The mental wheels of materialism

This is the latest in an ongoing conversation I am having with a materialist monist. However, if any other materialists want to leap in and clarify where my friend is floundering, please feel free. My criticism is not limited to the specifics of this case: any materialist of any description should recognize the error being described in his own system.

I said:  “You need to postulate the entity called “the mind” if you are to make any statements about mental events, like perceiving, thinking, deducing, anticipating, preferring, attempting, wishing, desiring, or if you are to use any categories related to symbols, such as true and false, logical and illogical.”

You said: “This is currently the case, not because “the mind” is a separately -existing thing apart from its constituent parts, but because we don’t understand how minds work well enough to make statements about the  details of what’s going on. So, instead, we’re forced to gloss over it by hiding the reality of particles and molecules and neurons inside this black box, “the mind”. This is merely a function of our scientific ignorance.”

Please note I did not say whether the mind exists independently of its constituent parts. The continuant parts of the mind include the reason, the imagination, the conscience, the memory, the passions, the willpower, and that faculty by which we apprehend ideas.

If you meant to say that “the mind” is composed of atoms and electrons, I submit this is like saying a story is made of ink and paper. A story is not made of ink and paper. A story is made of plot, characters, settings, events. A book is made of ink and paper. A book is a physical thing; you can burn a book.

You can use a story to edify or entertain. You can use a book as a doorstop.


We use the word “sentence” to refer to the ink marks on a page. You can count the letters in a sentence, and weigh the exact amount of ink it took to write them. We also use the word “sentence” to refer to the ideas in that sentence. But weighing the ink will not tell you if the sentence is true or false. Observe: “This sentence has five words.” And “This sentence has four words.” Both sentences have the same number of words; they differ only in the matter of three letters; but one is true and the other is false.

Normally we use these two meanings of the word sentence interchangeably: perhaps this is the source of your confusion. Whenever I talk about the idea-sentence, you think I mean the ink-sentence.

We also use words like “book” and “story” interchangeably, sometimes to comedic ambiguity. If I say the book was light, obviously I mean the story had no serious point, not that the physical paper and leather binding and ink-marks had small mass. Again, if I say the book was weighty, you might think I mean I was using the book as a doorstop, that the physical object had weight, when actually I meant the story made a moral point that influenced my thoughts profoundly, that it addressed a weighty issue. If I say the book weighs on my mind, I do not mean I am holding the heavy volume on my head.

We also use words that refer to thoughts and ideas likewise: we say a man’s thoughts are “in his head” or “in his imagination” even though his head is a physical object and his imagination is a non-physical entity without location. This is merely an ambiguity that can be cleared up by noticing a simple distinction.

Symbols are not objects. The map is not the territory. The word is not the thing it represents.

Do you understand the difference between the word “rock” and a physical rock? You must at some level grasp the distinction, because you make it every day in your everyday life. If I were to shout the word “rock” at your head, your head would not be bruised.

When I say the word “rock” there is not a stone in my mouth that flies out of my mouth and strikes you in the ear, entering your ear and lodging in your brain. Nothing like that happens.

I draw your attention to the fact that the word “rock” can be true or false. If I point at an ice cube and say “this is a rock” I have spoken falsely. Falseness is a characteristic that applies to words.

A real rock is a rock. A rock cannot be true or false. A rock, on the other hand, can be heavy or light, warm or cold, white or black. A word cannot be heavy or light, warm or cold, white or black.

Properties that we perceive with our senses are called sensible properties. They include things like heavy or light, warm or cold, white or black. We call things with sensible properties physical things, or matter.

All properties of matter can be reduced to a few measurable magnitudes, such as mass, position, duration, vector. They are quantities. They are external to the mind.

Properties that we apprehend with our minds are called mental or intellectual properties. They include things like meaningful or meaningless, true or false, futile or useful. We call thing with mental properties nonphysical things, or ideas.

No properties of ideas can be reduced to a magnitude of any kind. They are qualities. They are internal to the mind.

