A response to Francis Crick’s materialist perspective

By Laurie Scarborough

“‘You’, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

Francis Crick’s quote, which is the topic of this essay, originates clearly from a materialist’s perspective of the mind-body problem. Crick has reduced all that we are (our joys, sorrows, ambitions, and so on) to merely physical reactions of the neural networks of the brain and responses to stimuli through nerve cells and molecules. This view necessarily concludes that all we are is an amalgamation of physical properties, and denies the existence of anything immaterial, such as our understanding of the mind.

While many of the modern philosophers are advocates for this position, and most kinds of dualism have become unfashionable, this essay will attempt to outline where materialism falls short at trying to explain human nature, and will argue for the existence of the mind. Although Cartesian dualism is not ultimately supported in this paper, I will discuss how we do have an immaterial part to us, and how this part of us interacts with the body in an Aristotelian hylomorphic understanding of dualism.

What are some arguments for materialism?

There are many contemporary arguments for materialism and also many different perspectives on materialism. It is beyond the scope of this essay to talk about each, but one convincing aspect of materialism is the argument of common sense, outlined by G.E. Moore, accompanied by Ockham’s razor. The G.E. Moore argument postulates that because we can experience the body (the brain) with our senses (we can touch, smell, and see), common sense illuminates that it must exist (Feser, 2008a; Preston, n.d.), but because what we understand the mind to be is immaterial, by definition we cannot experience it with our sense, and we thus cannot know if it exists (Preston, n.d.). We are then left with two options: either only physical things (the brain) exists, or the brain exists and this immaterial substance (the mind) also exists but we cannot prove it using our senses. Ockham’s razor then says that we should accept the simplest explanation, or the argument that uses the fewest number of explanations (Moreland & Craig, 2003). In this case that would be the former option, that only the brain exists, because it assumes the existence of and explains the mind-body problem using only one thing (the brain), rather than two (the brain and mind) (Moreland & Craig, 2003). This supports the notion of materialism. By implication it also supports that all that we are, including our intellect and capacities, are explained only by the brain, as a purely physical object, really no different in terms of output to an intelligent robot, or computerised information-processing machine. This line of reasoning is however, fallacious, and the conclusion therefore false, which can be elucidated by the Chinese Room thought experiment.

Imagine that you, a monolingual English person, are in a room with a typewriter that produces Chinese characters, and a book in English that explains how to respond to certain Chinese characters. It does not however, explain what these characters mean, merely how to respond to certain Chinese phrases given to you. You then receive messages from a Chinese-speaking person through a slot in the door and need to make responses using the manual provided. Imagine that your responses are so good that they convince the Chinese speaker that you understand Chinese, even though you do not in reality understand a single word. Now imagine that the manual given to you is coded into a computer programme, and this computer performs the task you have been performing at the same standard and also convinces the Chinese speaker that it can understand Chinese. We have seen, though that just as the human using the manual could not actually understand Chinese, neither can the computer (Feser, 2005; Lowe, 2000; Moreland & Craig, 2003). It just creates an illusion. Humans do, however, have the capacity to understand Chinese (even though you may not) as there are millions of Chinese-speaking people who fully understand it without needing to consult manuals, including the person who was sending you messages through the slot in the door. Computers do not though, as they are merely following a programme. This shows that the human brain has intellectual functions that are different to computers. The exact essence of this intellect I speak of will be expounded upon later in this essay, but for now we can see a difference between the “intelligence” of a computer and the “intellect” of a human.

Another argument for materialism is the case of brain damage. We have many observable cases in which damage to certain areas of the brain has caused dramatic changes to a person, including things that Crick mentioned, such as our ambitions, sense of personal identity, and free will, essentially who “you” are. One famous case in neuropsychology is Phineas Gage. He suffered a severe brain injury when a metal rod shot through his left frontal lobe, most notably removing a large portion of his left prefrontal cortex (Macmillan, 1996). Before his injury he was described as temperate, healthy, of good intelligence, capable, and polite (Macmillan, 1996). After the injury he change so considerably, that acquaintances described him as “no longer Gage” (Harlow, 1868). He became vulgar, impolite, cognitively impaired, childish, and could show no sense of inhibition (Macmillan, 1996). To many materialists, cases like this show that the brain is what makes us who we are.

This line of reasoning is again fallacious, and the conclusion false, which can be shown by the following analogy. Assume, for the sake of argument, that a mind connects to a brain like a satellite connects to a television. The image displayed on the television is analogous with the observable behaviour in humans. A satellite sends images to a television. If the television malfunctions, the displayed image on the screen is now defective, and the materialist’s assumption in this analogy would be that the television is solely responsible for producing an image. However, just because the image is now defective, the existence of the satellite is not disproved by this, and in fact the satellite is still intact (Murray, 2008). It cannot however perform its intended function, because the television is malfunctioning and therefore the satellite’s image cannot be displayed accurately. Correspondingly, if the brain is damaged and there are changes in behaviours thought to be attributed to “who we are”, this does not mean that the brain is solely responsible for this behaviour, and therefore the existence of the mind is not disproved by this (Murray, 2008).

The same can be said of cortical blindness. If someone experiences a traumatic brain injury and damages their occipital lobes, they may become blind despite the fact that their eyes remain unimpaired, because the occipital lobes are where vision is processed. To assume that the occipital lobe is solely responsible for vision is false however, as the eyes are an important part of vision, and in this case, their existence and functioning is not disproved merely because someone cannot see.

Because of these arguments of the Chinese Room and the satellite-television analogy, we can see that there may be some substance to the notion that there is indeed a part of us that could be immaterial.

A defense for the existence of the mind. What about dualism?

Dualism posits that this intellect spoken about previously is an immaterial part of us, that works alongside the material parts of us (Churchland, 1984). But what proof is there for this immaterial substance?

Let’s suppose I draw a triangle on a board and say to you, this triangle represents all triangles. Now you have the concept of “triangleness” in your thinking, which you now know to mean a shape with three straight sides. But while the concept of triangleness applies equally to all triangles, the triangle drawn on the board cannot. This is because it has particular properties not shared by all triangles: it might be red, but not all triangles are red; it might be scalene, but some triangles are equilateral; and so on, but you can still understand and think about the idea of triangleness independent to that particular triangle on the board (Feser, 2008a). If I had drawn in blue chalk instead and said this triangle represents all triangles, that would not change what you understand to be triangleness, unless traingleness is contingent on being blue. This concept in our thinking of triangleness is universal, because it applies to all triangles (Feser, 2008a). No material object is universal because it is just that one thing, with all its properties and imperfections, consisting of its own matter (the stuff that makes it up) and form (the configuration or structure of that matter) (Feser, 2008a; Feser, 2013). It will always have properties that are not universally shared, which will preclude it from applying equally to all things. Just as the triangle I drew on the board has the property redness, three-unequal-sided-ness, drawn-in-chalk-ness, and so on, it is not the same as another triangle I draw right next to it, so it is not universal. But if our thinking of triangleness is universal (it applies to all triangles), and no material object is universal, then that must mean that our thinking here is immaterial (Feser, 2008a).

Alongside universal thinking, there is also the notion of determinate thinking, meaning precise, clear or unambiguous thinking (Feser, 2013). Now material objects can be determinate, but not in the same way that some kinds of thinking are (Feser, 2013). The difference lies in the ability of thinking to refer to something determinately. Material objects, however, cannot refer to anything determinately (Feser, 2013), because there is nothing in them that makes them have to refer to one thing rather than something else. That is, their material properties alone do not suffice to determine what they refer to. Think of smoke in the distance. This smoke does not refer to something determinately because smoke could be a smoke signal which refers to danger, or it could refer to a building being on fire, or it could refer to someone having a very large braai. Think of a chair. When resting in my living room it refers to something you sit on, but if hanging from the ceiling in a gallery, it is art. The smoke does not by nature refer to anything determinately (precisely, clearly, unambiguously), and neither does the chair. However, thinking can refer to something determinately (Feser, 2013). When I think of a concept, say triangleness, I know exactly what it refers to: a shape with three straight sides. It is precise, clear and unambiguous. This further indicates that there are immaterial qualities to our thinking (Feser, 2013).

The next question is, if our concepts are immaterial, how can we be purely material beings (as the materialist argues)? Well, we cannot. A purely material process, just like any other material thing, cannot be universal and determinate in the ways we’ve been considering. Since some our thinking is both of these things, it follows that our thinking processes are at least partly immaterial (Feser, 2013). We call this immaterial part the mind (Feser, 2008a).

How far does this argument take us? Are all forms of thinking immaterial? Well, no – so examples of material thinking, or thinking purely produced by the brain that is not universal or determinate, do not disprove the fact that can have immaterial, or universal and determinate thinking. An example of this is the colour red. When we see a red apple, the particular wavelengths that are reflected off the apple that makes us perceive it as red hit our retina. This image is then sent to our occipital lobes where vision is processed and we perceive red (Churchland, 1984). That is not a universal red, it is the particular redness of that particular apple. However, if we close our eyes and think about redness, that is a universal redness because we are not relying on our senses to inform us of what red is, we are just thinking about the concept of redness (Feser, 2008a). This type of thinking is the immaterial thinking I discussed earlier, which implies an immaterial part of us that can do this type of thinking (Feser, 2008a; Feser, 2013).

Having established the existence of this part of us that is immaterial and thus capable of immaterial thinking, the next question is, how do the immaterial and material parts of us interact? How could an immaterial thing cause anything in the physical world without violating the laws of physics? Cartesian dualism cannot account for this adequately (Feser 2005; Feser, 2008a), which is perhaps why it is an unpopular perspective. The following section addresses this interaction problem from an Aristotelian hylomorphic dualist perspective.

Solving the interaction problem: Hylomorphic dualism

There are two important concepts to grasp in order to understand hylomorphism in terms of the mind-body problem. The main theory of hylomorphism is that everything that exists is made up of matter and form (Stump, 2003). Matter is the physical “stuff” that makes something up, while form is the configuration of that stuff (in this section I will use form and configuration interchangeably), that which makes the object what it is, and not something else (Feser, 2008a; Feser, 2008b; Feser, 2010; Stump, 2003). In this model, the form is not something material but it is the configuring of the material essence of the thing and it can cause material things.

