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What Is Mind?

Mind power. Mingling minds. Science of Mind. Mind Cure. Any of these sound familiar? Probably no word has been used more often in New Thought than mind. But what is mind? Its definition has changed throughout history as philosophers altered their metaphysical theories.

The three classical metaphysical outlooks are idealism (the basic building blocks of the universe are mind); materialism (the basic building blocks of the universe are lifeless matter or energy, with mind only an epiphenomenon, a sort of squeak in the machinery); and dualism (mind and matter are equally real). Traditional Christianity is dualistic. Most modern scientists are materialistic.

From its earliest days, the New Thought movement has been idealistic. Mind was even used as the title of one of the most prominent early New Thought periodicals. In its first issue, in October 1897, the "Editorial Department" writes on "OUR NAME AND MISSION." It begins:

MIND is a term with varied definitions. This fact is probably due to the vagueness of the earlier conceptions of its essence and functions. Its primary and essential meaning is the spiritual nature, which perceives intuitively and includes the capacity for the superior knowledge. In [what the editorial considers] a subordinate sense it is the ratiocinative [thinking, reasoning] faculty, which entertains and reasons upon impressions. In this view it is a near synonym of "soul," the sensuous nature, being thus the faculty that receives ideas and attempts to work them into judgments. Mind is also the will, or inclination; the propensity, or purpose of the ego. It is also the memory, which retains the impression of facts. . . .

The editor then goes into the linguistic origins of terms used to refer to mind in other languages, which, the author believes, provide greater precision than does English.

Ancient philosophers boldly proceeded to consider the nature of the world, whereas modern ones have been more concerned with the abilities of mind to know at all. Difficulties stem from early modernity, when science split off from philosophy, and religion and science consigned themselves to separate realms. Things grew worse, mainly because when philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) advocated metaphysical dualism, he was unable to explain adequately how mind, which is not extended in space, and body, which is, can interact. There are other enormous philosophical difficulties with dualism, but things continued to worsen with the church’s emphasis on God as supernatural (outside of the world) and on miracles as God’s choosing to suspend God’s own laws. This led first to deism (God as absentee landlord or watchmaker whose timepieces never need repairing), then to atheism. A majority of scientists abandoned religion altogether and concerned themselves solely with matter, with what can be perceived by the physical senses or measured. They treated thinking, feeling, remembering, willing, desiring, and other mental activities as mere byproducts of matter to be explained away as rapidly as possible. They simply ignored the overwhelming evidence of the existence of mind.

In any metaphysical thinking, we need to ask what type of reality is basic (quality), and how many units of it there are (quantity). The materialist answers that there is only one type of reality, so he or she is a qualitative monist (one-ist). The metaphysical dualist, such as Descartes, says that there are two equally real realities, neither explainable by the other: mind and matter. Matter, according to the idealist, is an expression of mind. The idealist has decided that there is only one sort of reality, mind; but must then go on to decide whether there is only one mind (qualitatively and quantitatively monistic) or many minds (qualitatively monistic, but quantitatively pluralistic). Those who hold that there is only one all-powerful mind contradict themselves, because regardless of what one may say, it is impossible to behave as if one does not have free will, and free will is a power. All can be mind without all’s being one mind.

Present-day philosophers tend to treat mind, soul, and spirit as synonymous, which suits our purposes, at least for the moment. But consideration of Cartesian dualism, at least its shortcomings, remains relevant. We should abandon the notion of anything extended in space as basic, and should update the notion of nonextended mind. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, physicists provided some information worthy of metaphysical speculation. They discovered that the basic building blocks of the world are not changeless, enduring substances (as ancient and early modern atomists had maintained), but are momentarily developing units of energy, activity, process; dynamic rather than static. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead reasoned that the basic units of everything are momentarily developing living occasions of experience. He coined the word prehension (nonsensory awareness) to describe how each experience feels (prehends) its predecessors, as well as the perfect plan (initial aim) offered to it by God. Each experience co-creates itself by accepting or rejecting the contrasting influences of God and the past. God is also prehending completed occasions of experience and is thereby growing in experience, while God’s loving, dependable character never changes.

Whitehead’s thinking has been more influential in theology that in philosophy. New Thought can benefit greatly by adopting his process thought, which explains what the father of New Thought P. P. Quimby referred to as the mingling of minds. Healing and other phenomena emphasized by New Thought can be understood in terms of process philosophy. I have written more about this in chapter six of New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality [available from Amazon via the link in our Book Store]. Whitehead’s updated idealism, known as panexperientialism, explains how our minds are all interconnected with each other and with the Divine Mind; for like us, God is a mind and has a body; the universe is God’s body. Because God is present in (prehended by) each experience, God is everywhere present and available. God’s power is all sufficient (the word omnipotent comes from a bad Latin translation of the Greek word pantocrator, which means all-sufficient). It is the power of lure or persuasion, not coercion. We can use our free will to say yes or no to God’s perfect possibilities for us, and we can align our minds with the Mind of God for the utmost good.