All that seems to be confusing you is that an evil fairy cast a spell on you, so that you cannot tell the difference (like the man who thought his wife was a hat) between the physical object used to symbolize a word, and the idea to which the word points. The physical object can be anything: airplanes can write words in the sky out of smoke. Penmen can write words on paper with ink. Speakers can utter words in the air, using pressure waves that issue from the throat.

And all that happens when I tell you these things, is that you continue to insist that the word “rock” is a physical object like a rock. The smoke, ink, soundwaves, or what-have-you that carries or embodies the word is indeed a physical object, but the physical nature of this object is accidental and indifferent to the essential symbolic property of the object. “Rock” is the same word whether written in chalk on a rock or written in smoke in the air. The meaning of the word does not change when the color of the ink changes. The meaning of the word does change if the idea being represented changes: “Rock and roll” does not mean the same thing as “Rock quarry”.

Again, if I point to a rock and I make soundwaves, the soundwaves have physical properties that can be measured. The soundwaves, qua soundwaves, cannot be true or false, because truth and falsehood is not a property waves can have. Only symbols can be true or false. Truth cannot be measured: it does not have mass to tip a balance scale or height to compare to a yardstick or duration to count with a stopwatch. A word cannot be measured.

You can say that the spoke word is embedded or carried or accompanied or associated with the soundwaves, if you like. But the words would be the same whether spoken or unspoken, written or unwritten. If I look at an ice cube and I think “Rock” I have thought a false thought. Again, if I look at a rock and my brain produces brainwaves, the brainwaves have physical properties that can be measured. The brainwaves, qua brainwaves, cannot be true or false, because truth and falsehood is not a property waves can have.

So there are two problems with your statement:

(1) It is unsubstantiated.

What is the time and place where you came across evidence that proves that it is merely a function of our scientific ignorance that qualitative and interior statements about the mind can be reduced to quantitative and exterior statements about the brain, but just not yet? Friend, I have heard more convincing testimonies from people who have seen ghosts. They can tell me the time and place where they saw a ghost.

Just admit your belief is an article of faith, not a belief based on scientific evidence, and not a belief based on rational deductions from first principles, and I will stop questioning you.

(2) It is patently false and logically absurd.

Even if the relationship between every brain atom and every thought or sensation were tracked, the logical categories into which you and I and all other rational beings place ideas in order to make sense of ideas would require us to treat people as if they were people, and rock as if they were rocks.

These categories include concepts like final cause, intentional and unintentional, perception and misperception, blame and praise, love and hate, will, actions, true and false, logical and illogical, and so on. These categories include all concepts related to internal meaning.

For let us assume otherwise. Let us assume you had the power, the Thought Control Helmet, to reorganize at will any brain you came across, so that the ideas in that brain would conform to whatever conclusions and ideas you preferred. The moment you use it, you are treating people like rocks: they would for all practical purposes be inert material, robots or animals, things without any moral or human meaning to you.  If you used the Mind Helmet on Trilby to make her fall in love with you, it would have no more meaning to you than if you wrote a love letter to your self and forged her name on it. It would not represent any judgment or thought or honest emotion on her part. It would be fan-fiction, but one where you put yourself in as a character and get Uhura to kiss you.

You would never discuss or debate or disagree with anyone again. Instead of the frustration of trying to make your ideas clear to them in words, you could merely zap them with the helmet-ray, and their thoughts would be whatever you wished. You could perhaps as a game pretend these robot people were real, and let them say and think whatever nature had randomly written into their brain-mechanisms, but it would be you pretending they were human. It would not even be a game. It would be a pastime, like solitaire. Their words and ideas would have no truth value to you.

But no matter how you treated other people, you could not treat yourself the same way; you would not use your Mind Control Helmet to force yourself to think certain ideas, because the ideas would have no truth-value to you if you imposed them on yourself in that fashion. I am not saying the owner of such a machine might not want to lie to himself in his own thoughts, or bury an unhappy memory–but the utility of ideas qua ideas, the usefulness we seek from the process of reasoning, would be lost.

Ideas that are imposed on you by the helmet, if you knew they were imposed, would not persuade you that they were true. If you did not know they were imposed, but thought you had reasoned your way to their conclusion, you were merely be deceived and insane. You could no longer trust your own thoughts to be corresponding to reality. If you eliminated from yourself the desire to have trustworthy thoughts or to have them correspond to reality, or if you eliminate your awareness of what you had done to yourself, at that point you are a muppet. 

