Is The Mind Real ?

by H. F. J. Muller


ABSTRACT: The mind as a whole escapes objective studies because belief in mind-independent reality is self-contradictory and by definition excludes subjective experience (awareness, 'consciousness') from reality. The mind's center therefore vanishes in studies which imply exclusive objectivism or empiricism. This conceptual difficulty can be counteracted by acknowledging that all mental and world structures arise within an unstructured origin-and-matrix for knowledge-structures and beliefs. The mind's experience is thus at the center of reality. Use of such a zero-structure reference can also help to clarify some related conceptual difficulties and to bridge the Cartesian gap between the 'two cultures'.


KEY WORDS: mind, experience, awareness, consciousness, brain, nature, reality, truth, metaphysics, zero-reference.


While comprehension of the mind-related brain functions makes much progress, some investigators, as is well known, arrive at the perplexing conclusion that the mind's subjective experience aspect (awareness, or consciousness) is epiphenomenal, or trivial, or a constructed illusion, or even that it does not exist, and many have found the mind-brain relationship incomprehensible. This is a problem (although some deny that it is) because it contradicts experience, which is our only source. We do not, for instance, directly experience a neuronal network activity, nor a quantum physical, or computer-like function of our brain; but we do have subjective experience, which is not possible according to some theoretical views. Why does this happen and how can it be avoided ?


I shall respond first in a summary fashion and then provide some more detailed reasoning for my opinion.


(A) Concerning the first part of this question, I want to propose that the reason for this conceptual problem is the exclusive objectivism of many investigators: the explicit or implicit conviction that objectivity is the only valid method of inquiry. Objectivity deals with circumscribed and more or less invariable (that is, closed, or self-contained) and verbally labeled parcels of experience, for instance of gestalt type. This method makes renewed structuration of experiences, each time they are dealt with, unnecessary, and handles them at a distance, like coins of invariable value, and as-if they were mind-independent. It can also help in avoiding subjective bias.

[6] But ongoing experience (the subjective aspect of the mind) remains always open for structuring and cannot itself become a closed gestalt, or invariable object. If object formations are demanded as a pre-requisite for scientific investigation, the mind as a whole cannot qualify. Attempts to reduce the mind to mind-independent objects of some type (such as neuronal networks, computer functions, biochemical or quantum mechanical processes, complex mathematical procedures, behavior, or also to immaterial entities such as souls) are therefore self-defeating. The center of the open mind is always at the origin of mental structures, it uses mental structures but cannot itself become a closed configuration resulting from gestalt or concept formation. A 'view from nowhere' (Thomas Nagel) or 'from nowhen' (Huw Price) is therefore impossible, and so is objective mind-independent reality, which if assumed turns subjective experience into a 'hard problem' (David Chalmers), or more correctly: into a paradox which cannot be resolved. The difficulty is not an 'explanatory gap' in an objective explanation of consciousness, but it is that: exclusive objectivism (or exclusive empiricism) will not work as a basis for theorizing about subjective experience. (And once a fundamental conceptual position is adopted - explicitly or implicitly - it will influence the results of all subsequent work in this area.)

[7] To summarize this difficulty: if reality were mind-independent, the mind would have to be mind-independent in order to be real. A 'scientific study of consciousness' cannot imply mind-independent reality; if it does, it cannot say anything about subjective experience. Such an assumption is self-contradictory - not only for the understanding of mind but also in general. This would seem to be a fairly obvious point, but it is neglected in some recent publications on consciousness and related matters.




THE UNSTRUCTURED MATRIX as the origin of mental structures (various terms)

*The APEIRON is the source and sink of all structures (Anaximander and others)

*CHAOS (originally = cleft, later = disorder) in Greek thought since at least Hesiod

*TOHU WA BOHU in the Bible

*TABULA RASA as the start of thinking (Locke and others)

*The ENCOMPASSING (das Umgreifende, Jaspers)

*FACING NOTHINGNESS (and doing something with it: Existentialists)

*CONSTRUCTION and DE-CONSTRUCTION as needed (i.e., ad-hoc; Postmoderns)

*VOID as background of thinking (Murdoch)



A simple neutral term might be:


The practical problem is to use such a method on an ongoing basis, and indeed the functional aspect is much more important than any static term which might be employed.



