Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Myth of the Jaynesians

The Jaynesians are a mythical race of human like creatures who lack all capacity for reflection. Never has a Jaynesian stopped to reflect on his or her experience. But they are definitely smart. Their adaptive unconscious makes all the important decisions for them: when to get up, when and what to eat, how to work, whom to sleep with, who to fight, who to fear, and so on. The Jaynesians are verbal, but their talk does not have mental concepts like “mind”, “reflection”, “consciousness”, or “self-knowledge”. They simply exchange information through speaking, but do so with vocalizations that are abstracted from their original sensory presentation. A farmer who needs a new hammer made by the blacksmith emits a series of vocalizations upon seeing the blacksmith and coming within hearing range, and the blacksmith responds to this vocalization with his own vocalization, until both are pleased. Each vocalization allows for the exchange of meaningful information. But when the farmer asked for a hammer, he did not say “I need a hammer for my project”. Instead it was more like “yo! give hammer receive food” or “receive food give hammer” or simply “hammer (points to shop then to himself)…food (points to food, then to the blacksmith)”. All communication was done without mentalistic metaphors. There is no concept for “mind” or “inner consciousness”, no distinction between things “inside” or “outside” the mind. The Jaynesians mainly ordered each other around based on social rankings but also exchanged info about the weather, about food, about sex, about social events, about the gods, about harvest, about life lessons. These exchanges are products of the adaptive unconscious. There is no conscious intent in their speakings, no mental deliberation and rehearsal of what to say, no contemplation on past conversations. The utterances and head nodding involved in day-to-day small talk better illustrates the kind of communication done with the Jaynesians than the type of nervous over-thinking of a typical first-date. It is reactive, not deliberate. The “islands” of speech stand in for different things, but are stored in the unconscious recesses of the mind and strung together into vocalizations without reflective oversight.

If you doubt the plausibility of symbolic communication without reflective oversight, consider the 19th century cases of automatic writing studied by people like William James and various psychical societies. In automatic writing, very intelligent and meaningful writing is produced entirely by the adaptive unconscious, with the conscious self having no clue what their hand is about to write. They have no reflective access to the decision making of the writing; it simply spills out of their hand fluidly, but demonstrates powerful cognitive skills, often of a creative and poetic nature. Many a poet has utilized this unconscious well as their Muse. Words come into their minds and they simply write them down. To imagine the Jaynesian race is to imagine a society of creatures who are always using the unconscious to speak, without any reflective oversight. The words simply come out in appropriate situations, guided by all the knowledge they have gained since birth about when it is appropriate to use what vocalizations.

Without any capacity for reflection, the mental lives of the Jaynesians are best described as “externally oriented” rather than “internally contemplative”. They are doers. Persons of action. Their adaptive unconscious guides them with great care, making decisions for them in such a way as to facilitate the development of civilization. They worship gods and their worship takes the form of ritual, trance states, and hallucination. In the same way that the unconscious brought speech to their mouths, it brings speech to their ears, automatically generating hallucinations of ancestors, gods, demons, and angels talking to them. This is another way for the adaptive unconscious to exercise control over the individual Jaynesians. A voice that is experienced as your dead father is very effective at getting you to do something, especially if you don’t have to ability to rationally reflect and realize that you are hearing a hallucination. You simply hear the voice and believe it is as real as the ground you are standing on. After all, because the voice is a product of the unconscious mind, it demonstrates great wisdom and knowledge, impressing the Jaynesians with its near omniscience, convincing them these gods they hear talking to them are in fact what they say they are: the all powerful rulers of the cosmos who must be obeyed at all costs or ELSE. This is kind of like Achilles obeying Athena:

He was mulling it over, inching the great sword
From its sheath, when out of the blue
Athena came, sent by the white-armed Goddess
Hera, who loved and watched over both men.
She stood behind Achilles and grabbed his sandy hair,
Visible only to him: not another soul saw her.
Awestruck, Achilles turned around, recognizing
Pallas Athena at once – it was her eyes-…
[Athena gives her command]
…Achilles, the great runner, responded:
When you two speak, Goddess, a man has to listen
No matter how angry. It’s better that way.
Obey the gods and they hear you when you pray.”

