Matter Causes Mental

Nash Popovic profile image

Written by Dr. Nash Popovic

Although the starting point is matter, this is a very different perspective from reductive materialism. Its proponents acknowledge that the mind is irreducible even if it is the result of the brain. Therefore mental, as something distinct from matter, does exist, which already makes this position a form of (‘weak’) dualism. The most popular view, asserting that the mind arises from the brain complexity, is called emergentism (advocated by Sperry, Popper, Scott, and many others).

The assumption behind this position is that a combination of simple structures can give rise to some qualities that their constitutive elements do not have. A simple example is the wetness of water that emerges from non-wet molecules of hydrogen and oxygen. More broadly, the idea is that physics gives rise to chemistry, chemistry to biology, biology to the brain and the brain to consciousness – but, crucially, none of them can be reduced to their precursors. This is a big improvement on reductive materialism because emergentism can account for subjective experiences, and perhaps even for the non-physical properties of the mental. However, it has some other shortcomings.

  • Emergentism does not explain why and how the brain gives rise to mind, but simply assumes that it happens. Not only does the question why the complexity of the brain would lead to consciousness remain unanswered, but also why the complexity increases at all. Considering that emergent systems are always open systems, it is possible that factor(s) external to the system force this increase. If this proposition is taken on board, the conditions and factors that contribute to the emergence of consciousness would need clarification, as they are far from obvious.
  • The assembly of neurons and other cells that make up the brain undoubtedly produce some new qualities (e.g. an equivalent to the wetness of water would be the sponginess of the brain). However, the mind is different. Its phenomenal properties appear sharply dissimilar to those of the brain. It can be expected that the increased complexity of the nervous system would allow more complex processes in the brain to occur, but it seems implausible that sentient, experiencing entities could spontaneously evolve at one point out of wholly insentient, non-experiencing substance.
  • There is no reason to believe that these properties are specific to human beings. True, the mental life of other organisms may be much more limited, but that does not mean that they are just carbon

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