Take, for example, a blue rubber bouncy ball. The matter of the ball is rubber. But rubber by itself is not a ball (Feser 2008a). Rubber also makes the soles of shoes or erasers. The rubber needs a form in order to make it a ball (Feser, 2008a). It is because of its form that the rubber becomes round, blue, spherical, and bouncy. A further example is a magnet. The matter of the magnet is iron. But unconfigured iron does not by itself constitute what is means to be a magnet and iron without a form only exists in abstraction (Feser, 2010). It is because of its specific form that iron creates a magnetic force. Physics tells us that the magnetic force is immaterial, but it still obeys the laws of physics, and can cause other material objects to move, because the form (magnetism) and matter (iron) coexist to make one object (magnet).

This is like the body and mind. The human being is like the magnet – the whole. The whole is then constituted by its matter and form. In the case of a human being, under hylomorphic dualism the matter is the body and the form is the mind (the configuration of the body) (Stump, 2003). The form of the human being (the mind) is what makes us a human being, and not just a corpse. The matter and form, or body and mind, of the human make different contributions to the functions, roles, and features within the resulting human (Stump, 2003). Using this taxonomy, the mind and the body are not two completely separate entities, but two different parts that make one whole (the human being) (Feser, 2008b; Stump, 2003). The mind and body are thus conjoined (Stump, 2003).

In this way the interaction problem is solved. The interaction between form and matter is no more mysterious than the interaction between a configuration and that which is configured. We need not worry about how an immaterial substance (the mind) can have causal powers over a material thing (the body), since they are actually just two parts of one whole (Feser, 2008b). There is no separate, independent functioning, they function together. This form of dualism is clearly incompatible with Cartesian dualism, which sees the mind and body as two independent substances that function independently, the mind as a driver and the body as the car (Stump, 2003).

But what is so special about the form, or configuration, of a human that makes it able to perform these special functions, like immaterial thinking, when other objects like rubber balls also have a form but do not have these capabilities? The first response is that different configurations create different things, with different capabilities (Feser, 2008a; Feser, 2008b; Feser, 2010; Stump, 2003). So the configuration of the rubber ball makes it bouncy, but the configuration of iron makes it magnetic. The form of a human creates these special capabilities alongside the matter that it is joined to (the brain). The second response, is that material objects like rubber balls, rocks, couches and so on, all have a static, single-level configuration, which does not allow consciousness. Animals have dynamic (a continual process-based), single-level configuration which allows consciousness of particular things through sensation. Human beings have a dynamic double-level configuration (that is the configuration itself is configured), which allows us to be both conscious and have the rational, universal and determinate thinking I discussed earlier (and therefore capable of immaterial thinking) (Stump, 2003). Because a configuration works through that which it configures, it is also unsurprising that damage to one’s body can affect one in such drastic ways as we see in the Gage case. To summarise, using hylomorphism, it is the joining of matter and form together that make us what we are, and it is the special nature of a human’s form that makes us capable of abstract and immaterial thinking. The existence of an immaterial part of us, what we call the mind, necessarily follows from the existence of immaterial thinking.

The essential arguments of this essay highlighted the pitfalls of materialism, which logically followed to a discussion of the evidence of the existence of the mind, using a dualist perspective. This discussion culminated in what we called the interaction problem, which was then resolved using concepts of hylomorphic dualism. The ultimate conclusion of the arguments of this essay is that on the basis of the evidence of the existence of the mind and the interaction between the body and the mind, the formulation in Crick’s quote is rejected.



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Feser, E. (2005). Philosophy of Mind. London, England: Oneworld Publications.

Feser, E. (2008a). The Last Superstition: A refutation of the new atheism. Indiana, USA: St Augustine’s Press.

Feser, E. (2008b, October 8). The Interaction Problem [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://edwardfeser.blogspot.co.za/2008/10/interaction-problem.html

Feser, E. (2010). Teleology: A shopper’s guide. Philosophia Christi, 12(1), 142-159.

Feser, E. (2013). Kripke, Ross, and the Immaterial Aspects of Thought. American Catholic Philosophical Quartley, 87(1), 1-32.

Harlow, J. M. (1868). Recovery from the passage of an iron bar through the head. Publications of the Massachusetts Medical Society, 2, 327-347.

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Macmillan, M. (1996). Phineas Gage: A case for all reasons. In C. Code, C. W. Wallesch, Y. Joanette, & A. Roch (Eds.), Classic Case in Neuropsychology (pp. 243-262). East Sussex, England: Psychology Press.

Moreland, J. P., & Craig, W. L. (2003). Philosophical Foundations of a Christian Worldview. USA: InterVarsity Press.

Murray, M. (2008). God and Neuro-Science [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.reasonablefaith.org/god-and-neuro-science

Preston, A. (n.d). George Edward Moore (1873-1958). In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/moore/#SH2d

Stump, E. (2003). Aquinas. England: Routledge.


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