Achilles represents a more advanced state of consciousness than even the Jaynesians, for the Jaynesians would have never been able to respond to the hallucinations with a dialogue. They would have simply obeyed immediately without hesitation. This was for the best, as strict obedience to the imagined gods held the society together. It was the temples that held the great icons of the gods which were the most powerful inducers of hallucinated command, with the Jaynesian’s own brain tricking them into obeying it by projecting voices into the statues of the gods. We can infer the ancient hallucinatory function of idols from the statues of the god Abu at Tell Asmar:


Notice the size of the eyes. For many mammals, the “eye staredown” is a way to assert dominance. Whoever lowers their eyes first submits to the mammal with the more powerful stare. Staring is thus is a signal for dominance and control, a signal to obey. Now imagine a Jaynesian as fasting for a week to prepare for the religious spiritual quest he is about to embark on. As he ingests a powerful substance he walks into the temple chamber and falls under the glance of the imposing statue of the god. He looks into the statue’s eyes and a hallucination is easily induced since the ritualistic preparation greatly lowered the threshold for the induction of hallucinations. The Jaynesian experiences the god as literally talking to him, giving him orders and commands. Some of the most common commands were probably orders to bring burial goods. As the wikipedia article on ancient Egyptian burial customs says “From the earliest periods of Egyptian history, all Egyptians were buried with at least some burial goods that they thought were necessary after death. At a minimum, these usually consisted of everyday objects such as bowls, combs, and other trinkets, along with food.” Why was this? I think it was because the god’s orders took the neural form of a human projection experienced as a hallucination, which is unconsciously understood to need food and drink and other goods. This makes sense because the first gods were just powerful dead ancestors, eventually ending up with human god-Kings. When the god-King died, the hallucinations were “copies” in the brain of the personality matrix of the King. As a mortal, the King needed food and drink and pleasures, so it is no surprise that the hallucinated form of the King after his death commanded his followers to bring him food and drink and other daily goods, and these were brought in great loads, introducing the concept of the alter and sacrifice to our ancient ancestors.

One of the more curious features of the Jaynesians’ experience is their visual experience. Without the capacity for reflection, the Jaynesians are unable to step back and ask themselves what they just saw, or what they are currently seeing. This experience is almost impossible to imagine for modern conscious humans. It is hard to reflectively imagine what it is like to not be able to ask yourself what you are currently seeing, because right now as you are reading this your brain is asking itself what it is seeing. This reflection of the brain onto its own incoming visual data stream is what generates “sensations”, which are feelings of seeing. Most animals do not need to feel what they see as this is extraneous information, and unnecessary for the adaptive unconscious to make motor decisions. However, conscious humans do ask ourselves what we see. Our brain is constantly doing this. Modern human adult brains perceive their own perception, and are also capable of perceiving their perception of their perception, or possibly perceiving the perception of perceiving their perception. This ability to mentally travel around your own head, consciously perceiving old memories, current data, or future simulations, is essential to the mental toolkit of the modern conscious human. In his recent book The Recursive Mind, Michael Corballis argues that it is the ability of deeply recursive thought and mental time travel that separates humans from nonhuman animals. He argues that the gestural grammars of referring to noncurrent times and places necessitated the development of recursive thinking, and this in turn allowed for the development of mental time travel (inserting past or future experience into present experience, or injecting near-present experience into present experience, generating feelings of sensation). I think Corballis makes a compelling case.

