Philosophy of Mind: An Introduction and Collection of Resources

This page contains an organized collection of links to beginner friendly videos, podcasts and articles on the philosophy of mind. To get started, simply choose a topic from the list below.

What is philosophy of mind and why is it worth studying?

Transcript from John Searle’s philosophy of mind lecture course: Lecture 1 [2:38 – 5:31]:

All right, well this is a course called the philosophy of mind and I have to situate that both intellectually and historically. Intellectually, there’s a single overriding question in contemporary philosophy and the question is this: how do we fit our conception of ourselves; how do we fit the human reality, the reality of consciousness, intentionality, free will, aesthetics, ethics, politics, rationality, fiction, great literature, art, how do we fit that reality in with what we know about how the world is at the most fundamental level?

At the most fundamental level, the world consists entirely in physical particles and fields of force. That’s it. Everything consists of physical particles and they’re in fields of force. The word particle may be the wrong word, maybe they’re strings or points of mass energy and I’m paying those guys down the hill to get a final answer to that, and frankly, I liked physics better when there were electrons, protons, and neutrons. You guys don’t remember that golden age; when you learned [basic physics] in high school and then you can forget about the basic structure of reality. But anyway, I’m paying other people to figure out the basic structure. The point we’re taking here for granted is, to put it in technical terms: the big things are made out of real little things, and the behavior of the big things has to be explained by the behavior of the little things. Now that gives us a universe consisting entirely of mindless, meaningless physical particles, but in that universe, how do we fit in, for example, consciousness? How do we fit in free will? How do we fit in society, rationality, ethics, aesthetics? How do those fit in? And it isn’t just a question of how they fit in, but we have to be able to show how they’re a natural consequence of the organization of the physical particles.

It isn’t just that somehow or other, we can have both consciousness and electrons, but we’ve got to show how once you’ve got electrons and all the rest of it, you’re bound to have consciousness and, indeed, you can’t have consciousness without having electrons and all the rest of it. So that’s the overriding question, and the central part of that question, I think, is the philosophy of mind. We can’t really do subjects like ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy, social philosophy, philosophy of language until we get clear about the nature of the mind because all of those are derivative of, and dependent on, mental operations.

To get started:

  • Listen to this light and rather funny episode [29:00] of The Philosopher’s Arms podcast which discusses whether artificially intelligent robots could be conscious.
  • Then listen to this interview with Barry C. Smith on Neuroscience [13:23] from the Philosophy Bites podcast. It will challenge many of the common sense ways you think about how the mind works.
  • For a quick and accessible video, watch AI: Computers and Minds [10:03] by Philosophy Tube which discusses whether the mind works like a computer.
  • For a slightly longer introduction to the philosophy of mind, listen to What is the Mind? (Turing, et al) by The Partially Examined Life podcast.

What is consciousness?

Excerpt from Introducing Consciousness by David Papineau:

The best way to begin is with examples rather than definitions. Imagine the difference between having a tooth drilled without a local anaesthetic and having it drilled with one. Again, think of the difference between having your eyes open and having them shut. When you shut your eyes, what disappears is your conscious visual experience. Sometimes consciousness is explained as the difference between being awake and being asleep but this is not quite right. Dreams are sequences of conscious experiences, even if these experiences are normally less coherent than waking experiences. Indeed, dream experiences, especially in nightmares or fantasies, can consciously be very intense, despite their lack of coherence – or sometimes because of this lack. Consciousness is what we lose when we fall into a dreamless sleep or undergo a total anaesthetic.

The reason for starting with examples rather than definitions is that no objective, scientific definition seems able to capture the essence of consciousness. For example, suppose we try to define consciousness in terms of some characteristic psychological role that all conscious states play – in influencing decisions, perhaps, or in conveying information about our surroundings. Or we might try to pick out conscious states directly in physical terms, as involving the presence of certain kinds of chemicals in the brain, say. Any such attempted objective definition seems to leave out the essential ingredient. Such definitions fail to explain why conscious states feel a certain way.

Imagine a computer-brained robot whose internal states register “information” about the world and influence the robot’s “decisions”. Such design specifications alone don’t seem to guarantee that the robot will have any real feelings. The lights may be on, but is anyone at home? The same point applies even if we specify precise chemical and physical ingredients for making the robot. There is something ineffable about the felt nature of consciousness. We can point to this subjective element with the help of examples. But it seems to escape any attempt at objective definition. Louis Armstrong (some say it was Fats Waller) was once asked to define jazz. [He replied:] “Man, if you gotta ask, you’re never gonna know”. We can say the same thing about consciousness.

