Wiping Minds

Science of the Mind — POSTED BY Mat Colborn on August 3, 2010 at 10:24 am

It is quite common, in these neurocentric days, to find statements from those who eagerly anticipate the final abolition of minds, with no thought to the consequences. One recent example was from archaeologist Peter Watson in the New Scientist, (quoted in Beauregard & O’Leary, 2007);

“The social, psychological and cognitive sciences remain stuck with pre-scientific words and concepts. For many of us the word ‘soul’ is obsolete as ‘phlogiston,’ but scientists still use such imprecise words as ‘consciousness’, ‘personality’ and ‘ego,’ not to mention ‘mind.’

Perhaps it is time that, in science at least, ‘’imagination’ and ‘introspection’ are remodelled out, or preferably, retired. Artists can have fun with them, but the serious business of the world has moved on.”

It’s hard to know where to begin with a statement like this. Note first the implication that art is not ‘serious business,’ and that science is. The retirement of ‘mentalistic’ terminology has also been enthusiastically advocated by those who think it ‘obvious’ that the mind/consciousness can be easily reduced to the brain; see Pat Churchland’s Neurophilosophy for lengthy expositions of this point of view. Her husband, Paul, wants ‘folk psychological’ words like ‘mind’ retired in favour of more neurologically correct phrases. (The Churchlands are two well known philosophers of mind whose views are highly regarded in the field).

I find this sort of advocacy appalling. One reason is that it is not very clear at all to what extent private experiences, for instance, can be reduced to patterns of neural firing in the brain, even if the correlations are, at times, close. Alternative interpretations remain perfectly viable.

But the main issue here is the proposed abolition of language. Neither Watson nor the Churchlands seem to have read and/or absorbed George Orwell’s 1984. In this novel, the fictional totalitarian government was developing Newspeak, the primary aim of which was to ‘rationalize’ language. One of the reasons they wanted to do this was to control thought, and one of the characters points out that, once the words for rebellion are abolished, then people won’t be able to plot or even think rebellion.

Similarly, if we successfully abolish the language of ‘mind,’ then it is quite possible that alternative, mentalistic ways of looking will also be abolished, because we won’t have the language to talk about them. This has been an utterly standard method of cultural imperialism from the year dot. If you want to subjugate a people and destroy a culture, forbid them to speak their language. It’s a very efficient method of assimilation. And yet these well-intentioned people seem to be unaware that this is precisely what they are proposing.

The abolition of mentalistic terms is often proposed for the best of reasons – these writers honestly believe they’re wanting a desirable and ‘scientifically’ justified thing. But the path to hell is paved with good intentions. My great fear is that they may succeed; that we’ll eventually become so saturated with ‘neuro’ speak, we won’t be able to think in alternative ways — even if such a conversion camouflages and makes inaccessible ways of thinking that have significant benefits in people’s lives. And so an important way of looking at things will be at one with the dodo, like all the other cultures we’ve destroyed in the name of progress.

Finally — we have the subtle but persistent suspicion of the imagination, also evidenced in Richard Dawkins’ statements about fantasies like Harry Potter possibly degrading children’s abilities to reason. We’re not allowed to imagine things that are not so, or couldn’t be, right? Conversely, are we only ‘allowed’ to think in strictly rational-analytical ways?

A strict adherence to rational thought would be a problem even within science. A number of the greatest theories were in some sense day-dreamed or dreamt into existence, the theory of Relativity, Mendeleev’s conception of the periodic table, and Loew’s recognition of the principle of neurotransmitters being examples (Corliss, 2004). And it was Einstein who said that imagination was more important than knowledge. Science is not just about step-by-step reasoning. It’s important, but not really the heart of creation and invention. And the abolition of the imagination would be a positive crime in a culture in which it is already sorely lacking.


Beauregard, M. & O’Leary, D. (2007) The Spiritual Brain. HarperOne.

Corliss, W.R. (2004). Science Frontiers II. Sourcebook Project: Glen Arm, MA.

Watson, P. (2005). Not Written in Stone. New Scientist, Aug 29.

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  • Meat Robot says:

    I think you’re misunderstanding what these people are saying. Nobody wants to take words like mind, ego, consciousness, etc. literally out of scientific speech. Watson uses the word “phlogiston” in this quote. Look at that, it’s not removed from use in scientific speech even by those who regard it as ridiculous. These thinkers are taking a stand on an issue, not trying to abolish words. There is no free will but, it does not follow that we should not use the words “free will.” Even though the idea of creationism/intelligent design is a total joke, scientists still use the word “creationism” simply to refute the theory. Granted, you have done the research and I have not. However, I encourage you to look deeper into what these people are saying and consider that perhaps you may have misunderstood them.

    I resent the previous post. To argue that an existentialist’s point is invalid because they are not a “real scientist” is a foolish argument to make. It is the philosopher who is concerned with the freedom of the will whether or not there is such a thing. However, whether or not people have free will is entirely dependent on science. The same can be said for the topic of the mind. Because a philosopher is not by name a scientist does it follow that he cannot do science? Of course not. Philosophers use science frequently, and to dismiss a scientific argument because the person who presents that argument is not, by name of degree, a scientist is outrageous. Would you tell a scientist that her mathematical conclusions are invalid because she is not a mathematician? Of course you wouldn’t. The fields of mathematics and science are intertwined, reliant on each other. The same can be said for philosophy and science (as well as philosophy and mathematics). Scientists and philosophers have a common goal: to understand truth. It is unwise to dismiss one approach simply because you understand it less from another. THAT, sounds a lot like what Mr. Colborn was saying in this article about George Orwell’s 1984, not with language, but with ideas. To say that a person should be ignored with regards to their educated opinions is the same as saying that some “misleading” words should literally not be used. So, what your post suggests about free thought is exactly what Mr. Colborn is so worried about.

  • Nicco says:

    These scientists are not really scientists; real scientists allow for any possibility. They are actually Existentialists not scientists. Descartes said “I think therefore I am!” Just suppose he had it wrong and it is really “I am therefore I think!” Existence evaluated on the second statement changes everything. Re-evaluate what you know using this concept. One possibility is that the brain is the physical organ that transmutes thought to physical reality. All physical actions begin as thought. There are real scientists investigating these ideas. The Existentialists contribute to the understanding of physical reality but they should be ignored when it comes to their pontifications about consciousness and mind!!


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