So the Jayensians are a race of creatures without such recursive embedding of perceptions into perceptions. Their visual consciousness is radically difficult from ours, and is almost impossible to imagine. I think this inability to consciously imagine what it’s like to not be able to have such recursive qualia is what leads many philosophers of mind astray. They experience their own experience and think that the qualia associated with experiencing experience are essential to all experiences, when really it is of course essential only to the experience of experience, and not just experience itself. Because they are unfamiliar with the unique phenomenological characteristics of experiencing experience, many philosophers are left to wonder about how “special”, “ineffable”, or “immaterial” their experiences are. They delight at the pure perception of a red patch, or of the juice of a strawberry, or the painfulness of pain. They mistakenly think that painfulness of pain is intrinsic to all pain experiences when in fact it is intrinsic only to experiences of pain, which is higher-order.

There are a lot of important philosophical lessons that can be had from contemplating the possibility of the Jaynesian race. I have self-consciously styled this post after the thought experiment of Wilfred Sellars about the mythical race of the Ryleans. I think the two cases are similar, but mine is actually historically plausible and fits in with what we know of ancient neolithic experience (c.f. Inside the Neolithic Mind ). The case of the Jaynesians also illustrates the differences between myself and higher-order theorists like David Rosenthal. Rosenthal, from what I understand, wants to deny that it is reflection which generates the specialness of qualia. He claims it is a higher-order thought, which can be prereflective. So Rosenthal thinks we don’t need to be deliberately introspecting to have conscious qualia. Whereas I agree that we don’t need to deliberate in order to have visual qualia based on experience of experience (i.e. higher-order thought), I do think that, evolutionarily speaking, it is the development for the capacity of reflection that eventually leads to the automatic and prereflective higher-order thoughts which generate conscious “what it is like ness”. So we agree that you don’t need to reflectively deliberate to presently have conscious qualia, but we disagree because I think it is the phylogenetic and ontogenetic development of reflection which enables the prereflective higher-order thoughts to get started in the first place. I’m still not sure how major of a disagreement this actually is between us. I think we could actually be quite theoretically close, but only differ in terms of evolutionary implementation details.


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On the Alleged Failure of Behaviorism, a Defense of Gilbert Ryle

After having heard so much about Gilbert Ryle’s magnum opus The Concept of Mind, but having never read it myself, I was very much pleased to find a used copy in a bookstore for $5. I have of course heard other people’s comments on The Concept of Mind, but I have only recently come to realize that I have been hearing strawmen. To my estimation, most people think that Ryle gave the best defense of philosophical behaviorism possible, but that the book is still a failure because e.g. it fails to account for subjectivity, phenomenal consciousness, etc. It seems to me that many philosophers are liable to write Ryle off as being a simple minded behaviorist who likened all mental activity to dispositional properties like “the glass is brittle because it will shatter in the right conditions”. Likewise, the accusation against Ryle is that he fails to capture the “inner life” of phenomenal consciousness because everything “mental” is just a behavioral disposition and talk of “inner life” is but a category mistake.

This criticism of Ryle seems to be misguided in that Ryle was far from denying the reality of inner conscious mentality. Indeed, Ryle spends a great amount of time talking about silent monologues “in the head”, imaginings, fancies, conjuring images in the “mind’s eye”, episodic remembering, etc. It seems then that Ryle has a good grasp on the explanandum of consciousness, namely, the internal processes which generate the illusion of having a “mind space” in the head wherein one can carry out activities like silent speech, imagination, rumination, etc. Where Ryle differs from the dualist is not so much in his denying that “inner activity” happens (which would be absurd), but rather, in denying that the “inner mind space” refers to a literal place in the head that is somehow nonphysical. When dualists claim that imagining goes on “in the mind”, they are usually unconsciously adopting the “in the head” metaphor. Ryle is ahead of his time in pointing out the metaphorical character of expressions like “I am having a silent monologue in my head or in my mind”. So the difference between Ryle and the dualist is that whereas the dualists thinks that mental activity literally takes places in a nonphysical “location” (the mind), Ryle recognizes that when someone is having an inner monologue there is only one activity happening, namely, the inner monologue, which is a skill.

