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Defending the Mind’s Reality at a Materialist Cocktail Party

What to say when you find yourself among self-assured elite sloganeers

Most of the university cocktail set is quite sure that the mind is simply what the brain does. To doubt that, in their view, is to part company with science. And yet the evidence points in the opposite direction. If you are stuck with them, here are some snatches of their usual brilliance, along with suggested replies and their sources.

Arguments from evolution

Claim: We are just animals so, as we might expect, the human brain is not really unique. The human, mouse, and fly brains all use the same basic mechanisms!1

Response: That’s the remarkable part. What we do with our brains sets us apart. And greater size doesn’t really account for that. Lemurs, whose brains are only 1/200th the size of chimps’ brains, did as well as chimps on a primate intelligence test.2

Claim: We now know how the human mind evolved. Quite simply, it evolved to help our ancestors hunt more efficiently in groups.

Response: Wolves hunt efficiently in groups without anything like human consciousness. Microorganisms hunt efficiently without any brain at all. A human mind allows us to do many remarkable things but it is not needed for basic survival.3 That’s one reason that human consciousness is called a Hard Problem.4

Claim: The human brain is a mess, the haphazard outcome of millions of years of evolution, not of some sort of divine design.

Response: Actually, neuroscientists were recently surprised to discover that the white matter (connectome) in human brains is quite orderly, hardly a haphazard accumulation at all.5

Claim: Okay, perhaps the mind just emerged, slowly over eons, from the brain.

Response: The mind cannot just “emerge from” the brain if the two have no qualities in common — the one is immaterial, the other material. Pretty big gap.6

Arguments from neuroscience

Claim: Brain damage shows that the mind is really just the brain. Damage the brain and the mind goes … poof!

Response: That might be a good argument if things always happened that way. But a common treatment for severe epilepsy is to split the brain in half. The patient usually suffers only minor disabilities.7 Some people think and speak with only half a brain.8

Modern neuroscience is also shedding light on the minds of people in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). The preferred new term is “disorders of consciousness.” For example, in one study, “Remarkably, five patients were able to wilfully modulate their brain activity, suggesting that, though unable to express any outward signs of consciousness at the bedside, they could understand and follow the researchers’ instructions.”9 Generally speaking, people in a coma can hear and understand us.10

Brain damage is a serious business but it hardly shows that the mind is not real. Modern neuroscience enables us to identify many instances of humans struggling to express themselves using the available resources. That’s sometimes called neuroplasticity.11

Claim: More sophisticated brain scans will show, via the consensus of hundreds of studies, that there really isn’t any mind, just a brain.

Response: The present state of the field doesn’t offer that kind of hope. In a recent study including 70 research groups, sharp limitations in the value of brain imaging (fMRI) in understanding the mind were identified.12 There is poor correlation between different scans even of the same person’s brain.13 Sure, the technology will likely improve but neuroplasticity and constant activity may mean that this problem persists.

Claim: But we’re zeroing in now on exactly how the brain functions. There’s nothing mysterious about it. It’s just evolved animal thinking, not some “mind.”

Response: Even basic facts about how the brain operates are hotly contested. One basic assumption has been that the brain operates like a series of switches. But we now find, for example, that most parts of the brain are involved in processing signals arising from touch. We know that human thinking is different from animal thinking by its results. But just how it comes to be different has not been found in the brain and is still mysterious.14

Claim: In the end, despite all this, don’t most professional neuroscientists say that the mind is just the brain?

Response: Many scientists believe that, not because of evidence, but because they are materialists. Thinking it through carefully, the idea doesn’t even make sense, as neurosurgeon Michael Egnor points out: “How do we believe that there are no beliefs? If eliminative materialism is true, then their own belief in eliminative materialism isn’t a belief. It’s a physical state, a certain concentration of neurochemicals that we (the uninitiated) foolishly call a belief.15 In fact, the mind’s reality is consistent with neuroscience.16 It’s not popular with many neuroscientists but that is a different matter.

