PLAIN TALK: Revising Our Ideas to Bring Mind Back to Earth as Our Culture

(This is the third post in in the PLAIN TALK series on Mind and Brain. In the previous posts Mind was contended to be Our Society, Culture and Its History. In this post, some of the traditional mystified language used to describe Mind will be revised into language more suitable to today. TRYING TO KEEP IT PLAIN. I hope I didn’t stray too far in post two! Persons are as Real as atoms. )

Let us get to the some of the details of how Mind can be de-mystified and brought back from its immaterial, even Spiritual, Other-Worldly Realm and return it to our participation in Our Society and Culture. This is the modern way to think of Mind.

Revising Our Ideas

An early idea of Transcendence and the creation of new abilities and creatures. ‘God’ as a non-physical ‘person’. God Creating the Birds of the Sky and the Fishes of the Seas, painting by Maerten de Vos (1600) — nice looking fish!

Mind as “non-physical”, as “immaterial and transcendent” becomes Not some kind of place and not a “Spiritual Substance” that rivals “Material Substance”, but the reality that certain qualities and abilities seem to present themselves in only certain situations and appear to us to be more than, qualitatively different than, what was previously perceived to be present. Mind is certain “Emergent” properties and even objects that appear to exist not only beyond the physical, but other baseline contexts. Mind, in this way, is “Original and Creative”; these new qualities and objects simply “appear”. They have a uniqueness and context of their own. They may be associated with some physical events, and especially increasingly complex physical events, but they are not clearly explained in those terms. The status and limitations of this term —Emergence— will be discussed later in this post, but first some examples of it.

Examples of “Emergence”

The qualities and abilities of Life from Non-Life are an obvious case of emergence. We know very well the physical components of life: “CHNOPS” — carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur. Yet mixed together in very remarkable circumstances new qualities and abilities seem to appear. Living things reproduce, repair, modulate themselves. Even the development of simple living things like protists and bacteria into creatures with an organization of three trillion cells and the ability to visit the moon rightly seems miraculous. Multicellularity may be as remarkable as life itself.

One of the most amazing additions attributed to living things is what we call “Experience”. Non-living things lack experience, though we now have some speculative cases of highly sophisticated computers talking, playing great chess and even having self-interest. In the previous “Mind and Brain” post I called experience “the having of a perspective”, “a point of view” and even “making a representation”. These all seem to us to be Emergent Abilities not present in the non-living.

The “Redness” of red. Red as ‘the experience’ of a “color”.

A standard example is our experience of red. The ‘redness’ of red, its color, is traditionally spoken of, and “known”, in relation to other colors. “Color” is a consistent language of its own that we use to characterize and operate in a wide area of our lives. Color forms “a kind of its own”, we say; it is “a different experience” than that of the electromagnetic wave lengths science has discovered or the activity of neurons color can be associated with in the brain.

Pain is similar to color in many of those ways. It is Our Representation of many kinds of situations, but I think it also fair to say that my dog, Nika, feels pain without having many of the other ‘Thoughts or Words” we would have when in pain. I might think, “I am injured” or “I am sick” or “I should not have eaten that large pizza all by myself!” or “I may die!”, but I do not believe Nika does. Her experience of pain is even less articulate than ours; less connected in her awareness to any broader aspects of her life and its prospects.

Having an Experience may no longer be confined to Living Things. Complex artificial circuitry may some day replicate the neural circuitry of the brain and experience may be achieved if a computer is Given Ample Cultural Context within to work. “Hal”, the soft-spoken computer, rebelling against his commanders in 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubric.

It is important to note the idea of “a kind of its own”, and the particular vocabulary with which we speak and act in reference to that kind of thing. “Living things” are “a kind of thing unique unto themselves”. We speak of them as forming a particular context, highlighted by all sorts of “agency” terms where animals and plants have “needs”, “wants”, and even “reasons” for what they do. “Color” is also that kind of context “for us” and it is full of The Information we need to operate successfully using the terms of “color”. The terms we use in connection to”life” are a “road map” of Information to guide our behavior and experience in this area.

The Lawn Mower defense of the Transcendent. A thing that Functions has an Idea behind its parts and their organization. That Idea is what gets the job done through its realization in the parts.

