The Self as the Brain According to Paul Churchland

The Self as the Brain According to Paul Churchland
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  • 0:02 Dualism
  • 1:09 Materialism
  • 1:55 Arguments
  • 3:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explain Paul Churchland's theories about the mind and the brain. In doing so, it will highlight dualism and materialism as well as eliminative materialism.


So here's a question. Why do people say 'read my mind' instead of 'read my brain'? Along the same lines, why is it 'brain surgery' instead of 'mind surgery'?

Interestingly, we can find an answer in today's lesson as we explore the works of Paul Churchland, specifically his theories on self and the brain. Since Churchland is a modern-day philosopher who studies the brain, let's first take a look at some older philosophical theories on the subject.

For much of history, many western philosophers have held to the theory of dualism. When it comes to discussing human life, dualism is the idea that the mind and the body are separate.

In other words, we all have a physical brain, but we also have a separate mind. Adding to this distinction, dualists have historically asserted the mind is the seat of our consciousness. On the contrary, the brain is really just an organ similar to the heart or lungs.

Because the mind is the seat of our consciousness, it's what gives us our identity. No, we can't see it, taste it, or touch it, but it does exist. Not only does it exist, but it is what makes self, self.


To this assertion, Paul Churchland has come along and pretty much said, 'I don't think so!' Tossing aside the concept of dualism and the brain, Churchland adheres to materialism, the belief that nothing but matter exists. In other words, if it can't somehow be recognized by the senses then it's akin to a fairy tale.

Applying this argument to the mind, Churchland asserts that since the mind can't be experienced by our senses, then the mind doesn't really exist. Based on this assertion, Churchland holds to eliminative materialism. Stated simply, eliminative materialism argues that the ordinary folk psychology of the mind is wrong. It is the physical brain and not the imaginary mind that gives us our sense of self.


Working to prove his points, Churchland gives a few arguments.

First, why should we believe in a mind when science is proving that mental health is connected to the physical brain? For instance, depression is strongly linked to brain chemicals gone wrong. Yes, some people still say things like, 'She's lost her mind.' However, neuroscience says, 'No, it's a physical problem and we aim to fix it!'

Adding to this, Churchland challenges the concept of the mind by using the misfortune of traumatic brain injury. With this, eliminative materialism asks 'if the mind is the seat of self, why does brain injury alter a person's personality?' If the mind was a real separate entity, wouldn't it retain a person's sense of self despite damage to a physical organ? Since brain damage alters a person's personality, Churchland asserts that the concept of self originates in the physical brain, not an invented mind.

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