Claim: But surely no well-known neuroscientist doubts the consensus that the mind is just the brain!

Response: The great mid-twentieth century neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, offered three lines of reasoning for such doubts, based on brain surgery on over a thousand patients.17 Other neuroscience pioneers have arrived at that position through their research. They include Nobelist Roger Sperry (1913–1994) (split brain) and Benjamin Libet (free will).18

Restaurant automation service concept. Robot waiter serving a tray with a bottles and wine glass. Two wheels robotic character on yellow wall, gray floor background. copy space

Arguments from the inevitable triumph of technology

Claim: Don’t you know that computer programs being developed that think just like people?

Response: No. There are a number of reasons why computer programs can’t and won’t think just like people. Quite apart from the mind, the brain is not at all like a computer.19 Neuroscientist Yuri Danilov notes that seeing the brain as a computer is an easy misconception rather than an informative image: “But as soon as you assume that each neuron is a microprocessor, you assume that there is a programmer. There is no programmer in the brain; there are no algorithms in the brain…” Nor is the brain billions of little computers either.20

Despite that, much popular literature leaves the impression that living organisms are machines or even billions of them linked together. A clever programmer can certainly develop a routine that sounds lifelike (see, for example, Sophia the Robot). But human ingenuity doesn’t give the robot a mind. 21

Claim: But just you wait! Once robots gain consciousness, people will see that the so-called mind is just a biological mechanism, the way robots are a metal, plastic, and silicon mechanism.

Response: Because researchers are not even sure what human consciousness is, no way has been found to give an actual mind to robots. Contrary claims for, say, Sophia the Robot are hype, swallowed by uncritical media.22

Claim: All very well but give science time and we will solve the brain and dispense with the mind!

Response: We will never “solve” the brain. Science historian Matthew Cobb offers a look at some of the difficulties we face in The Idea of the Brain (2020). The future he envisions resembles our understanding of human history more than our understanding of a math problem. It’s something we can try to understand better but it’s not something we can just solve.23

Arguments from philosophy

Claim: If the mind were real, we could control inanimate objects by thoughts alone.

Response: Then the mind surely is real because we can do that now. Neurons can work with electrical signals from electronics. That’s good news for amputees and blind people.24 We are seeing encouraging results from a prosthetic hand controlled by thoughts, a mind-controlled robot arm that needs no brain implant, 25, and a device that feeds images from a camera directly into the brain via electrodes, allowing study participants with damaged nerves to experience some vision.26 It’s early days yet but, in principle, the will of the study participant, communicated through nerves to electronics, can cause a prosthesis to move.

Claim: If the mind weren’t just an illusion created by the brain, it would have more control over the body itself.

Response: Then the mind must be real. The mind can exert control over the body, if trained to do so. Tibetan monks can change their metabolism through disciplined meditation. Far from disproving that, science has documented it, neuroscience has confirmed it. Mind you, the monks practice — a lot. Most people don’t. That fact better accounts for failure than the idea that the mind is just an illusion created by the brain.27

Of course, one alternative to all this is simply to avoid cocktail parties with philosophical atheists. Psychologically, that might be better in many cases. These suggestions are intended as a help when you really must go and end up having to say something.

This story appeared in Salvo 57 Summer 2021 as “A Cocktail Party Challenge.”

You may also wish to read: Your mind vs. your brain: Ten things to know


[1] Ancestral regulatory mechanisms specify conserved midbrain circuitry in arthropods and vertebrates Jessika C. Bridi, Zoe N. Ludlow, Benjamin Kottler, Beate Hartmann, Lies Vanden Broeck, Jonah Dearlove, Markus Göker, Nicholas J. Strausfeld, Patrick Callaerts, Frank Hirth
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Aug 2020, 117 (32) 19544-19555; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1918797117: https://bit.ly/2Nuu1ek

[2] Deutsches Primatenzentrum (DPZ)/German Primate Center, “Primate brain size does not predict their intelligence,” ScienceDaily: https://bit.ly/3knwgf6

