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.
I suppose that we need to define what it actually means for something to exist or for there “really to be such a thing” Perhaps something exists if we can experience it, and if this is the definition of existence, then any name or description that we give to something that “exists” is necessarily a metaphor of a kind Even the “physical world” and “matter” are metaphors of a kind, verbal pointers to a particular kind of experience or aspect of our experience, which we then objectify or reify, hopefully not forgetting Kant’s insight that we can never know what… Read more »
I am not sure what labels you want to use but I can tell you what I experience and have called mind. I experience memories of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. I experience associations of these different memories which I believe allows me to interpret and understand my reality. I experience this when asleep and awake. But when awake I also experience awareness – but not quite sure what that is?
What is I? Prehaps Mind exists as long as we think”I “exist.
I’m by no means skilled enough to represent fairly Julian Jaynes’s argument that consciousness is a metaphor. But what is compelling about his thesis — worked out in chapter 2 of his landmark book , The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind — is that he shows all the things that consciousness is NOT, is not needed for, or can even be in conflict with, such as concepts, learning, thinking, or reason. These are the typical things for which we think we need the concept of consciousness. He cites very compelling experiments to support his conclusions.… Read more »
Today I finally received by mail my copy of the origins of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. I just sat down with it and decided to leave all ideas and start fresh with studying consciousness. What is still in my mind (which means that something is to me logical), is that consciousness is Knowing. If the brain is the tool, and neuroscience can see how and in what area thoughts are produced, consciousness is the knowing itself. This knowing is nowhere to be found, it cannot be explained in any level, but without it we would never… Read more »
I just found this article that might be of interest:
The dualistic mind always had the need to know and it always will. Anything it cannot grasp or understand or probe is just not true for it. It is like assuming that because I cannot show you the exact place where my thoughts are right now they don’t exist. Maybe if we were willing to relinquish control we will be able to surrender to the fact that we don’t know everything, we cannot probe everything but we still can be anything and experience it. And actually be completely comfortable and at home with not knowing. From that context we will… Read more »
A fascinating point in Julian Jaynes’s work is the idea that “consciousness” as we know it might not have existed until much later than previously thought, AFTER the civilizations recorded in the Illiad and other ancient stories and scriptures. The implication is really hard for us to comprehend, but it suggests that introspection simply did not occur and that even to remember to do routine things, particularly the things needed for working in the larger groups that assembled in early agrarian societies (compared to smaller hunter-gatherer groups), it was necessary to repeatedly give vocal signals, provide visual signals like pictures,… Read more »
You certainly are not going to get any argument from me here. I think that Emerson, James and Dewey all thought consciousness was a secondary effect of language – certainly Dewey had that most strongly. I am intrigued by the idea that consciousness as such came much later than we generally assume. How much have you read Heidegger? His notion of the way we “cope” with the world describes the kind of unconscious getting around that might be done without consciousness – or at least the kind of self-reflective consciousness that we are talking about.
I read Heidegger a LONG time ago, mostly connected with the existentialist thinking of his time — being and “being there” if I recall the translations of his terms. Never made the connection with what you are talking about, but it certainly makes sense.
Or is it “being here?”
Skinner certainly started an interesting discussion on what the mind is, how useful the notion of the mind is to a science of behavior, and how to access it. Contemporary behaviorists are currently engaged in examining these and related questions. Whether or not the mind exists in behaviorism or in western psychology in general is a question that should not be restricted to the philosophy of behaviorism as Skinner constructed it. Whether it gets much press or not, there’s more to behaviorism “Horatio,
Than [is] dreamt of in your philosophy.”
I heard something I find useful recently, that the brain is hardware and mind is software. That’s so say, if I understand, that brain is the intricate machine that allows us to use our minds in all its many-faceted ways. What’s also heartening is to know that our brains, contrary to common belief, does not degenerate as we age but is capable of keeping on growing, depending on its being nurtured by activities which challenge it to develop in new, unknown ways. Too familiar stuff is not challenging enough, unfamiliar tougher tasks are the ticket to healthier brains. No guarantees… Read more »
This reminds me of a Zen story: Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said: “The flag is moving.” The other said: “The wind is blowing.” The 6th patriarch happened to be passing by. He told them: “Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving.” Mumon’s comment on the above: The 6th patriarch said: “The wind is not blowing, the flag is not moving. Mind is moving.” What did he mean? If you understand this intimately, you will see the two monks there trying to buy iron and gaining gold. The 6th patriarch could not bear to see… Read more »
To Frank: The brain is capable of keeping growing. If it is too easy then it doesn’t grow. If it is too tough then it doesn’t grow either.
What is in between ?
what is the arithmetics here ?
when is it “not too easy” but at the same time “not too tough”?
That is the question….
