A "Neuropsyche" Materialist Model For the Mind/Body Problem

(Sunday, June 10, 2018 2:23 p.m.)

Image of Psi

The figure of the Greek letter of a psi can be taken to be an icon serving as a diagram for what might be considered a perhaps viable materialist model of how Mind and Matter are related in the Universe. If the materialist world-view happens to be the correct one and all Mind stems from Matter, then perhaps this diagram could be of some explanatory and intuitive value. I developed this schematic mapping a few years ago when I was more tightly wedded to a materialist philosophical position, but I still consider it useful as a "best materialist model" I have in my conceptual toolkit.

Before diving into the mapping itself, it would be good to motivate the larger problem: the Mind/Body Problem. This is a philosophical problem that has been a major question for philosophers over the centuries, namely: "How does Mind relate to Matter?" Here are three basic positions (not necessarily exhaustive) to consider to illustrate:

So with the above views in mind, let's try to sketch a diagram for a materialist view that is perhaps somewhat friendlier than most materialist views to a position of neutral monism, in that it respects Mind phenomena as not being illusory ("epiphenomenal" in philosopher-terms) but as being "real" patterns and "things-in-themselves" that emerge from Matter. We start at the bottom, what will become the "root" of the "psi tree." That is Matter, the physical structure of the Universe with its atoms, energy, subatomic particles, and universal forces (gravitation, electromagnetism, nuclear forces).

Now draw a line upwards to another point that represents something that emerges from Matter. This point signifies Life and indicates that the phenomena of living entities with their goal-driven behavior emerges spontaneously from the organization and dynamics of Matter. Life is the product of self-organization in Matter, and the principles that guide that self-organization can be considered a part of material law.

Now from this point, draw upwards three diverging lines ending in points at the top. The three points lie on a plane / level that may be called Mind. This indicates that Mind emerges from Life (as Life emerges from Matter). However, Mind has three distinct, but related aspects of interest: (left branch) Consciousness (sentience / awareness), which can be thought of as the "input" of Mind, the experience of "qualia" and "percepts"; (center branch) Thought (mental manipulation and representation) which can be thought of as the "state" of Mind, the state of active "concepts" and "mental representations"; and (right branch) Volition (will / behavior) which can be thought of as the "output" of Mind, Mind's "interface," if you will, with the external environment.

This unity diagrammed by the "psi" figure I have referred to as Neuropsyche. It represents at attempt to explain in a materialist way how neuronal activity in the brain (Matter) is related to mental phenomena (Mind). It represents a view that is extremely compatible with both modern neuroscientific thinking and the possibility of strong AI: the idea that it should be possible to engineer artificially intelligent systems that manifest "genuine" mental behavior.

As the former title of my Essays page, I had used Eros and Neuropsyche because I was interested in expressing the idea of a reconciliation of a materialist world-view with what is clearly a psychological need in most of us to find something meaningful or sacred in the universe, which I refer to as Eros (the Greek word for love). There is a Greek myth of the mortal woman Psyche and the difficult road she had to travel to cement her relationship with the god Eros. One of the challenges, to my mind, of modernity has been reconciling a scientific understanding of the world with our need to find higher-meaning and purpose and something akin to spiritual ascent and bliss. I think Eastern beliefs (e.g. Buddhism) have been closer to achieving this than traditional Western religions, but there still seemed to be a gap and a collective need to bridge the gap between a material science-comprehensible universe and our spirit-hungry, purpose-hungry, meaning-hungry psyches. I had hoped maybe to at least sketch such a bridge. But if Mind is not wholly subservient to the dictates of Matter, the need for such a bridge seems less.

While I still think the Neuropsyche model is attractive, given my present experience of the Universe, there are conditions that it seems to me, if they turn out to be true, could falsify this world-view and the materialism it is based on. There have been claims of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), for example, where patients had entire dreamlike experiences in absence of visible brain state. Moreover, in some of the NDEs, the patient was able to observe things that were happening in their surrounding environment that their sense organs could not possibly have sensed had they been awake (like accurately observing procedures the doctors were performing on them). In these particular cases, Mind state does not appear to be emergent from Matter because the material substrate of human mental function appears to be missing in the presence of mental function. There are skeptical explanations for this, of course: for example, maybe the patient's mind constructs the imagined experiences after they are awoken. But that would not explain some of the uncanny veridical views patients have had of events going on around them while they were clinically dead or anesthetized.

It is the possibility that some of these "paranormal" phenomena might be genuine that prevents me from wholeheartedly accepting the Neuropsyche model I proposed a few years ago. If "psychic" phenomena and NDEs are real, then it would suggest that a world-view closer to idealism is a more correct one, in terms of match to observed phenomena. For me, though, pure idealism seems a bit too anarchic, arbitrary, and chaotic a view. It seems to give Mind no structure or consistent identity whatsoever. I'm inclined to believe that Mind, like Matter, must follow some form of natural law, so I favor a position of neutral monism, which postulates that the relationship of Mind to Matter is at least lawful and not capricious and arbitrary. In religious terms, the gods too must follow the laws of Fate, which basically "are what they are" for all eternity.

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