So although many philosophers are liable to lump Ryle in with elimativists who deny that mental activity takes place at all, Ryle fully concedes that we do sometimes do things “in our heads” (such as daydream), but he argues that this does not mean that there is a “ghost in the machine”, a secret theater of consciousness that is fully private, inaccessible to others, and wholly mysterious. Ryle claims that we only metaphorically think that there is such a secret theater. We are deluded and misled by inside/outside metaphors into thinking that when we perform inner monologues there is both physical activity (brain processing, etc.) and happenings “in the mind”, which is nonphysical. Instead of two processes happening (one physical, one mental), there is only one process, but it is explainable in multiple ways.

To show this is the case, let’s borrow an example from Wittgenstein and imagine an experimenter who hooked himself up to an fMRI machine so that he could look at his brain activity in realtime as he is thinking various thoughts. Let’s say he has an inner speech thought T, namely, “This is so cool that I can see my brain”. The critical question is, how many things are happening when thought T happens? Is there just one thing? Or two? The dualist is forced to say there are two things: the thought T and the brain activity correlated with the thought. The physicalist says there is only one thing. In concluding that there is only one thing, does the physicalist then deny that thought T happened? Hardly. As Wittgenstein claims, it is legitimate to conclude to both the brain activity and the actual thought T can seen as “expressions of thought”.

Are we then justified in claiming that thought takes place “in the head”? Yes, but only as an hypothesis. The dualist wants to claim that we are justified in claiming that conscious thought happens “in the head” because it seems that their thinking is happening in an “internal mindspace”. The physicalists claims that we are justified in claiming that conscious thought happens “in the head” because the hypothesis “thought takes place in the head” is testable through the fMRI in principle. So what is the superior position? I think the Rylean physicalist is in better shape because the claim about thinking happening in the head/brain is not made on the basis of infallible first-person knowledge, but is arrived at through a public process of reasoning about publicly available data, and is falsifiable (we could, for example, discover that thought actually is beemed into our brains from an alien overlord hovering over Earth).

But what about phenomenal consciousness? Isn’t Rylean behaviorism missing something? I think Ryle has plenty of means to account for the subjective experience of animals, including humans. Since Ryle claims the seat of confusion regarding “inner life” is the mistake of taking metaphorical expressions literally, it seems like we could develop a psychological account of how metaphorical cognition generates feelings of qualia for “insideness”. This would be similar to Julian Jaynes’ approach to consciousness, which sees it has a function operating on the basis of lexical metaphors that generates conscious experiences of “mind space”. When we have an inner speech episode and conclude that because we have such experience there is a literal space inside our heads where such speech takes place, we are being fooled by the illusion of insideness generated by inside/outside metaphors. The illusion persists even once you are aware of it being an illusion.

Consequently, “phenomenal consciousness” can be understood in two ways. The first way is in terms of “what it is like” to be an organism in general. The “who” of this subjectivity is the unconscious self (which might be better thought of as a bundle of selves). The unconscious self is simply that self which reacts to incoming stimuli in such a way as to maintain the autonomy of organismic life. This is why the unconscious is called the adaptive unconscious. It helps all animals stay alive. I believe that the unconscious self is not a special emergent feature of brain activity, but can be found even in organisms who lack a nervous system. The nervous system is merely an evolutionary development of the reactive mind which allows for increasingly adaptive behavior. Of course, the development of the nervous system gives rise to “new phenomenal feels” but I don’t believe these feels are enough to make any sharp evolutionary cut-off point for when “phenomenal consciousness” arose. So in the first sense of phenomenal consciousness, if you are a living organism with a body, then you are phenomenally conscious insofar as there is “something it is like” to react to stimuli an such a way as to maintain your metabolism.

