Reality Consists of Matter
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 6 - Metaphysics
Richard Taylor, from "How to Bury the Mind-Body Problem"
Kem Stone - 23 January 2008
The mind-body problem is one of the deepest and most fascinating philosophical issues, and it’s one that I’ve
given much thought to over the years. My own theories about the solution to the problem are not found in this
book, but I essentially subscribe to a kind of dualism whereby two universes—one of matter and one of mind—
exist as an intertwined whole, each affecting the other. The position that Taylor takes in this essay, that there is no
such thing as mind but only matter, and that we can “bury” the mind-body problem by merely looking at it in a
different way, is one that I completely reject. To me the existence of mind seems the most—if not the only—
certain thing in philosophy. Yet Taylor’s arguments are extremely compelling, and they have forced me to
reconsider whether my own position is actually the correct one. I will take my time with this essay and consider
each point separately, raising any possible objections along the way. As a whole, I believe Taylor’s argument
raises some very interesting points, but in the end ultimately fails to defeat dualism, leaving the mind-body problem
intact and safely above ground.
Like nearly all materialists, Taylor believes that the mind-body problem is merely the result of the difficulty of
addressing the unsolved problems of psychology and neuroscience, most importantly how conscious thought
emerges from supposedly unconscious matter. But there is really no mind-body problem, “because there are no
such things as minds in the first place. There being no minds, there are in strictness no mental states or events;
there are only certain familiar states, capacities, and abilities, which are conventionally but misleadingly called
‘mental’” (359). I might say that the existence of the mind is the most obvious truth imaginable, but Taylor would
disagree, and rightly point out that I cannot prove that such a thing exists. Taylor insists that no philosophical
argument can prove whether something does or does not exist, whether it is a soul, spirit or mind. So to argue
against the existence of minds Taylor can only bring our attention to some of the presuppositions that have led us
to believe in their existence and show why these are flawed or unnecessary.
What Taylor calls the “Grand Presupposition” regarding minds is that matter cannot think. “We are apt to be
told that thinking, choosing, deliberating, reasoning, perceiving, and even feeling, are not concepts of physics and
chemistry, so that these terms have no application to bodies. Since, however, men do think, choose, deliberate,
reason, perceive and feel, it follows that men are not ‘mere bodies’” (360). In one sense a man may be a physical
object, but it is commonly believed that there must be more to a person than this. Another aspect of the same
basic presupposition is that there are “mental entities” such as thoughts, choices, reasons, and feelings which are
not regarded as physical things. Those who do not wish to call these phenomena “things” may consider them to
be “events” but clearly non-physical, and therefore “mental” events.
Another commonly held idea that leads people to the idea that persons are not just physical objects is the mystery
of the self. That inner “I” which experiences the world and is thought to be the thing that thinks, feels, deliberates
and so on, is believed to be what truly constitutes the essence of a person. At the same time, there is no doubt
that a person is a physical object—a body with arms and legs and so on, but most philosophers refuse to say that
persons are nothing more than this. Selves are what think and reason, while bodies are incapable of such actions.
The mind-body problem thus arises out of this prejudice, and centuries of thought and scrutiny have gone into the
attempt to determine the nature of this connection. Taylor believes he can put an end to all this, but as I will show,
he is mistaken.
There are two opposing theses regarding this issue, the first being “mentalism” and the second “materialism.”
Thesis (I) states that a person is not something that has a mind, but that a person or self and his mind are one and
the same thing. Thesis (II) states that a person is not something that has a body, but that a person or self and his
body are one and the same thing. Taylor proposes to show that Thesis (II), materialism, is absolutely correct.
Before examining the arguments for mentalism, Taylor offers one preliminary reason to believe in the materialist
thesis based solely on common sense. It is common knowledge, Taylor asserts, that there are such things as
human bodies, and there is one such body in the world which everyone customarily refers to as himself. To deny
the existence of bodies is the height of ignorance, Taylor suggests, akin to denying the existence of the sun or the
moon. On the other hand, there is no such common knowledge of the existence of minds or souls. The existence
of mental or spiritual entities can only be argued for through philosophical or theological arguments, and can easily
be doubted. Nobody knows for sure whether minds exist. “If, accordingly, we are seeking some sort of thing
with which to identify persons, then this is a prima facie consideration in favour of identifying them with their
bodies, with things we know to be real, rather than with things postulated to suit the requirements of philosophical
arguments or religious faith” (363).
