This article was last modified on May 5, 2007.

Where Is My Mind?

In passing, I made the offhand remark that I do not believe in the human mind (in the essay concerning materialism and abstract entities). I was asked to clarify this position by Seth Centner. Common sense says human beings have minds, so my position demands some justification, I suppose.

The following response was written May 2, 2007 (which some changes made for clarification purposes). For more information on the Tri-Level Hypothesis (from students who probably didn’t fully understand it), check out James Skemp’s article on it. Or perhaps read my own version, which is quite similar to this essay. (Really, if you just read that one, you may not need to read this one at all.)


To discuss why I do not believe in minds, it is first important to explain where exactly the mind is. If you are a “mentalist” than everything is your mind, and all else is just a figment of the imagination (a dream). While this point could be argued, and has been (many philosophers have done so, and the film The Matrix makes a similar case), it will not seriously considered: even if it were true, we would have to act as though it were not just to simply function in this world.

So ignoring them, let’s assume what pretty much everyone else assumes: the mind exists in the brain. Whether the mind IS the brain or is independent of the brain, the common belief is that one needs a brain in order to have a mind (or, in other words, when brain death occurs, the mind also dies just as there was no mind prior to conception).

In cognitive science (the study of the mind or thoughts or cognition), many philosophers believe in something called the Tri-Level Hypothesis, or a variation of this hypothesis. It breaks the brain/mind down into three levels.

Physical Level of the Brain

As stated above, the mind will not exist unless a certain piece of equipment exists — the brain. You might argue which equipment is necessary for minds (can dogs have minds? can computers have minds?) but you will have to accept that anything with a mind has the basic equipment — a brain or computer processor.

Algorithmic Level of the Brain

Once you have the equipment, it needs to have certain programs. With computers, this is really easy to understand: you input some command and you get a specific output. Animals are the same way: a dog sees a steak, he drools. Some people behavior is on this level, as well — anything done instinctually or automatically works from these programs.

Interlude: Signs and Symbols

A “sign” and a “symbol” are not the same thing. A “sign” signifies something — there is a direct connection between the sign and a particular action. With a dog, for example, saying the word “sit” is a sign to sit. He knows the word means he has to sit, but he doesn’t actually understand the word MEANS sit. A “symbol”, on the other hand, is something that relates to a general sense. Language is mostly signs (or syntax) because it relies very heavily on a specific grammar. But language is also symbolic because there is a semantic context as well — where people are able to take words and get a whole feeling out of them. (When people hear “sit” they can actually contemplate how/where they want to sit, what the word means, etc.)

Semantic Level of the Brain

What makes people unique from other animals and computers is that we have a third level, the semantic level. (You can argue that gorillas or chimps or dolphins have this, too, if you want.) As I just said in the interlude, we have the ability to create entire worlds of meaning and connotation. Some philosophers think this level is projected out of the brain as a separate entity, the mind. Many people like to think of the mind as a floating thing, attached to the brain like a balloon on a string.

Two Objections to the Mind

My problem can be expressed in two parts (and probably more, but two “come to mind” just now).

1. Can we objectively find the mind? As far as I know, no. As I understand it, we can prod a brain of a sleeping person and trigger specific thoughts, smells and actions. This implies to me that the mind is strictly physical, or actually just a part of the brain. More superficially, let’s assume a robot can exist with an artificial intelligence brain. A conversation with him or with another human would be indistinguishable. Thus, from the point of observation there is no discernible difference.

2. We do not say things with only the first two levels of a brain/mind have a mind. Computers do not have minds, and most animals do not have minds. So, if we can reduce the third level into the second level, we would have to say the third level does not exist and this thing would have no mind. I see no reason to believe that our semantic responses cannot simply be more complicated syntactic (algorithmic) responses. Advanced computers can re-write their own programming to incorporate new data. Why can’t a human being? While a human’s programming would be a million times more complex than any computer, the number of responses to any situation or symbol is finite and could be predicted if enough variables about the program were known.

Rough Conclusion

If anyone has a question or a dispute or want something clarified please let me know… I could have been more thorough, but the purpose of this was simply a quick overview and introduction to the mind, not a thorough defense of materialism or in-depth explanation of cognitive science.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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