Changing How the World Thinks

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Why The Mind Is Not the Brain

Neo-existentialist Markus Gabriel argues that the term ‘mind’ is meaningless
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He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

One of the youngest philosophy professors in Germany, Markus Gabriel teaches in 16 languages, dreads metaphysics and thinks that the philosophy of mind needs to tighten up. Author of ‘I Am Not A Brain’ and ‘Why The World Does Not Exist’, he will be debating Mind, Matter and Mechanisms with neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland and writer and former clinical neuroscientist Raymond Tallis at our London Festival HowTheLightGetsIn on 22-23 September. In the interview below, he talks about why he prefers the German term ‘geist’ to the English ‘mind’, how we should reclaim our rationality, and why we ought to stop making claims about what we don’t know.

Let’s start with the title of your latest book. Why is the mind not the brain?

The shortest argument goes something like this: there’s what philosophers call a mereological fallacy. Mereology is the discipline which studies the relation between wholes and parts. 

So imagine someone tells you that David Beckham didn’t score a goal, it was his foot. That would be an odd thing to say because Beckham couldn’t shoot for the goal without his foot, but it was the whole beast, so to speak, which shot the goal.

So, mental states like consciousness are states of an entire animal and not states of its parts. So it’s not true that the brain alone is conscious. You couldn’t be conscious without a brain, but that doesn’t mean that the brain and consciousness are identical.  

But the mainstream biological view is that as the central nervous system, the brain dictates to the rest of the body. So the foot just executes what the brain dictates.

That’s what you might think. The brain is not a conscious control centre. All the parts are connected in complicated ways. 

So, for instance, the mental state in which I am right now is that I’m trying to answer a question. I couldn’t answer a question without you asking me a question. The fact that you ask me a question is part of the mental state that I’m in. But this is nowhere in my body. It’s represented in my body – I need to have a working memory, but this conversation is nowhere in my body; it actually expands a much larger spacetime. Currently that’s England, Germany, as well as the communications networks – Skype etc. So my mental state is part of a larger network, it’s not just in my head. 


"Selves are so mysterious to us, because they are in the process of temporal and historical unfolding."


What you call ‘mind’ in English does not exist. The ‘mind’ is a historical artefact of misguided philosophical theorising in English. As a term, it does not refer to anything. Philosophers made it up as a technical term. But no one ever tells you what that means. If you look into any standard textbook, ever since John Locke, no one will tell you what it is. It’s not like philosophers have settled the term ‘mind’ and now they’re talking about the mind-brain problem. No two analytical philosophers share the same understanding of the most important term of their discipline. 

In German, we have this helpful term – ‘geist’, which roughly means ‘the bearer of mental states’. The brain alone cannot bear mental states. 

‘Geist’ to me seems closer to the term ‘culture’. 

It’s much closer to the term ‘culture’ but I would say geist is the idea of ‘shared meaning’. So for instance you go out for the evening and there’s a certain atmosphere that the restaurant has. That is shared meaning. There’s a kind of food you expect, a certain cost for the wine, an expectation of how much you’ll tip, etc. 

What we should be talking about is the relation between ‘shared meaning’ and the fact that we are animals. So we shouldn’t be asking about the relation between the mind and the brain. That’s a pseudo-question, like asking about the relation between God and the universe. It’s meaningless.

Is consciousness a term that you think is better?

‘Consciousness’ is slightly better than ‘the mind’ if we separate between two types of consciousness. There are different ways of drawing this distinction and I have a huge debate with John Searle on this, but here’s my distinction: intentional consciousness and phenomenal consciousness.  

Let intentional consciousness be our capacity to think about things that are not necessarily false. For instance, I can think of London, and London is not just a thought. I can think about my hand, and my hand is not just a thought. I can think of things that aren’t me or my thought.  

Phenomenal consciousness is the kind of state that you can modify by drinking coffee, taking LSD, and so on. It’s the feeling of being alive. I think there’s no hard problem of it. It’s easy to say what it is. It’s been studied; we know its neural correlates. There’s no single phenomenal consciousness, there are different ones. Feelings, moods, visual and tactile impressions – they are all phenomenal and they have different correlates in the brain. This is where a legitimate brain–consciousness problem exists but this is not a philosophical problem. It’s no more philosophical than any other empirical problem. It’s a straightforward empirical question.  

