The Mind-Body Problem - or, what is human 'consciousness'?

The nature of consciousness is one of the most fundamental questions of human existence, if not the most fundamental one. What’s known as ‘the mind-body problem’ has intrigued and frustrated philosophers and scientists since the start of recorded history. Is the mind part of the body, or is the body part of the mind? Whilst we know that the body is made of organic matter, what about the mind? Is it made of different stuff? What is the mind? Questions, questions, questions.

As always the ancient Greeks had much to say about it: Plato took the view that the soul is separate from the body and is immortal (note: ‘soul’ and ‘mind’ are interchangable terms used by early philosophers). Plato came to this conclusion because he thought that things like ethics and mathematics couldn’t possibly come from the bodily senses and therefore ‘knowledge’ must be a separate entity. Aristotle, on the otherhand, believed that since the body is a part of nature then the mind must be as well. Function and form were key and Aristotle saw the mind as structured matter and not some spirit floating around in the ether. The only thing that Plato and Aristotle broadly agreed on was that our capacity for reasoning sets us apart from the other animals, and that the soul is a definite entity, immortal or otherwise, and consists of three tiers: appetite, perception and intellect. Talking of which, Plato famously wanted to throw poets out of the Greek Republic.

This ancient Greek take on the soul held sway for many centuries and was adopted by early Christianity. It was first seriously challenged by Rene Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher. Descartes believed that Greek metaphysics was a load of tosh and instead posited that there were two quite separate entities: ‘material substance’ and ‘thinking substance’. His seminal work was The Meditations, which is still required reading for anyone studying philosophy. Descartes begins by doubting everything; ie, what in your existence can you be sure of with certainty? Think about that. In The Meditations he comes to the conclusion that the only thing he can be certain of is his own mind; everything else, including the body, could be trickery or illusion/dreams (hence the famous quote: Je pense donc je suis, I think therefore I am). Descartes then asks himself the pertinent question: what is the mind? He came up with the ‘thinking substance’. Descartes was the first major philosopher to clearly differentiate the physical from the mental. If you like fancy lingo, Descartes’ mind-body separation is known as Cartesian Dualism.

Descartes was a scientist as well as a philosopher and as such he took theology out of the mind-body debate. However, this still left the intimate relationship between mind and body: how can something mental interact with something physical? How can an ethereal thought make your physical body do something? Now think to yourself: “I’m going to raise my arm”, and voila! up it goes. What’s going on there? This issue was addressed by Spinoza, a 17th century Dutch philosopher, who claimed that there was only one huge, determined substance in the Universe, and it could be seen as either a complete causual physical system or as a complete causual mental system. Confused…? You will be! Spinoza’s view was that a person consisted of a physical body and their mind was a correalate of all that physicality. In otherwords, ‘thought’ was not a separate entity but was embodied. This caused grave concerns for the Bible bashers of the day, whose main tenant was the soul and immortality and a place called Heaven. Spinoza was a theologian and his claim that the Universe is one entire thing, and you can call it either God or Nature, caused him to be expelled from the Jewish community in Holland. In later centuries philosophers like William James and Bertrand Russell still subscribed to Spinoza’s view, that existence comprised of just one kind of ‘stuff’, and instead of Descarte’s substance dualism it was more a case of property dualism; ie, the one kind of ‘stuff’ has two different properties, the physical and the mental. William Barclay also went along with the one kind of stuff view, although he believed that the substance was entirely mental. No wonder so many of these philosophers went mad.


Hi RobG, this is a subject that has long fascinated me. The top 2 major problems in science are: 1. What is the universe made of? and 2. The hard problem of consciousness, ie how does awareness arise from dead matter? According to me the order should be reversed.