[9] If my diagnosis as described above is correct, it follows that one has to look for an alternative basis for theorizing. In this respect, I propose secondly that:

[10] (B) A necessary and sufficient condition for avoiding this problem (of belief in mind-independently pre-existing, pre-established, pre-structured, or pre-fabricated, and perhaps even pre-verbalized, reality and truth) is to consider that all mental structures crystallize (and are constructed) within an unstructured and therefore undefinable matrix, which can be used as a kind of zero-reference point. This origin was called 'apeiron' by pre-Socratic philosophers, and corresponds (I think) to the 'tabula rasa' of Locke and others, the 'nothingness' of existential philosophy, and to several other similar philosophical concepts. (See table 1; that this is continually being re-invented - despite a general neglect - suggests that we deal here with a fundamental aspect of thinking.) This indefinable encompassing matrix is the reason why the mind cannot be defined; it is the source, center, and envelope of experience and encompasses all mental structures, such as objects (including the stone kicked by Samuel Johnson), words, numbers, and even gestalt-free qualia - and conversely, all mental structures are embedded in it.

[11] Despite the lack of structure, the origin can be experienced on a pre-conceptual level. Anaximander of Miletus said that all things arise from this apeiron, that they commit injustice against it and against each other, and that they will have to return back into it. A similar point has been formulated by Jacques Derrida (see Kamuf, 1991). Deliberate re-tracing from this unstructured source can be used as a method to examine problematic epistemological situations, such as, in the present study, the reality of subjective experience. All the noun terms in table 1 are paradoxical nouns: they make positive structured statements about absence of structure. But the zero-reference procedure is an activity, and not tied to a particular noun; thus none of the expressions in the table is essential, and one should emphasize the activity rather than a (non)thing. The term zero-referencing is perhaps preferable because it is neutral. (One might see a parallel here to 'zero-base budgeting', where all expenditures have to be justified as opposed to no expenditure, rather than to last year's budget; similarly, in zero-referencing, all terms have to be re-traced as arising from nothing).

[12] Such considerations should complement - not replace - objective brain-mind studies.

[13] In support of these two propositions I will present, for your consideration, a number of arguments. I confine myself to a few points of central importance, concerning the basis of my point of view, and some of its ramifications, in order to make sure that it meshes with related issues. Everything I say here is a draft, or a suggestion for action, and is not meant to be a finished product or 'solution'. I present this material because I think that something along these lines is needed for an approach to the questions of the mind-brain and mind-reality relations. Most of these ideas are not new, some are indeed quite old but have become somewhat obscured by more recent developments.


[14] Objectivity means the handling of circumscribed and usually verbally labeled parcels of experience which are treated as-if they were mind-independent and invariable. It is a specialized method of thinking which has developed within the wider zero-reference context of experience. Objects (things and concepts, in language chiefly corresponding to nouns) are more structured and parcelled off and thus later - in several meanings of this 'later' - than ongoing experience and action, and therefore than the unstructured origin, than awareness of gestalt-less qualia, and even than non-verbalized gestalt formations (in humans and animals). Some aspects of experience can be fixated with the help of numbers and mathematical formulae which in themselves may be handled as-if they were static entities although they often describe functions. Objectivity is a very helpful method of investigation, and can 'explain' many parcelled experiences in terms of reduction to simpler parcelled experiences: the simpler ones can be more reliably comprehended and manipulated.

[15] But objectivity (or empiricism) is not an indispensable ingredient, and even less a guarantee, of truth and reality. Objectivated functions cannot be the mind in toto because experience is not an object. The objective method should, and can only, be understood as a tool within the wider perspective of zero-referencing; this proposition goes somewhat further, I would think, than Chalmers' more recent opinion (1997) that a phenomenological basis is needed for objective theorizing.

