousness. On that view, the physicalist argument amounts to a Groucho Marx joke: “What are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”

    The world includes some phenomena that we characterize as physical and other phenomena that we characterize as mental. Physicalists are impressed by modern science, and partly (only partly) on that basis, they assume that only physical reality exists. Everything else must be reducible to, or at least explainable in terms of, physical reality. But this is no less arbitrary than the idealist assumption that only mental reality exists and everything must be explicable in terms of mental states: as Bernard Bosanquet wrote in his book on logic (rough quote from memory), “In one sense, my mind is in the world; in another sense, the world is in my mind.”

    The connection between physicalism and modern science is not as close as many people believe. Modern science can explain a lot, but that it can explain *everything* is a philosophical belief, not a scientific belief. Physicalism has been around under a variety of monikers for millennia and has no necessary connection to science. As the Roman poet Lucretius wrote 2,000 years ago in “De Rerum Natura:”

    “All nature, as it is in itself,
    Of two things: there are bodies and there is void
    In which these bodies are and through which they move …
    Impossible without body, must we not
    Admit that mind and spirit are bodily?”

    In the end, these are just foundational stories that we tell about the world. The question of whether mind is or is not reducible to matter (or vice versa) cannot be answered by empirical evidence, since the applicability of such evidence is part of the question. In some contexts, it is helpful to focus on physical reality; in other contexts, on mental reality.

    As a practical matter, we treat other beings as conscious if they exhibit complex behaviors of certain kinds. But we can never know with certainty that they are conscious in the sense that we experience it first-hand, nor have discursive knowledge about the content of their consciousness — or ours, since we must use public language to talk about any of it.

  2. These are the same philosophers that rule out as conscious thought anything tied to the senses. Apparently these people have never read anything. I use my “visual sense” to read and can hear the words in my mind, which to me makes them conscious events and if those words create concepts, I suggest those might just be conscious thoughts.

    This is a claim made by a philosopher claiming that conscious thoughts are illusions. Also, apparently, like religious apologists, trying to define the topic so that no other conclusion can be drawn that the one they favor.

  3. Hello my philosophy-loving friend 🙂

    We know that the mind is what the brain does.

    I actually don’t agree with this. I believe that neuroscientists and others are quite incorrect to examine the brain to try to discern the cause of our mental experiences.

    Assuming the brain is the ‘first cause’ of our conscious experiences is problematic, because there is the deeper question of what is causing the brain’s own activity. In your view, what is causing the brain’s activity?

    For me, this problem is resolved by my view of God as the animator of all activity in existence. Obviously, there’s a lot that could be said about this, but I will respect your comments section and be concise!

    If you’re interested, here’s a link to a review I did of a really interesting book about the philosophical repercussions of equating the mind with the brain.

    With the deepest respect for your views,


  4. I really dislike the statement, “the mind is what the brain does”, because it begs the question.
    It’s like saying that what’s physical is just what’s the proper business of physics.
    That said, the point of the post is spot on.
    Dualistic schemes can’t be made to work.
    They end up with either underpants gnome explanations (mental action,——–,physical action), or with parallelism (like Steven’s occasionalism) which is fideism in a fancy dress.

  5. I have no problem with Searle’s proposed solution to the mind-body problem: macroproperties are a function of microproperties (i.e., brains give rise to minds) but are irreducible to them.

  6. Shani

    I believe that our identity is actually in our soul. We each have choice which determines our actions. As far as death goes, we can all agree our body dies, but where does our soul go?

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