Commenter BeingItself asks: "If I was to draw a picture of my girlfriend, would that drawing be about my girlfriend? Surely a drawing is material. What is it about brains such that their patterns cannot be about anything?"
Good question! I've examined the James Ross article on this blog a few times, but it's always good to revisit this basic idea from different angles. This problem is an interesting one that materialists ought to grapple with, but too often they misunderstand it or just wave it aside.
Think of the Big Dipper. In the West, it looks like, or represents, a soup ladle.
But does the Big Dipper itself, apart from our interpretations, have anything whatsoever to do with soup ladles? Is it really about soup ladles, outside of our interpretations that we apply to it? Of course not. Soup is a salty liquid food, and a ladle is a metal spoon for scooping it up. The stars that make up the Big Dipper are enormous balls of hydrogen gas. Nothing relating to soup or ladles at all. Hell, in other cultures the Big Dipper is supposed to look like a big bear, hence it's official name: Ursa Major.
But what if we had the technology to create and move stars around? And what if we filled in the details of the Big Dipper, complete with pouring soup, so that it looks even MORE like a soup ladle than it does now?
Is it really about soup now? No, still not. It's still just a bunch of balls of hydrogen gas arranged into a patter that we interpret as a soup ladle, but apart from us is not about soup ladles.
Now let's say that the technology is not there yet to move stars around, so instead we use some small clumps of glowing electrons on a glass screen. We arrange the glowing electrons the same as before, first like the Big Dipper, then fill in more details. Again, are the glowing electrons about a soup ladle? Again, apart from our ability to apply a pattern onto something, the electrons are not about soup ladles. They are just electrons that are glowing, that have certain charges, and that's it. We've just arranged them into a patter that we call "soup ladle."
Of course, what I'm talking about here is a computer screen. Materialists often think that an easy counter to dualist claims is to point to the existence of computers, saying that computers are about things and there's no problem there, so why should there be a problem with explaining the aboutness of our thoughts? But computer output is no different from the Big Dipper above: just arrangements of glowing electrons that we apply meaning to. Without us around to give meaning to the symbols, the output on a computer screen has no more aboutness than the Big Dipper does.
And the same goes for graphite marks on a piece of paper, as BeingItself's original question pertained to. The objective physical situation involves some carbon molecules sticking to wood molecules (which are also carbon), and that's it. The physical situation, apart from BeingItself's interpretation, has nothing whatsoever to do with "girlfriends", anymore than the Big Dipper has to do with soup ladles.
The problem could be phrased like this: for a symbol to have meaning, there must be two ingredients: the physical shape/structure of the symbol + something else.
In the case of BeingItself's drawing, the "something else" is his intentions applied to the otherwise meaningless bits of carbon. In the case of the Big Dipper, the "something else" is our interpretations of an otherwise meaningless grouping of stars.
But in the case of our thoughts, what is the "something else?"