[16] In contrast, exclusive objectivism is an unwarranted scientistic extrapolation from the objective method (cf. Lindley's discussion of weak and strong objectivity). It has been prompted by the successes of the objective method, and it does tend to promise the truth. To say that objectivism is the only access to truth is like claiming that money is the only possible indicator of value. This has been a main feature of positivism; but although positivism, empiricism, and materialism are often said to have become obsolete, the exclusively objectivist belief in mind-independendent reality and truth still predominates in the practice, as well as in the philosophy (which sometimes tries to justify itself by appealing to the practice), of science. Many investigators who are critical of the positivist view are nevertheless exclusive objectivists.

[17] The only support for exclusive objectivism (or exclusive empiricism) is the belief of its adherents, to the effect that there is a mind-independent objective world. To call this belief 'knowledge of truth' is an error which complicates matters; it introduces a prejudice, a theoretical handicap which prevents effective dealing with subjective experience. Knowledge is strong belief, perhaps even without doubt (in which case it can become dangerous). Beliefs and world views become established since early childhood while mental structures form within the unstructured matrix; the formed structures are adopted or rejected on the basis of reality testing, plus adoption, or else rejection-and-modification (or re-construction) of beliefs which prevail in the community. The testing takes place even when structures are strongly pre-determined by biological factors, as for instance with hallucinations or dreams. The accepted beliefs may, in addition, be stabilized to varying degree by metaphysical assumptions such as the one of mind-independent reality, where parcels of experience such as objects or data or facts are understood as prefabricated and pre-conceptualized units, which are given as such (this tends to happen in much of empirical research). Such an assumption usually prevents questions like: who 'gives' data to whom, and how, and why ? Who 'makes' facts ? If we discard this assumption, on the other hand, we see that we deal with our own belief.


[18] An operational or functional characterization (rather than a definition) of mind can be given on condition that it includes the encompassing zero-origin feature as its pivotal point by considering how everybody's mind operates (this procedure is clearly definable):

[19] Mind (specifically the unstructured aspect of subjective experience) is an integral aspect of all mind-nature experience.

[20] To take this into account, it is necessary to go back to before the Cartesian primary subject/object split, not only in principle but in practice. Mind is at the center of experience, and always presently (here now) open and active, although to varying degree and in variable ways. A 'view from nowhere', as it is implied in exclusive objectivism, is therefore not possible, and the notions of 'here' or 'now' cannot be adequately defined in objective terms, because they are earlier than objective space and time. Mind as a whole cannot be understood in isolation outside the encompassing aspect of experience or zero-structure, which develops (becomes structured and differentiated) into what could be called the mind-nature system (of which the mind-brain system is a special instance); and this although many part-systems or aspects can be explained in an objective mind-independent sense when behavior (including speech) is substituted for subjective experience.

[21] Furthermore, consciousness is not a 'theoretical construct', it is a summary expression (or envelope) for the phenomena of experience. 'The mind (or consciousness, or subjective experience, or awareness, or 'res' cogitans, or the ego, or the soul) is' I; I am aware of 'it, the subject', because I am 'in it', or better, because I am 'it', and 'it is' I. Difficulty in understanding may arise here because such verbal expressions (which are side-effects of objectivist thinking habits) can act as a trap: they can suggest the erroneous notion that I am a kind of 'object', and this mind-independent object then urns out to be entirely elusive. That elusiveness in turn then leads for instance Francis Crick to propose his 'Astonishing Hypothesis' to the effect that 'I am the detailed behavior of a set of nerve cells'. One can indeed learn a good deal from studying objectified aspects of mental functions (neuronal, biochemical, cerebral blood flow, informational, behavioral, verbal, and - who knows - one day maybe even particle physical events). The problem is that this does not tap subjective experience.

[22] The concept of subjective experience ('I') is temporary, makeshift (ad-hoc), and it is often used as-if it were an (impossible) persistent mind-independent entity. In this respect, it is quite as useful as well as impossible and as valid or invalid in a functional sense as the concepts of mind-independent natural or empirical 'objects', or of 'qualia'.

