Philosophy calls it the “mind-body” problem or the “mind-brain” problem, and it’s one of the main problems in the history of philosophy and the philosophy of science, believe it or not. Here’s why. Close your eyes. Now picture a blue box over a white background. Focus on that for a while. Now ask yourself: where is the blue box? In your head? Of course not: if we cracked your skull open, no box, just grey matter, neurons, synapses. Well, you say, that’s because the blue box wasn’t real. Really? How so? Was it not really blue, as blue as any other blue thing that you have seen? Was the background not really white, as white as a dry-erase board? Surely, then, even if we call it an “imagining” or “picture in our head,” and even if we admit that we cannot feel the box or touch it, and even if we explain how this actually works in the brain, the blue box remains a reality; it is somewhat real; after all, it looks identical to a real blue box on a white background! In other words, it’s not obvious at all what the hell the blue box is. So, if we cannot simply banish the blue box from existence, and if it’s not in our brain (although it’s clearly caused by our brain), then perhaps it’s in our mind (whatever that means). And when philosophers use the phrase “mind,” they historically meant “soul” too; that is, the soul is where we have all our experience, perceptions, thoughts, memories–in a word, consciousness. The theater of the mind.
Picturing a blue box in your head, of course, is just a subset of the larger human ability to think, to be self-aware, meta-conscious. To have the very peculiar ability to think about the very thing that is doing the thinking–our brain, which just doesn’t seem right damn it. Even if you don’t believe in mind, it’s bizarre. Thus the history. For Rene Descartes (pronounced “Day-Cart”), the existence of the mind (not the brain or body) was the only thing we know for sure exits. He famously said “I think: therefore I am.” He could doubt that his body and brain existed–perhaps they were illusions, like a dream–but he could never doubt that a thinking being existed (i.e. himself), even if he was plugged into the Matrix this was a self-evident truth that his entire philosophy rested on. The philosopher of science Dan Dennet would say “mind” is nothing more than a word we use that means “brain.” Mind is reduced to brain. A thought literally is a group of neurons in the brain, nothing more (“I am having a neuron X34 right now”). The philosopher John Searle gets a little more complex. He says we will always have to describe the mind and its contents in a fundamentally different way than the brain and neurons. Therefore, they sort of have a special ontological status and always will. But he doesn’t want to be a “dualist” which to me sounds like he wants to have his cake and eat it too. Most religious philosophers are perfectly fine with saying we have a brain that causes events in the mind, and that they are different things and one doesn’t decay and this is all okay because a transcendent God exists so I’m pretty much open to that kind of stuff. 🙂
I prefer to think of the everything–brain, trees, body, galaxies–as a manifestation of Mind, instead of Mind as a manifestation of matter (which I admit makes a lot of sense, after all mind took millions of years to evolve in the first place…I’m using Mind in a special metaphysical way so fuck off this works). In the tradition of Berkeley, Kant, Emerson, Philosophical Idealism is the belief that Matter is on some metaphysical level an expression of Mind, as a painting. My entire life is a manifestation of my own mind. If you were to look in my brain, you would find a manifestation of the choices of my ancestors, then my parents, then myself, and the Author of Nature in the first place. And this is a beautiful way to live my life.