The ancient Indians had many asnwers, but modern Indians do not communicate well and are not taken much notice of. In about 1930 Einstein met with Tagore in Postsdam to discuss this topic but did not get far owing to this communication problem. Einstein was a devout materialist and could not fathom Tagore´s “primacy of consciousness” idea. Fortunately, some westerners have studied this subject in India and are able to communicate very well, eg Peter Russell, a Cambridge physicist, Amit Goswami, an Indian physicist, Rupert Spira (who has any number of youtube videos, and is the most articulate of the lot), and Bernado Kastrup, all proponents of the primacy of consciousness theory.

If you haven´t come across them try them out and I´d be interested in your opinions. Regards.

1 Like

Bernado K isn’t the only one positing the primacy of mind - indeed its unique position as the basis of all ‘things’. This is also the position of Tom Campbell, who has something like forty years by now, of direct experiencing of this reality, using out-or-body consciousness capability (a sort of voluntary version of Near Death Experiences, aka Shamanic Journeying) as a research tool, operating in the strict scientific method to explore the whole subject methodically, and thus derive a theoretical structure to clarify his body of experimental results. A structure which he calls “My Big TOE” - his Big Theory Of Everything.

It works remarkably well in that function, being able to encompass in highly ‘elegant’ - as scientist like to say - and logically-satisfactory fashion literally all the intractable problems which so far have refused to fit into the currently-still-dominant-but-crumbling reductive, mechanistic-materialist world-view of modern physics.

Tom’s Big TOE is able to resolve such awkward problems of observed reality as the results of the quantum mechanics experiments, also the century or so of very high-quality results of experimental exploration of paranormal phenomena, and - of course! - the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness itself. It’s also able to explain why such contentious ideas as homeopathy and other ‘energy-medicine’ disciplines work so well in practice, despite the hissing rage and - entirely irrational - denial of the guardians of current orthodoxy.

All this is highly timely insight, since it seems that one of those intellectual pendulum-swings is going on right now, whereby fashionable beliefs ebb away from hyper-materialist philosophy towards the equally old and well-supported philosophical-idealism end of the swings: an idea whose time has come - back again…! :slight_smile:

I recommend that interested parties study Tom’s ideas in depth, as presented on his website:

Bernardo has a whole sequence of videos on YT, where you can also find links to the sequence of books on the subject that he’s published.

This is s train that open-minded seekers after truth need to board pronto, as the paradigm-shift which it represents is now imminent - happening already, in fact, as they do when the pressure of ‘inexplicable’ (by currently-orthodox theory) anomalies becomes acute.

Tom is in fact right now in the midst of a set of delayed-erasure double-slit experiments which, once complete, are likely to throw a lion-sized cat amongst the pigeons of materialist orthodoxy. The double-slit experiment, about a century after people first started to ponder its results, is about to crumble current materialist orthodoxy in physics.

But - as Tom, Bernardo and others point out - this absolutely doesn’t imply the abandonment of the whole structure of the scientific view of reality which we have at the moment, and which has produced such astonishing technological achievements (if that’s the right word). Instead, all that’s needed is that the Physics-Chemistry-Biology-Psychology-Sociology pyramid of current scientific orthodoxy should be jacked up a bit, so as to have the basic foundation of mind inserted beneath it, where it belongs as the firm pedestal on which the whole structure stands.

BTW, one fascinating logical consequence of this paradigmatic shift is that everything we see in physical-material reality - including our own physical bodies - is actually virtual; all of it part of a vast holodeck playground, created and maintained by Big Mind, in which ‘individuated units of consciousness’ (IUOCs) - aka immortal souls - pinched up but never wholly separated from the ‘larger consciousness system’ (LCS, aka Big Mind, the Great Spirit, God, The Gods, etc.) are set free to play - and most crucially to lower the entropy of the whole system, and to grow towards love, using repeated 'experience-packets, aka reincarnating lifetimes.

