George Walford: Does Mind Matter, Does Matter Mind?

(Reprinted from Ethical Record, December 1991. – GW)

The article entitled “Remarks on the Relation Between Brain and Consciousness,” in ER for October, argues against “the old hypothesis that thought or consciousness is an independent active agent in the world.” So far we have agreement; to the best of my knowledge neither thought nor consciousness ever appears independently of material brains. But in dismissing that hypothesis as “increasingly difficult to sustain” the article advances another, and one at least equally questionable. Namely, that the brain is fundamentally independent of thought.

The central issue can be briefly put: every time the writer of “Remarks” mentions the physical brain he does so consciously, he thinks about it. And of course the same applies to everybody else who takes up the issue. We cannot demonstrate the existence of anything without thinking of it and thereby barring ourselves from demonstrating its independence of thought. I add (the point usually comes up in these discussions) that the time before animal life had evolved, when there was no consciousness, is an intellectual construct.

The dichotomy known as Cartesian has proved enormously fruitful, but when examined closely it turns out not absolute; the poles cannot be completely separated. The proposition in “Remarks,” that “the brain is the physical basis of all thought,” depends upon such separation; for it to be valid there must be, at the base, the physical brain only, detached from thought and consciousness. This is inherently incapable of demonstration, for where there is demonstration there is thought. If Wittgenstein didn’t say it I will: of what we are not conscious we cannot speak, not even to demonstrate its presence.

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from Ideological Commentary 55, Spring 1992.