Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind

By Gerald M. Edelman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
The Matter of the Mind

The only laws of matter are those which our minds must fabricate, and the only laws of mind are fabricated for it by matter.

-- James Clerk Maxwell

Given the unique character of consciousness and the inability of thought to "see into" its own mechanisms, it is no surprise that some philosophers have proposed the idea of a thinking substance, or even a kind of panpsychism in which all matter shares in consciousness. The results of modern investigations suggest, however, that the physical matter underlying the mind is not at all special. It is quite ordinary--that is, it is made up of the chemical elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus, along with a few trace metals. So there is nothing in the brain's essential composition that can give us a clue to the nature of mental properties.

What is special is how it is organized. Those ordinary chemical elements form parts of extraordinarily intricate molecules, which in turn make up complex structures in the cells of living tissues. In a complex organism like a human being, the cells come in about 200 different basic types. One of the most specialized and exotic of these is the nerve cell, or neuron. The neuron is unusual in three respects: its varied shape, its electrical and chemical function, and its connectivity, that is, how it links up with other neurons in networks.

I plan to tell you more about some of these properties, but only just

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