This seems highly reasonable, unless you consider the arguments of Descartes and Berkeley which call into doubt
the actual existence of bodies. Berkeley postulates that there are no such things as bodies, but only the ideas of
such things. Descartes’ cogito argument makes a virtual certainty of the existence of thought, and with his “evil
demon” argument shows that we cannot be certain of anything that comes to us through the senses. These may
not represent “common knowledge” but they are highly compelling arguments which at the very least show that
there could just as easily be minds and not bodies as there may be bodies and not minds. I would even go further
and say it is more likely that there are minds and not bodies, as I am far more certain of my own existence as a
thinking thing than I am of the material world that I perceive through my flawed and imperfect senses. That the
existence of bodies is “common sense” does not give any more weight to the materialist thesis, as it was once
“common sense” that the earth was flat and remained in a fixed position in the centre of the cosmos, that heavier
objects fall to the ground faster than lighter objects, that everything is composed of four basic elements, and so
on. Because something is “common knowledge” does not speak at all as to the likelihood of its being true.
Taylor now examines four basic arguments for mentalism and offers counter-arguments to defeat them. The first
argument is that certain predicates apply to persons and not to bodies, such as intelligence, sentimentality and love
for one’s country. It would make no sense to say that a person’s body loves his country, and therefore a person
is not the same thing as his body. Taylor simply turns the argument around and points out that there are certain
predicates that can apply to persons and not minds, such as walking, falling down, or running into a post. It would
make no sense to say that a person’s mind ran into a post, and therefore a person is not the same thing as his
These considerations have led some philosophers to believe that a person is neither a mind nor a body, so that a
person must either be (a) something else altogether or (b) a combination of both. As Taylor points out, (a) simply
avoids the issue altogether and can not be true because persons are real beings and must exist as something real,
whether mind or body. The second alternative rests on the same presupposition as mentalism itself, that there are
such things as “mental properties” in the first place. “This second alternative…amounts to saying that a person is
at one and the same time two utterly different things—a body with its physical properties and a mind with its
mental properties” (364). This is merely a reformulation of the same basic issue, which is the connection between
these two kinds of properties.
This first argument rests solely on semantics and is not very powerful at all. Taylor’s criticisms are valid, but a
reformulation of the questionable statements can eliminate the problem altogether. Any predicate can be attached
to either minds or bodies if another verb stands between them. We can say that a person’s body feels the love of
his country, or that a person’s mind perceives running into a post. There is therefore no need to postulate that a
person is really a third thing other than mind or body, as this only introduces another problem anyway—what is
the nature of this other thing? But the idea that a person is a combination of both, that each person is at the same
time two completely different things, is perfectly valid and is in fact what I believe. This argument, therefore, has
led us nowhere.
The second argument for mentalism is even weaker than the first, and Taylor makes some excellent points against
it. “This argument consists of pointing out the rather remarkable things that a person can do but which, it is
alleged, no physical object, of whatever complexity, can do, from which it of course follows that a person is not a
physical object and therefore not identical with his own body. A person, for example, can reason, deliberate
about ends and means, plan for the future, draw inferences from evidence, speculate, and so on” (364). Taylor’s
first reply is that this argument can also be turned on its head, and we can say that there are things that a person’s
body can do that no mind could do, such as run races, go fishing, raise a family, and so on, and that therefore a
person is not identical with his mind.
But the better reply is of course that there are certain physical objects that can reason, deliberate, etc. and that
men are these objects. Since men are physical objects and men can do these things, it follows that there are some
physical objects that can do these things. Taylor considers the statement, “I saw George yesterday; he was trying
to figure out the best way to get from Albany to Montpelier” and points out the absurdity of a statement such as “I
saw George’s body yesterday. His mind was trying to figure out how to get from Albany to Montpelier” (365).
Taylor asserts that it is one and the same thing—namely George—that is seen and is trying to figure out the route.
Though Taylor has shown that this argument does not prove that persons are minds and not bodies, he fails to
convince us that persons are bodies and not minds. There is no logical inconsistency in the statement that we saw
George’s body and his mind was trying to figure something out. We can not see that George is trying to figure
something out, which is in fact the fundamental difference between these two things. In fact, we do not even know
that George has any form of subjective experience at all.
One of most common arguments in favour of dualism is called the zombie argument, which Taylor does not
address here but it bears on this issue. We can imagine a world filled with human bodies all going about their
business and performing their physical activities, and yet there would be nothing inconsistent to imagine that these
bodies are all “zombies” meaning there is no mental activity or subjective experience at all, and that these bodies
are basically nothing more than highly complex machines. If Taylor is right and people are only bodies, we do not
need to postulate the existence of subjective experience at all, and yet subjective experience is the one
phenomenon we are most directly confronted with; we know it exists in ourselves even though we can not be
sure it exists anywhere else. For this reason, we may assume that there is more to a person than the physical,
even if the physical body alone can do everything a person is thought only to be able to do with a mind.