All this in service of the great primary purpose of Big Mind, compelled by the basic nature of reality: to lower entropy and grow towards love. Note too that absolute free-will for IUOCs is an inescapable logical consequence of this worldview; can’t do what they’re designed to do without it…

Sanjeev, if your moniker suggestion is accurate, and you are from an Indian background, then probably you’ll recognise these ideas as entirely in tune with the ancient philosophical basis of Indian spirituality, the Vedas, particularly the foundation of Buddhism. All this is coming back into fashion again with a bang, as the scientific community faces up - ‘one death at a time’ (:laughing:) - to the pressure of the anomalies - particularly the double-slit results, constantly re-confirmed by replicable experiment, yet completely inexplicable under current materialist orthodoxy…

The primacy of mind is an idea whose time has come round again! :slight_smile:

1 Like

Indeed. An interesting mobius strip : if the thing that we think with is the only means for investigating what thought is, how could we ever come up with a reliable and enduring concept of mind…?

It’s impermanent. And the recursive thought loops, such as that sketched above, are no sooner formed than they dissolve. Where to…? Dunno :wink:

1 Like

Some new names (to me), will investigate, thank you @Sanjeev

As a simple soul I find the bhavacakra massively useful for capturing these ideas but then losing them again. They’re not ‘mine’ so how could I hope to keep them?

The outer rim of the wheel is most salient (paticcasamuppada)

Like that Mobius strip analogy! It really is that confusing. The thinking thing - res cogitans - thinking about thinking. Help! Throw me a lifebelt!

1 Like

Trying to pin it all down (clinging) is essentially futile but damn it’s a fun way to suffer :wink:

The key thing with paticcasamuppada (and many other Buddhist concepts, samsara not least) is the cyclical ever-turning nature of it.

Have downloaded a few hooky versions of texts by the authors @Sanjeev mentioned, and think I’ll start here

yes, Karen, Bernado K is very good but more difficult for me to follow. I find Rupert Spira equally good, eg

Hi RG, I was aware of TC but havenot yet delved into his theories. I´m particulary interested in his delayed erasure double-slit experiments. Yes, I was born and brought up in India and went to London to study (physics). Being thoroughly immersed in beliefs such as karma, re-birth etc, I am split between the spiritual world and the world of scientism. Any attempt at a unification would be welcome.

If that’s your concern just now, Sanjeev, you should find Tom’s work particularly fruitful. The thing that I find so revolutionarily refreshing about his Big TOE is precisely it’s unification of ancient wisdom systems of thought with what’s proving to be the cutting edge of modern physics theory - which is itself swinging inexorably back right now to the idea of the primacy of mind/consciousness, as the foundation of all reality.

Tom’s ideas accommodate the idea of constant reincarnation of the immortal soul; indeed, they require it! And they give a much more satisfactory-feeling resolution of the puzzles of quantum mechanics than any other attempted explanation of the - constantly replicated and verified - experimental results that I’ve seen. You may be in for an intellectual treat; but also for a wonderful spiritual liberation. His Big TOE achieves all that, and more.

But - fair warning - prepare to have your world-view shaken to its roots. With your Indian heritage, S, plus your education in modern physics, you should be better placed than many to weather that upheaval! :slight_smile:

Some before and after images of why I’ve been away from this thread for a number of days (if I can figure out how to upload images here): putting in a new, much larger swimming pool, which has involved moving tons of stone and earth, most of it by hand.

First image, as the swimming pool was before…

Second image from the earthworks this week, to enable a much bigger pool to be installed…

This actually does have everything to do with covid, because we wanted to get the new pool installed last year, but couldn’t do so because of all the lockdown nonsense: because most stores were closed and we couldn’t buy the materials needed to build the new pool area.

In a day or so I won’t be so knackered from hard physical work, and will be able to respond to comments on this thread, and to further my theory of consciousness.

(it was Spinoza who sorted it)

You’ve had too much sunshine and vitamin D. Get inside and put your flipping mask on before you kill the rest us :wink:

1 Like

Yes, lol. All this health and efficiency stuff can’t possibly end well :rofl:

I’m a bit knackered at the moment, but if anyone’s interested I’ll get back to this:

A fly has, in relative terms, an incredibly simple brain (some people wouldn’t even call it a brain). Flies drive us mad, yet just look at their aerial acrobatics. All that darting around takes an incredible amount of computation, computation that even our most powerful computers couldn’t hope to match. But it’s just a simple fly?! Yes, and it’s this speed of computation, found in even the lowliest of creatures, that points towards quantum superposition. Superposition is when matter exists with two or more energy levels (‘mixed states’); ie, a particle can be in two different places at the same time, and, in theory, they can be at opposite ends of the universe. What this means in computing terms is that instead of only two states (1s and Os, the binary used by a digital computer), a quantum computer, using superposition, has multiple states, which enables parallel processing on a massive scale (in theory, a quantum computer can process in fractions of a second calculations that would take a digital computer for ever to do). At this stage I should point out that quantum theory is based upon mathematical constructs which even the physicists can’t agree upon, and maths itself is a flawed language (go ask a mathematician to work out the square root of two). However, superposition has been proved by countless laboratory experiments. It happens, but only at the particle level. The biggest puzzle in quantum mechanics is: why aren’t more complex structures, like you and I, in two different places at the same time, since we are all made up of these particles? For reasons we don’t understand, superposition doesn’t happen to us as a whole, but maybe it does happen to bits of us, the bits that process information.

Another big puzzle in quantum mechanics is that matter is in superposition only while unobserved (‘unobserved’ is a mathematical construct). Once us humans observe a particle in mixed states it immediately reverts to a single state (ie, what we perceive as the ‘normal world’). This might be because our own minds work by using the same mechanism, and if we observe other matter that’s also in superposition we somehow are able to influence its state.


We have a robot vacuum cleaner that progresses around a two dimensional plane by altering course whenever it collides with something. By trial and error it navigates a space by continually doing this:

If (bump into object)
do (turn around by twenty degrees)
else (keep going)

(I am no programmer!) It’s painful to watch.

Our friend the fly does much the same thing but in three dimensions and at impressive speed.

When I tire of marvelling at the fly’s abilities and whack it with a tea towel all the teeny weeny particles that compose the fly don’t cease to exist, and it’s quite possible some other teeny weeny particles some ‘place’ else react to the altered energies of the ex fly.

Those particles, not the ones that make up the shiny thorax and wings of our erstwhile pest, must be what we choose to call ‘consciousness’ or ‘life force’ or whatever.

Is that a correct understanding of your post @RobG ?

1 Like

Well-funny you should say that. I’ve watched groups of small flies (the light brown frail ones, not house flies) swirling round together in little balls even when it’s raining quite big raindrops, any one of which would take a fly to ground. Presumably the interest in each other is about mating. I wondered if there was some hardware (flyware?) to explain why the bigger raindrops didn’t wipe out the group in a few seconds.

Flies don’t see above their backs so I use this to catch and evict them without the splattering. If you approach them from any other direction their reactions are far too quick - maybe its a built-in reaction to the change in the light pattern.

Karen and Evvy, I always use the humble fly and its aerial acrobatics, which involves humungus amounts of computation, as evidence that the brain works at a quantum level. I’ve also come to the conclusion that ‘thought’ is not deterministic (ie, that all of creation is governed by rules which, one day, can be explained mathematically by us humans) and is in fact random in nature. Ie, it can’t be neatly explained with our present level of understanding (sorry, AI fans).

Flies are largely autonomic creatures, but so are us humans. Our heartbeat, breathing, endocrine system, etc, all work automatically, even when we are unconscious. We also happen to have a large lump of grey matter that allows us to play chess, write bad poetry, see an analyst every Tuesday, and all the rest of it.

