The mind-brain explanatory gap

Assessing the mind-brain debate



To assess the importance of the mind-brain debate to the science of psychology, I will in this essay first try to clarify what the differing point of view between the psychological theories of dualism and monism are. I will explain the so-called ‘explanation gap’ based on which I don’t consider the further pursuit of either direction of research in its pure form as a matter of objective and a scientific possibility to judge which theory alone. Then the open questions around the complete explanation of what is animating life at all and what is it what we believe are our reality of human consciousness and the perception of the self that forms an intermediate starting point for behavior will be addressed. I will conclude that the mind-brain debate is a fruitful one to be continued even more intensively and with an integrative role of psychology. It is my appeal to foster a broadly informed mind-brain debate between natural, social, and formal sciences to best serve the goal of psychology that is the description, explanation, prediction, and control of human behavior for the well-being of all.

Dualist and monist theories

Dolan (2007) describes the dualist theory of human psychology as pictured by Descartes that humans “have a rational soul independent of the body in contrast to animals which live like automata, mechanically responding to external stimuli” (p. 3). As a result, what makes the human mind from a dualist perspective would be brought into connection with a concept of spirit or god as contemplated by philosophy or religious thoughts. The monist view, in contrast, assumes full observability of the mind and therefore claims, thanks to its more materialist (also called physicalist, or mechanist) approach, to be the scientifically legitimate theory of psychology. For the purpose of this essay, I would like to list a further flavor of belief, that is, the one of humanism. Although humanism, focusing on the human being rather than a spiritual force, is a form of monism it does however not accept a materialist approach. Humanists rely on their study of human behavior on the human perception itself, a mentalist approach being aware of its subjective nature, but arguing that this is the only perceivable reality. Also, as opposed to materialist monism, humanism doesn’t understand human behavior as necessarily be predetermined by previous events or biological conditions and therefore is not a deterministic doctrine of psychology. Such a view leaves room for the concept of free will that neither a spiritual force nor physical logic would dispute a certain freedom that could be argued being what makes us human. I see a deterministic approach as a quite depressive outlook for what human life would be accounted for when we would be seen as mere material and perishable objects without any chance of surviving somehow our earthly biological existence.

Physicalist claims and the ‘explanatory gap’

Therefore it seems even more understandable that the mind-brain debate since Descartes in the seventeenth century, and before, is still heating up scientists’ minds about the most fundamental questions on how to conceptualize human life and human behavior for further research. Already in the nineteen eighties Sperry (1980) proclaimed that “Reasons are advanced to show that our latest mind-brain model is fundamentally monistic and not only fails to  support dualism but serves to further discount fading prospects for finding dualist forms or domains of conscious experience  not embodied in a functioning  brain” (p. 195). In the nineteen-nineties, progress in neuroscience let “Physicalists, in the extreme, claim that all mentalistic terms (or mental ‘entities’) used in describing mental phenomena can be reduced to, replaced by or eliminated for purely physical terms (or physical entities)” (Machamer, 2007, p. 203). This view is plausibly rejected by psychologists who may argue as Barrett (2010) that “The difficulty in linking the human mind to behavior on the one hand and the brain on the other is rooted, ironically enough, in the way the human brain itself works” (p. 326).  Barrett (2010, p. 326) says that only some human behavior is observer-independent and therefore can be explained by measurable brain activity. The key point Barrett (2010, p. 332) makes is that certain psychological categories (e.g., anger, sadness, fear, etc.) can only be perceived by a human observer. Such perceptions, the before mentioned psychological categories, cannot sufficiently accurately be mapped to specific brain activity measurements. Similarly, Pereira (2014, p. 206) describes the so-called ‘explanatory gap’ in the way that a conscious system has both a physiological and conscious properties, while each cannot be physiological and conscious at the same time. Pereira’s (2014) illustration goes that “the characteristics of neuronal action potentials in a neural network would be predicated only as physiological – such as electrical and magnetic properties. The experience of “qualia” instantiated in the same network would be predicated only as a conscious – e.g., visual, auditory, somatosensory – feature” (p. 206). Looking at the brain alone does therefore not explain why and under what situational circumstances an individual perceives a conscious experience in what way. The lack of understanding of what may constitute consciousness lies at the very heart of the mind-brain debate, and missing alternatives for its exploration other than by introspective (i.e., the subjective inquiry of a conscious perceiver) poses a challenge to the scientifically valid psychological study. Are there no other research methods available?

