PLAIN TALK: Does Mind Push Around Atoms?

(This is the fifth post on Mind and Brain in the PLAIN TALK series. The earlier posts established the strange ways we talk about Mind and the different way we consider our Brain. But Mind has been mystified in its early history, and —really— with some good reasons that ‘we’ now overlook. Mind makes all the difference by comparison to matter. It is “Our Perspective” on things and the immediacy of our concerns. In this post, Matter, as the brain and beyond, makes its comeback and sets a stringent bottom line to Life and Mind.)

Throwing the curve ball. Can “Mind” bend the course of atoms? (image from

Mind is Our Culture and Society and Its History. Science is a vital part of our current culture. It has taken on the role of unrelenting analyst. The Atomic Relations of the world are the reductive residue created by scientific effort from our cultural objects as data. Now, are these atoms “created” or “found”? In the end, I will argue both are true. After all, Mind is our ability to make Representations, and apparently better and better ones. Science is an important representation of ‘the world’. It is, also, a human cultural creation.

We Do Not (Normally) Push Around Atoms, Though We Do Push Around Chairs

The unrelenting analysis of “the occurrences of life” has displayed to us a solid bottom line. The world as Physics and Chemistry is a stern task-master and we understand this in our lives in many ways. Resources are limited, complex organization is hard to find, entropy builds even if you do get something going. The Egyptian pyramids wear away; you and I die. Maybe American Democracy is falling apart, right now, under the pressure of a pandemic, bad leadership and a flagging economy. Material events do limit us, and often do so significantly. It seems that “Mind” is not able to dictate neural patterns in our brain nor swerve the course of atoms.

We rightly do not think of this “chair” as “atoms”. As atoms, this chair loses its individual identity.

Talk of “atoms” is a way we represent some aspects of ‘the world’. It is important to be clear in what contexts this “view of the world” is appropriate.

In my dining room, when I pull in my chair to eat, that chair is not atoms. I am not moving atoms by moving my chair. Nor is the food that I will eat atoms, or my feeling and evaluation that that food tastes “Good!” —as it almost always does at my house. None of these should be thought of as atoms. Of course, they usually are not, and that is appropriate. Our everyday cultural milieu allows ‘chairs’ to be chairs and ‘food’ to look and smell and taste like food should. Additionally, “me” at that table, I am not atoms. I am a Person in that context and when I compliment the cook, I hope they take it personally with, what we call, “a sense of pride and satisfaction.” Also, when I “make love” to my wife, atoms should be the least of my interests.

But there are some other, rather attenuated, ‘everyday contexts’ in which “atom-talk and action” are appropriate. At the CERN Laboratory in Switzerland, persons who are scientists adopt the the talk of atoms and have learned to create, with the use of high technology, environments where atoms Appear and Behave. In hospitals and medical labs, radiation of various kinds are studied and used to understand and cure cancers. These too utilize the perspective of scientific analysis and high tech equipment to alter our everyday environment and bring it in contact with the world as understood as atomic. After all, that is what the atomic bomb is all about! These “levels”, the everyday macro-level and the atomic level, do interact, but in a controlled and limited way.

Mind at the borderline of the macro and atomic levels. The “Fat Man” atom bomb.

At the CERN and in these hospitals, it is fair to say That Mind Does Control Matter. Mind and Matter each need to be given their due within their appropriate “logical space”. When scientists and engineers create atomic circumstances, they do so as parts of our modern society and culture. “Mindfully” they Design and Organize contexts where new things occur. They swerve the course of atomic and sub-atomic particles, though I do not when I pull in my chair in my dining room. Someday, science and technology may advance to the point of Brain Reading Machines, and even equipment to alter the firing on neurons.

I offer two other contexts in which it is appropriate to talk of a notable interaction taking place between the levels. In Contemplation and Decision, I think we can appropriately understand an interaction. Our society is Designed to have many Decision Points throughout each day, each hour. This design has been Sanctioned and Successful; it has been Naturally Selected, after all, if it weren’t how could we be as successful as we are?

At each decision point, I think it fair to characterize the situation as “waiting for input” or “waiting for things to fit together.” The decision-maker pauses, and her “mind” is “running the problem” as basically characterized by her and the social setting: “I am choosing my outfit for the day.” Something “clicks”, a “light comes on”, an “idea comes bubbling up” into consideration and is approved. We acknowledge this blind spot, a hidden moment of intervention . “My decision” is made and my understanding and introspection of it has rightly been limited and comes to an end. From the macroscopic level, I made that decision, and I can only describe it in terms of its own and will defend it in those terms also. I am fine with that; I am free and responsible for it.

In Promises, each party takes the other to be Free and Responsible for it abidance. A promise is at the level of persons. A brain injury would be the intrusion of a “lower level occurrence” into the grounds of “The Promise”.

The second and last context to be considered is Death and Dying. Here we see, experience and understand the dissolution of organization and its active “Functioning”. I have had close contact with a major death four times: my parents, my trusty dog Nika, and an elderly neighbor. Peculiar how, in the latter case, I found her sitting on her couch, in front of her television as I had seen her so many times before. This time cold (literally), grey, statue-like. It was not evident from her expression that any pain had wracked her and her body showed no sign of outward trauma. She just sat there, all the parts seemingly in place but no longer “working”.

Death and Freedom

This very brief consideration of death has re-enforced in my mind the close relation of the concepts of “experience” and “function”. Any kind of functioning that involves some kind of constant or persistent movement of parts has “experience”. Well, almost.

And, our Idea of Freedom is really quite constrained. It is, as if, we have already discovered the reasonable boundaries of “Mind” and “matter”. Most of us do not hope to levitate ourselves, or have ‘psychic powers’ to read the brain (mind?) of others, or even have a “flying carpet”, or live forever; now, some of us merely wish to freely make any decision and be Responsible for it. What do we control about ourselves, really? Must we be like the ancient Gods (the gods that some believe in still) to have any freedom at all? Our idea of Mind is closely aligned with our idea of freedom. It seems we have a real conflict between our various representations of our “selves” and our universe. Yet, I will argue for a very interesting compatibility between Mind and Brain, Mind and Matter.

The interaction of quantum particles. In very specialized circumstances, Persons as scientist and engineers do control the appearance and behavior of these forces. “Mind” can swerve the course of atoms! (thanks to The York Festival of Ideas for the image)

Starting in The Middle

Starting with the world as shown in Physics or Chemistry is not an ideal place to start. In the terms of these sciences, there is no such thing as mind or human culture or life. From the point of view of theoretical physics, an object is not discernible as alive or dead! Philosopher Dan Dennett has commented upon the lengths to which prominent contemporary theorists are going in their efforts to ‘explain’ consciousness and experience. Physicist Roger Penrose is speculating about unique quantum occurrences in the microtubes of neurons. Philosopher Galen Strawson has turned back to the idea of Pan-Psychism, that reality — at its most basic level — has a psychic element to it.

THE NEURON CELL: Do Unique Kinds of Quantum Events Occur Within Them?

I will follow Dennett in contending we need not go to those lengths. In the middle of these issues of “consciousness” and “experience” we have the science of Biology with its keystone, Evolution, and our experience of living creatures. The concept of an organism starts our self-reflection down the road to the idea of “A Designed Object”.

Today, we design and build many things to accomplish many goals. With our modern and fairly sophisticated Common Sense, we can be satisfied to understand, and experience, Goals, Purposes and Designs (an organization that is inherent to its parts) existing in the Biosphere and Human Society. The power of “design” and “organization” should not shock us today.

An Astronaut and the lunar lander, “Eagle”: Two Well Designed Objects.

So, I will start in the middle with the the origin of life and work outward toward the universe as presented to us in physics on one side, and our cultural experience as modern-day persons on the other. As already noted, to start with the objects of physics and chemistry as The Most Real is to already beg the question of “Mind”.

We “know” we are persons with responsibilities and commitments, with purposes to fulfill and goals to try to achieve, with experiences that we have — some private, some public. We know we participate “Mindfully” in these (for if we didn’t we would be said to have “lost our mind” and our social status would be seriously down graded). We know these things Not Scientifically, but Practically. It is The Way We Operate everyday as Persons. In philosophical terms, we would call this Phenomenological Knowledge, not scientific knowledge. It is a description of how we are (the phenomenon) and a defense of its character.

“Flaps down, landing approach initiated!” Our Practical Know-How is endorsed by the Evolutionary Process. It has been Naturally Selected for its effectiveness in reality.

A good example of this Practical Knowledge is our ability to use a language. We really have very little scientific knowledge of how this happens. We do not “know that” (as if pointing) speaking a language involves these specific neurons, in these specific patterns, under these specific conditions, in these specific parts of a brain. All this would be Scientific Knowledge. We are more like a bird flying; we have “know-how”. We experience and actively participate within the use of language by understanding it in its own terms: its labels, concepts, grammar, contexts (its Pragmatics—as Persons participating in a joke, a reprimand, a lecture, a sales pitch). This is the Information of Language and we use it as a participant, just as a bird uses the Information of Flight to fly. To speak a language and to fly, each involves Our Participation in these Structures to Function. We, nor the bird, take an external (scientific) view of the process.

In the Virtuous Circle of Our Personhood, Our Goal is Agreement

I just criticized the “physics over all” position as begging the question of Mind. Ironically, my position assumes the reality of Our Mind, and so is Circular and marshals arguments in support of mind. What else could you Reasonably want? From the point of view of a reasoner, Reasons and reasoning are mindful activities; they are Not “really” causal events in the brain or some causal event even more obliquely related to the physics of the universe! The contrary position attempts to use good reasons to argue for the non-existence of reasons. It takes one set of representations as Un-Represented Reality, and then uses it to declare representation does not exist. That is self-refuting; my position is self-supporting. My position tries to give good reasons for the metaphysical and practical value of good reasons. Dennett has called this argument “a virtuous circle” as opposed to an uninformative or unproductive circular argument.

“To make sense of our lives”, we need to stay within the Virtuous Circle of Our Personhood. This is “Our Selves” as responsible social members in communication and interaction to create our way of life; a way of life much of which we should highly Value. Within this Circle, atoms don’t usually push us around, nor do we usually push them around; they are largely irrelevant. When we “pull in our chair at the table to eat”, that is not In The Terms of Atoms. But our modern and highly sophisticated Representations of “The Occurrences in Life” have created and found situations in which we “know that” ultraviolet wave lengths of light cause cancer, and situations (The Cern Accelerator) in which sub-atomic particles are controlled by us using the terms we take to be appropriate to them. So, in some highly specialized contexts, we do “swerve the course of an atom” and maybe someday we may be able to alter and control neural firings. We do these things For The Sake of Our Advancement — the Purposes we and our society of communicators and participants hold dear; hopefully the progressive trends in that will always be the case, though that is not assured.

League of German Girls dancing at Nazi Party Congress. It is not assured that our cultural institutions will always be used for what many of us, now, would call “The Good”.

Our social and cultural context as Persons is our primary reality. We create contexts that reveal to us the Potential, the Possibilities, available in the particles evolving from the Big Bang. In the Doing of science, religion, art, craft, morality, and philosophy, our goal is to agree with our fellow social and cultural companions. From this position in the middle, human agreement and coordinated action is our most valuable asset. Working within our cultural assets, true beliefs are the ones that most of us agree to.

The “Founding Fathers” of The United States. They had some very good Reasons and some we now wish would have been better. Our Self-Reflection today holds them to some higher standards than even their revolutionary ones! They “made” world history: will we, today, achieve anything of that magnitude? And yet, some of us criticize them for not being more than they were and clamor to pull down their statues.

Some other “Virtuous Circles”

The Nitrogen Cycle: once established tends to be self-perpetuating. Each part of this cycle functions in reference to the others.
A specialized component in the Virtuous Circle of Persons. Virtuous Circles are Self-Reflective in the continuation of their process.

THE KREBBS CYCLE: a self-catalyzing reaction used in the Respiration of each cell. It is at the borderline of life and non-life.

Post seven in this series on “Mind and Brain” will provide “The Details” of these contentions. Matter pushes us around, frequently, but it does so in terms highly appropriate to us: ”wind”, “rain”, “death”, “illness”, “injury”, “hunger”, and “ignorance”. But, Mind has its way with matter upon many occasion. Against the rain, we have raincoats. Against illness we have medicines and hospitals. The truly paradoxical situations are when all characteristics of us are drained from our representations, as in physics and chemistry. It is there that “Mind” stands over against “Matter” in its most startling manner.

(I am not satisfied with this post in several ways. Please allow it to be suggestive, as opposed to ‘air tight’. The following post will try to clarify and more consistently coordinate the distinction of Mind and Matter.)

Plato’s Ideal Chair finally Realized in Our Material World! I can’t wait to try it!

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