[23] It differs from experience of natural objects, however, inasmuch as subjective experience is more difficult to take distance from (except in notions like 'immortal soul' or 'ego', which are firstly often erroneously used as objectifications, and secondly not acceptable to everybody because of their wider connotations). And also, the unstructured matrix can here less easily be neglected. In addition it is more difficult to share (because it is in principle confined to one person) except by empathy, which is difficult to study scientifically, for instance because it cannot easily be quantified except with rating scales for subjective states.

[24] For such reasons, some exclusive objectivists accept only external (natural, empirical) objects as real, but not other 'experience' (or 'awareness', or 'consciousness' in the sense in which this term is used in recent consciousness studies) and sometimes not even 'qualia' such as color, heat, or pain. This discrimination is supported only by an explicit or implicit belief in mind-independent (external, natural) reality, which uses verbally labelled parcels of experience as positive anchors.


[25] Keeping the mind's experience at the center obviates later attempts at re-introduction of subjective experience to science (because it is needed), as it has been attempted for instance in Homunculus Theory, or with the Anthropic Principle. A similar attempt is 'ontology' in general: although the being ('on') of things in the outside world is usually meant to be described, the observer's reasoning ('logos'), and thus subjective experience, are implied; and in case mind-independent being is sought this is therefore a self-contradictory effort. (The 'crisis of representation' in postmodern philosophy, where the reality of the 'referent' becomes doubtful, has similarities to crises of the value of money; it is a real problem, and it will not suffice to pretend that it does not exist).

[26] These questions immediately bring up the dilemma of metaphysics (and in particular of its branch of ontology), which I will briefly discuss. I call it a dilemma because the question usually evokes one of two equally impossible answers. Either metaphysics is affirmed, following Plato and Aristotle, but paradoxically its entities always remain outside our grasp; or else metaphysics is rejected, as it was for instance by some empiricists, or by positivists of the Vienna Circle, but paradoxically facts, data, referents, and 'what-is-the-case' are simultaneously asserted to exist mind-independently. The one or the other (or perhaps both) are implied in all types of exclusive objectivism.

[27] In practice, everyone, including those who say they don't, utilizes beliefs in transitory and/or persistent metaphysical entities, but nobody, including those who say they do, experiences metaphysical truths themselves. This belief uses metaphysical structures as stabilizers, fixation points, of thinking, which 'transcend' (are extrapolated from) experience. Perhaps one should say they form an exoskeleton or scaffolding for thinking, which is otherwise too amorphous and under-determined; they are tools for handling and exploration. The urge to switch to such concrete ontological structures is very strong, and semiautomatic, but can to some degree be deliberately monitored. This latter possibility is useful because the conviction that such stable metaphysical structures constitute a primary mind-independent reality is the chief obstacle to an understanding of experience.

[28] If the present argumentation is right, the choice is not between: for or against metaphysics (neither opinion being sustainable); but instead: between fixed (or static or fundamental) metaphysics and transitory (or functional, or auxiliary, or makeshift, ad-hoc, or as-if) metaphysics. A term like 'working metaphysics' might be more acceptable to some, in analogy to 'working hypothesis'. Because as-if metaphysics is seen as only secondary, and of auxiliary type, the unstructured origin or matrix can simultaneously be explicitly recognized as persisting at the center of experience; this is not possible to do within a fundamentalist metaphysical view, because there the center is occupied by a structured positive assertion of some type (this applies for instance to empiricism). Besides stable images, words - in particular nouns - are suitable for storage as fixed entities, in memory and in encyclopedias. An alternation appears desirable between temporary reliance and stabilization with the help of old and new such structures, and ongoing experience (which is the source of intuition for the construction of new mental entities, and in turn has to discard some old ones).

[29] Seen from this as-if standpoint, the fundamentalist one is a restricted view, which attributes mind-independent status, eternity, and universal validity to ad-hoc structures, to snapshots, and to guideposts, and even to mental methods and tools such as words, or numbers, or theories, or discourse, or consensus. Instead we should emphasize the auxiliary and ad hoc tool function of such methods and structures (even if this function is of long duration or highly repeateable) and appreciate their origin in the ongoing flow of experience.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- [30]




1. UNSTRUCTURED ENCOMPASSING is the negative anchor 2. A STRUCTURED ENCOMPASSING may serve as a general tool within the above 3. LANGUAGE, DISCOURSE, CONSENSUS are temporary tool structures 4. IDEAS AND CONCEPTS are tools 5. NUMBERS, MATHEMATICS, LOGIC are tools 6. PARCELS, OBJECTS, DATA, FACTS are tools


7. SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE is central 8. NATURE EXPERIENCE is central 9. UNITY SUBJECT/OBJECT AND MIND/NATURE yes: thinking starts before subject/object split or mind/nature split 10. REALITY AND TRUTH rests on belief in validity of structures 11. SOURCE OF CERTAINTY is ongoing testing of reliability of structures 12. METAPHYSICS, ONTOLOGY are auxiliary, tools, as-if, ad-hoc, skeleton 13. INTUITION, MYSTERY important for start, not useful alone 14. MIND-INDEPENDENT REALITY no




Reality and truth are the ensemble of mental structures which are accepted as valid on the basis of belief (as, among others, Blaise Pascal and Karl Jaspers pointed out) by individual and 'collective' subjects. Such ontological beliefs or commitments are usually fortified by words (by nouns in particular), but remain always in need of re-evaluation of their current functional validity; with a possibility of functional 'falsification' (as suggested by Karl R.Popper), but not of verification, certainly not verification in the sense of a mind-independent truth.

[32] Outside of fundamentalist views, 'is' is shorthand for 'I believe in the reliability of what I have constructed, or have accepted from others, as functioning structures'. Static metaphysical beliefs can function only to the extent that they are not challenged by analytical thought, hence the taboos (including implicit taboos) which are associated with dogmas. The proposed zero-reference position (Table 2) has a negative but clearly identified anchor, and does not imply replacing instrumental 'knowledge' or 'reality' by either 'skepticism' or 'mysterianism'. Mind-nature experience is central, certainty is secured by ongoing testing of the reliablity of structures, but all structures are understood as tools, and cannot have mind-independent functions or serve as anchors.

[33] Now comes the greatest difficulty for the proposed zero-reference point of view: does the foundation of reality in belief mean that 'things' (or 'systems') depend on what we think of them ? For instance, would they not be there if no-one perceived them ? Should we really believe that the moon exists only when we look at it ?, as Einstein asked in objection to the Copenhagen theory of Quantum Mechanics. Of course they would be there, we have to say - once we extrapolate from ongoing experience. But we also have to be clear that at this point we have already transcended the ongoing flow of experience (which occurs 'here and now'), and have proceeded to base our thinking on opinions and predictions stemming from an arsenal of more or less invariable extrapolated (transcendental or ontological) as-if fictions (a term introduced by Hans Vaihinger). These are not elements of present experience, but metaphysical icons, immobilized in memory, often with the help of language, which are suitable for stable belief concerning parcels of mind-nature experience, pertaining more either to nature, or to mind, or more or less equally to both. Mind-independent reality, a view from nowhere or from nowhen, and other transcendental beliefs, are envelopes of such as-if fictions.

[34] To what extent the structuring agency is biologically hardwired, or else learns (constructs) in a more flexible way within an unstructured matrix, is not relevant to this question. Even animals with less freedom to explore and choose have to build up a complete world-reality of some type in order to live, to which they become 'ontologically committed' and which they then do not doubt unless there are compelling reasons (see Harris, 1997).

[35] To appreciate the pervasiveness of extrapolation (or transcendence), consider that when you look at your hand, you see only one side of it, all remaining visual 'knowledge' about your hand is provided by stored and recalled extrapolated parcels, and even what you see now falls very predominantly within forms which you have previously established and extrapolated, and which you use now, because you believe that they are reliable. One may object that we have no choice when we see a tree, and that this shows that the tree is mind-independent: but firstly we can close our eyes and not see a tree, and secondly we might be blind and never have seen one. What this shows is that: we can only construct mages within the constraints of mind-nature experience as it occurs, which is the unconditional (and unstructured to start with) source.

