What Our Minds Are Not

We can use our bodies to interact with an unlimited variety of media—whether newspapers (through the eyes) or podcasts (through the ears) or Braille (through the fingers), etc. But how do we ever comprehend the meaning of information (the meaning behind the media) if that meaning is, in fact, immaterial—having zero tangible qualities? (I have a separate post for this, What Words Are Not .) Regardless of how well we understand information, how do we perceive it in the first place if it is immaterial? How do perceive something that cannot be directly or indirectly seen, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled?

Many will argue that the premise of that question must be wrong: information simply must be a physical phenomenon, end of discussion. And yet we can prove that it is not. To the extent that we know anything at all, we can know that the physical medium of information is completely distinct from its nonphysical meaning. (Numbers, for example, are immaterial.)

But what if our minds were likewise immaterial—does that resolve the mystery? After all, how would a nonphysical mind ever “use/push” the physical brain? We seem to be at an impasse…until we come at the mystery through a side door. Instead of asking how mind directs matter, we can first ask when. For meaning always precedes media.

In one of the first quantum mechanics textbooks, written in 1932, the Hungarian mathematical physicist John von Neumann explained the already massively confirmed conclusion that wave function collapse happened through the intervention of an observer rather than through static physical laws. Furthermore, it was already clear that the observer (i.e. the scientist who was doing the experiment) was “a new entity relative to the physical environment”. As unusual as this may sound in the 21st century, Neumann very naturally observed that it agreed with what we all intuitively know to be true—that we have free wills that can directly affect actions in the physical world (i.e. the mind-over-matter mystery):

Let us now compare these circumstances with those which actually exist in nature or in its observation. First, it is inherently entirely correct that the measurement or the related process of the subjective perception is a new entity relative to the physical environment and is not reducible to the latter. Indeed, subjective perception leads us into the intellectual inner life of the individual, which is extra-observational by its very nature (since it must be taken for granted by any conceivable observation or experiment). (John von Neumann, Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics , published 1932, translated from the German edition by Robert T. Beyer in 1949 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983), 418.)

This next point might sound odder still, but it is interesting to hear how these scientists were processing what they learned the laboratory. Neumann went on to explain that the boundary between the observer (“the new entity relative to the physical environment” [i.e. a soul]) and the observed physical system was arbitrary, but that the observer was located within a scientist’s body.

“It must be possible to describe the extra-physical process of the subjective perception…That is, we must always divide the world into two parts, the one being the observed system, the other the observer. In the former, we can follow up all physical processes (in principle at least) arbitrarily precisely. In the latter, this is meaningless. The boundary between the two is arbitrary to a very large extent…but this does not change the fact that in each method of description the boundary must be put somewhere, if the method is not to proceed vacuously, i.e., if a comparison with experiment is to be possible. Indeed experience only makes statements of this type: an observer has made a certain (subjective) observation; and never any like this: a physical quantity has a certain value” (IBID 419-420)