The third and best argument for mentalism is that while there may not be such things as “minds” there are
undoubtedly certain non-physical things such as thoughts, feelings, and images, which are properly called
“mental.” After having established this, the task is then to determine the nature of the connection between these
mental entities and the physical brain, which is where the difficulty lies. But Taylor thinks that these difficulties can
be bypassed if we simply deny the existence of these entities. It is redundant, he claims, to say that men think
thoughts, feel feelings, and imagine images, when all we really do is think, feel, and imagine, which can be called
When considering such a thing as a pain in a man’s foot, this really only means that the man’s foot hurts. The pain
itself is not a thing, but rather a state of the foot. The challenge to the materialist is then to ask whether this is a
physical state. Taylor responds that since the foot is a physical thing, the pain is surely a physical state. Further
challenges would be to ask if other people can experience the same state. Why can’t other people feel the same
pain that I feel in my foot? Why can’t we open the foot and see the pain? And how can we test whether there is
in fact a pain in my foot?
Taylor uses a piece of molten lead as an analogy. “Now this molten state, what sort of thing is it? The answer is
that it is not a thing at all; it is a state or condition of a thing. It is a physical state? Well, it is a state of the lead,
and that is a physical object; there is nothing else for it to be a state of. Why, then, cannot another piece of lead
have that same state? Why cannot something else have the molten state of this piece of lead? Of course
something else can, in the only meaningful sense that can be attached to such a question; that is, another piece of
lead, or some things which are not lead can melt the same way this piece of lead melted” (366). Furthermore, we
cannot open the lead or separate it into drops and see the molten state because it is only a state and not a thing
contained within the lead. The only real difference between the molten state of lead and the state of pain in a foot
is that we cannot determine through a straightforward test whether there is a pain in the foot, in the same way that
we can easily determine whether the lead is in a molten state. But this, Taylor asserts, is only proof that men,
unlike pieces of lead, are capable of concealing physical states. But just because something is hard to establish,
says Taylor, does not make it “mental” by virtue of that alone.
There are other problems with this analogy, however. It is not just difficult to establish that a man feels a pain in
his foot—it is impossible. No amount of scientific probing can determine whether the foot is in such a state—that
information is lodged in the mind, discernible only within the subjective experience of the man experiencing the
pain. Another curious thing about pain that cannot be applied to molten lead or any other physical state of an
object is that a man can, just through the powers of thought alone, diminish the pain or ignore it altogether. The
pain belongs to the mind of the person experiencing it, and in this way it is fair to think of it as a thing.
Taylor turns from pain to images, which by their very nature are less likely to be thought of as physical states. But
Taylor insists that the power of imagination is not the power to create mental images with one’s mind, composed
of some non-physical material which he claims cannot exist. “When someone sees something, there is (i) the man
who sees, and (ii) the thing seen; for instance, some building or scene. There is not, between these, a third thing
called the appearance of what is seen….But similarly, when someone imagines something or, as it is misleadingly
put, ‘forms an image’ of it, there is (i) the man who imagines, and (ii) something, but not always, something that he
imagines; for instance a building or scene, which might or might not be real. There is not, between these, a third
thing called the image of what is imagined” (367). Taylor insists that to say that a man is imagining something
refers only to what he is doing, not to any thing he is creating.
There are several problems with Taylor’s reasoning on this issue. The first is his claim that a non-physical material
cannot exist. I will grant that we can not prove that such a substance exists, but there is no reason it is absurd or
impossible. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that there is evidence of the existence of non-physical
material, if you consider that the current standard cosmological model postulates that the universe is mostly made
up of “dark matter” and “dark energy”, which is not composed of particles at all in the way we are familiar with
them. I will admit that this is highly speculative, but it could be that “dark matter” has some connection to the
mental realm that our science is currently incapable of explaining.
But an even more glaring problem with Taylor’s assertions here is that many philosophers do in fact believe that
when a man sees something, there is a third thing between the man and what is seen, and that this is the image of
what is seen. I also believe that this is the case—that we do not directly perceive objects but the brain merely
interprets the data it receives through the senses and an image forms in the mind to represent what is really there.
What makes imagination unique is precisely the fact that there is no third thing—only the mind and the image
present to the mind, which is just as much a thing as an image formed through sense perception.
But Taylor does not want to admit to the existence of mental images, and he says that we can put this claim to the
test. “Suppose, for instance, one professes to be able to form a very clear image of, say, the campus library….