Consciousness and the self

Honderich (2015, p. 32) is detailing consciousness into three parts that are of (1) cognitive, (2) perceptual, or (3) affective nature that is subject to ‘variable realization.’ Another analysis is provided by Moody (2014, p. 178) under the term ‘hard problem’ consisting of the task to consider also mental causation and intentionality when discussing consciousness. Following the arguments above, a conscious experience we perceive according to a situation that can be shaped by the immediate environment, or even a cultural context. The perception of situational parameters results in a subjective reality. This perceiving capacity Damasio (2005) is seeing as a “perpetually re-created neurobiological state” (p. 99). However, Damasio (2005) is not reducing his physicalist view to the brain but is rather defining the self as a connection between the brain and the body, whose state, communicated as emotions to the brain, is continually changing in interaction with the environment. I embrace the idea of a conscious self that comprises a neuronal network, connected to the biological information of the body. The stimuli the body is reacting to are captured by the human bodily senses, such as sight, hearing, and touch. As a consequence, we need our body for the development of self. As it was in the news, a group of scientists at the Ohio State University claimed to have grown a mini-brain in their lab with almost all parts of a brain of a few weeks old fetus. When they were asked for ethical concerns, neuroscientist Rene Anand said: “We don’t have any sensory stimuli entering the brain. The brain is not thinking in any way” (cited by Hamzelou, 2015). I would prefer getting more differentiated information related to such absolute statements. For example, from the study of phantom limbs, we know that perception of non-existent limbs, even in the case of people born without them, seems to be possible. If a fetus-brain is considered sufficiently developed for the study of treatments for diseases such as Parkinson, why wouldn’t it be any less mature to function in other ways that seriously pose ethical questions? As long as the ‘explanatory gap’ remains, I want to stay with an agnostic view. I find it diligent not excluding the possibility of a mind that gains consciousness by any other means than our five senses, let alone the possibility for the mind as a soul-like non-matter entity, which is still not evidenced to be impossible.

(Re-) focusing on life itself

I agree with Kono (2013) whose opinion is that “Consciousness is not something the brain achieves on its own. Consciousness requires the joint operation of brain, body, and world” (p. 49).  Because I have risen the question of what is animating life, e.g., as driving force for birth and the aging process, as a possible route to get behind the secret of consciousness, the idea to look at biology, which is concerned about life itself, for finding related answers, seems natural to me. I think biology is well positioned to work together with physics to embark for finding a scientific explanation that also would help to close the explanatory gap related to human consciousness. I don’t think that the world is a subjective construction of our mind; rather I believe that a universal ‘trick’ involving biology and chemistry together with physics created the conditions for the repeated creation of human minds. In the same manner, I regard, while being aware of my limited knowledge in natural sciences, the mind being strongly influenced by these life signals, causing our body and mind to adopt specific states. From this point of view, the environment and culture are part of this biophysical world.

Modern psychology as an integrative social science

In psychology, what position I take in summary, is one that is a monist. I would rather reject the physicalist notion because why shouldn’t we further use introspection as a method to gain knowledge about our subjective perception taking account of the social environment at the same time? Modern psychology, in my opinion, could (continue to) act as a bridging element, orchestrating the study of human behavior as an integrative enabler across any relevant scientific disciplines. Psychology as a social science should be concerned about the human as a subjective and social organism with a not-yet-understood nature of conscious mind and human behavior that potentially is interacting in more complex ways through possibly not yet well understood and even more subtle energies with the universe than currently imaginable. Quantum physics for example could be applied to cognitive sciences and extend the study of interdependencies beyond the ‘box’ of the brain. Bob (2011) is writing that “quantum theory, which is not limited only to the research of local interactions, could provide a useful theoretical framework for experimental neuroscience that may perspectively also enable us to understand more complex neurobiological mechanisms that emerge in cognitive functions related to large-scale integration in the brain” (p. 103). Bob (2011, p. 17) is also presenting the idea of creating hypothesis in the brain-mind research based on physics and mathematics, e.g., the complexity theory and chaos theory. According to my research, there is a lot of awareness of the need for collaborative approaches. Psychology I hope will also guide on implications of any enthusiastic solo-advances of any discipline regarding ethics, quite correspondingly to its primary goal to serve human well-being as a priority.



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Machamer, P., & Sytsma, J. (2007). Neuroscience and theoretical psychology: What’s to worry about?. Theory & Psychology, 17(2), 199-215. doi:10.1177/0959354307075043

Barrett, L. F. (2010). The future of psychology: Connecting mind to brain. Perspectives in Psychological Science, 4(4), 326–339.

Pereira, A. (2014). Triple-aspect monism: Physiological, mental unconscious and conscious aspects of brain activity. Journal Of Integrative Neuroscience, 13(2), 201-227.

Honderich, T. (2015). Your Being Conscious: Mind-Body Dualism, and Objective Physicalism. Think: Philosophy For Everyone,14(41), 31-45.

Moody, T. C. (2014). Consciousness and the Mind-Body Problem: The State of the Argument. Journal Of Consciousness Studies,21(3-4), 177-190.

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Kono, T. (2013). Extended Mind and After: Socially Extended Mind and Actor-Network. Integrative Psychological And Behavioral Science, 48(1), 48-60.

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