The reason why materialism is self-contradictory is that you are in effect telling me that your thoughts are controlled by a Mind Control Helmet that runs without an operator, merely Mother Nature blinding sending out unintentional thought-control-signals. But, if you actually believed that, you would conclude that your thoughts have no truth value.

Scientific ignorance has nothing to do with it. You would not be able to read the letters of the thought in someone else’s head unless an observer, you, were present.

Let me repeat:

We describe the material objects of the world seen with the eyes in mechanical terms because they cannot be understood in any other way. It does no good to pray to rocks or to sweet-talk them; there is no point in being angry with a stone or asking a stone what it was trying to accomplish. Objects react to forces, they don’t attempt actions.

We describe the mental objects of the word seen with the mind in purposive terms, because they cannot be understood in any other way. Men attempt actions.

The one limited exception is in those areas where men’s bodies act like rocks: an unconscious man in a sack thrown out of a plane falls due to the forces acting on him, not according to any intention of his. A mannequin of the same mass thrown in the same way and the same time would fall in the same spot.

Mechanical descriptions of inert matter can only describe reactions, not actions. Such descriptions cannot attribute intent or purpose, willpower, pain or pleasure, or any internal meaning to objects. When one billiard ball strikes another, it is a reaction to some previous force that set it in motion. The cause and effect runs from the past to the present.

When one soldier strikes another to save the life of a comrade, this is an action, not a reaction. It is an event the soldier sets in motion, and the event cannot be understood without reference to the final cause (purpose, intent, goal) which the solider willed. The soldier saw a friendly about to be hurt by a foe; he anticipated an outcome that would take place if he failed to act, and, preferring a different outcome, he set in motion a chain of cause and effect to achieve a desired end. No matter how you slice it, no matter what you say, any description of the soldier’s action which does not include his purposes for acting is incomplete: a lie, even.

The soldier throws himself on a foe, provoked by honor, preferring death to defeat, moved by the love for his brother in arms, he strikes the enemy with his spear where the jawbone meets the neck, and slays the foe. Got the picture?

Now, let us suppose the scientific revolution takes place, and the thought control helmet is invented. The thought control helmet has a little screen, to look inside the man’s brain, and see the little atoms whirring. By hypothesis, these atoms are merely a clockwork, like little wheels and gears moved by a mainspring, and the mainspring itself was wound up by another mechanical process.

The point is that each gear moves because it is determined to move. The spring unwinds at its determined rate, fixed and meaningless. There is no intent involved. There is no will involved. There is no praise and blame involved. 

Now we open the helmet and look at the soldier’s brain matter.

I ask, “Why did the soldier slay the foe?”

You peer into the helmet and say, “Spring A moved gear B and moved gear C. This set in motion the nerve impulses that trigger the muscle contraction. The spear struck the point of impact.”

Me: “I am not asking about what moved the spear. What moved the soldier? Why did he leap to the attack when the other soldiers were running away?”

You say: “But I told you! In his brain, spring a moved gear B and this moved gear C.”

Me: “Was his action praiseworthy or blameworthy? I need to make a report to the commission to recommend him for a medal.”

You: “Yes, well, in his brain, spring a moved gear B and this moved gear C.”

Me: “What does the spring mean? By the spring, do you mean his sense of honor, or perhaps his unspoken fear of seeming like a coward?”

You: “Well, the spring is the spring. In my world, objects only exist as facts. Meaning only exists in your world, where there are ideas. There are no ideas in my world, only gears, wheels, and springs.”

Me: “What words was he thinking when he did the act? What did it seem like to him?”

You: “There are no words. Words are symbols to represent ideas. There are no ideas and hence no symbols in my world. There was no ‘seems like’. To ‘seem like’ means to have an imagine or a symbol to represent a thought or a perception. But images and perceptions are merely specific types of ideas, and there are no ideas in my world, only gears and springs and wheels.”

Me: “Was he afraid or brave?”

You: “Don’t be silly. How can a gear or a spring be afraid or brave? Emotions are also things in the realm of ideas, and that is the realm I say is made up of nothing but wheels gears and springs.”

Me: “But surely all the little gears taken together as a whole set in motion in his mind a serious of symbols and thoughts, so that, from his point of view, he seems to himself to be thinking certain things….”

You: “I think not! One gear cannot think a thought. It is an inanimate object that is moved by necessity. It never decides anything. It merely moves according to forces acting on it. So two gears cannot think a thought. Neither can four, or eight, or sixteen.”

Me: “What about a thousand gears? Or a million?”

You: “What, do you think that by some magic number an inanimate process can suddenly become a deliberate human action? It is impossible. Add up as many horizontal lines, one to another, end to end for as long as you like, four or four million, you will never reach one inch of vertical line.”

Me: “What about emergent properties? One gas molecule does not have temperature or pressure, but a cubic foot of gas molecules has temperature and pressure. This is a property that is seen in the mass but not seen in the individual.”

You: “That is because temperature and pressure a qualities that are related to the properties of the atoms of gas involved. Temperature is an aggregate of the motions of the atoms, and atoms have the property motion. If you had the eyes of a dragon and the brain of an angel, you could see the atoms in motion like a billion billiard balls, and deduce the emergent temperature from the average rate of motion. Pressure likewise is an attribute of motion. But if you take an entity that has no motion, either by itself or as a group, such as, for example, the points on a number line, or the seconds in a day, you cannot deduce the temperature of the number line or the pressure of a Wednesday. Adding more seconds, all the seconds in January, all the seconds in 1987, will still never make those seconds have a temperature. These words make no sense together. Likewise, you cannot deduce the thoughts and intentions of aggregates of gears and wheels, that are entities move only as forces acting on them determine.”

Me: “Well, in any case, I would like to know what happened with the soldier struck the foe. What was he trying to accomplish? Was he trying to save his friend?”

You: “There is no such thing as ‘trying to accomplish.’ There are only wheels and gears and springs. Cause and effect only works from past to present. You are asking me what event in the future the soldier foresaw, and willed to act to avoid! But the future does not exist. Photons cannot fly back in time and strike the soldier’s photoreceptors and set in motion the mainspring in his brain!”

Me: “Then tell me what happened? If I said ‘the soldier bravely leaped to save his friend and struck the foe a killing blow’ is this a true statement or a false one?”

You: “I have told you what happened. Spring A moved gear B which moved gear C.”

I now take up the Mind Helmet myself and turn it on you. I say, “I need to look in your brain to see if you believe what you are saying. You say the brain is nothing but wheels and gears! I need to know two things: first, is it a statement you believe to be true, whether it is actually true or false? Second, a true statement, whether you believe it or not?”

You say: “Here look in my brain, and you shall be answered! See! Spring D moved gear E which moved gear F.”

Me: “Is that statement true? Do you believe it to be true?”

You: “Spring D moved gear E moved gear F. Gear F also moved gear G, if that helps.”

* * *

There you have it. These two speakers know everything there is to know about how the brain works. There is no scientific ignorance covering them; there is no black box. Nonetheless, the description of wheels and gears in motion only tells me the extrinsic properties of the action, and it leaves out everything that makes the action understandable. Instead of seeing a man fighting to save his friend, you see a meaningless ripple of forces setting inert matter in motion. When asked if indeed that is what you see and what you believe, you cannot answer the question merely by repeating extrinsic measurements of external properties. Facts without meaning are meaningless.

In case you think I am putting words in your mouth, please note that this is exactly what I am NOT doing. The “you” in my little hypothetical conversation here does not an cannot make any statements about mental events, like perceiving, thinking, deducing, anticipating, preferring, attempting, wishing, desiring, nor does he use any categories related to symbols, such as true and false, logical and illogical.
Why does he not? Because you can’t. Adding more gears into the sentence, ” Spring A moved gear B which moved gear C moved gear D moved gear E….” does not tell us the first thing about any mental event.

You keep saying that you can deduce meaningful content from meaningless matter in motion, but your statement, if true, is meaningless (because your words are merely matter in motion), and if not, then it is false.