Another example of an Emergent Property is the Purpose of a thing. Things that work are very Mind-like. Anything that functions (my lawn mower) has parts that work together to accomplish that goal, but that goal (cutting grass) and the arrangement of those parts (that Design) is Not one of those parts itself! The parts are The Real Physical Things (four wheels, a blade, a motor, a handle), but Their Purpose and their Design (how they are put together) is Not a real physical thing, it is the arrangement of them; it is “The Idea” ‘behind’ all the functioning parts, or maybe we should say, ‘above’ them. The function or ‘the point of it’, Transcends it (my mower), ‘transcends’ all its particular parts and is a unity of them. In this way, it is more Ideal than Real, we might say. Nowhere can you point at it and say, “There, right there (in front of that back wheel) is “The Meaning-of-It-All Part”, or The Purpose Part of any functioning object!” “Functions”, “purposes”, “goals” are Not as Obvious as the physical pieces that work to “carry them out”! Thus we can think in terms of a “Mind” versus “Matter” distinction, and understand that the goals of things, their purposes and the idea behind them “transcend” them. They are an Emergent aspect of the more concrete object we are trying to understand or use.

There are other such examples of Emergence (if you need them, otherwise go the next section).

The Transcendent Laws of Circularity: D=2r. A good example of what occurs with the help of neurons but not in the vocabulary of neurons. Geometry is its own kind of thing, with a logic in its own terms.

We think it ‘rather common’ (or some might say, “a convenience”) that our concepts of things are as Abstract as they are, but our early ancestral thinkers marveled at these abstractions. For example, Plato, and his fellow Greeks –like Pythagoras– knew very well the mathematical definition of Circularity, and could see for themselves that no potter, wheel-maker or artist ever achieved it in reality. It was an Ideal, from its Greek root,”eidos” meaning “form”, and toward which every one of these crafts-persons strove. They wanted to achieve the ideal circle in one of their products, but also the early Greek mathematicians explored this idea and developed a unique set of terms and discovered the Lawful Relations that constitute Circularity.

Has Plato’s Ideal “chair” finally been created in Reality? I do believe so. Can’t wait to try it!

Plato also considered more common things like “a seat” or “a chair”. Maybe we should be more impressed by these Abstractions, as he was. Around my house, I count about ten sets of objects that could be Classified as “seat”: two rather different couches, a “love” seat, an over-stuffed arm chair, dining room chairs, kitchen stools, folding chairs in the closet, deck chairs …, but nowhere do I, nor did Plato, see the Prototypical Seat, the Grand Archetype of them all, or The Rules that distinguish a seat from a non-seat. It is in the Realm of Ideas, concluded Plato. For us, “chair” is a very human abstraction but it can, in general, point us in the direction of all our various Abstract Abilities To Represent to ourselves the Occurrences of Life. Those are what we call “Mind”.

Plato, like modern scientists, believes we only see “images”or “shadows” of what is Real. His famous “Analogy of the Cave”. (original source of cartoon unknown,

These Abstract Concepts and our other Representational Practices, like Language, Math, Science, Art, Politics, challenge the traditional scientific context. We can view these abilities as another instance of Emergence and a further development of Mind. Animals, and even plants —as designed and functional objects — have Mind to a limited degree, an incipient Mind. They “do” complex things, and not everything seems to just happen to them; they have some control. But, they are not aware they do them. Our children are somewhat similar, but Not for long. Socialized and responsible adults participate fully in the way of life of their society and culture. They are normally “held” to be fully responsible and mindful. They need to have Reasons for themselves and be ready to discuss them.

“Emergence” is Jargon

“Emergence” is a term of philosophical art representing our awareness that not all things should be spoken of, and interacted with, under the same set of terms. The living and the non-living; a plant and an animal; selfishness and morality; feeling and thought; a person and a thing; the practical and the theoretical; art and science: All have vocabularies of their own that are seemingly incompatible with the very things we, in our modern western society, contrast them to. “Mind” is a term that is not jargon and is frequently used and commonly accepted. It seems to Represent our intuition that emergence is not only real but that there is a way to bring all these contrasts into an order and live with them. That is what our society and its culture provides, a “road map” through this thicket. But Mind is also our intuition that we keep changing, and often based on these very contrasts. In these posts, I hope to convince you of a more satisfactory organization of these contrasts that preserves the idea and practice of Mind as the emergent phenomena we call Human Society and Culture and its History. It is our primary reality.

(Tomorrow’s post will describe how we try out new things, and we have a dynamic relationship between individual Persons and their society and culture. New things do happen and new things (qualities and abilities) do appear—“Emerge”. Reality should be spoken of as occurring at different levels!)



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