[36] This stabilizing procedure (which includes for instance the use of images, concepts or of mathematical functions) is helpful, and actually indispensable, for thinking and communicating: we talk about a created and shared more or less invariable but fictitious as-if-world, as it is fixed in memory, as distinct from a private flow of experience which it would be difficult to discuss even if it were the same for all participants (which is largely not the case). This mind-independent fictitious world is dealt with as-if we were presently (here and now) perceiving it, and proceeding in this way results in a set of expectations of the type: if I (or you) do X , I (or you) will experience Y.

[37] We tend to use these icons so automatically (similar to our use of money) that we may forget their secondary (transcendental or extrapolated) nature, particularly if we believe in them unconditionally (as in naive realism or exclusive objectivism). Whatever we say about past, future, and other places, and even about the non-visualized parts of objects we see, is extrapolation from previous ongoing experience, and the extrapolation procedure needs the stabilization with help of the invariable icons; and ongoing experience uses them as well, all the time. And in many cases, we can indeed safely neglect our subjective part for the time being, and handle objects like invariable coins, as-if they existed mind-independently. We do that all the time in science, it works quite well (except for subjective experience, and perhaps for some aspects of particle physics), and there is nothing wrong with that so long as we do not mistake this for original positive mind-independent truth.

[38] We do it all the time, too, with psychological and religious concepts, like 'I', or 'ego', or 'soul', and there is nothing wrong with that either, provided we do not mistake them for primary entities. The temptation to make such an error is perhaps greater with respect to other peoples' minds - but it is really the same question as for our own minds: their center of experience is accessible to us only via empathy, where we substitute our center to some extent for (as-if it were) theirs.

[39] But in case we want to, or have to, investigate beyond this 'as-if', we find that when we deal with these thing-structures, they are never alone, we are always in there too. And we do have to investigate beyond the as-if, by going back to original experience, when we want to study the mind in its entirety. We subjects are always part of the experience, and the extrapolation (or transcendence) always implies our presently ongoing mind-nature experience with its unstructured source, from where it starts. For a comprehension of subjective awareness, the distinction between ongoing experience (which is at least partly open and unstructured) and extrapolated fiction (largely closed and permanently structured) is essential.

[40] A practical key question is: how strong can guiding beliefs be without absolutes ? Individual and collective responsibilities and possibilities will be experienced as being both more intense and making greater demands than when mind-independent sources are seen as guarantors. Due to the under-determination of mind-nature experience, we are, one might say, condemned to active construction, choice, and freedom, if we do not want to be blindly dominated by some dogma. In the absence of absolutes it should be easier to avoid fanaticisms and hybris - to the extent that they are fortified by absolutes - while the human responsibility for the creation and maintenance of commonly accepted reality, truth, values, and goals, as well as personal and group identity, becomes more evident and urgent.


[41] A well known instance of the mind's stumbling over its own products (which is a frequent type of mishap in epistemology) is the Achilles-turtle paradox of Zeno of Elea. The slowest being, the turtle, will never be reached by the fastest, Achilles, because necessarily the pursuer must always first come to the point from which the fleeing one has already departed, so that necessarily the slower one always has a certain advantage (see Vlastos, 1967). Achilles thus cannot overtake the turtle if the sequence of diminishing space intervals is erroneously taken as a primary given rather than having validity only as a mental tool - which can be used if and as desired. The problem disappears when the zero-derivation is re-established: Zeno tried, with four such paradoxes, to demonstrate that motion was impossible; but motion is an earlier experience than the space intervals which we construct and which are secondary to such more original experience, and in zero-reference view space intervals can therefore not invalidate motion. The Eleatics apparently capitulated to such concepts, just like the Pythagoreans became number worshippers, Plato deified ideas, positivists exalted objects, facts, and data, and some postmoderns say that language or discourse are everything.

