Is the Mind a Physical Thing?

A public lecture by Tim Crane

Location: Newnham College, Cambridge | 17 May, 2017

As part of the New Directions project, Tim Crane, the Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy, gave a public lecture asking whether the mind is a physical thing. You can find the video and audio of the lecture below.


To answer the question of whether the mind is a physical thing requires us first to understand what is meant by ‘physical’ and ‘thing’. The traditional debate over the mind-body problem tends to take it for granted that these terms should be understood in the way they have been since the 17th century: those who these days assert the doctrine of physicalism or materialism take themselves to be disagreeing, for example, with Descartes. I argue that unless we accept the metaphysical assumptions behind this 17th century debate, the contemporary debate between dualists and physicalists/materialists loses a lot of its point; and that once we explicitly abandon these assumptions, we can see the way to the conclusion that there is no interesting sense in which the mind a physical thing.


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Image adapted from The Nervous System: Diagram of the brain and the pineal gland, from Descartes’s De Homine, Wellcome Library.