So are you quite close to Andy Clark’s idea of the ‘extended mind’ and do you share his interest in cyborgs?

I do agree that this is a kind of ‘extended mind’ thesis but it has nothing to do with recent technological developments. The biggest extended mind of all time remains the book. The most powerful intellectual device of all time is writing. The internet is nowhere near the book. The smartphone lasts barely more than five years, whereas Plato’s dialogues have lasted for 2,000 years. In fact, the recent technological extension of the mind makes us much weaker as thinkers. It has lessened our capacity to extend our mind. 

Given that you think the ‘geist’ encompasses what we are beyond our biology more effectively than the ‘mind’, how does that affect your ideas about identity? Does that bring you to a Buddhist-like view that we are not self-contained beings? 

I have no Buddhist worries about identity at all. I think Buddhism is just false. I have no sympathy for the idea of ‘no-self’ it espouses. I think I have a self but my self is just not finished. Personal identity is a four dimensional thing. That means I will have been all the thoughts that I will have had. To be precise, Markus Gabriel, the system that I am, is everything that is true of Markus Gabriel. That includes me currently having two hands, me having died at a certain point and so forth. That is my self. Currently I am not yet identical with myself. Because I’m not finished. Once I’m finished I will have identity. That means that you don’t see the whole me right now. You see a part of me. That’s obviously true because you don’t see my back, you see me through Skype, etc. So of course you can’t see the whole animal. That’s why selves are so mysterious to us, because they are in the process of temporal and historical unfolding. They can change. This is what Buddhists get wrong. 

The truth in Buddhism is that there is no substantial being that you find by looking in the mirror. If I look in the mirror, I don’t see myself; I see a part of myself. But Buddhism exaggerates this point and says that there is ‘no self’ and that nothing is identical to itself. 


"We are a question concerning what it is to be human."


How do your ideas about the mind connect to your ideas about ‘the world’ vs. ‘the universe’?

That’s very important. Basically, the ‘mind’ or ‘geist’ comes into the picture within my philosophy as a consequence of the following question: what am I doing when I philosophise? And my answer is this: I am giving an account of what it is to be human. 

Why do I need to give such an account? Because initially I have no clue what it is to be human. Someone will tell you that you have an immortal soul, so don’t worry about it. Then you’ll meet Daniel Dennett, and he will tell you, ‘Oh, don’t worry, you’re just a killer-robot.’ Or a ‘primate with illusions.’ And then I’ll meet the Buddhists and they’ll tell me – ‘Oh, there’s nothing there, you’re not human. The whole thing is just an illusion.’ 

I think philosophy is an attempt to give a rational answer to that question. One that does not buy any of the options that are already on the market but which instead looks for a rationally controlled investigation of the human into what it is. I call that a higher-order anthropology. That is, an account of what the human is in the light of the fact that we don’t yet know what the human is. Otherwise put, humans are questions. 

We are a question concerning what it is to be human. And any answer that we give defines what we are. We are self-determining animals. That is what I call ‘geist’ – the capacity to be a self-determining animal. The universal humanity is just the insight that other humans realise universal humanity in a different way. But the conditions of realisation are the same for all of us. 


"The idea that you are your brain is in existentialist jargon just as bad propaganda as the idea that you have an immortal soul."


In this context, we come up with notions such as the world, the universe, the mind, the brain, as an answer to the question of what we are. If I want to know what my position is in the universe, I will find out I’m somewhere in the branch of the Milky Way. 

The human is the fundamental starting point of any investigation. I criticise the idea that there is a totality of objects or a reality out there that is fully stable because I believe this is an ideology: a story that humans tell to themselves in order to be less human, to have a definite answer. That’s why I call myself a neo-existentialist. 

The idea that you are your brain is in existentialist jargon just as bad propaganda as the idea that you have an immortal soul. Because you identify yourself with an object in reality rather than with the capacity to ask a certain question. It’s a form of alienation, as the existentialist tradition would call it. 

So you believe in agency more than neuroscientists and materialists might? 

