An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2006

The embodiment of mind

Gerald Maurice Edelman
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Gerald M. Edelman, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1968, is director of the Neurosciences Institute as well as chair of, and professor in, the Department of Neurobiology at the Scripps Research Institute. His publications include “The Mindful Brain” (1978), “The Remembered Present” (1989), and “Wider Than the Sky” (2004). He received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972.

The word ‘mind’ is a loose one with many applications in use. As I use it here, I am restricting it to one definition in Webster’s Third International Dictionary: “Mind–the sum total of the conscious states of an individual.” I want to suggest a way of looking at consciousness in tune with, and responsive to, a statement on the subject by the American philosopher Willard van Orman Quine.1 With his usual ironic candor, Quine said,

I have been accused of denying consciousness, but I am not conscious of having done so. Consciousness is to me a mystery, and not one to be dismissed. We know what it is like to be conscious, but not how to put it into satisfactory scientific terms. Whatever it precisely may be, consciousness is a state of the body, a state of nerves. 

The line I am urging as today’s conventional wisdom is not a denial of consciousness. It is often called, with more reason, a repudiation of mind. It is called a repudiation of mind as a second substance, over and above body. It can be described less harshly as an identification of mind with some of the faculties, states, and activities of the body. Mental states and events are a special subclass of the states and events of the human or animal body.

Philosophers have wrestled with the so-called mind-body problem for millennia. Their efforts to explore how consciousness arises were intensified following René Descartes’ espousal of dualism. The notion that there are two substances–extended substances (res extensa), which are susceptible to physics, and thinking substances (res cogitans), which are unavailable to physics– still haunts us. This substance dualism forced confrontation with a key question: how could the mind arise in the material order? Attempts to answer this question have ranged widely. In addition to the various forms of dualism, a few proposals we might mention are panpsychism (consciousness inheres in all matter in varying degrees), mind-body identity (the mind is nothing but the operation of neurons in the brain), and, more recently, the proposal that the understanding of quantum gravity will ultimately reveal the nature of consciousness.2 There are many more proposals, but aside from the extremes of idealism espoused by Bishop Berkeley and Georg Hegel, they all wrestle with one question: how can we explain consciousness in bodily terms? . . .

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  • 1W. V. Quine, Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1987), 132–133.
  • 2R. Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).