To learn more:

If you’re new to the philosophy of mind, try the following resources to get started:

If you prefer videos:

If you prefer podcasts:

  • Start by listening to Keith Frankish on the hard problem of consciousness [15:04] on the Philosophy Bites podcast.
  • The In Our Time podcast also has an episode on consciousness [27:35] featuring Ted Honderich and Sir Roger Penrose which is particularly entertaining. Penrose is way out of his depth and Honderich’s critique is absolutely scathing. I actually felt a bit sorry for Penrose by the end of it.

For a more comprehensive overview, read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on consciousness.

What is the relationship between the mind and the body?

Excerpt from Mind: A Brief Introduction by John Searle:

What exactly are the relations between the mental and the physical, and in particular how can there be causal relations between them? It seems impossible that there should be causal relations between two completely different metaphysical realms, the physical realm of extended material objects and the mental or spiritual realm of minds or souls. How does anything in the body cause anything in the mind? How does anything in the mind cause anything in the body? Yet, it seems we know that there are causal relations. We know that if somebody steps on my toe, I feel a pain even though his stepping on my toe is just a physical event in the physical world, and my feeling of pain is a mental event that occurs inside my soul. How can such things happen? Just as bad: it seems there are causal relations going the other way as well. I decide to raise my arm, an event that occurs inside my conscious soul, and, lo and behold, my arm goes up. How are we supposed to think that such a thing could ever happen? How can a decision in my soul cause a movement of a physical object in the world such as my body? This is the most famous problem that Descartes left us, and it is usually called the “mind-body problem.” How can there be causal relations between the two? Much of the philosophy of mind after Descartes is concerned with this problem, and it is still, in spite of all of our progress over the centuries, a leading problem in contemporary philosophy.

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Substance dualism

Excerpt from Mind: A Brief Introduction by John Searle:

The philosophy of mind in the modern era effectively begins with the work of René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes was not the first person to hold views of the kind he did, but his view of the mind was the most influential of the so-called modern philosophers, the philosophers of the seventeenth century, and after. Many of his views are routinely expounded, and uncritically accepted today by people who cannot even pronounce his name. Descartes’ most famous doctrine is dualism, the idea that the world divides into two different kinds of substances or entities that can exist on their own. These are mental substances and physical substances. Descartes’ form of dualism is sometimes called “substance dualism.”

Descartes thought that a substance has to have an essence or an essential trait that makes it the kind of substance that it is (all this jargon about substance and essence, by the way, comes from Aristotle). The essence of mind is consciousness, or as he called it “thinking”; and the essence of body is being extended in three dimensions in physical space, or as he called it “extension.” By saying that the essence of the mind is consciousness, Descartes is claiming that we are the sort of beings we are because we are conscious, and that we are always in some conscious state or other and would cease to exist if we ceased to be in some conscious state. For example, right now my mind is concentrating consciously on writing the first chapter of this book, but whatever changes I go through when I stop writing and, for example, start eating dinner, I will still continue to be in some conscious state or other. In saying that the essence of body is extension, Descartes is claiming that bodies have spatial dimensions: the desk in front of me, the planet Earth, and the car in the parking lot are all extended or spread out in space.

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Property dualism

Excerpt from Mind: A Brief Introduction by John Searle:

There is a weaker version of dualism called “property dualism,” and that view is fairly widespread. The idea is this: Though there are not two kinds of substances in the world, there are two kinds of properties. Most properties, such as having an electrical charge, or having a certain mass, are physical properties; but some properties, such as feeling a pain or thinking about Kansas City, are mental properties. It is characteristic of human beings that though they are not composed of two different kinds of substances, their physical bodies, and in particular their brains, have not only physical properties, but mental properties as well.

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Physicalism

Excerpt from What Does It All Mean:? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by Thomas Nagel:

Many people think that belief in a soul is old-fashioned and unscientific. Everything else in the world is made of physical matter — different combinations of the same chemical elements. Why shouldn’t we be? Our bodies grow by a complex physical process from the single cell produced by the joining of sperm and egg at conception. Ordinary matter is added gradually in such a way that the cell turns into a baby, with arms, legs, eyes, ears, and a brain, able to move and feel and see, and eventually to talk and think. Some people believe that this complex physical system is sufficient by itself to give rise to mental life. Why shouldn’t it be? Anyway, how can mere philosophical argument show that it isn’t? Philosophy can’t tell us what stars or diamonds are made of, so how can it tell us what people are or aren’t made of? The view that people consist of nothing but physical matter, and that their mental states are physical states of their brains, is called physicalism (or sometimes materialism). Physicalists don’t have a specific theory of what process in the brain can be identified as the experience of tasting chocolate, for instance. But they believe that mental states are just states of the brain, and that there’s no philosophical reason to think they can’t be. The details will have to be discovered by science.

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The mind/brain identity theory

Excerpt from Philosophy: The Basics by Nigel Warburton:

This variety of physicalism states that mental events are identical with physical ones. A thought about the weather, for example, is simply a particular state of the brain. Whenever this particular state of the brain occurs, then we can describe this as having a thought about the weather. This is known as type-identity theory. All physical states of a particular type are also mental ones of a particular type.

