It is a curious fact that we have successfully used our minds to penetrate profound secrets of the physical universe; but when it comes to grasping the nature of our minds, we are baffled.[i] This is the famous mind-body problem, the “hard” problem being to account for our consciousness, which is utterly unlike anything physical. The mind, it seems, has a hard time trying to understand itself.
In this essay, I describe how I evolved my view of the subject, which is deeply at odds with mainstream physicalism. Without putting a label on my view, there were two kinds of crucial step I had to take, theoretical and empirical.
First, however, a comment on the word empirical — it comes from a Greek verb that means “experience”, but the modern trend has been to use it only for sense experience, which is too narrow. All kinds of experience are possible, including dreams, out-off-body states, hallucinations, visionary trances — the whole range of reported mental experiences.
Certain experiences I had were decisive in helping me form my concept of mind. Very few people are concerned with trying to understand the nature of their own minds; we all use our minds constantly but rarely reflectively. This shouldn’t surprise us; our brains evolved to help us survive and replicate in a material world. To wonder too much at the mysteries of being could be extremely hazardous. To do so represents a study called philosophy of mind, one of a subset of problems that come under the heading of metaphysics.
The question about the nature of our minds is not only fundamental but riddled with controversy. Nor is the topic inconsequential, as I suggest in my conclusion. But here is the problem. In an age of advanced physical science, a certain default conception of mind has jelled into a state of uncritical acceptance. Although people constantly use mental terminology — the problem is on my mind, I dreamed of my dead aunt, I remember the first time we met, I am afraid to take the exam, I felt that was a beautiful piece of music, etc., etc., — the mainline view has taken the form of physicalism. According to this view, our mental life is in one way or another reducible to some set of physical conditions, especially if they are brain-based. Talk of mind for many who subscribe to physicalism is pegged as folklorish. It’s talk of something that either doesn’t exist or if it does is some kind of puzzling illusion without any real effects on anything. My instinctive response to that self-satisfied conceit: bullshit!
I first became conscious of this situation when I was in graduate school at Columbia University. I recall one day casually mentioning to a fellow student that from time to time I had psychic experiences. My friend looked at me rather wide-eyed and said: “But that’s impossible! It would imply dualism!” Evidently, it was official; I could not have had the experiences I said I had. I realized there was a choice; ignore, deny, indeed destroy my own experience or reject the mainline dogma that my fellow student had blithely repeated.
One thing I learned from this exchange. The counter-intuitive anti-mind position is entrenched in the prevailing ‘educated’ culture. It often seems necessary to have a jolting psychic encounter before one comes out and opposes the reigning dogmas. Neuroscientists who have near-death epiphanies make strong witnesses willing to come out and challenge mainstream materialism.[ii]