Mind, Brain, and Consciousness

Conversations about the intersection of philosophy and neurology

Mind, Brain and Consciousness

Ask yourself, is the functioning brain identical to the mind? If your answer is no, you are a closet dualist. You believe that  brain and mind are made of different kinds of stuff. Such a stance will make it hard for you to understand the nature of consciousness. It will make the mental aspects of our lives mysterious and unknowable. Read More

intuition and mystical experiences

if that is the case, what do you think about intuition? and possibly psychic phenomena...or mystical experiences..
or cases where people are just inspired to speak words they've never studied in their lives and tap some sort of wisdom...like Sri Nasargadatta, an indian peasant turned guru whose words were published in the book "I Am That"...

reply to intuition and mystical experience

Thanks for your comments. I will discuss this subject in more detail in my blog. For now, I do not think that mystical experiences are evidence against the idea that the conscious mind and functioning brain are identical. The function of Mr Nasargadatta's brain was the experience that he had. The experience did not require anything else. Please comment further on the blog so that others can share in the discussion. Jacob Sage

Implication: We have no free will

And if the brain, ie material stuff is all there is, then what about our sense of free will? Looking forward to what you have to say about this.

Myself, I don't see how free will is possible.

Free will

Free will may very well be an illusion.
If you agree that we are the sum total of our genetic makeup impacted by our experiences, then all of our future decisions should be predictable--unless, of course, we make decisions by flipping a coin. It seems that we have a choice ("free will"), but do we really?

free will

The free will problem in not going to be solved by a neurologist, certainly not by me. However, let me offer a possible entry towards a solution. A computer or thermostat has no free will. Perhaps we can agree on that. If that is so, it is in part because some one programs a computer or a thermostat. The program is different from the hardware. But in the brain, hardware and "so called software" are made of the same stuff, DNA and everything else that goes along with it. So the hardware and software are essentially identical, and therefore interact intimately. Could this be the beginning of some thinking about the problem of free will. I don't know. But if any one out there can use these thoughts. let us know on the blog. Jacob Sage

reply to implication: we have no free will

Although I espouse the materialist position, I do think we have free will. I don't have an explanation but it seems to me that I do have a choice about whether I will have pizza or burgers tonight. The difficult task is to explain free will within the materialist context. See my reply to the next comment for a starter on the free will issue. It may be better than no answer at all or perhaps it is better to leave this issue for future generations to ponder. After all, we don't want to solve all the hard problems ourselves and leave nothing interesting for future scientists to do. Jacob Sage

Free Will

The pizza/burger example is an example of free choice--not free will. Our "hardware" and evolved "software," as you put it, work on us to make that choice. Given enough information, that choice is probably predictable. If so, then there is obviously no free will involved in making even that simple decision. Free will is an illusion--perhaps a useful one, but an illusion nevertheless.

reply to Bernard

Perhaps free will is an illusion. Is it possible that it is your division of free will and free choice that makes free will an illusion. If you consider the pizza/burger example free choice but not free will, can you give an example of free will that is not an illusion? As a neurologist trying to explain the conscious mind, I will have to let the free will problem remain unsolved for now. Jacob Sage

Implication: We have no free will

Seemingly casual choices such as "pizza or burgers" are what give us our sense of free will, but this is most likely an illusion.

Often, there is no obvious reason why I make a given conscious choice. And many of my choices are not conscious, for example, I am not free to determine how my kidneys or liver operate (even if I could somehow attempt to do this consciously, it would likely be an overwhelming job and the attempt would quickly wreck my body), they are more like the operation of a -very complex- thermostat. Yet these are "my" choices just as much as "pizza or burgers". So at what point does our freedom kick in?

To me it makes more sense to assume that we have only a sense of free will which comes from our ability to conceive of multiple possibilities. When an ant comes upon a morsel of food, it engages it with a much shorter list of possibilities, so its actions do not appear to be free from our point of view.

However, nothing that we do is completely unconstrained. In the sense that the world is probabilistic, the future may be unknowable, even in principle, but that doesn't mean that we operate freely.

reply to Eric

Skepticism about our freedom, like skepticism about anything, is hard to argue against and impossible to defeat. That is why I think we need to put the free will problem on the back shelf for now. Let us try and tackle the nature of consciousness first. Jacob Sage

For free will to be real it's

For free will to be real it's no more necessary for some discrepancy to exist in the natural chain of causality, than it is for this type of discrepancy to exist for mind to appear in matter. If there's anything transcendent about mind, its effects on matter will accord with the proper laws of nature -- and be accessible by the application of those laws.