[3] News, “Why do many scientists see cells as intelligent?” Mind Matters News, October 7, 2020: https://bit.ly/2PaEnQU

[4] Tom Stoppard, The Hard Problem,Lincoln Center Theater: https://bit.ly/3aT13h4

[5] Ed Yong, “The brain is full of Manhattan-like grids,” National Geographic March 29, 2012: https://on.natgeo.com/2O2Q7Va

World philosophy day education concept: tree of knowledge planting on opening old big book in library with textbook  in natural background

[6] News, “Why the mind cannot just emerge from the brain,” Mind Matters News, February 17, 2020: https://bit.ly/3dL4lVb

[7] News, “If your brain were cut in half, would you still be one person?” Mind Matters News, April 4, 2020: https://bit.ly/3aQMri8

[8] News, “Some people think and speak with only half a brain,” Mind Matters News, November 21, 2019: https://bit.ly/3kv6shu

[9] Aurore Thibaut, “Consciousness Regained,” Aeon, June 5, 2020: https://bit.ly/3bCknye

[10] News, “Can loved ones in a coma hear us?” Mind Matters News, April 15, 2020: https://bit.ly/3aR2bS4

[11] News, “How the injured brain heals itself: Our amazing neuroplasticity,” Mind Matters News, May 23, 2019: https://bit.ly/3qVrQPk

[12] Mark Humphries, “Seventy Teams of Scientists Analysed the Same Brain Data, and It Went Badly,” Spiked, July 1, 2020 : https://bit.ly/3ssCwW4

[13] Karl Leif Bates, “Studies of brain activity aren’t as useful as scientists thought,” Duke Today, June 3, 21020: https://bit.ly/37MGykd

[14] Lund University, “New view on the mechanisms of how the brain works,” Science Daily, April 29, 2019: https://bit.ly/3dMhg9q

[15] Michael Egnor, “Why the mind can’t just be the brain,” Mind Matters News, August 11, 2020: https://bit.ly/2NCXL8J

[16] News, “The mind’s reality is consistent with neuroscience,” Mind Matters News, February 21, 2020: https://bit.ly/3aQUdbE

[17] News, “Why pioneer neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield said the mind is more than the brain,” Mind Matters News, February 29, 2020: https://bit.ly/2ZPy2MJ

[18] News, “Four researchers whose work sheds light on the reality of the mind,” Mind Matters News, July 2, 2019: https://bit.ly/3uvTWmd

[19] News, “Why the brain is not at all like a computer,” Mind Matters News, September 20, 2019: https://bit.ly/3dMkCJy

[20] Mind Matters, “Brains are not billions of little computers,” Mind Matters News, November 10, 2018: https://bit.ly/2Nvm1tx

[21] News, “2018 AI Hype Countdown 4: Making AI Look More Human Makes It More Human-like!” Mind Matters News, August 30, 2019: https://bit.ly/3qVQeAn Hype re Sophia is the focus.

[22] Jonathan Bartlett, “2019 AI Hype Countdown #10: Sophia the Robot still gives ‘interviews,’” to a mostly uncritical media, Mind Matters News, December 23, 2019: https://bit.ly/3pTPM48

[23] Matthew Cobb, “Why your brain is not a computer,” The Guardian, February 27, 2020: https://bit.ly/2NVLXhE

[24] Abby Olena, Patients Try Most Intuitive Hand Prosthetics Yet in Pilot Trial, The Scientist, March 5, 2020: https://bit.ly/3kr4Xkq

[25] Emily Durham, “First-ever noninvasive mind-controlled robotic arm,” Carnegie Mellon University News, June 6, 2020: https://bit.ly/3dNj1U6

[26] News, “High tech can help the blind see and amputees feel,,”Mind Matters News, https://bit.ly/3dLotGN

[27] Russ Parizeau, “The Tibetan research of Herbert Benson,” Aeon, September 16, 2019: https://bit.ly/2NFOeh1

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Defending the Mind’s Reality at a Materialist Cocktail Party