Hi Catherine, Attempting an “answer” re: not too easy or too tough You’ve heard of the infamous Koans of Zen? This maybe pushes the envelope of difficulty and can be a kind of mental torture in trying to “solve the riddle” but I kind of respect the wisdom of the exercise and wonder if any here can give an account of their personal experience puzzling out a koan? It’s tempting to abandon trying when something gets too frustrating and insurmountable. There may be two types of people when it comes to challenge: One really rises to the occasion and will… Read more »
Hi Chuck, re: the Zen story above
What do you make of the patriarch’s conclusion that All are Wrong? Is the key in saying when the mouth opens (when someone tries to speak about it), then words can’t express that wind, or flag or mind move (what? Hmm!)
Zen has the predilection for confounding the mind, posing puzzles. In one way it’s useful to challenge fast answers and to inspire deep thought, which it certainly does. On the other hand, it’s not for those who get impatient with what seems obvious and not at all that complicated.
It’s always *dangerous* to state the *meaning* of a koan as to do so short-circuits the intention of the koan, which is to *pop* – if only momentarily – the listener out of his/her usual frame of reference. As the usual frame of reference *always* involves words, descriptions, inferences, analyses, etc. ad nauseam, to use those same words, descriptions, etc. is to leave the listener remaining within the frame of reference from which the koan is trying to *pop* them out of. The 1st monk saw only the surface: flag moving. The 2nd monk saw deeper to the underlying causal… Read more »
HI Frank, “there may be two types of people when it comes to challenge: One really rises to the occasion and will not accept other than being a victor in the situation. Another says “Screw it” and retreats from the battle.” The point is that everyone has a limit. If you push too much you too quickly break the point of functioning of people. When it comes to challenge, the people who raise to the occasion are the ones equipped for the challenge, the ones for whom the challenge is not too big. Now I give you that even when… Read more »
Christine: On desire (or on beliefs, as this model works for both): It’s *nearly* impossible for humans to desire (or believe) just one thing. Our normal state is to simultaneously desire (believe) many things. All these desires conflict with one another in a sort of struggle for ascendency. One *wins* for a while, then another. Thus we seem to be weak-willed, uncertain, unable to commit, wishy-washy (an American phrase). In this model, human consciousness is *not* a single stream, as (I think it was) John Dewey held. It is many simultaneous streams, or perhaps better, like a “braided river”, a… Read more »
Hi Deborah, re: “The dualistic mind always had the need to know and it always will.”
Is dualistic mind the reason for our curiousity? I think it’s not so much that we humans set out to contradict but we do seem to have the predilection to see other possibilities than what’s offered even by experts. It’s our nature to seek ultimate truth. Sometimes ideas are put forth with such credibility that they are accepted as truth and have a long ride until someone else comes along with a more convincing idea, and the dynamics continues.
Re: Dualistic minds & curiosity.
Cats, rats, monkeys, dolphins and numerous other animals are ‘curious’ about their environments. A hungry flatworm will crawl down a simple T-maze to find food. Curiosity aids survival and survival-needs brought ‘curiosity’ into existence.
You don’t need a ‘dualistic mind’ – whatever that is supposed to be – to demonstrate what looks like ‘curiosity’ to our eyes. As with the flatworm, you don’t even need a mind. You just need to be alive and (probably) motile.
Hi Carl, Catherine, re: “You don’t need a ‘dualistic mind’ – whatever that is supposed to be – to demonstrate what looks like ‘curiosity’ to our eyes. ”
Curiosity is important but to carry through takes some kind of motivation. When you can find a strong motivation, you will continue to persevere even when discouraged. Quitting becomes a cop out, temporary rests are sometimes very productive as you scientists all can attest with examples.
If enough money is offered, wonders can also be accomplished.
Erwin Schrodinger (Nobel Laureate) stated the mind existed only as a frame of reference. It doesn’t exist in the emperical world of objects ie (matter and energy). I see mind as a collection of sense experiences, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions which shape our sense of self, and shape our personality. Our bodies (brain) being the basic (master) interpreter of our interaction with the universe of matter and energy. The greek Democritus (greek atomists) introduced an argument in which the intellect is having with the senses: “Ostensibly there is colour, ostensibly sweetness, , ostensibly bitterness, actually only atoms and the void.… Read more »
The mind is a virtualisation created by the brain. Think about it. It’s our little speck of the Universe. Each person has their own unique perspective of that Universe. This will it it very difficult to determine if there really is a “mind”.
The entity that thinks, has experiences, feels, is conscious, remembers etc. is the human being. Nothing else inside or outside of that entity is capable of those faculties. Mind, consciousness, experience, are terms devised in abstracto in order to compensate for the lack of we have of ourselves.
“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.” If “the mind” is whatever “moves thoughts along” in the way that the wind moves leaves, I would have thought then that this ought to mean that “the mind” is the brain and the environment it lives in, because I… Read more »
I suppose in a sense mind could be discarded in the way that you say, except we live in a time when it is assumed that it is “us” some individual entity that is moving thoughts around, so expanding the definition of mind helps clear away a false sense of our being the mover of thoughts.
[…] BF Skinner (American behaviourist and psychologist at Harvard University) concluded that the mind doesn’t exist at all. What is the mind? We know that we ourselves have a mind, but cannot be sure about those around us. For all we know, we could be surrounded with automita. […]