Just because we are not aware

Just because we are not aware of how we do something, doesn’t mean we don’t do it. I am not aware of how I beat my heart and I can not consciously control it, however I know that I am the one doing it. The same thing could be said for mystical experience, psychic phenomenon and free will. We can’t assume that what we are able to observe about ourselves is all that there is. The limits of our knowledge is not a limitation of what the brain is capable of. The idea of not knowing is unnerving to some and so they prefer dualism, because then mysterious phenomenon can be explained by something other than the brain, something non-physical. Materialists must accept that there are some things that will always remain a mystery, because how are we to penetrate to the depths of something with that very same thing we are trying to penetrate? It’s an activity that has been likened to turning around in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the back of your own head.

reply to just because we are not aware

You may be right but I like to be more optimistic. If we keep thinking about consciousness and work toward understanding it in a scientific manner, maybe we can get an answer. It seems odd to me that if you want to know about the origin of the universe, you ask a physicist but if you want to know about consciousness we often ask philosophers. Perhaps, if consciousness is perceived as brain function, more of us will ask neuroscientists or neurologists, who have actual experience with real brains that have abnormalities of consciousness. That point of view is what I hope this blog will contribute to the issues involved. Jacob Sage

Closed concepts and open minds

Dear Jacob, I fear that proof that the mind extends beyond the confines of the individual's brain -- and beyond the confines of the reductionist paradigm -- is not susceptible to the kind of study that you are employing, as I'm sure you are already abundantly aware.

As well as context and content, is it not a matter of engaging in and experiencing a process? The mind cogitates, whilst the heart engages. Therefore, it's possible that the most this feedback will yield about what you label dualism (and others call non-dualism) will be lightweight and easily dismissible, anecdotal evidence?

Having said that: good luck to you. I look forward to reading more on the subject.

reply to closed concepts and open minds

Yes, I am aware that a reductionist program is not in favor today. That is exactly why I am so happy to be doing this blog. To quote Carl Sagan, if we shy away from a reductionism,we may find ourselves "clutching our horoscopes, our critical faculties in steep decline, unable to distinguish between what is true and what feels good, sliding , almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness". It's really not as bad as Carl makes it, but I do worry. What do you think? Jacob Sage


Sorry, that should have read "context, content and container".

I guess what I'm saying is that if one is to be truly successful in a study which in one way or another will involve what some call "mystical experience" at its upper levels, then it may help one to study with and perhaps become a mystic, since as the ancient adage has it: "S/he who tastes, knows ...." (and the implied inverse).

OK, but...

Thank you for the post, Dr. Sage, but it seems you have an extremely narrow definition of consciousness: "nothing more than the ability of our brain to acquire information (which is the state of being awake) AND all the content that the information contains AND the ability to get all that information into and out of memory." If that's all that consciousness is, then certainly brain function can easily account for it, since you define consciousness to be nothing more than basic brian function.

I'm sure you're aware of the rich philosophical literature on consciousness which explores much deeper conceptions of it--I look forward to seeing what you have to say about that. Consciousness is a fascinating topic, and I'm always looking to learn more.

reply to OK but

Yes, the philosophical literature is certainly on your side in this one. But I am trying to get you to change your mind. I am hoping in the coming months, perhaps years, to convince folks that brain function alone does explain consciousness. But I need time to do this. because that the idea that brain function is not enough is so deeply ingrained in our minds. Please keep reading and see if I can give you enough good arguments in my favor to change your mind. Thanks for writing. Jacob Sage

"Ask yourself, is the

"Ask yourself, is the functioning brain identical to the mind? If your answer is no, you are a closet dualist. You believe that brain and mind are made of different kinds of stuff. "

Wrong. This is a false choice. Have you heard of neutral monism?

reply to as yourself is the

I had not heard of neutral monism. I had heard of Donald Davidson's anomalous monism but I take it that neutral monism is different than that. So I looked up neutral monism on the web and discovered that David Chalmers, among others, is considered a neutral monist. Since I am familiar with David Chalmers, I will comment on his ideas. I worry that Chalmer's brand of monism inevitably leads to the conclusion that thermostats or chairs are conscious. If you really think that a thermostat is minimally conscious, I have no answer for you other than to try and convince you in the coming blogs that only some one with a brain can be conscious. My evidence will not be perfect, but hopefully it will be enough to get you started in that direction. Thanks for your comment. If neutral monism is something other than what I have made it out to be, please let me know in the blog. Jacob Sage


Forget the thermostat being "minimally conscious," how about the ant colony? This displays many of the characteristics of consciousness, making for a much more difficult example.
Is an ant colony conscious? It interacts and gathers information from its environment, and also seems to display elements of memory (perhaps collective memory).