This brings me on to epiphenomenalism (try saying that when you’re drunk), a theory put forth by Thomas Huxley, an admirer and contemporary of Charles Darwin. Huxley took on board three seemingly indisputable facts: we are entirely biological organisms, the physical world has causual closure (meaning that any effect in the physical world is caused by something else) and the organ of thought is the brain, a physical object. From this, Huxley deduced that whatever is going on in our minds is the product of a purely physical process going on in the brain. Huxley saw humans as a biological machine, and the thing we call ‘thought’ is the noise from that machine. The noise does not drive the machine; it is a byproduct of it, an epiphenomenom. Thus, when we go to do something the thoughts involved are not driving the action. We are doing the action anyway and the thoughts are a by-product of it. The hum from the machine. There is no real memory, belief, hope, desire or intention, etc. The conscious mind is an allusion. The American philosopher Jerry Fodor has said that if epiphenomenalism is true then it will mean the end of the world, in the sense that existence isn’t what we ‘think’ it is.

Epiphenomenalism is hard to disprove because of its very premise, and because of Huxley’s brutal logic. Many philosophers fudge the issue when trying to disprove it. John Searle, who’s done a lot of work on Philosophy of Mind, shows epiphenomenalism to be false by just raising his arm, saying that his thoughts made him do it. An epiphenomenalist would of course say that the thought is an illusion; noise from a complex machine. Ok, so let’s look at that machine, and in particular the nervous system: in the human body there is the central nervous system, consisting of the brain and spinal cord, and there is the peripheral nervous system, consisting of an autonomic system and a somatic system. The autonomic nervous system controls the involuntary actions of the muscles, heart and glands. It works on a subconscious level and keeps vital body functions going, as well as providing ‘instinctive’ reaction to danger (ie, if someone pretends to hit you you’ll blink). The somatic nervous system is responsible for senses and skeletal muscle control and thus is a driver of high level consciousness and can be associated with ‘thought’, what the epiphenomenalists call noise from the machine. Nature always keeps things as simple as possible, so why would we have a somatic system on top of an autonomic system if not to drive thought? The epiphenomenalists believe that we are completely autonomic.

Epiphenomenalists aside, the modern view is that the mind resides in the brain and central nervous system, but of course it’s still not known how mental phenomena arise or indeed what they are. Memory, belief, hope, desire, intention, none of these things can be explained mathematically. They seem to exist outside of the physical world. I believe that Spinoza came closest to cracking the nature of consciousness, with his one substance with two properties theory. Spinoza lived before the atom age and didn’t know that existence is comprised of atomic matter. This matter is now quite well understood in the macro world, the world of Newtonian physics. Much less understood is how this matter behaves in the micro world, the world of quantum mechanics. It’s all the same ‘stuff’ yet its properties are very, very different in the Newtonian world to what they are in quantum world.

How can something mental interact with something physical? How can an ‘ethereal’ thought make your physical body do something? I believe it’s because both mind and body are made up of the same fundamental stuff, but this stuff has two spatial properties. The body resides in the Newtonian world, and it must be that the mind resides in the quantum world.

If correct, the good news is that the mind/soul is not tied to a biological entity. The bad news is that as well as seeing an analyst every Tuesday afternoon, we will also have to see the analyst every Friday afternoon as well.

Now, where did I leave my fly spray…?

1 Like

The suggestion in Tom Campbell’s Big TOE is that, until some Individuated Unit Of Consciousness - aka individual mind - looks at a particular region, anything that’s supposed to be there isn’t rendered. That’s to say, when no-one’s actually doing any sensing, and “a tree falls in the wood”, nothing is heard, because - absent the sensing being’s demand for information - nothing is rendered by the rendering engine that constructs this Physical, Material Reality around each of we perceiving minds, on demand, as an individually-tailored information-stream. No need to waste computing activity when no mind is there demanding an information feed! At such a time, “there is no tree; there is no wood; there is no sound of falling” says Tom; nothing is rendered when no IUOC is present, demanding an information stream to be fed to its awareness. (This extreme philosophical-idealism is eye-stretching anathema to extreme philosophical-materialists, natch! Oh dawkins!! :slight_smile: )

