The Other I

June 13, 2013

What is a thought made of?

Someone just asked me what I thought about recent research strongly suggesting that the brain and thought are intrinsically related.  Is thought physical, he asked?  

This is cheating, I know, but this was my attempt to answer the question to the best of my ability:

Whew!  Do you know you are grappling with one of the biggest philosophical, theological, and scientific questions of all time.  In psychology it’s most often referred to as “the mind-body problem,” but the question goes back at least as far as Plato.

 Whatever it’s called, the question is whether consciousness/thought/learning/intelligence are intrinsically bodily processes?  and if they are, how is it that something that seems to have no physical characteristics can possibly be physical?  Thought, in any of its forms, does not seem to take up any space whatsoever.  And although a thought can be communicated, the word or message itself is not the thought itself.  In other words, thought seems to depend on the body, but it seems to be different from any other bodily process which we can observe.
Basically, there are three potential solutions to this conundrum:
The first is the one offered by Plato – that there are two completely separate worlds – the natural world and the world of pure ideas.  Despite the fact that the early Christians did not believe in another world, this is the solution evenually adopted by the Roman Catholic church and in which you and I were socialized as Catholics.  Plato’s world of ideas became the spiritual world inhabited by God, the angels, and all the human souls who have managed to make it out of purgatory and into heaven.  
The second solution came into its own with the scientific revolution.  Paradoxically, it was in an attempt to keep the Roman Catholic authorities happy by assuring them that science only dealt with the “natural world,” and that the spiritual world was still under the sole authority of the church.  But in the process of accepting this division, science accepted the assumption that matter is completely passive, moved only by external forces.  Given that understanding of matter, life itself and especially thinking seemed to belong to the spiritual world.  The idea of a soul still seemed logically necessary.  Some scientists in recent centuries, however, rejected both the idea of a separate spiritual world and the idea of a soul.  Since they couldn’t explain thought, they simply said it didn’t really exist – that it is an epi-phenomenon, rather like a shadow that is really only the reflection of other forces and not real in itself.
Since Einstein a third possibility has been increasing in popularity, and is one with which I myself have the most resonance.  Until just over a century ago, most scientists assumed that energy and matter were two different things.  But Einstein’s theory, with his equation E=mc2, demonstrates that energy and matter are two forms of the same thing.  In other words, matter is potentially dynamic.  It is not an inert blob passively sitting there waiting for something to push it.  Actually, there is no evidence that we have ever seen in the entire universe of this kind of complete inertness.  A stone that looks to us like it’s just sitting there is a seething mass on the atomic level.  Matter, even on the level of the smallest particles, is continuously interacting.  Development, then, is intrinsic in matter.  The emergence of life and of consciousness is built-in to the very nature of matter.
(Interestingly, this position  has a lot in common with the original Hebrew position, and some forms of paganism, especially animism.)
This latter position makes sense to me, but as you may have noticed it does not solve the mind-body problem.  We still don’t know how thought is related to the brain.  MRI studies show increasingly that the brain operates in different ways depending on the thought processes that are occurring.  We also know, of course, that if the brain stops functioning altogether, thought, and life itself ceases altogether as well.
My own assumption is that there is a relationship between mind and body parallel to the relationship between matter and energy – that they are different forms of the same thing.  But we don’t have a clue at this point what the nature of this relationship might be.  Some scientists see this question of consciousness as one of the most profound unanswered problems of modern science, far outstripping the Higgs Bosom.   How do bio-chemical processes produce something that seems as ethereal as thought?
I’ve thought a lot about this question over the years, and for a long time didn’t see how we could make sense of life if we abandoned the idea of a separate soul.  I don’t think that anymore.  
But as I say – it’s still an unsolved mystery.  
Take your pick.


  1. Lots to think about here (pun unintended but not unwelcome). Hume (Locke?) said mind is to brain what digestion is to the GI tract. Some brilliant neuro-scientists in the late 1990s came up with the same idea as if they were the first to entertain it (they put it forth apologetically, not wanting to scandalize innocent laity, I suppose).

    Your matter/energy idea is as good an explanation as any I’ve seen. If Newton “destroyed” the physical universe of the Scientific Revolution (your causality by external forces, but ones that are intelligible to us, like body striking body rather than “attracting” it by its mass), there is no physical reality, and science has despaired of demonstrating there is. I don’t quite understand what this means, frankly. But I grow more and more impatient with people (like myself) who cannot live with unanswerable questions. We don’t even have a direct apprehension of the world we live in, just a model we construct of it in our brains, workable, very detailed, even beautiful, but very very limited to the narrow environment in which we exist. How could we possibly come to know something as far outside our “need to know” (i.e. what’s necessary for survival) as how our brains produce thought?

    By the way, I think it’s high arrogance to believe that dogs and beetles and kangaroos don’t have consciousness. Which doesn’t diminish the mystery of it, but it does to me indicate that matter at a certain degree of complexity produces consciousness just as matter at a certain degree of complexity produces life.

    Thanks, Terry, again for the neural caffeine of your own thought.


    Comment by pianomusicman — June 15, 2013 @ 3:35 pm | Reply

    • First of all, let me say, once again, thank *you*. I know that not everybody has any patience for these kind of questions that, although they are ultimately unanswerable, I find so deeply enriching to explore. It is a relief (even a joy?) to know that however much I stumble around, there are others who share my fascination.

      That Newton’s theory actually suggests that there is no physical reality sounds like something Chomsky would say. I’m unfamiliar with this position, and cannot imagine what it means. I’d be interested to read more.

      I agree wholeheartedly that the view that intelligence is unique to the human species is certainly self-centered. But in fairness, some theories in the past have not granted intelligence even to humans. At least we were all included in the ring of nonsense (speaking of puns unintended but welcome). I tend to think that life and intelligence are co-extensive, and since life might even extend down into what we have called non-organic non-life, intelligence which is possibly actually a form of the drive for survival, intelligence in some incipient form may be absolutely universal.

      So I would agree that to think that we can understand, even potentially, the universe and how it works is fairly far-fetched.

      Yes, I think many of us socialized as Catholics are left with a life-long need to have answers to unanswerable questions. It continues to surprise me that not everybody is like that!


      Comment by Terry Sissons — June 15, 2013 @ 4:16 pm | Reply

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