Are thoughts made of atoms?

Eric asked:

I get a little tired of scientists saying ‘everything is composed of atoms.’ Surely thoughts and feeling are not composed of atoms. I am thinking of this in the context of ‘qualia’ — obviously mental phenomena are acompanied by changes in the brain — but that is not the same thing as the subjective experience — although physicalists wd say it is!

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I commend your healthy scepticism. For a start, it is palpably wrong to say that everything is made of atoms, since atoms themselves are composed of parts. Therefore the claim is correct only for the chemical realm. But thoughts and feelings are not part of chemistry; and you are perfectly in the right being tired of hearing physicalist assertions — they have not a shred of evidence to support them. For anyone to declare qualia, emotions, desires, will power etc. to be based in chemistry is nothing other than an expression of their personal opinion and no higher in probability terms than your complaint.

Indeed the correlation of certain brain sectors with subjective states and performances succeeds in merely pushing the argument up one level, i.e. that the brain sectors in question each have responsibility for the generation of subjective assessments in light of their particular competence, such as dealing with danger or engendering a cognitive performance. Logically, then, subjectivity begins there; and the outcome of their activity is to entangle your consciousness in the decision-making process or in the cognitive apprehension of some situation. Does this remind you of Dennett’s Consciousness Explained? Well, Dennett himself put the question at the end of his book, whether he succeeded only in explaining consciousness away? I think the aye’s have it.

So you can see that this line of argumentation goes round in circles and knows not where to stop. Our difficulty with subjective states is, that not only humans, but many species of animals are demonstrably equipped with mental capacity. Whereas not a single item of chemistry or physics has ever been shown to exhibit signs of animation.

I am sceptical that this dividing line can be transgressed by future scientific discoveries. We know intuitively and intellectually that there is a dividing line between life and non-life, in the sense that they are incompatible states of being. This is shown by the fact that all life forms make use of physical substrates for their own benefit, whereas nothing in the physical realm is demonstrable as an entelechy, i.e. a potential bearer of life. Indeed the triumph of science rests solidly on the demonstration that the entire subatomic realm, from neutrons to Higgs boson, is utterly devoid of life. In sum, I can’t see any plausible argument whatever, anywhere, for the physicalist doctrine of mental states, subjectivity, qualia or intentionality.

One thought on “Are thoughts made of atoms?

  1. Thanks for your enlightening reply Jurgen. I realised I was touching on the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ in my question – but best not open that can of worms!

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