Skip to content

On the nature of the mind

February 10, 2011

The mind is a nebulous thing, hard to pin down and hard to define exactly what one means by the term ‘mind’.  Despite this, however, an attempt to penetrate and understand this difficult subject is worthy of thought and attention and here is a selection of thoughts, breaking down mind and consciousness into other concepts.  The reader should be aware that, as things stand, this does not break things down farther than a selection of other named concepts, but hopefully it is the interconnection of these concepts that is illustrative and instructive.  Ultimately one needs to experience the truth of what mind is, and that journey is beyond the scope of this post.

We begin with consciousness.  Consciousness is, as I see it, an interplay between three key aspects: awareness, influence and freedom of will.  What the mind is aware of, it can consciously attempt to influence, aware of its effects and able to use this feedback to adjust its influence in order to effect an outcome.  Freedom of will is a necessary property in order for this to have any relevance: without the ability to change, of its own volition, the mind has no control and becomes an irrelevance, control of outcomes coming from another source (and what could that be, besides a mind of some sort with free will of some sort?) Freedom of will allows the mind to  change its attempts to influence what it is aware of, and with time and learning, the mind will develop an understanding of what influence it has over what it is aware of, thus we have the resultant interplay of these three concepts.

Action of mind requires space to work within; that is, it requires enough freedom to be able to make choices.  It doesn’t need a lot, and rarely has a lot of space to work with, just enough not to be constrained to follow a path dictated from without.  By working with this space, we think; that is, we act on information, knowledge and understanding, creating new information, understanding and decisions.  These decisions and thoughts are mostly either rational or intuitive, using either some semblance of logic and reason or else using feelings.  Most thoughts effectively arise from an interplay of these two, though once can break things down to steps, either rational, intuitive or else random.

The mind can be thought of in terms of a tripartite model: intellectual or cognitive; emotional; and moving or behavioural.  The former terms follow the nomenclature of Gurdjieff whilst the latter follows that of the current psychology literature.

Mind acts on physical reality through the body by way of sensation and intention.  Sensation feeds information about the physical world to the mind, where it is processed, whereas intention feeds information about desired actions to the body for it to carry out.  The body can act without these, but such actions are effectively mindless, being carried out irrespective of the will of the mind.  When these mindless actions predominate, one could be described as sleepwalking through life, running on instinct alone.  It is a noble aim of self development to bring mind and body to the state that mindful actions predominate, but this is hard work and very few make the journey.

So, where does the brain fit into all of this?  Isn’t mind just biochemical brain function as science appears to suggest?  That is where my viewpoint departs from much that one reads about today.  Some authors describe the brain as a kind of transceiver (e.g. van Lommel) rather than the source of mind.  One can see the difference by looking at the analogy of the radio aerial.  The signal received by your television set arises from electrical activity in the aerial: without this activity in the aerial, the TV would receive nothing.  But from a common sense view of cause and effect, the causal chain does not begin with the aerial: before the aerial comes the transmitter and before that one could add the source of what is transmitted.  In the case of the brain and human behaviour, one does not know where this causal chain begins (if it does indeed begin at a well defined source.)

People who talk about mind posit the existence of some well defined source: those who take the biochemists’ assumption that thought arises as chemical and electrical activity in the brain (rather than such chemical and electrical activity being partly acted on by though) would say that the brain is the ultimate source, but as I hope I’ve illustrated, there is rational reason to doubt this: 99.9% of behaviour (or some similar statistic) is undoubtedly caused by the biochemistry but no matter how many 9’s you add after the decimal point, it is still a long way from 100%, especially given the complex dynamical nature of the brain.

In time, it may well arise from deeper theoretical considerations that, even if one assumes it all begins in the brain, intelligibility may still require one to think in terms of an abstract mind in order to make sense of what is going on.  (This is much like in mathematics, where abstract structures and definitions make otherwise unwieldy topics amenable to treatment by human mathematicians.)