To make this view clearer, consider how the terms ‘water’ and ‘H2O’ both refer to the same substance. We use the term ‘water’ in everyday contexts, and ‘H2O’ in scientific ones. Now, whilst both terms refer to the same thing, they have slightly different meanings: ‘water’ is used to draw attention to the substance’s basic properties of wetness and so on; ‘H2O’ is used to reveal its chemical composition. Few people ask for a jug of H2O to add to their whisky, yet water is H2O: they are one and the same thing.

Similarly a flash of lightning is also an electrical discharge of a certain kind. Whether we use ‘flash of lightning’ or ‘electrical discharge’ to describe this event depends on whether we are caught in a thunderstorm or giving a more scientific analysis of what is going on. We can use the everyday term ‘lightning’ without having any awareness of the scientific analysis of the cause of this phenomenon, just as we can use the term ‘water’ and understand what it’s like to get wet, without being aware of the chemical composition of water.

To get back to the mind/brain identity theory now, ‘a thought about the weather’ and ‘a particular state of the brain’ may be two ways of referring to precisely the same thing. The two phrases describe an identical event, but the meaning of the phrases is somewhat different. Most of us would use the mental description ‘a thought about the weather’ to describe this thing, but, according to the type-identity theory, a scientist could, in principle, give a detailed analysis of the brain state which is this thought. What is more, a type-identity theorist would argue that all thoughts of this type are actually brain states of this same type. One advantage of this theory of the mind is that it suggests the sorts of things which neuropsychologists could look for, namely the physical states of the brain which correspond to various thought types. However, there are several objections to the type-identity theory.

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Eliminative materialism

Excerpt from The Continuum Companion to Philosophy of Mind edited by James Garvey:

Eliminative materialists claim that our common sense description of the mind – our folk psychology – is false. We do not have beliefs, desires, hopes and fears. In a complete, true theory of the mind these categories will not be reduced to physical categories; rather, they will be eliminated in favour of the categories of a materialist theory that explains human cognition in physical, probably neurophysiological, terms. Some eliminative materialists, such as Quine, accept that folk psychology is indispensable to our everyday dealings: we shall thus continue to talk of beliefs and desires even though, strictly speaking, we do not have them. Others, notably Paul and Patricia Churchland, claim that we should strive to jetison such false ways of speaking. In the future we shall come to speak of each other, and see ourselves, not as believers and creatures of desire, but rather, in terms of the categories of neuroscience.

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Functionalism

Excerpt from The Continuum Companion to Philosophy of Mind edited by James Garvey:

Tables are not defined in terms of their physical structure since they can be made out of all kinds of stuff, including metal, wood, and plastic. They are defined according to their function: a table is (roughly) something which we use to put things on. Functionalists have a related view of the mind. I can feel pain and so perhaps can a tuna fish, yet our brains are structured differently. It is also conceivable that creatures on other planets can feel pain, and perhaps future robots, but such beings will have very different brains to us and to tuna. Mental states are not therefore defined in terms of their physical structure; they are, rather, defined by their causal relations. Pains are the kind of state that are caused by bodily damage and that lead to avoidance behaviour and depression. If an alien creature is in the kind of state that bears those relations with its behaviour and other mental states, then it is in pain. As Hilary Putnam claims: ‘we could all be made of Swiss cheese and it wouldn’t matter.’ A key problem for functionalism lies in accounting for the subjective feel of mental states, or what is called their phenomenology or qualitative nature. Pain may have the causal relations that functionalists say it does, but pain also feels a certain way – it hurts – and it is not clear how functionalists can account for this fact.

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Famous thought experiments

The Chinese room

Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the Chinese Room:

The argument and thought-experiment now generally known as the Chinese Room Argument was first published in a paper in 1980 by American philosopher John Searle (1932- ). It has become one of the best-known arguments in recent philosophy. Searle imagines himself alone in a room following a computer program for responding to Chinese characters slipped under the door. Searle understands nothing of Chinese, and yet, by following the program for manipulating symbols and numerals just as a computer does, he produces appropriate strings of Chinese characters that fool those outside into thinking there is a Chinese speaker in the room. The narrow conclusion of the argument is that programming a digital computer may make it appear to understand language but does not produce real understanding. Hence the “Turing Test” is inadequate. Searle argues that the thought experiment underscores the fact that computers merely use syntactic rules to manipulate symbol strings, but have no understanding of meaning or semantics. The broader conclusion of the argument is that the theory that human minds are computer-like computational or information processing systems is refuted. Instead minds must result from biological processes; computers can at best simulate these biological processes. Thus the argument has large implications for semantics, philosophy of language and mind, theories of consciousness, computer science and cognitive science generally. As a result, there have been many critical replies to the argument.