When some mind - yours, mine, a squirrel, a bird, a fly - does demand a rendering, by doing the basic act of looking to see, what’s rendered is one of two things:

If other minds have been in the same place previously, and have made previous inspection, thus demanding something to be rendered, then there’s something close - but not spot on! - to a 100% probability that what was rendered previously will be recycled from the rendering engine’s data-base, and something close enough to the original rendering to pass muster will be rendered again; not necessarily an exact copy, down to the last detail, but close enough to satisfy completely whatever we sense-data-demanding minds remember about being there before. And each such re-rendering solidifies cumulatively the probability that it will be rendered the same on each subsequent demand.

Or, if no IUOC - of any kind - has looked exactly here previously, then the rendering engine takes a draw from the pool of probabilities (some greater, some less so) and picks out a random one of these to render. This is then shown as an information-stream individually tailored to each IUOC, and becomes a memory item in the IUOC’s individual data-base. And thus this is very likely - though never utterly certain - to be rendered just so again, next time a sentient mind looks to see.

The underlying proposal here is that everything we presume to be our solid, ‘Physical, Material Reality’ is in fact virtual. Strictly speaking, it’s a holodeck, like the sort of playground that supposedly existed in the deep-space ships of ‘Startrek’. A place where we IUOCs - aka serially-reincarnating immortal souls - can play out our serial lifetimes, exercising (logically-mandatory) free-will and making our latest set of life choices, as part of the work we do on behalf of the ‘Larger Consciousness System’. An LCS of which all we IUOCs, of whatever species, are fundamentally-unseparated, networked parts, drawn out into a little quasi-separation by the LCS and given our individual being to work in service of the LCS’s Great Purpose. This purpose being thrust on it willy-nilly by the steely inherent logic of its basic reality: That it must strive continuously and permanently to lower the entropy within its own system, or see it rise automatically, under the basic logic of fundamental reality, until the entire LCS dissolves into complete high-entropic chaos.

Encouragingly, Tom makes persuasive argument that another - logically-accurate - way of describing this entropy-lowering service is “growing towards love.” :grinning:

This idea of the whole PMR being virtual, with items within it only getting rendered - and only as an information-stream then - when some mind looks to see, also offers a novel and arrestingly-elegant and satisfying route out of the flummoxed mystification that has weighed on scientists ever since the first experiments on quantum mechanics were yielding their baffling, ‘impossible’ results. This is why the ‘collapse of the super-position’ only happens when someone looks to see the results. Until that exact Planck Unit of time, there are no actual particles doing anything in that neck of reality, only the probability distribution waiting to shape which particles, in which state, actually get rendered!

As one brought up on the materialist doctrine of a real, physical reality, composed fundamentally of very small ‘particles’, and energy, and nothing else at all - certainly not that pesky ‘hard problem’ mind - it’s taken me some time, and multiple repeat visits, to grasp the bones of what Tom’s proposing here. But I’m very encouraged by its seemingly pool-scooping anomaly-explaining power; plus its simple elegance. Always a winner in fundamental theory! :slight_smile:

1 Like

My mind (two weasel words if ever there were) is performing somersaults right now… Might need to reread Valis

Rhis, Tom Campbell’s work looks very interesting. I’m not that familiar with it. There’s an awful lot to get through with Tom, so forgive me if I don’t comment on it immediately.

With regard to quantum mechanics, I appreciate that a lot of readers will find it all a bit ‘far out’. QM has been established science since the early 20th century (it almost gave Einstein a nervous breakdown), yet the science community has managed to almost entirely ignore it for more than 100 years. How’s that for myopia!

Ironically, anyone reading our words here will be doing so on some kind of digital computer device. Such devices can only work using the much maligned quantum mechanics (electron entanglement, and all that).

Witch! Witch! Witch!

It’s the ducking stool for you, my pretty one…