Advertisements

From → Philosophy

2 Comments
  1. “In time, it may well arise from deeper theoretical considerations that, even if one assumes it all begins in the brain, intelligibility may still require one to think in terms of an abstract mind in order to make sense of what is going on. (This is much like in mathematics, where abstract structures and definitions make otherwise unwieldy topics amenable to treatment by human mathematicians.)”

    Of course intelligibility requires the concept of the mind, but that requirement in no way demands belief (“one assumes” is code talk for belief) in anything, especially not belief in some kind of mystical meta-mind existing above or outside physical reality. Sure, it’s very difficult to comprend, at this stage of the development of the science of mind, how nuerons, etc. give rise to the higher mental functions, but, they must. Nuerons, etc are all that *are* so they must be the foundation and building blocks of thought. Notice I said “difficult” to comprehend, Difficult does not mean impossible, and the scientists who are working on this problem are making slow but sure progress.

    • Of course intelligibility requires the concept of the mind,

      No: intelligibility only requires the presence of the mind, not any concept of the mind. A concept of the mind cannot contain the mind itself, the mind itself will always be significantly greater than any concept that mind can contain, and any concept of ‘the mind’ held by a mind, will not exactly behave as the mind containing it. (Apply the reasoning of Godel’s theorems to models of a logical theory of mind and see where this gets you: the mind can hold a concept of concepts and thus hold a concept of a concept of mind… you can play with this.)

      but that requirement in no way demands belief (“one assumes” is code talk for belief) in anything,

      Get a good introductory book on formal logic and look at how they define assumptions. When I say assume I mean taking something on as a temporary belief. If I assume P and then deduce Q, I may remove the assumption of P and conclude that P implies Q. I cannot conclude Q itself. Thus once I am done with the assumption, I cannot and should not believe the conclusion that was reached under the assumption (in this case, the assumption that `it all begins in the brain’.) Think of an assumption as a contained belief and a fundmental belief as a totally uncontained belief.

      especially not belief in some kind of mystical meta-mind existing above or outside physical reality.

      I’m afraid that, from where I stand, and my speciality was the foundations of mathematics, that logically some kind of Absolutely Infinite entity must exist (see Absolute Infinity in set theory and apply the concept to reality at large.) This entity cannot by non-mystical and cannot be contained inside physical reality. The words ‘meta-mind’ were yours, not mine.

      Sure, it’s very difficult to comprend, at this stage of the development of the science of mind, how nuerons, etc. give rise to the higher mental functions,

      The essential question before you begin to investigate ‘how’ is ‘if’. ‘If the neurons etc.’ give rise to the higher mental functions. There is then the real likelyhood that any explanation in human language in terms of neurons would take more paper than there are atoms in the planet. Explanations must eventually be simple enough for the average human to comprehend.

      but, they must.

      Why must they?

      Nuerons,[sic] etc are all that *are* so they must be the foundation and building blocks of thought.

      I’ve taken on that assumption before, and eventually ended up with the absurd conclusion that I did not exist. I fundamentally believe that I do exist, and so for me this premise must be false. That is my logic, you do not have to follow it, but please don’t try to tell me that I don’t exist: I won’t believe you. Nor will I believe any assertion that logically entails, based on my personal experience, the conclusion that I don’t exist. And I’ve worked this through very carefully over the past ten years.

      Notice I said “difficult” to comprehend, Difficult does not mean impossible, and the scientists who are working on this problem are making slow but sure progress.

      There is the intermediate notion of ‘intractable’: some things are easily computable and others, while theoretically computable, would take millions of years even given all todays computers programmed efficiently. Intractable effectively means ‘practically impossible but not theoretically impossible’ and in the article you are replying to I am indicating the notion of intractability rather than theoretical impossibility. To be explicit, I wrote: “intelligibility may still require one to think in terms of an abstract mind in order to make sense of what is going on.” and making sense is not possible when you have to hold a few thousand-page arguments in your head at once. This is the level of difficulty I see physicalists having to overcome in the not-too-distant future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: