Does anything like a mind exist?

I still have a few more posts on Dewey that I want to put up that lead to an exciting model of cultural evolution, but Carl’s comment to my last post inspired me to write something more about the mind. Carl pointed out how metaphorical my description was, presumably he is making the point that the reason such heavily metaphorical language is needed to describe the mind is because there is no such thing.

The concept of mind is a fascinating one. What is it? Where is it? In the commonest terms we often simply equate mind with brain, or at least speak as if the mind is some function of the brain. In fact, no one knows what the mind is. The word itself is really a metaphor for the collection of experiences of thought, memory, feeling, will, choice etc. that we experience as our “inner world.” Carl’s teacher B. F. Skinner didn’t believe there was such a thing as a mind. With his conception of Radical Behaviorism he believed that he could describe human behavior in relationship to the environment without needing to resort to something called a mind.

I won’t go back into Behaviorism now, because we have covered that in some detail in earlier posts, but I did want to say a few words about the relationship between Behaviorism and the psychology of William James James was not a Behaviorist but he did help set the stage for Behaviorism. Philosophically James also questioned the nature of consciousness. In an important paper of his called, Does Consciousness Exist? James wrote the following:

During the past year, I have read a number of articles whose authors seemed just on the point of abandoning the notion of consciousness… But they were not quite radical enough, not quite daring enough in their negations. For twenty years past I have mistrusted ‘consciousness’ as an entity; for seven or eight years past I have suggested its non-existence to my students, and tried to give them its pragmatic equivalent in realities of experience. It seems to me that the hour is ripe for it to be openly and universally discarded.

James’ pragmatic equivalent was to recognize that everything in the end is “pure experience.” I suppose he was thinking that by doing away with the problem of trying to figure out “what consciousness is” we could put our energy to finding out how human beings actually work. This is certainly aligned with Sinner’s view and it inspired one of James’ students, Edward Lee Thorndike, to do behavior studies on chicks in James’ own basement.

In these experiments Thorndike observed the behavior of insects and baby chicks as he put them through different trials. What he observed led him to believe that animal behavior developed through trial and error and the tendency to form habits by repeating behaviors that had been tried and successful in the past. Thorndike concluded that nothing about animal behavior led him to believe that any kind of mental activity or thought processing was going on behind the scenes. This negation of “mentalism” would be developed by later American Behaviorists including B.F. Skinner, who would develop an alternative to the original Russian conception.

So, is there such a thing as a mind? And if there is a mind, what is it?

People who tend toward empiricism, behaviorism and materialism in general will believe that if you can explain human behavior without needing to resort to some assumption about a thinking entity called mind then you should not make that assumption. To that extend I can go along, but I find that many people with inclinations in this direction will go one step further and say that in fact you should assume there is no such thing. I think it is accurate to say we just don’t know and therefore we need to have an open inquiry as to the existence of mind.

We can’t see a mind, or measure a mind, or even conceive of what it is. So maybe there just isn’t one, but then again maybe there is and we just haven’t conceived of it accurately yet. To use another metaphor, think of leaves blowing in the wind. We can’t see the wind, so it might be helpful to study the motion of leaves without assuming the existence of wind, but that doesn’t mean that the wind isn’t there and it might be a good idea to assume of some wind-like entity until we figure out what is really going on.