Semantic Problem

First be clear, if you are searching for the nature of consciousness, then your search must begin at a much deeper level than the waking state. Otherwise the "nature" of the type of consciousness that you are searching for are the neural correlates of waking activity. When a mind is not awake we often exclude the description "conscious" or "consciousness". Nevertheless we acknowledge that there is a mind present even if it is dreaming. I recommend that you first clear up, at least within yourself, these semantic problems.

reply to semantic problem

Yes,it is reasonable to say that I may only be talking about the correlates of consciousness. In fact, I would guess that most philosophers would agree with that description of my ideas. I am hoping that I can enlarge my arguments in the coming blogs so that you might be able to conclude that I am seeking more than just the correlates of consciousness, but that remains to be seen. As to your comment about dreaming; As a neurologist, I do not include the dreaming state as a conscious state. Consciousness is for doing things, and we don't do things "consciously" while we are asleep even if we are dreaming. That may seem arbitrary, and perhaps it is. I will discuss this issue in much more detail in future blogs. Thanks for your comments. Jacob Sage

Doctor, I hope you will make

Doctor, I hope you will make it clear by the next post whether you are making a distinction between mind and consciousness. So that I will know for sure if you are asserting that mind is a production of the brain's activity, or just consciousness -- and leaving "mind" open to include "more than just the correlates of consciousness".

Mind, Brain, and Consciousness

I find it interesting that every comment explicitly or implicitly is arguing with or disputing "the truth" of what you wrote.

I wonder how "conscious of" (aware, caring, interested, curious about) you (as a separate, unique, living, breathing, sentient human being) each person who responded was as they wrote their comment. I wonder how "conscious of" themselves each commenter was as he/she made his/her criticism (dispute, disagreement)of your writing. While all the comments are politely respectful, they all have an implication of the playground, taunting you, "You're wrong!" "You're wrong!" "You're wrong!" "Prove it!" "I dare you to prove it." (and with variations of smug thoughts that "And I'm right about the way I see consciousness and the brain". It's hard to learn anything when your "consciousness" is not "open to learning", which it isn't whenever you think the other person's consciousness (thoughts, opinions, viewpoints,beliefs, etc.) are wrong or bad.

Can any of your commenters argue with the "opinion" (O.K. I THINK this is reality, the truth, not just MY opinion) that none of us would have any consciousness without a brain?

Thanks for your article. I look forward to checking out your book.


Indicate where in the above

Indicate where in the above post I implicitly disagree with Dr. Sage's assertion that mind is a production of the brain's activity. I will clarify my post since you did not comprehend, or decided to make blanket statements without carefully reading.

If we are going to share ideas with words it's probably a good idea to understand what is intended with their use. In the last paragraph Dr. Sage connects "consciousness" exclusively with the state of "being awake", when in the first paragraph he connects consciousness with the mind.

If the mystery of consciousness presented here is one of whether the brain and mind are one and the same, then it doesn't make much sense to connect consciousness exclusively with wakefulness -- since we can all agree that a dreamer has a mind.

Finally, read Dr. Sage's own words: "I want to hear what you think, your objections to my position and your arguments for and against these ideas."

reply to Mind, Brain etc from Tom

As you note, my view is contested by others. But that is precisely why I am doing this blog. Most educated folks, because of language, history, religion, or culture are inclined to believe that material brain function cannot fully explain consciousness. This point of view has deep roots all the way back to Plato. So it is not going to be easy for me. People will disagree, but that is what this conversation is all about. Jacob Sage


I can understand that consciousness might be explained through neuro functions, but I wonder if being "identical" to consciousness necessarily means that it is consciousness. For instance, would we say that a very sophisticated robot had consciousness if it were able to exhibit the same behaviour as a person? I do not think that we would, though this is not the same as saying it doesn't.

My only objection to you saying that the brain is the whole of consciousness can be better stated as a question: What about awareness? By "awareness" I mean the very act of experiencing that which we experience. A camera can capture, record, and playback images, but my question is about the camera man.

I = Awareness

Firstly, thanks for your kind reply, Jacob: and good luck with your evolving project and discussions.

Barry: regarding awareness, have you read the work of Arthur Deikman? He has an article on-line called "I = Awareness" which talks about the observing self and the confusion that often arises between awareness and content:


reply to Barry Gilmer

As a materialist, that is some one who believes that physical brain function is identical to the mind, I am stuck with also believing that IF some one could produce a robot that functioned EXACTLY like a human brain, then that robot would be conscious. The key words are IF and EXACTLY. I think there are good scientific reasons to believe that such a robot could not be built out of materials other than neurons and all the other elements of real brain tissue. My main reason for believing so, is that I think the material to some degree constrains the function. So silicon or other robotic-like materials will not ever be able to produce the necessary functions for consciousness.I will discuss this important issue is a later blog. By the way, I plan to write a new blog every month but I like responding to all these interesting questions as soon as I read them. Thanks. Jacob Sage

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Jacob Sage, M.D., is Professor of Neurology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. His latest book is Mind, Brain, and Consciousness.


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