Yes, absolutely. I think that the situation that we think we’re in – participants in the rational game of getting to, and asking for reasons, decision-makers, subjects to Freudian unconscious drives, etc. – the situation that we think we’re in is really the situation that we’re in. I’m against illusions. I think that the idea that human agency is an illusion is currently the most dangerous idea out there. 


Because that is exactly what propaganda leaders, the so-called ‘populists’, use to spread fake news. So if you tell people, ‘Oh, it’s more complicated, things are not what they seem; Brexit might not be such a bad idea, or Erdogan might not be a dictator, or Donald Trump might not be an idiot. Things are probably much more complicated than you think’, you then don’t trust your senses, your sensibilities, because people tell you that you shouldn’t. 

‘Don’t trust your rational deliberations, you’re full of biases.’ That is what behavioural economics has shown – that you’re never in control of your rationality. But all this critique of rationality that we have seen for the last two decades serves the same function as Lacan and the French postmodernism that has been criticised by analytical philosophy for undermining reason. However, if philosophy saw anything as bad, that would precisely be the undermining of reason. 

But acknowledging and understanding our irrationality is important. 

Yes, but understanding irrationality is not irrational. If our biases applied to the study of biases, we couldn’t conduct it. So if behavioural economics and psychoanalysis were subject to the biases they said they discovered, then they wouldn’t be discovering anything. They would be subject to the same illusions. That’s the famous problem wherein the critique of ideology must not itself be ideological. And there’s a simple solution. 

We all do struggle with self-application in our everyday lives because we have become aware (thanks to scientific discoveries, of course) that there are all sorts of biases that we were unaware of earlier. 


"Nothing within the universe can ever know everything about the universe. "


The best thing to do is to accept that they are first order biases in human nature and psychology, economics, sociology, neuroscience etc. help us discover them. It’s a biological truth that we are not born with one of the two genders. A fact that has largely been ignored for thousands of years. Now these are all facts and it’s important to know them.

However, that does not mean we are not rational. Only because we are rational can we know all of these facts about our irrationality. No one in the rationalist tradition has ever ignored that. The rationalist tradition is the discovery of the unconscious. You find the unconscious in Leibniz, Descartes, Plato. 

So basically you’re saying that we have both rationality and irrationality in ourselves and that rationality simply helps us deal with our irrationality. 

Absolutely. Philosophy is the pure cult of rationality. Philosophy’s enemy is irrationality.

I want to get back to something you said – that there is no totality of things out there. Where do you position yourself in relation to materialists, panpsychists, pluralists? 

I think these views – such as materialism, panpsychism etc – are all false because they are metaphysical. And by metaphysics, I mean any theory of absolutely everything. 

Fundamentally, it’s a simple argument: we have no reason to believe there is a totality. Even if you think there’s just a material universe, the material universe has not come to an end. And we don’t know everything about it. So we have no empirical reason whatsoever to believe that there is a totality. Everything that we know empirically is limited by our perspective. That’s in the nature of empirical knowledge – that it doesn’t know absolutely everything; it knows what it knows. 

Recent developments in meta-mathematics since the 1960s will show to any competent mathematician that there is no formal system such that all truths are theorems of that system. What we know from science and mathematics is that there is no totality. Rather, they tell me that there is no reason to believe that there is a totality. I’ve never seen an argument for there being a totality, only the assumption that there is one. 

Philosophers uncritically accept that metaphysics is a good business even if it has been heavily criticised by philosophers. They forgot all the reasons why we stopped doing it and fell back into all the traps that have been criticised for the last four hundred years. Materialism and panpsychism are just versions of metaphysics, and that’s why I think I can easily discard them.

So you’re saying that we can only study parts of the universe from our perspective and we should just accept this limitation and do the most with what we’ve got.

Absolutely. That’s all we can do. It’s in the nature of the universe that all our knowledge is partial. It’s not the deficiency of humans or that we should try harder and get better computers. The microstructure of the universe is not classical. That just means that nothing within the universe can ever know everything about the universe. 

Markus Gabriel will be speaking at our London Festival HowTheLightGetsIn on 22-23 September. Book your tickets here.

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