The second sense of phenomenal consciousness can be understood in terms of the “phenomenal difference” of human-specific cognition e.g. rumination, articulation, inner speech, contemplation, imagining, mental time travel, propositional reasoning, full blown theory of mind, etc. I thus claim that “what it is like” to be human is radically different from “what it is like” to be a bat, and that the phenomenal difference is so great as to necessitate a new, evolutionarily recent sense of “phenomenal consciousness” specific to humans. Why is this distinction needed? Because part of the functional-profile of human-specific cognition is to form meta-cognitive acts of amplification and modulation on first-order sensory networks. In essence, human-specific consciousness (which I have called “Jaynesian consciousness”) operates on the information embedded in the adaptive unconscious and generates “higher order” mental states that give rise to new forms of subjective feeling. We can now make distinctions between things like pain and suffering, where pain is a first-order adaptive process and suffering is the conscious rumination on pain. One of the most interesting “side effects” of higher-order phenomenal consciousness is the generation of “sensations”. Conscious sensations are different from the classic psychological distinction between sensation and perception, where sensation is the mere transduction of energy at receptor sites and perception is extracting meaning from the stimulation. On my account, “conscious sensation” is closer to perception than it is sensation. In other words, conscious sensation is the meta-cognitive act of introspecting on first-order perceptual activitiy. This meta-cognitive act generates “feelings” of privacy, inwardness, ineffability, wonder, magic, etc. To introspect on your sensory stream is more than just paying attention to something. It is to experience your own sensations in terms of various mental constructs that are evolutionary recent and socially mediated. Following Dennett and Jaynes, I claim that one cannot have experiences of “inwardness” until there is a social construct available which makes an inside/outside psychological distinction. Such a distinction is evolutionary recent (perhaps less than 10,000 years old). Once the metaphor of inside-outside is available in the community, the brain is able to use it to generate new experiences, such as the phenomenal sensation that you are peering out at the world from behind your eyes. Of course, in ancient times, the “inside” metaphor located the mind inside the heart, not the head. It is only with the advent of neurological science that the social construction of “inside the mind” has come to mean “inside the head”.

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Authority as decision-making and control

You are a social animal and you find some food as you are foraging. As you are about to put the well-deserved food in your mouth, a powerful conspecific comes up to you and lets it be known that the food you found is actually HIS food, not yours, and if you don’t hand it over, then you are in for a pummeling. What do you do? This situation can be called a critical junction for your brain’s decision making. Do you face the bully or submit? Your brain is now in the process of making an important decision. How can we understand in the abstract how your brain comes to its decision? I propose that we can understand the concept of clutch decision making in terms of authority. In the case of the bully, a decision must be authorized by the brain on what to do. Suppose that the conspecific is of a much higher social rank. It is likely that the lower animal’s brain will authorize the decision to submit. On what information is your brain making this authorization? On the information streaming from both current perception of size and power and past memory that this conspecific is powerful and that you are unable to physically best him based on previous experience. The best decision to make is to submit and hand over the food. The decision is authorized on the basis of survival instincts, but the essential information that regulated the authorization comes from the social environment, namely, the presence of the conspecific in your sensory field.

I propose that authority in social hierarchies can be understood in terms of the authorizations for control of individual brain systems. The dominant male acted as a “control” or “regulator” for the lower animal’s behavior. If not in the dominant’s presence, eating behavior is authorized; if in the dominant’s presence, then submission behavior is authorized. Now take something a little more complex: human society. Imagine you are a early Neolithic human and you and your family have just harvested some food for the season. Now you have a decision to make about what to do with the food. How is the final decision of distribution authorized? Neolithic humans were incredibly religious. They thought it was necessary to offer some of their food to the gods in order to appease them and thank them for the bounty. On the basis of this social information, your brain authorizes a distribution of goods to the alter of the gods, despite the fact that evolutionary fitness is likely sacrificed in the wanton waste of food, goods, and even human lives in the case of human sacrifice (think Abraham and Isaac). When I said that these Neolithics “thought” that they should offer food to the gods, what form does this thinking take? Following Jaynes, I propose that the thought was not of the modern, conscious inner monologue kind that is familiar to most human adults today, but rather, took the form of bicameral control, which is a process carried out by the adaptive unconscious.