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Frank Jackson’s knowledge argument

Excerpt from Mind: A Brief Introduction by John Searle:

Jackson imagines a neurobiologist, Mary, who knows all there is to know about color perception. She has a total and complete knowledge of the neurophysiology of our color-perceiving apparatus, and she also has a complete knowledge of the physics of light and of the color spectrum. But, says Jackson, let us imagine that she has been brought up entirely in a black and white environment. She has never seen anything colored, only black, white, and shades of gray. Now, says Jackson, it seems clear that there is something left out of her knowledge. What is left out, for example, is what the color red actually looks like. But, then, it seems that a functionalist or a materialist account of the mind would leave something out, because a person might have the complete knowledge of all there was to know on a functionalist or materialist account, without knowing what colors look like. And the problem with colors is only a special case of the problem of qualitative experiences generally. Any account of the mind that leaves out these qualitative experiences is inadequate.

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Zombies

Excerpt from Mind: A Brief Introduction by John Searle:

One of the oldest arguments, and in a way the underlying argument in several of the others, is this: it is conceivable that there could be a being who was physically exactly like me in every respect but who was totally without any mental life at all. On one version of this argument it is logically possible that there might be a zombie who was exactly like me, molecule for molecule but who had no mental life at all. In philosophy a zombie is a system that behaves just like humans but has no mental life, no consciousness or real intentionality; and this argument claims that zombies are logically possible. And if zombies are even logically possible, that is, if it is logically possible that a system might have all the right behavior and all the right functional mechanisms and even the right physical structure while still having no mental life, then the behaviorist and functionalist analyses are mistaken. They do not state logically sufficient conditions for having a mind.

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Key terms and concepts

Intentionality

Excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Intentionality:

If I think about a piano, something in my thought picks out a piano. If I talk about cigars, something in my speech refers to cigars. This feature of thoughts and words, whereby they pick out, refer to, or are about things, is intentionality. In a word, intentionality is aboutness.

Many mental states exhibit intentionality. If I believe that the weather is rainy today, this belief of mine is about today’s weather—that it is rainy. Desires are similarly directed at, or about things: if I desire a mosquito to buzz off, my desire is directed at the mosquito, and the possibility that it depart. Imaginings seem to be directed at particular imaginary scenarios, while regrets are directed at events or objects in the past, as are memories. And perceptions seem to be, similarly, directed at or about the objects we perceptually encounter in our environment. We call mental states that are directed at things in this way ‘intentional states’.

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Internalism and externalism

Excerpt from the 1000 Word Philosophy article on Semantic Externalism:

Examples of mental phenomena are things like pain, joy, and perceptual states. Internalism about mental phenomena is the view that all mental phenomena are spatially located inside the brain or skin of the creature that possesses them. Externalism about mental phenomena is the view that not all mental phenomena are exclusively located inside the skull or skin of the creature that has them (Rowlands 2003, 2).

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Mental representation

Excerpt from A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind edited by Samuel Guttenplan:

When we think about the Eiffel Tower we can be said to represent it in our thought. In slightly different terminology, we can be said to possess a mental representation of the Eiffel Tower, and to differ in this from someone who lacks the means to think about that famous iron structure. So understood, a mental representation is simply a species of representation. However, deep and vexing problems arise when one tries to go beyond this minimal description and say more fully what kind of thing a mental representation is. Are thoughts somehow made up of mental presentations? Do mental representations have a causal and/or functional presence in the individual human mind or brain? And if they do have some such presence, are they like images, or more like linguistic signs? These questions set the agenda for a large part of contemporary philosophy of mind.

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Qualia

Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Qualia:

Feelings and experiences vary widely. For example, I run my fingers over sandpaper, smell a skunk, feel a sharp pain in my finger, seem to see bright purple, become extremely angry. In each of these cases, I am the subject of a mental state with a very distinctive subjective character. There is something it is like for me to undergo each state, some phenomenology that it has. Philosophers often use the term ‘qualia’ (singular ‘quale’) to refer to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives. In this broad sense of the term, it is difficult to deny that there are qualia. Disagreement typically centers on which mental states have qualia, whether qualia are intrinsic qualities of their bearers, and how qualia relate to the physical world both inside and outside the head. The status of qualia is hotly debated in philosophy largely because it is central to a proper understanding of the nature of consciousness. Qualia are at the very heart of the mind-body problem.

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Further Reading

If you’re serious about studying the philosophy of mind, I recommend using a more comprehensive and structured introduction, such as John Searle’s philosophy of mind lecture course, or an introductory philosophy of mind textbook, such as Philosophy of Mind: A Contemporary Introduction by John Heil or Mind: A Brief Introduction by John Searle.

Miscellaneous Resources

Youtube videos

Philosophy Bites

History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps

The Partially Examined Life

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Existential Comics

Other pages that may be of interest: