What is Mind? Does it matter? What is matter? Never mind!
    By Gary Herstein | August 3rd 2009 07:12 PM | 13 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Gary

    Dr. Herstein began his career in the computer and networked PC industries, where he worked for almost 25 years. During this time he completed an...

    View Gary's Profile
    Bertrand Russell was frequently abused as a child by his parents and elders with the titling piece of snark to this blog entry. While not a particular Russell fan (though he was a spectacularly clear writer) I find myself of late returning to the above snottily dismissive piece of dogmatic anti-intelligence with singluar antipathy towards those who ennuciate it of late. You see, questions of mind and matter have been weighing heavily on my these last few months.

    • I have a front row seat to my father's delamination due to dementia, possibly early onset alzheimers.
    • His sister, my aunt, is evidently racing to catch up with him.
    • Which additionally suggests that I have a genetic predisposition to join them on the merry-go-round.
    What is mind? Or, if you prefer, what is "the mind?" Watching it slowly disintegrate in the man who made it possible for me to achieve my earned Ph.D is not disturbing, it is enraging. How many synonyms for "powerless" do you know? (Do not imagine sharing them all with me here an now is a good idea.)

    Again I ask, what is "the mind"? But now I ask, how is the previous question different from, say, Groucho Marx's classic, "are you still beating your wife?" The latter is a paradigm example of the fallacy of the Complex Question (; why don't we recognize the former as such as well?

    Why, in particular, do we ask that question as though "the mind" were a noun, a substance, a "thing"? Why don't we frame the question in terms of behavior and process?

    The Behaviorists (in psychology) who noted the above issue, responded to it tradtionally by pulling out the biggest honkin' pieces of artillery they could lay their hands on so that they could proudly blow both of the own feet off with a single shot. "Mind is not a 'thing,' therefore there is no mind!"

    Uh-huh; who knew stupid came in such vivid colors?

    Verbs, actions, processes are arguably MORE real than nouns, substances, "things."

    What is "mind"? "It" is the forms and modalities of MINDING. It is not a "thing" supervening upon "matter," but a functional structure of materiality in action and process. Insofar, it is more real than the brute passivity it exploits to manifest the possibilities of its expression.

    My father still readily knows who I am. On the other hand (at 81 and after over 16 years of retirement) he became deeply concerned that he should be at work at 3:00 PM this afternoon while I was visiting.

    And yes, I do mind.


    This question of what “mind” is and how it arises has been plaguing me very much of late. It would seem to me that mind is an emergent property of the complex electrical or electro chemical reactions that are going on in the brain and seems in quality as least to be dependent on the degree of this complexity. Bigger, more complex brain, bigger more developed mind. However it is not clear to me whether it is analogous to a concrete physical manifestation such as an electrical or magnetic field that with the right physical conditions and the right measuring tools can be mapped and measured and made subject to physical laws such as these other physical attributes of matter that arise from the right combinations of atoms but produce fields that are separate from these atoms and molecules.

    Is it the physical measureable structure of the physical state that matters or is it the complexity of the structure that leads somehow to another different form of field or manifestation. Is it an emergent property of atoms and fields or it is an emergent property of complexity and information?

    Gary Herstein
    I rather suspect that there are issues of complexity that we've barely begun to learn how to measure. Various levels of interactive density are undoubtedly necessary for "mind processes" to manifest themselves in the world. But I don't think that is enough.

    Some care here is needed. I do not want to be read as suggesting that "mind" is some kind of "stuff" in addition to the material substrate that supports &/or manifests it. (The language here is tricky and requires caution.) But there are issues of formal semantics that come into play which cannot (evidently) be reduced to the formal semantical terms employed in the physical sciences.

    Most particularly, that category of terms known as "intentional" seem to be intrinsically necessary to the understanding of mind and mind phenomena.

    This cannot be semantically reduced to the kinds of terms used in mechanistic theories such as physics and chemistry. But since intentionality is necessary in any act of interpretation, these latter require that the intentional in order for them to take on any sort of meaning what-so-ever.

    (Short response to a very complex problem.)
    You dudes need to get laid.

    Mind is the memory and derived anticipation knowledge base used by living matter for how to react to it's environment (both living and non living matter).

    Gary Herstein
    Having said as much, it is not clear how much you've actually said. The "how to react" phrase does travel in the direction I was arguing for (in so far as my above hand-wringing qualifies as an argument) since it leads in the direction of a functional and processive, rather than substantive and objectual, interpretation of mind.

    But there are problems here as well. "Memory" is a rather vague notion, and the emphasis upon knowledge in the above pushes things pretty much altogether into cognition. This latter move (insofar as it is the move you inteneded) is at least arguable.

    My cats have memory and anticipation, and act in a manner that shows intentionality in various forms: desire, preference, interest, excitement, startle, fear, displeasure, pleasure, and so on. I would, however, dispute that any of these mindful functions are specifically cognitive &/or knowledge based.
    Connor Davidson
    That title would make a great bumper sticker.
    Gary Herstein
    As noted above, the title is not original with me. Poor old Bertie was sincerely asking about such matters and all the family and attendents of the house of Lord Russell would do for him is that sort of snark.
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Only if you wanted someone like me to bump into the back of your car! I think I'd find it pretty distracting.

    Gary, I'm really sorry to hear that your father and aunt are both developing symptoms of dementia, my mother also recently suffered from a neurodegenerative illness of the mind or matter which was hard for everyone to witness and especially hard for her. You might find this article interesting, its about trepanation or drilling a hole in the skull being touted as a possible cure for dementia in the future, it was written by Arran Frood and called ‘Like a hole in the head’ at
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    I searched for your title, and besides up all sorts of information about Russell himself that turned up, it appears that the original of this epigram was
    What is matter? — Never mind.
    What is mind? — No matter.
    by Thomas Hewitt Key (1799 – 1875) in Punch magazine, July 14, 1855.

    (the date I got from

    However, it appears that Grandma Russell vexed the young Bertrand with this by coming out with it time and again.  As St. Paul says in Colossians 3:21
    Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.

    "The iron enters the soul" is often said of a childhood spent in poverty, much I think it could also apply to children whose spirit has been crushed by thoughtless authority figures.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Gary Herstein
    Russell did not become discouraged, though he did become impatient.

    Thanks for digging deeper into the citation; I only knew of it from Russell's various biographical notes. I guess it does not (and probably should not) surprise me that his family was not imaginative enough to come up with it on their own.
    The mind is a presence that is not affected by the continuous transformation of our physical existence.

    Haven't researched thoroughly, but it seems the epigram is due to George Berkeley

    Very touching and expressive - enraging and powerless - you see, you can't really find mental particles in the particle handbook or mental laws to describe such emotions, also, emergence which can still be reduced is no answer unless you are trying to model only the formal processes, so we get stuck in classifying the mental as fundamental (property/quantity) in nature as a consequence of extrapolating in how we do our current science, i.e. if we don't understand and it can be measured, call it a fundamental quantity, if we don't understand and cannot be measured, ignore it or even pretend it doesn't exist.

    I think our mental lives are both objective (read inter-subjective w.r.t a measure) and subjective, we've made serious progress in publishing objective science (guess primarily due to immediate economic benefit), the answers are within our grasp to explain the mind (and loss is a serious motivator to find them), it is just that we need to drop everything we know as facts and start all over again, like a baby trying to make sense of the world, then we truly would get out of dark ages.