Strictly speaking, bicamerality is defined as a neural internalization of admonitory social control through a nonconscious process of auditory verbal hallucination similar to schizophrenic command hallucinations. For bicameral minds, this substitutes for conscious access, for reasoned will. Indeed, in a bicameral mentality, “… volition came as a voice that was in the nature of a neurological command, in which the command and the action were not separated, in which to hear was to obey ” (Jaynes 1976, p. 99). Bicameral control is a special form of brain authorization available only to the human species. It is a side-effect of our having evolved verbal language for social commanding/requesting. I suppose other vocal animals with sufficiently complicated cortical “echo chambers” could hallucinate as well, but I doubt that the hallucinations take the complex social form of gods, demons, ancestors, etc. that is prevalent in human societies. In the case of Neolithic food distribution, the “thought” to offer food to the gods took the form of a auditory hallucination of a god or ancestor’s voice commanding you to perform the sacrifice, giving you the guidance on how to perform the act, and threats and other reasons as to why you should do the act. Since the bicameral control assembly is processed by the verbally-modified adaptive unconscious housed in the frontal-temporal “association” areas, the intellectual power of a human guided by bicameral control is incredibly impressive. Ever wonder how primitive Neolithic humans were able to execute complex construction plans for building monoliths, calculate astronomical and mathematical results with extraordinary precision, etc.? I propose that it was the “god function” of the bicameral control assembly which was able to aid Neolithics in the construction of complex civilization. It is interesting to me that the savant Daniel Tammet had temporal lobe epilepsy when he was little. Could savant syndrome be tapping into vestigial bicameral functions? It is curious that some of the most common savant abilities are stuff that ancient Neolithics would have found incredibly useful such as amazing calendrical calculation (useful for guiding the planting and harvesting of crops according to accumulated social wisdom about seasons and dates).

The hallucination of gods literally created the social order which made it possible to erect huge hierarchically structured civilizations with specialized social classes like the priesthood and royalty, which acted as the “right hand” and “voice” of the gods (think of prophets and oracles). The process of hallucination authorization took the form of a hierarchical ladder, with every person hallucinating a Voice that was more powerful than them. The lower class hallucinated the voices of lesser gods and the dominant conspecifics. The kings hallucinated the Voice of the most powerful god, and acted as the direct messenger of the most powerful god, giving him incredible power in the society. Because the “content” for the hallucinations was socially shared in nature, the bicameral control assemblies in the lower classes “respected” the authority of the gods hallucinated in the higher social classes, with the King hallucinating the most powerful god. The societies which developed from polytheistic bicameral control to monotheistic control were able to create great social cohesion in their hierarchical authorization mechanisms. The social cohesion of bicameral control operating on shared social information enabled the explosion of civilization about 10-15 thousand years ago. In contrast to prevailing theories which claim that religion arose after the expansion of civilization, Jaynesian theory predicts that religion gave rise to civilization. Recent archaeological findings provide support for this theory. Describing the work of Klaus Schmidt on the major archaeological site Göbekli Tepe, a National Geographic journalist says “Göbekli Tepe, to Schmidt’s way of thinking, suggests…The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization.” This is an essentially Jaynesian hypothesis: bicamerality allowed for the rapid expansion of human society into great civilizations through the shared social authorization of behavior by hallucinated voices acting as representatives of a linguistically charged adaptive unconscious.

