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Consciousness Explained

Hearing, seeing, and smelling are not transcendental activities, and there is nothing in so-called consciousness besides hearing, seeing, and smelling (and tasting and feeling). Read More

Mind-Body Problem Not Solved

"Consciousness has nothing to do with the so-called and now-solved philosophical problem of mind-body duality, or in current terms, how the physical brain can give rise to immaterial thought. The answer to this pseudo-problem is that even though thought seems to be immaterial, it is not. Thought is no more immaterial than sound, light, or odor. Even educated people used to believe, a long time ago, that these things were immaterial, but now we know that sound requires a material medium to transmit waves, light is made up of photons, and odor consists of molecules."

The lack of philosophical awareness here is appalling. Nothing about my consciousness suggests that it is a particle, while we know that all material objects are composed of particles and are nothing more than an assemblage of these particles. The mind-body problem is raging harder than ever, and consciousness is at the very center. Look at the work of Christof Koch, head of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, for an example of someone who is doing experimental work on consciousness, and still recognizes a mind-body problem.

True, consciousness is not a particle

I didn't say that consciousness is a particle. I said it is not immaterial any more than, say, kicking or speaking or hearing are immaterial. Skinner's point is that there is nothing the mind does that the body does not do.

"Consciousness has nothing to

"Consciousness has nothing to do with the so-called and now-solved philosophical problem of mind-body duality, or in current terms, how the physical brain can give rise to immaterial thought.In my imagination, you are disappointed by the simplicity of Skinner’s explanation of consciousness. You intuit something beyond or beneath hearing, seeing, etc., in your own consciousness."
I'm kind of with Kelly on this one, the lack of philosophical understanding astounds and amuses. I would think that somebody writing for psychology today would be more inclined to research a topic and understand what is being talked down or bashed. I've never heard reference to an idea of thought being immaterial outside of two-bit Greek philosophers. I would imagine that you are really only looking at the topic through the lens of western thinkers, who were nothing more than poor attempts to recreate what they knew was happening in the East, and very poorly at best. In India, China, Japan, Nepal, Tibet and the Britannic Isles during Druidic times all viewed thought as not even being an operation of consciousness, but of the Mind. The mind and body are no duality, "Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action", they are intimately connected more than most can fathom. The mind and body are connected through a medium called consciousness, through a field (Mesmers Animal Magnetism, Bio-morphic fields). Consciousness is a medium through which Awareness can interact with the rest of perceivable nature. By saying that thought is not immaterial, all you are doing is agreeing with things that have been said for at least 2000 years, that thought is a function of the mind, feelings are a function of the mind, the five senses are a function of the mind. But the real question lies in who is aware while this is going on. What is it, who is it, that lies behind the eyes, who is able to actively perceive and engage these impressions that are constantly being received from the discreet reality that he occupies. How is it that this is possible? Are you a scrambling together of data on a moment to moment basis? Creating a conception of self out of a combo of external sensory data and brain patterns of response programs dictated between the ages of birth and 25 years? Are you a function of your brain or are you non-local? Modern advancements in science would say that the non-local nature of consciousness and of reality is much more plausible than a normal 3-dimensional thinker.
|"Your intuition is wrong, but your disappointment is real. I think one of the main reasons people resent science is that people think about complicated things long and hard, sometimes for centuries or millennia, and then science’s explanation is ludicrously simple. How the stars go? The earth is spinning. When the thing explained is you or something you care about, a simple explanation can irritate.'
This is not the first time in this article you did this, but the amount to which you throw your opinion is absurd, this is a scientific journal, not some silly Alex Jones website or a teen-magazine. Don't spout out broad statements that you are not willing to reinforce. How do you know my intuition is wrong" How can you prove that my intuition is wrong" Do you even know or understand what the intuition is? How about, you show me that my intuition is false. I'm not disappointed because science has "answered" long speculated metaphysical notions, I am disappointed because people that say things like what you are saying here are more prized than people that actually try to understand. That science is no longer science but a dogmatic religion just as destructive as Catholicism has been in the past. You say science's answer is "ludicrously simple. How the stars go? The earth is spinning" are these not notions that are being questioned by theories of dark matter or quantum mechanics?" Those "understandings" have only been made in the past few hundred years through the use of rudimentary mathematical concepts. It is very common for humans to think that nature is easily understood, predictable, ordered in a way that will make it easy and three dimensional. Though humans for thousands of years have known otherwise that nature is hyper-complex and that the normal functions of mind can not understand a hyper-complex system. I know that you can group me into your category of people that are "irritated" by a simple explanation, but put simply, I have more so disappointed that an article for a scientific journal would put out such broad, unsubstantiated claims. Especially one titled "either unknowingly or knowingly" after a book written by Daniel Dennett that is about 600 pages longer than this article and actual cites research and notions throughout time.

Seeing is not material

It's true that the photons reflected from a tree are material, but the experience of seeing is not. When you imagine a tree that isn't there, what are the material particles that make up that imagined image?

You could say that you have a "memory" of the material photons you once saw, but what's material about "memory"? Also, what about imagined images that have never materially existed, like a dragon?

Seeing is behaving

Seeing a tree is like kicking a ball. Seeing a tree that is not there is like kicking without the ball. Unreal images are either composites of real images (which would be like kicking a baseball) or the result of experimentation or randomization (just trying things out and noticing something that works).

All the things we do that we consider mental are variations of perceiving, which is not mental.

How do you define real? Are

How do you define real? Are you saying we perceive with our bodies? Either way, what/who is perceiving? Is the perceiver mental or non-mental? There is the grasped, the agent of grasping and the grasper. The grasped is outside, the agent of grasping is outside (i.e. A product of mental operations) but where is the grasper?

Imagination is immaterial; decision-making is mental

"Seeing a tree that is not there is like kicking without the ball."

Sure, but "kicking without the ball" is also immaterial. The motion of "kicking" is material: muscle cells moving, etc. But when you "kick a ball that is not there", you must imagine a ball to serve as the object being kicked. You didn't answer my question: what are the material particles that make up the imaginary ball, or the imaginary tree?

"All the things we do that we consider mental are variations of perceiving, which is not mental."

How is the creation of those variations not mental? There's no choice involved in perceiving; it's inseparably tied to the material object being perceived. But we can choose what to imagine, and it's not tied to any material object. How is imagination material? How is decision-making not mental?


Choice is an illusion caused by the fact that the circumstances that make us do things also make us think things. There is no mind, no grasper, no underlying self. There are just words and images that go through our heads. You can see things that are there and you can see things that are not there. Seeing is a behavior like any other. If you want to equate behaving with mental, then you are not using mental the way most people do.

What makes the imagined tree material?

First, I want to say thanks for replying to my comments. I enjoyed this interesting post. I hadn't realized that thoughts are mostly variations of senses, though I do believe in choice and I equate choosing with mental.

You still haven't answered the question: What makes the imagined tree material? It's not photons or molecules.

I can't disprove your philosophy that choice is an illusion. I'm curious, though, does that make psychotherapy a lie? Would you tell a patient, who thinks they're making choices to change, that "choice is an illusion"?

Imagined trees

It's a valid question, but not one that much interests behaviorists. Whatever happens inside people when they behave is material, some function of the body in its environment, the same for pigeons as for people, but it doesn't much interest behaviorists because there no way to intervene inside the person. We are conveniently located outside the person.

One good way to get people to behave the way you want them to behave is to convince them that they have a choice. My job with patients is to help them to change in the direction we agreed on, not to educate them about psychology. This is often best accomplished by starting where they are. I call this learning the patient's theory of the problem.

My own consciousness

Without an answer to that question, I disagree with your post's premise that you/Skinner have explained consciousness. For the purpose of an intervention, behaviorists may only care about the material manifestation of consciousness, behavior. But I want to understand consciousness at work in my own self. I experience my own imagination (as you experience yours) and I know I can imagine trees that don't have any material composition that science can yet explain.

Thanks for the insight into psychotherapy.


There's no grasping. There's behaving in ways that other people interpret as grasping if the behavior is reliable. You can skip the mental part if you just say that the person reliably displays the skill. Other people compliment us by saying we grasp something, and then we invent a grasper.

I should emphasize again that these are not my ideas; they are Skinner's.

By grasp I do not mean "I

By grasp I do not mean "I grasp how to play arbitrary musical instrument" or "Person A grasps the concepts behind chaos theory" I mean the operation of a perceiving/experiencing force that allows for this force to experience something outside of itself. The grasper grasps through the mechanisms of grasping. Let me put it another way. There is a chariot, the horses are the five senses, the reigns are the mind, the driver is the intellect and the passenger is the individual, the grasper (individual) uses mechanisms of grasping (intellectual functions and no, I do not mean thinking) to grasp objects it perceives as outside of itself. These objects could be concepts, they could be material, they could be thoughts, they could also be the senses, the mind, cognition and what have you. Is the individual a material construction of brain? If so, how is a material construction of the brain able to understand the brain and its mechanisms? Godel has told us in the past that you can not use a system to understand itself. You can not use logic to understand and explain logic, you can not use math to understand and explain math, so you can not use brain to understand brain, yet there are many, many, many individuals throughout history that manage to do such a thing.

If these are not your ideas

If these are not your ideas and you are merely repeating another mans ideas as though they are fact then maybe you should do research before attacking such a complex subject. The editors at Psychology Today shouldn't really be allowing somebody to publish their opinions on another mans opinions and treat them as though they are true. That is not scientific, that is dogmatic, that is a contributing factor to the intellectual downfall of society and why public education does not do much of anything. If you have to fall back on saying you are merely regurgitating another mans notions, then that in itself shows that you are not in a position to confidently or adequately back up your statements. I don't care if they are his ideas, you are using them, they came out of your imaginary mouth, therefore, for the moment, they are your property, your responsibility.


B.F. Skinner is not just any man, of course, but the most important psychologist in all of history. If a biologist addressed a pseudo-problem in biology by saying, well, Darwin solved this one, would you advocate that the opinion be banned?

And I can say Carl Jung is

And I can say Carl Jung is not just any man, of course, but the most important psychologist in all of history. No, I would not, I would ask that he on one hand, explains how the problem is a "pseudo-problem" and two, ask for valid evidence that backs up his opinion that makes it not an opinion but an actual truth. If a psychologist addresses an issue, I expect that he backs up is claims with something other than pontifications based on anothers work. What makes B.F. Skinner the most important psychologist in all of history? Because it sounds like you just made a large claim based on opinion and are using that claim as validation for your argument... I can't say that Jung explained the subconscious just because he is the most important psychologist in all of history, though I also wouldn't say either of those things to begin with. Psychology being the study of the mind is a broad subject that has been in the process of being tackled for three thousand years. Western thought only gives credence to the people who went to school and studied it under that title within the past 150 years. Very narrow minded approach.

On whom is the burden of producing evidence?

Your insulting tone is discouraging, but I will try one more time. Skinner's position is that the claim that there is a mind itself has no evidentiary support, The long tradition of science is not rely on entities for which there is no evidence. My post tried to clarify Skinner's position by showing how all the supposed evidence of a mind is merely evidence of being able to hear, to see, and so on.

Skinner long-defeated

I understand you are a fan of Skinner, but his views are roundly rejected by cognitive psychologists, no? It is absurd to claim that a subjective phenomenon should be observable as an objective behavior in order to exist. My evidence for consciousness is my own experienced mental state, which cannot be an illusion if an illusion presupposes experiencing the illusion.. You did not say consciousness is a particle, but you said it is material. In order for something to be material, it must be composed of particles. Are electrons conscious particles?

Electrons are not conscious

Electrons cannot hear or see, so they are not "conscious." Consciousness is just hearing and seeing. What I meant by saying it is material is that it is not mental; it is as physical as hearing and seeing. Imagination and thinking are our words for engaging in the behaviors of seeing and hearing when the thing seen or heard is not there (which I analogize to kicking without the ball).

That was a rhetorical question...

mkarson wrote:
Electrons cannot hear or see, so they are not "conscious." Consciousness is just hearing and seeing. What I meant by saying it is material is that it is not mental; it is as physical as hearing and seeing. Imagination and thinking are our words for engaging in the behaviors of seeing and hearing when the thing seen or heard is not there (which I analogize to kicking without the ball).

So blind/deaf folks are not conscious? Seems like a typical behaviorist response ends up leading to claims like this...

Skinner is responsible for the torture we carry out in the name of observing behaviors in mice and other animals because we presuppose they are unconscious automatons. I call B.S. on the behaviorists silly arguments that consciousness doesn't exist.

Excellent Discourse

Up until the very last comment, this was a fascinating discussion, for which I thank the participants! Quite likely the most engaging comments section that I have read.

As to that last comment, I must admit that just after reading Dr. Karson's post, I was thinking very similar thoughts. I am not a rat; I don't understand how someone could think that a rat's response would be indicitive of a human's response. It seems to me that we are vastly different creatures...and I do abhor preventable cruelty to sentient beings...

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Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.


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