[42] As another example, 'time' (and 'space') originate as extrapolations from, and quantification of, the flow of experience which occurs 'now' (and 'here'); the experience aspect of time, 'temporality', has been emphasized by the phenomenologists (such as Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty). Backward extrapolation starts from the present activity and experience of remembering (that is, we remember the past 'now' and 'here'), plus the communicated experience of others. Forward extrapolation starts from our present activity of anticipation and planning (which also takes place 'now' and 'here'). Sideways extrapolation is similarly parcelled and labelled as 'space'. Quantifications in turn use numbers which are word-like stand-ins for (as-if they were) the simple activity of counting with the help of fingers or by other means. Flow of experience and counting are early-structured aspects, still close to the origin. But objective time - as a line going from past through present to future - is a fictitious (as-if) extrapolation from ongoing experience.

[43] An analysis of this type can help with problems which occur for instance when time is erroneously considered as a primary entity, as with the suggestion that time travel is possible ('because it does not contradict any law of physics'), or that the arrow of time is reversible (because certain physical events can be depicted the same way forward and backward when objective time is assumed as fundamental). Time travel is a proposition based on erroneous assumptions. Zero-referencing can also deal with the difficulty that 'now' (like 'here') cannot be arrived at starting from mind-independent time (or space): 'now' and 'here' describe aspects of ongoing ('present') experience and cannot be derived from objective (that is, secondary) time, or space, or space-time. This is because mind-nature experience is always first and at the center. - The difficulties resulting from the assumption of mind-independent primary time and space have often been discussed; recent examples are Price (1996), and Papineau (1997).

[44] In the described examples, mental structures were erroneously considered more real than ongoing experience, which uses structures as temporary tools only; one might talk here about an 'inverted use' of structures. Once this is recognized as a problem, counter-measures can be taken.


[45] The points listed in table 2 (and additional points) can be used to evaluate the properties of various epistemological viewpoints.

[46] A comparison of the zero-reference position with the 'view from nowhere' and 'from nowhen' shows similarities and differences. The similarities stem mainly from the realization that the Cartesian subject/object dualism is no longer a sufficient theoretical basis. The negative expressions in the titles refer, however, to different aspects of experience. In the Nagel-Price formulations it means the elimination, or at least the marginalization, of subjective experience, while belief in mind-independent objective reality is the definite positive anchor. In contrast, subjective experience is central in the zero-reference view, and object-concepts are its tools, while mind-independent reality is impossible and the unstructured origin is the definite negative anchor; the central role of experience is crucial for understanding mind.

[47] Some other points of view operate with a definite positive structured ontological foundation or anchor point, which distinguishes them from the definite negative unstructured anchor point of zero-reference. This includes idealism (for instance Plato, Hegel) in which ideas are the anchor; theism (for instance Aquinas) with a sacred doctrine as its anchor - a God-concept is paradoxical if it is thought of as incarnate: 'credo quia absurdum', as Tertullian is said to have said; and the various types of exclusive objectivism (empiricism including Berkeley, positivism, etc., and most of present-day science, which in the field under discussion includes for instance Papineau, Smith-Churchland, Dennett, Minsky, Nagel, Crick, Price) where objects, facts, data are the positive metaphysical (ontological) anchor, although some paradoxically deny that this is metaphysics.

[48] To the extent that the positively anchored views are held in an exclusive or fundamentalist way, they leave no room for a central negative anchor (i.e., an unstructured matrix): because the center is occupied by a structured positive anchor. As a result, Augustinus for instance arrived at the conclusion that men cannot understand how minds (understood as circumscribed entities called souls) are attached to bodies. - The positive anchor point may sometimes be a response to the horror vacui which can result from the notion of an empty center. On entering new situations, one tends to form a positive (active) operating image of the initial situation which serves as a standard for comparison with later developments; and similarly one necessarily constructs more gradually a fundamental positive general picture ('knowledge') on entering the world - which is created and modified with the help of others - with which to operate. And once again, there is nothing wrong with that, so long as one does not mistake that image for mind-independent reality.