It was this unconscious power that allowed for the incredible intellectual feats of primitive Neolithic humans. The intellectual power also gave rise to the continuing human conviction that gods actually do exist. If your conscious self could directly tap into the computational power of the adaptive unconscious through the bicameral control interface, then you would be so overwhelmed by its intellectual superiority that you would likely immediately authorize the gods to control your behavior, believing that you are in fact receiving divine wisdom from a powerful entity. Indeed, we see the theme of emphasizing obedience in the most successful of all religions: “But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.” (Jeremiah 7:23-24)…”Ye shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him” (Deuteronomy 13:4) But while there are still vestigial remnants of bicameral authorization in today’s religions (though most people who claim to hear God speaking to them are now sent to a psychiatric doctor), today’s religion is much different. We have lost touch with bicameral control. Most Christians receive God’s guidance indirectly through prayer and scripture study, not hallucination. Although the adaptive unconscous is very much still at large, it does not interface with the conscious mind through the same mechanisms. Today, the narratological conscious self has developed a sense of autonomy from the unconscious mind. Following Iain McGilchrist in his recent book The Master and His Emissary, there is a great deal of evidence to suppose that the conscious, linguistic, propositionally rational left hemisphere has been growing increasingly isolated from the right hemisphere. The corpus callosum mainly acts as a mechanism of inhibition i.e. when a left area is active, the homologous area in the right hemisphere is inactivated and vice versa. The “team of rivals” control strategy allows for greater specialization in behavior which is typical in humans. Language itself is the classic example of lateral specialization. Although both hemisphere are “active” 24-7, the delicate balance of functional specializations plays off the inhibitions in order to give rise to complex behavior. This is especially important in the process of self-control, a critical brain skill for succeeding in the modern world. Ultimately, the left and right hemispheres aren’t “opposed” to each other, but rather, work in harmony through neural competition. This can be likened to the “society of the mind”, “multiple drafts”, and “neural darwinism”. The various modules in the brain compete in order to “authorize” certain behaviors. In the case of our original food gathering social animal, the various circuits in the brain activate in parallel upon perceiving the dominant conspecific. The “loudest” circuit gets to authorize which behavior sequence to initiate or uninhibit: submission.


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Some thoughts on logic, explanation, and the philosophy of mind.

Since I am starting a PhD program in philosophy at Wash U, I will be required to fulfill some logic requirements over the next few years. I have never taken any course on formal logic, except for a class on critical thinking during my undergrad, but I don’t think that actually counts. Although I am starting to get more interested in pure logic for logic’s sake, I have always been skeptical of the direct relevance of formal logic to my research. My primary research interest is to understand the mind. Some logicians might say that insofar as logic is the study of reasoning, and reasoning is a product of the mind, the study of logic will allow one to better understand the mind. But I’m not so sure about how far this takes us. Logic is the study of reasoning at the most general level. When you study pure logic, you are not actually trying to produce a true idea about the world that might turn out to be wrong. In logic, the goal is not to make a substantive claim about reality, except insofar as logic itself as part of reality. Instead, you are trying to study the form of what a true argument looks like. Frankly, this just doesn’t interest me. I am interested in producing true theories about how the mind actually works which involve making substantive claims that might actually turn out to be wrong. The study of logic doesn’t produce true theories about the mind because that just isn’t what logic does. Does this mean that I am uninterested in using logic to produce truth? Hardly. Just like the jazz musician doesn’t need to know about the physics of acoustics in order to play good music, a philosopher doesn’t need to know formal logic in order to produce logical arguments that lead to truth.

When I say I am interested in producing truth about the mind, what does this mean? What does an “explanation” of the mind look like? For some orthodox philosophers, an “explanation” or “account” of the mind might look like this: every mental state supervenes on the physical world; mental states cannot change unless there is a corresponding change in the physical world. For these orthodox philosophers, this is where their job of explaining the mind ends. This type of explanation is supposed to be an argument for a “materialistic theory” of mind. Of course, these philosophers produce crafty arguments in order to reach the conclusion that the mental supervenes on the physical. And these philosophers are probably also involved in the defense of their thesis statement against various counter-examples and thought experiments such as Mary the color-blind neuroscientist, zombies, etc, In order to defend their “materialistic theory” of the mind, these philosophers would spend a significant amount time defending the supervenience theory against these thought experiments. To successfully respond to the “zombie argument” against materialism would count as “progress” in the expansion of the materialistic theory of mind. Likewise, many orthodox philosophers of mind think they are making progress in the field by coming up with counter-examples and purported knockdown arguments against other philosophical “explanations” of the mind, without ever making a substantive claim about the world that may in fact turn out to be wrong.

But honestly, I am not very impressed by such “materialistic theories”. I even think it might be problematic to call such ideas “theories of mind”. So what does a real materialistic explanation of the mind look like? For one, it’s going to be incredibly complicated and not easily compressed into a neat claim like “the mind supervenes on the physical” given that the brain, the seat of the mind, is the most complicated three pounds of matter in the known universe. To be sure, the mind sciences are in their infancy. This is why I have a love/hate relationship with philosophers. An orthodox philosopher might be content with “explaining” the mind without once referencing the brain. To me this is totally unacceptable. An explanation of the human mind MUST involve some reference to the science of mind, not just the philosophy. Thus, I think philosophy of mind is simply the theoretical branch of psychology, much like theoretical physics and its relationship to experimental physics. Philosophy jumps ahead of the data and produces theories that unify data into a more explanatory framework, which leads to better experimentation, which leads to better theory, and so on.

Now, the orthodox philosophers will probably respond by saying that such a brain-based explanation of the mind is surely limited to the local domain of earth-bound creatures, but that’s not what they are interested in. Surely, they will say, if we met an alien entity who appeared to be intelligent but did not have a brain like ours, we would not say that it lacked a mind. Hence, these orthodox philosophers claim to be interested in explaining the mind at such a level of generality that it applies to ALL minds, including exotic aliens with strange nervous systems. So any explanation of the mind that references the human brain must not be a real explanation of the mind, because it cannot handle different kinds of exotic minds. So when philosophers come up with “theories” of mind like “everything mental supervenes on the physical”, this explanation is supposed to apply to all minds in the universe, and not just humans. Thus, these philosophers think that they have some deeper insight into the mind because their account is so general.

But I think this generality and lack of concreteness is precisely the weakness of such theories. Let’s grant that an alien species would have a radically different way of thinking. Now, if we wanted to theoretically study an alien mind, would what be the best way to do so? By coming up with a priori necessary truths like supervenience? Hardly. I think the best way to learn about possible alien minds would be to study something like xenobiology. Evolutionary theory would still apply to the aliens. So would other scientific theories. I thus think that the best way to learn about “minds in general” is to study science, not a priori philosophizing. If you understand a great deal about how biological organisms evolved on this planet, I think you would have a better chance of understanding what an alien mind might be like than if you were to simply sit in your armchair and try to come up with a priori necessary truths such as “the mental supervenes on the physical”. Now, don’t get me wrong. I actually do think that the mental supervenes on the physical. How could I not being the materialist that I am? It’s just that I don’t think philosophy of mind should stop there and consider its job of explanation finished. And no, responding to endless counter-examples is not “progress”. Progress involves better understanding the biology and social conditioning of the mind, in all its glorious complexity. It involves at least making specific hypotheses locating mental functions to anatomy, and looking closely at the effects of development and the social milieu on mental function .

But isn’t this just going back to phrenology? I don’t think so. Phrenology was an unprincipled investigation into the location of brain function. It is based on a false belief, namely, that brain function can be understood by looking at bumps on the head. But “locating” mental processes to specific neural circuits (or distributions of circuitry, as is more likely) is vastly superior as an explanation of the mind than any kind of orthodox philosophical explanation. For example, my colleague Micah Allen and I have made concrete hypotheses about the default mode network’s involvement in reflective consciousness, and proposed a provisional model of how the DMN interacts with lower processes in the course of everyday human cognition. Our model is based on both phenomenological principles (i.e. that humans have both a prereflective and reflective consciousness) and neurofunctional principles based on recent discoveries in cognitive neuroscience. Is our model the end of the story? No. The explanation of the mind is just getting started. The proper way to progress from here would be to continue the interdisciplinary style of explanation wherein philosophy and science work in harmony to produce true statements about the mind that may or may not turn out to be false.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy