Other Religions Atheism and Agnosticism What Is the Philosophy of Mind? Share Flipboard Email Print Alistair Berg/Getty Images Other Religions Belief Systems Atheism and Agnosticism Logic Ethics Key Figures in Atheism Evolution Atheism Myths and Misconceptions By Austin Cline Atheism Expert M.A., Princeton University B.A., University of Pennsylvania Austin Cline, a former regional director for the Council for Secular Humanism, writes and lectures extensively about atheism and agnosticism. our editorial process Austin Cline Updated April 27, 2019 The Philosophy of Mind is a relatively recent field that deals with questions of consciousness and how it interacts with both the body and the outside world. The Philosophy of Mind asks not only what mental phenomena are and what gives rise to them, but also what relationship they have to the larger physical body and the world around us. Atheists and theists have fundamental disagreements about the nature of the human mind, with almost all atheists regarding it as material and natural while theists insist that consciousness cannot be physical. Instead, the mind must have a supernatural source in the soul and in God. Metaphysics The Philosophy of Mind is generally treated as part of metaphysics because it addresses the nature of an aspect of reality: the mind. For some, depending upon their other views on metaphysics, the nature of the mind may, in fact, be the nature of all of reality because they believe that everything is dependent upon the observation and actions of minds. For theists, the Philosophy of Mind and metaphysics are especially interconnected because many believe first that our reality exists and is dependent upon the Mind of God and, second, that our minds were created at least in part to reflect the Mind of God. Why Should Atheists Care About the Philosophy of Mind? Debates between atheists and theists often involve the nature of consciousness and the mind. A common argument offered by theists for the existence of their god is that human consciousness could not have evolved naturally and cannot be explained solely by material processes. This, they argue, means that the mind must have some supernatural, non-material source which they claim is the soul, created by God. Unless a person is familiar with the issues involved as well as some current scientific research, it will be difficult to rebut these arguments and explain why the mind is simply the operation of the human brain. Souls One of the central disagreements in the Philosophy of Mind is whether human consciousness can be explained solely by material and natural processes. In other words, is the physical brain alone responsible for our mind and consciousness, or is something else that is immaterial and supernatural also involved — at least partially, and perhaps exclusively? Religion has traditionally taught that there is something immaterial about the mind, but scientific research continues to push forward material and naturalistic explanations: the more we learn, the less necessary non-material explanations become. Personal Identity One vexing question addressed by the Philosophy of Mind is the nature of personal identity and whether it even exists. Religious theists typically argue that it does exist and is carried by the soul. Some religions, like Buddhism, teach that the personal "I" doesn't truly exist and is only an illusion. Materialist conceptions of the mind generally recognize that it changes over time due to changing experiences and circumstances, suggesting that personal identity itself must change. That, however, raises ethical questions about how we can and should treat someone now based on past behavior. Psychology Although Philosophy of Mind is dependent upon the insights and information acquired in psychology, the two subjects are separate. Psychology is a scientific study of human behavior and thought while Philosophy of Mind concentrates on analyzing our fundamental concepts regarding mind and consciousness. Psychology might categorize certain behavior as “mental illness,” but Philosophy of Mind asks what the label “mental illness” means and if it is a valid category. One point of convergence, though, is the reliance of both on scientific research. Science & Artificial Intelligence Scientific attempts to develop artificial intelligence are heavily dependent upon the insights offered by the Philosophy of Mind because, in order to create an electronic consciousness, it will be necessary to have a better understanding of biological consciousness. Philosophy of Mind is, in turn, heavily dependent upon developments in the scientific study of the brain and how it functions, both in its normal state and in its abnormal state (for example when injured). Theistic conceptions of the mind suggest that artificial intelligence is impossible because humans cannot imbue a machine with a soul. What Is an Atheist Philosophy of Mind? Atheists may disagree greatly in their conceptions of what the human mind is; all they will agree on is that it wasn't created by nor is it dependent in any way on any gods. Most atheists have a materialistic conception of the mind and argue that human consciousness is solely a product of the physical brain. Others, like those who are Buddhists, argue that much of what we consider stable and constant about our minds, like our personal identities, is really an illusion that prevents us from recognizing reality as it truly is. Questions Asked What is human consciousness?Is our consciousness material in nature?Can consciousness be reproduced?Do other minds even exist? Important Texts Critique of Pure Reason, by Immanuel Kant.Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, by Wilfrid Sellars.The Principles of Psychology, by William James.