(Published in PLAIN TALK only. My sister read the initial version of this post and gave it a harsh negative review. Wow, my own sister! She said it wasn’t well organized or “clear” or “plain.” So I reread it and could see what she meant. I’ve reworked it and here it is. Please keep in “Mind,” writing philosophy is not like writing an IKEA manual. Being crystal clear and totally understandable is not necessarily its goal. Being suggestive and provocative could be the best it achieves for some readers and for some parts of it, at least initially. Philosophy is about challenging some of our regular intuitions. For example, THE PROBLEM OF HUMAN FREEDOM is here given an attempted solution! Thanks for trying! Thanks, Sis!)
A Brief Recap
“Mind” is an incredibly vague term. So, figuring out what it means to us will be difficult. We often contrast it to Brain, and that is a much more exact term. Maybe we should just use “brain” instead of “mind”? In that context we say things like, “I’ve lost my mind” or “I have made up my mind,” but “brain” does not quite fit as easily. My brain is clearly lodged between my ears; there is no “losing” it. My brain is a physical thing and it is not clear that I control it, so it is hard to say how I could “make it up.” Maybe my “mind” really does control my brain or at least some important parts of it. But then, where is the mind?
“Mind” is often contrasted to “Matter.” “Matter” is almost an equally vague term in common use and seems to represent ‘the resistance of the world’ to us. The world as “hard-hearted,” the material that Mind must struggle to form. I think it is true, humans rarely swerve the course of atoms, or bend the quantum wave, but we have many ways to manipulate matter. Why, lets just heat it up and pound it into shape on an anvil.
The work of scientists has firmed up this idea of the mindless: Matter is anything that takes up space and has mass. In the previous posts in this series on “Mind and Brain,” I have given some examples of how traditionally “Mind” was contended to be rather ethereal in contrast. The Mind ‘contains’ Ideas, we say, and Plato had an idea ‘behind’ or ‘above’ all our even most common things, like the ideal archetype of all “chairs.” Also, “purposes” and “goals” were equally not matter; they are the “point of” or “design of” physical things like my lawnmower.
I eventually contended that all these Abstractions — ‘immaterial things’ like ideas, purposes, designs — could best be thought of as Relative To some society of people and their way of life. Each Society has a Perspective on the world.
This is a handy solution, in some ways, because Societies and their Cultures are, themselves, “put together” in particular ways. It is, as if, designs beget designs. We have Ancient Greek society, Medieval society and our Modern Western. The Iroquois had a matriarchal society and built and designed their “longhouse” in coordination with it. Each society has their own artifacts which include their language, their forms of art, government, religion and practical implements like housing, chairs and my mower. All these are Designs and make up that society’s “Forms of Cooperation Between Mind and Matter”; their forms of designing and making. More over, each society makes its own kind of Person and human beings are a representation of a long line of Living Things.
In fact, the most basic contribution of Mind is the creation of a Perspective and The Making of Representations to Reflect it in the world of matter. Human Societies have filled ‘the world’ with Representations of Ourselves making it, not just ‘the’ world but also “our world!” I have argued that even Science gives us a representation of “the world” and not “the world as it exists in itself.” I will argue that that phrase, “the world in itself” is a confusion and we would do well without it. Before humans, other living things got the ball of Representation rolling. All living things exist in a world as represented to them and our planet is now The Living Planet. I think that is fair to say. Let’s get to The Details.
The Devil is in The Details
Let me now, shortly and plainly, try to describe Mind: what it is and how it can be effective (Real) without pushing around atoms, in most situations, but surely manipulating Matter in many others. The answer will not be totally surprising, because we are “Starting Out In the Middle” with Living Things. We all “know” that Life is a curious mixture of give and take!
Living things are, at least, rudimentary Minds. By this I mean, they exhibit some form of Experience and Design. Many biologists will object even at this very early point. They will say something like, there is no evidence that protozoans or even ants have any kind of “internal life” or “perspective” on themselves or events. Neither of these creatures even possess a neuron. And as for “design” in nature, at best it is only “apparent,” it is usually argued.
The response: When a protozoan retracts a part of its body from a noxious material, that is mind. It has responded in terms of its self-interest and self-preservation. Philosophically it is legitimate to regard that self-sustaining response as the most primitive form of Representation. It is not yet saying “Ouch” but it is on its way. When the creature is even slightly more complex, it’s response to some local irritant is even more obviously mind. The locally irritated cells send a signal through its body to some central authority, that evaluates it, returns with a signal to various other parts in the body (say cilia) and they all work in coordination to ‘row’ away from the threat. “A signal”, “a central authority”, “ evaluation”, the “coordination” of distant parts, and “threat”, all are terms of Mind; each word conveys more than a physical occurrence. A signal, for example, is a physical occurrence with Meaning.
It is not yet saying “Ouch” but it is on its way.GregWW
Let me clarify, quickly. The above response to toxicity is Both Mind and Causation (Matter) at the same time. To us, humans, the abilities of this protozoan Appear and are Of Interest To Us, and can be analyzed into their causes: the chemistry and physics of it. But from a broader perspective, the perspective of The Universe in terms of its physics, that little creature is non-existent. It is not a significant local event of any unusual interest. It Appears to Our Mind. It is of interest due only to Our Perspective; the protozoan Dis-Appears to the perspective of universe’s massive causal background. Strange to think, that we can trace “Our World” back into causes but we cannot go from a world of only causal interactions (pictured below) and derive Our World, the World as it Appears to Us!
Remember, Mind is simply the having of some Point of View, a Perspective, and that is most reasonably understood today as our best modern ideas that we hold about ourselves and universe. “Mind” is the reality of our Society and our current best efforts at Self-Reflection. Mind is our ability to create Representations of ‘ourselves’ and ‘the world’. There is “a leap” going from Matter to Mind. It involves a very different way of talking than the terms of matter.
Mind as Design
Then, is “Design” apparent or real? Design has been a favorite topic here at The Nature Religion Connection, and rightly so because it is a good and modern way to understand Mind. That biologists should object to the use of the term “design” about non-human animals, is very problematic. After all, we socialized humans design things all the time, including biological experiments. How could we be that exceptional? We design in a very self-conscious and deliberate way, but it is my contention that the precursor of deliberate and conscious designing is automatic and almost unconscious designing. Mother Nature has created and naturally selected an entire set of closely related Designs. We call it “The Tree of Life.”
Just the other day I watched a Wren struggle to fit a long stick into the smaller hole that was the opening to a bird house in my yard. It was designing its nest. It was hard for me to imagine that it was not somewhat conscious of its dilemma. It approached its problem in much the same way I would. It eventually succeeded. It got the stick in.
So, maybe, Real Consciousness is beside the point! Maybe “apparent” consciousness is as good as Real consciousness. I mean, after all, we have defined Mind as “a point of view”. Real Consciousness is then the appearance of perspective in our way of living. As I said in the previous post, Our Mind is where things are what they seem to be. Was that wren “really” conscious? It appeared to me to have some perspective. It seemed to be, therefore it was!
“apparent” consciousness is as good as Real consciousness.GregWW
We need to draw a line somewhere. So, OK, the wren had a smidgen of awareness. What of an earthworm? A very rudimentary ‘perspective’, we might say. The biggest problem then comes with ourselves. And the conclusion should be,“If we seem to have a point of view then we have one!“ I have already gladly conceded that Mind is not another kind of physical thing, it is an organization of things that serves a function. That function is having a particular perspective of the world as parts, as coming to something beyond themselves. It is a way of ‘seeing’ things together and leading to ‘something.’. Therefore, the appearance of Perspective is itself a perspective; it is Mind. Rene Descarte takes his revenge: “I think therefore I am.” he contended.
( Mind is ) having a particular perspective of the world as parts, as coming to something beyond themselves.GregWW
The “hard” sciences pride themselves in having taken the Purposes and Meanings out of Reality. They are perfectly objective, they believe! The problem is that when they think they have done this they leave themselves “high and dry,” with no support: they cannot explain how they ‘sought’ this knowledge or ‘defend it reasonably.’
A Finite Object and Its Environment
For example, every object we design “seems” to be given “a point of view” by us. That is called “its Purpose”, and for it to meet that Goal, we know that it cannot be concerned with, or aware of, everything. After all, it is a Finite object with Finite abilities; it has to economize and rationalize. It must “focus” on a limited number of things, and link itself with “its environment.” It’s parts must be in the same terms as that of its environment. But do not get carried away here, “The Environment” does not have to be that of only physics or even chemistry. There are many more Finite Environments than those; finite environments for Finite, Limited, Creatures.
There are nautical environments were fins, rudders and hulls are all about water. Aeronautical environments where the wings of birds, airplanes, helicopters and whirly-gigs (the seeds of maple trees) are Ideal for “air”. And it is important to add that by “air” and “water”, I do Not mean some subtle combination of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and other gases, nor do I mean the very particular bonding of two hydrogen’s to one oxygen. “Air” and “water”, in their Phenomenal Forms, have been Functioning with and for living things, and changing “life”, long before any socialized human animal eventually “found” or “invented” the chemical elements. Finite Environments are as real and effective as are the more universal ones, even if “suffering” from more limited scope.
Mind only Appears to be True, but from Our Perspective that is Enough !
This is a difficult topic. The point above comes to, I believe, that Evolution –in the broadest sense — gives us the best model to understand this relationship between finite and more universal environments. Each are contexts defined in their own terms that “fit in” or are “adaptations” to the broader or more general contexts ‘around’ them. A squirrel lives in a deciduous forest in the northern climactic zone on the planet Earth: All these are contexts or designs fitting into each other like nested bowls.
When living things first evolved from the slime, it is not that they “learned” or “discovered” how to manipulate the physical elements of chemistry or physics around them (swerve the course of an atom) or even in them. But it sure “appears” to us that they did. The fins of fish worked in water, but not in “water” as chemically known H2O. The wings of birds worked in air, not some subtle mixture of hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide. We must keep our Levels of Things, and Categories, straight!
I am confident that further mechanism on the road from non-life to life will be discovered. Life will probably be recreated in a laboratory, someday; still, Levels of Events and Things will still be apparent to us. Physics will make further advances in understanding all things as related to quantum events and sub-atomic particles, yet Persons will still operate on our own terms and hopefully learn to treat each other with more and more respect.
So, the phenomenal events of life meant nothing new in the broadest sense, but they meant something new to us and for us as we look back; that is why they have “a unique appearance”. What Emerged at that point was a coordination of the physical elements already there, that was a new context significant for itself and for the contexts that may evolve based upon it and after it. Newly evolved and Naturally Selected Contexts do not change what was there before them, but they do reveal what could Possibly Evolve from them. They are new ways of “seeing” how things may fit together. As the philosophers say, they are “The Elbow Room” we need to be the new and complex things we appear to be. (Dan Dennett and the amiable old Alfred North Whitehead both used this term.)
Mind as Freedom
At the level of individual designed objects, Mind is the reality of Information and Freedom.
A Designed Object can be Caused “Rightly or Wrongly”, in a manner of speaking. When that object Functions properly, it is utilizing the information in its environment and its own bodily structure to accomplish its purpose. When that occurs we can say, “It has behaved freely and done what it is supposed to do.” “Information” is a Cause that is within the design parameters. Our object was made to “handle” that type of causal factor. In that sense, my lawnmower does a great job; it mows my lawn well. If it were conscious of itself, I’m sure it would feel free and self-fulfilled (I know I would if I were it!).
A Designed Object can be Caused “Rightly or Wrongly”,…When that object Functions properly,…we can say, “It has behaved freely and done what it is supposed to do.”GregWW
But there are many causes that are not within a designed object’s parameters. This is that object being caused “wrongly”, we can say. If I distractedly step off a curb and get blind-sided by a car, I am not behaving “freely”. I am the victim of a tragic accident. If I absent-mindedly push my lawnmower over a large rocket, that mower will not function appropriately. Its blade will be damaged and it may never again function as well. The blade hitting the rock was not a causal factor within the design function of the mower. If we talked about mowers in terms of freedom, it would not have been ‘free’ in that situation.
From the point of view of physics, each of these events — “my death as the absent-minded pedestrian” and “my mower’s damage”– may have always been predictable, destined to happen, but they were not predictable from my more limited, finite, point of view. Quantum events and sub-atomic particles are invisible from our everyday perspective as Persons, and largely irrelevant to them in those terms. That physics imagines a universal and infinite perspective from which to regard the world is useful to us, but also unattainable in any way but “in principle.” We are finite intelligences, not an infinite one.
In many situations, Mind does very well in adjusting to matter, very well in learning to cope with it, and even molding it into forms useful to us. This is Mind’s role in relation to all the more limited and finite environments that make up ‘the meat and potatoes’ of our normal lives. Mind is our Society, its History and its Coordinated Action and all that it has accomplished. In these, Mind has discovered its boundaries with Matter and is constantly working at these compromises. This is Mind in its most profitable modern interpretation. It is when we set Mind over beside our most abstract modern representations of the external world, that we ‘see’ Mind as The Limited Perspective that it is. A perspective that we cannot escape and should be glad not to.