We ask him, then, to hold it before his mind and count the number of steps in the image, the number of windows,
the number and disposition of pigeons on the roof, and so on. He could do these things if he had a photograph of
the thing before him. But he cannot do them with the image, in spite of the fact that it is supposed to be right there
‘before his mind,’ easily and ‘directly’ inspectable” (368). I would contend that this demonstrates nothing more
than a peculiarity concerning the nature of mental images. But just because one cannot count the steps in an image
of the library does not mean that this image does not exist—only that it is not as clear and quantifiable as the image
would be if it was being interpreted through sense-data coming from the actual library.
Taylor insists that to imagine something is to be in a certain state—which anyone would grant—though most
would call it a “mental” state while Taylor calls it a “physical” state because a person is a physical object. The one
weak objection he responds to is that if a man, who is supposedly a mere physical object, is capable of
imagination, why not any physical object? Why can’t sticks and stones be in such a state? Taylor’s answer is
that this is because they are not men. Only men are capable of imagining things, because only they have brains, a
structure complex enough to be in such a state. My only response to this is to challenge him to prove to me that
sticks and stones do not imagine things. How can anybody be certain that what we call “mental properties” are
not common to all physical objects, from human beings right down to atoms? The truth is we know so little about
the nature of subjective experience that we can only assume such a phenomenon is necessarily connected to the
brain, and that only large enough brains are capable of complex states like that of imagination. The fact that we
can not know whether sticks and stones have subjective experience, or that anyone other than ourselves have
conscious awareness either, is one of the strongest reasons to believe that the physical and mental are two entirely
The fourth and final argument for mentalism that Taylor presents is the common assertion that people can imagine
surviving the death of their bodies. If the body and mind are one and the same, the argument goes, this would be
impossible. But as Taylor correctly points out, “All this argument shows is that not everyone, perhaps even no
one, knows that he and his body are one and the same thing. It does not in the least show that, in fact, they are
not” (369). Not knowing that two different things are the same does not mean they are different, and Taylor gives
the Evening Star and Morning Star as an example, as for the longest time it was believed these were two different
stars when in reality both were the planet Venus.
This is definitely the weakest argument that Taylor presents, as the ability to imagine surviving the death of the
body in no way means that one can. This only supports the epistemological claim that we do not know if our
minds and bodies are separate. One cannot then infer the ontological claim that minds exist separately and
distinctly from bodies. But although this is a weak argument philosophically, one could still assert that the notion
of a part of ourselves surviving bodily death has been with us since before recorded history, and if this sort of
notion is buried so deep within the human consciousness, there might be more to it than wishful thinking.
Taylor’s next section delves into some of these ancient notions, attempting to show that we have come a long way
and no longer need to subscribe to these concepts. It was believed by the ancient Greeks at the time of Aristotle
that living things possessed something that inanimate things lack—a soul—and that this was the explanation for the
miraculous powers of motion, assimilation of nourishment, reproduction, and so on. Socrates believed in the
immortality of the soul because the soul and life were considered to be one and the same thing, and therefore the
soul could not admit death. Descartes believed that the soul and thought were identical, and therefore that the
soul could never stop thinking. Both believed that the soul was foreign to the body.
But now, Taylor says, “we no longer think of life as something added to an animal body, some separable thing that
quickens matter. To distinguish something as a living animal is only to call attention to the very complicated way
the matter of its body is organised and to a large class of capacities which result from such organisation” (370).
Beings capable of intelligent thought and action differ from those incapable not because of what they have but
because of what they do.
I believe it is somewhat unfair to hold up the beliefs of Aristotle, Descartes, and the like to represent the view that
body and soul are separate phenomena. Nowadays most dualists would not say that the mind or soul is a
physical object—be it an invisible point of light, a clump of ether, or anything else—contained within the body. It
is entirely non-physical, incapable of detection with any of our senses, quite possibly because the senses are a
property of mind and therefore incapable of perceiving their own nature. But although what Taylor presents here
are antiquated views of the soul, they can still not be proven wrong, and it is entirely possible that life is some sort
of ethereal force that operates within the body until death.
Taylor concludes by re-examining the central issue: does matter think? He points out that nobody knows for
certain what matter is or is not capable of, but we ought to be ready to admit that it can do more than we
traditionally believe. It was once thought that matter, inert and lifeless by its very nature, could not be alive. But
eventually, he says, philosophical prejudice had to yield to the facts. I would say that the prejudice just shifted in
favour of the materialist view, as we still do not completely understand the process of life and can not rule out
some other force which determines the structure of living organisms while they are alive, and which upon death
leaves the body to decompose and decay at the mercy of purely physical forces. This is a far weaker proposition
than that the suggestion that mind is separate from the basic physical forces, but the fact that it remains plausible is
favourable to the mentalist hypothesis.
