What Are the Differences between Mental and Physical Entities? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Philosopher J. P. Moreland outlines several differences between physical and mental entities in the book he co-authored with Gary Habermas, called Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality.  In previous posts, we have laid the groundwork for this discussion, so that you may want to review the last few posts before reading this one.

Moreland starts out with the basics.  He reminds us of the following differences:

Mental events are feelings of pain, episodes of thoughts, or sensory experiences.  Physical events are happenings in the brain and central nervous system that can be described exhaustively using terms from chemistry and physics.

Are these two kinds of events really the same kind of thing?

Physical events and their properties do not have the same features as do mental events and their properties.  My thoughts, feelings of pain, or sensory experiences do not have any weight; they are not located anywhere in space (my thought of lunch cannot be closer to my right ear than to my left one); they are not composed of chemicals; they do not have electrical properties.  On the other hand, the brain events associated with my thoughts, etc. – indeed, with material things in general – do have these features.

Moreland then asks us to to picture a pink elephant in our mind.  When you close your eyes and look at the image, you will see a pink property.  But note that there is no pink elephant outside you, but there is a pink image of one in your mind.  In addition, there is no pink entity in your brain; a neuroscientist cannot open up your brain and see a pink entity while you are seeing the pink elephant in your mind.

Moreland concludes, “The sensory event has a property – pink – that no brain event has.  Therefore, they cannot be identical.  The sense image is a mental entity, not a physical one.”

This is just a basic introduction to the differences between mental and physical entities.  We will introduce several more differences in later posts.

11 thoughts on “What Are the Differences between Mental and Physical Entities? Part 1”

  1. Did I say there would be fallacious substitution in opaque contexts and a trampling of the vehicle/content distinction? Yes, I did. Is this whole post pretty much nothing but? Yes, it is. Pretty disappointing.

    Is the phrase “a thousand letters long” a thousand letters long? Chew this over before assenting to the claim that a thought of a pink elephant is pink.

  2. Hi Bill,

    I hope you and your family are well. I have taken an extended break from your blog for a variety of reasons. Presently, however, I am ready to dialogue again, if you wish.

    I notice that this post seems to be a continuation of the concept of dualism. You seem to be trying to support the concept of a non-material “mental state”, as different than the physical brain. I’m sure that you are aware that neuroscience has not been able to differentiate between the mind and the brain. Other than philosophical speculation, do you have any other reason for believing that the mind/soul/mental state is separate from the physical brain?

  3. Hi Tom,
    Glad to hear from you again! I’m afraid you have landed in the middle of a series of posts, so it would be helpful for you to go back to the first in the series, Can a Rational Case Be Made for the Existence of the Soul?, and then read each post following that one until you catch up. I don’t usually publish a whole series of posts that build on each other, but I felt like this topic was complex enough that it needed to be built slowly and methodically.

  4. Bill,

    I have perused the last several posts, as you requested.

    You seem to be stating that “Physicalists” claim that A (The Brain) is identical to B (The Mind/Soul/Consciousness). Actually, what we claim is that B “emerges” from A. An analogy would be an ant colony emerges from several individual ants and has different properties. Can science explain this? Not really presently. However, nature is full of examples of emergence. Several fields of science (neurology, neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology, chemistry, etc.) are working on this concept of the mind emerging from the brain. Those people working the deepest in this area see no evidence for (or the need for) non-material explanations.

    You cite philosophical statements in support of dualism but not evidence of such. A claim of a reality outside of the natural, observable universe is extraordinary. We have no evidence, let alone extraordinary evidence, that it is real. Science is the best way of objectively knowing reality and I proudly accept the term “scientism”, even though theists use it pejoratively.

    That’s enough for now.


  5. “a neuroscientist cannot open up your brain and see a pink entity while you are seeing the pink elephant in your mind”

    That’s like saying if you look at the code of a jpeg image of an elephant, you won’t see the image itself, just numbers. That doesn’t mean those zeros and ones don’t constitute the image.

  6. I suppose one might say that substitution in opaque contexts is a species in the same genus as equivocation.

    If I hate eggplant but you make me a sandwich with eggplant in it and I love it but don’t guess that it contains eggplant, then I will sincerely say “I hate all eggplant”, but is is fallacious to substitute those terms to conclude that what I ate must not have been eggplant, since I would have noticed that I don’t hate it.

    Simply reiterating that phenomena A and B appear very different to us in our experience as though this were an a priori conceptual argument against synthetically identifying them gets you nowhere. It just restates the initial problem and presents it as the conclusion of inquiry.

    But trampling the vehicle/content distinction isn’t equivocation, it’s just bad analysis. Andrew Ryan seems to have picked up on the exact same fallacy. The phrase (content) “a thousand letters long” does not need to describe its substrate (vehicle); the pinkness of a digital elephant photo (content) need not be present in the series of voltage differentials on your hard disk (vehicle). So there is no reason whatsoever to expect the vehicle (our brains) to literally have pink elephants as its content (our thoughts).

    After this, the review of Moreland & Habermas’s arguments is basically just a post-mortem on how human thought can go disastrously wrong.

  7. I think I understand what you are saying, but, to tell you the truth, I think you are over-intellectualizing this thread. My take is that this is the typical apologetics ploy of using a philosophical argument to obfuscate the issue. The issue here is simply this — there is NO/NADA/ZILCH evidence for anything supernatural, including a “soul” in a dualist cranium.

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