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Ask An Atheist: What is your philosophy of mind?

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Q. What is your preferred stance on the philosophy of the mind? And what do you think justifies your position as stronger than other incompatible stances that remain popular?

SPO_House-ad_Ask-an-atheist_0425133A. Us humans do indeed have minds, and they are the result of what our little meat computers do day to day. The current neurobiological and behavioral evidence establishes that much of what we do in our mindful activity involves natural processes that are shared deeply in our non-human evolutionary cousins, most especially among the higher primates (where social communities generate perceptions of others’ intentions as a matter of course). As it happens, a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences series was devoted to this very subject (June 18, Supplement 2, “In the Light of Evolution VII: The human mental machinery”) and that can be accessed at pnas.org (the full free text will be available online after a year) as a way of catching up on the current technical work here.

I would be much more impressed with contrary speculations on the nature of mind by anti-evolutionists, for instance, if they had bothered to pay even the slightest attention to any of this vast accumulating body of work. As one particularly hilarious example, a couple of years ago, the outgoing president of Gonzaga University, Robert Spitzer gave one of the most obtuse lectures I have ever heard on any subject, contending that our minds cannot be reduced to brain mechanisms, but offering as “evidence” only a spate of particle physics analogies (his field) without ever mentioning anything about the known workings of the brain, let alone how that evidence supported his notions about the role of the proposed incorporeal spirit. Should a geologist be given equal license to offer a “plate tectonic theory of mind” as physicist Spitzer? The upshot is that non-evolutionary theories for what our brains are about and how our minds are generated in this process are simply not players on the field these days.

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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