[49] In several other views, the positive anchors are less strong, and they are often based on mental tools such as numbers or logic (Pythagoreans, logical positivism, complexity studies). - Language, discourse, consensus are anchors for critics within positivism (from Wittgenstein to Feyerabend; and recently Searle, Chalmers, Penrose, Globus, and others), sometimes with recourse to other fields which at first sight at least are unrelated, such as quantum mechanics, or mystical thought. - Phenomenology (from Kierkegaard to Merleau-Ponty) is based on experience, but tends to use language and 'data' as secondary anchors. - Postmodern writers (such as Foucault, Habermas, Derrida, Rorty, Lyotard) also utilize language, discourse, consensus as basis, or else deny any possibility of knowledge in an 'ironical' point of view. Because the center is less clearly structured, an unstructured matrix is here less clearly excluded, but neither is it expressly postulated. (The task of skepsis as a monitor of thinking habits has not really changed since the time of Socrates, Pyrrhon, and Pascal.)

[50] In principle such an evaluation procedure can help to compare the usefulness of the various viewpoints for the mind-reality and mind-brain questions, and therefore I believe that more work on this matter, and perhaps on some of its ramifications, is desirable.


[51] Theories dealing with the relation of mind to brain, and to reality generally, should be examined with help of a zero-reference point of view, which I suggest is better suited for a contradiction-free analysis than other epistemologies. Such analysis ought to be a background consideration in objective studies (and conversely: the access to the mind-brain and mind-reality relations could be a touchstone for epistemological theories). Going back to before the subject/object split can also help in bridging the gap between subject and object, and thus between the 'two cultures' (Snow).

[52] Nothing I have said here denies the value of objective studies in the areas where they are appropriate ( including for instance questions like: how - by which mechanisms - are functions which are experienced as conscious bound together ?, or: what are the mechanisms of working memory ?, or even: how does conscious awareness evolve from simpler functions ?, if objectifiable criteria are used ). Indeed, the conceptual considerations are only a complement to the objective ones, although, I would think, an indispensable one. On the other hand, objective investigation should be considered in the wider context of zero-referencing: and some questions, although they are quite real, are not suitable for exclusive objective parcelling ( such as: what it consciousness ?, or: is the mind real ?, or: how does the mind relate to the brain ? ), because experience is earlier than objects. In each case, one has to decide which aspects should be investigated by objective techniques, which with conceptual clarification, and which of them need both. In a capsule: there is no mental activity without brain activity, but mental activity is not brain activity, and any actual or possible knowledge of brain activity is a specialized structure within awareness, or mind, or experience, or consciousness. That is, there is no mind-independent brain activity.

[53] The discussion of these matters should not be side-tracked by the limitations of empiricist or other fundamentalism, whether they be unreflected or deliberate, which deals with pre-fabricated reality only and refuses to discuss the conceptual basis. Empiricism works well for many questions but is self-defeating for studies of subjective experience.

[54] Descartes' position has caused much difficulty and ought to be modified. He started from he 'dubito ergo sum': 'I doubt the truth of traditional ideas' is a valid skeptical activity, but 'ergo sum' has become the unwarranted ontological thing-extrapolation he called 'res cogitans'. It comes as no surprise that this assertion is in disrepute. Cogitation uses belief in ad hoc structures which are always open for critique and de-structuring, and the statement ought to be 'cogito: credo-atque-dubito'.



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This paper is modified from presentations at Douglas Hospital (1994), a McGill Cognitive Science seminar (1996), and the 9th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry, San Diego, California, 18 May 1997.

Commentary for this paper is requested because it deals with questions which are currently the object of much discussion in consciousness studies; it offers a different angle which I think can help to clarify certain difficulties in understanding.

I am indebted to friends and colleagues for their discussion and suggestions.

Author: Herbert F.J. Muller, M.D., FRCP(C), FAPA, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Electroencephalography Department and Memory Clinic, Douglas Hospital, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada, H4H 1R3.