But Taylor is not arguing that mentalism is absolutely false—merely unnecessary. His final statement makes it
clear that he believes materialism to be the superior claim not necessarily because of an overwhelming
preponderance of evidence, but simply because we do not need to postulate the existence of mind to explain
thought. “The seeming mystery or incredibility that may attach to the idea of matter exercising intellectual
capacities is hardly dissolved by postulating something else to exercise those capacities. If there is a difficulty in
comprehending how a body can do such things, there is surely no less difficulty in seeing how something which is
not a body can do them any better” (370) On the surface this seems like a very fair point, but is it really? Does
eliminating the concept of mind really bury the problem that gave rise to this whole issue, namely the connection
between physical processes and subjective awareness?
The simple truth is that even if mental properties are inextricably attached to the physical, and that higher mental
faculties are merely a result of the complex organisation of physical objects such as the brain, these properties are
still separate and quite distinguishable from the physical. On the one hand we have the molecules of the brain and
the electrical signals firing through it, and on the other we have the conscious awareness that this gives rise to.
Even if thought is a physical thing, it is unlike any other physical thing we know, and we are therefore justified in
classifying it separately. We say thought is something “mental,” and to distinguish the “I”, which is subject to these
thoughts, from the brain, in which no trace of thoughts can be found, we use the term “mind.”
Most of the objections that Taylor levels against mentalism are rooted in semantics. The mind-body problem,
however, can not be discarded simply by saying that we can simply omit the word “mind” from our metaphysical
vocabulary. We may be able to attach to the body any predicates we now attribute to mind, we may grant that
bodies can do what we now say only minds can do, we can call thoughts and images “states” rather than “things,”
and we can say that the body does not “possess” a mind but that mind is a physical function of the body, and yet
the problem of how subjective awareness relates to the universe of physical matter remains as vexing as ever.
This is one of the greatest mysteries in all of science and philosophy, indeed one of the most key aspects of the
Great Mystery: what is the essential nature of existence at the most fundamental level? Is thought an accidental by-
product of physical processes or is it built into the framework of the universe itself? The answer would shed more
light on the true nature of reality than any discovery that has ever been made. When Taylor says “It seems a
conceit to undertake to put and end to all this” (362), this may be the greatest understatement in all of
philosophical literature. To “bury” the mind-body problem would be to pronounce that the Great Mystery itself is
nothing more than an illusion resulting from common misconceptions we have about reality, and with just a little
more scientific discovery we should be able to have everything figured out.
I do not wish to diminish Taylor’s arguments, because they are certainly very strong and provide a very useful
counterpoint to those of us who reject the materialist thesis. But we do agree on one very fundamental point,
which is that the existence or non-existence of any thing can not be proven by philosophical argument alone. All
we can rely on is direct experience, and where we differ is how we interpret our experience. Taylor believes that
he directly experiences matter, the physical world, and that mind is only established after the fact. I believe that
only mind is directly perceived, as subjective experience is my very mode of existence, and physical matter is
merely indirectly perceived through the mind, the existence of which I consider to be absolutely certain.
Furthermore, I experience a great many things that are perhaps not scientifically verifiable which lead me to
believe that there is far more to the universe than the physical. Even if we grant that matter, when organized with
sufficient complexity, is capable of thought, I simply can not bring myself to believe that matter can love, can
dream, or can experience that state of spiritual transcendence of being that comes about through deep meditation
or contemplation of infinity. None of this proves to me that materialism is false, but it certainly leads me in the
The most important point I can make, and the point I will conclude on, is that materialism as I see it misses
something absolutely essential when it comes to the essential nature of human experience, which is that the
universe and our experience of it is far more complex than we are capable of imagining. It may be more
comfortable to a scientific mind to believe that the simplest explanation is usually right, and therefore it makes
more sense to reduce everything to physical substance. But if the universe—indeed all that exists—is nothing
more than particles floating around in a void, then nothing at all has any value. Yet absolutely everything in our
experience as human beings points to the idea that value exists, that our lives have meaning, that there is something
more to our existence than a happenstance combination of molecules that with a great deal of time and gradual
refinement developed the ability to think. This mystery is deeper than any of us can fathom, and it is neither
altogether believable nor desirable to assume that the universe is as shallow as materialism suggests.