Saturday, September 3, 2005

Who speaks for mind?

So what is the mind? For the sake of argument I propose the rather bland and suggestion that we call a collection of certain coherent observed behaviors 'mind'. Opinions as to what 'this' is include:

  1. an epiphenomena of related brain functions which give the appearance a coherent conscious whole;
  2. an integrated functional complex of the brain which is so complex that it represents a level of organization requiring novel terms to adequately describe it's operation;
  3. some extra-physical presence or poorly understood form of energy that is mediated by/tapped into by the brain.

I have found that in both the professional literature and in informal dialogue with educated and lay people, a common thread for arguing for options #1 and #2 include:

A. the idea that other primates have somewhat similar brains,

B. there is no evidence for the collection of interactive behaviors referred to as a mind without some neural network (biological or simulated)

C. the observation that brain damage seems to affect the functioning of the mind.

I don't believe "A" gets us very far, as we do not fully understand just what the great apes think and feel, and we are constantly learning more about how their mental processes work. Moreover, there are unique features of the biology of the human brain which distinguish our species, and this ties in fairly well with "B". If humans do indeed have a special cognitive capacity called mind, if this is tied to a physical difference in brain structure, and if brain damage impairs the functioning of the mind, that sounds pretty good for arguing for either explanation #1 or #2 for what the mind is. At least superficially.

That line of reasoning can be countered, however, with the example of the eye. The eye can detect certain forms of enery and the optic nerve and corresponding parts of the frontal lobe can interpret that incoming information. Some animals can 'see' better than others as far as color, range, or depth, and we can line up evolutionary comparisons, but that doesn't negate the concept of vision. In the same sense, an advocate of the idea that the mind represents a form consciousness that (in a process sense) rests on the brain or is interpreted by the brain rather than being generated by the brain can make the argument that different animals with different levels of neural development have different levels of conscious awareness. On a related note, obviously if eyes do not develop or eyes or the optic nerve are damaged, what we call "vision" is impaired. However, vision is not solely generated by the brain. It requires input from the eyes, which in turn require input from what we refer to as the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. I think the evolutionary/biological distinctiveness argument works better against the idea that humans have a divine spark or soul that is lacking in other animals such as organs or gorillas. It is less useful refuting for refuting explanation #3 for the mind, which need not invoke supernaturalism.

I think the appeal of using the aforementioned explanation supporting notions #1 and #2 (biological necessity of the brain to what we call the mind) to try to refute explanation #3 comes from a subtle but persistent tendency to equate necessary with sufficient. It is a common problem with models that invoke strict causal reductionism, in which causality always flows from lower levels of organization upward, as opposed to hierarchical explanations which also invoke downward causality.

Option #1 is favored by physicalists who embrace causal reductionism and who think that the mind is not a coherent whole, but rather a collection of processes giving the illusion of a unified identity. Option #2 appeals to many people who accept a view of organizational complexity commonly referred to as emergentism, in which certain recognizeable levels of organization arise from their components to form organizational units most accurately described by their own identity and sets of properties, as opposed to being described solely in terms of constituent parts. It is important to realize this is not invoking some "extra" components out of the ether, it's just another way of looking at the interactive properties of the objects under study.

Option #3 actually holds many possible interpretations. On the one hand, ideas of "souls" in the religious sense of secondary invisible bodies that persists after death can be included in this view. But then again, the idea of consciousness as a fundamental component of the fabric of reality can be addressed by this view as well.

I think that it is unfortunate that the term consciousness or awareness is adopted by advocates of the latter interpretation as it is readily misunderstood. Then again, there aren't any seprate well-known term expressing such an idea, and hence the same word gets used over and over even and subtle differences in meaning become lost. The immediate objection is to associate consciousness with the mind, and then to assume that what we call consciousness is solely generated within the brain with no other imput or interaction. How could there, then, be any kind of "non-bodily consciousness"? What was around before humans acquired sentience?

The basic premise, so far as I understand it, is that there is a type of awareness which comes with a brain capable of what we call consciousness, and that in fact it is an interactive component of consciousness, just as visible light is a component of what we refer to as vision. This component, which as I said is unfortunately usually given the confusing label consciousness, would, like light, exist before there was ever a creature with eyes to perceive it. Some enthusiasts for this notion have suggested it explains the observer-bias inherent in phenomena such as wave-particle duality and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, although so far such explanations have received little attention from the mainstream scientific community. However, whether or not such connections to physics are valid, option #3 remains a fascinating perspective that may be worth exploring (although I am certain that misgivings about the similiarity between such ideas and supernaturalism/paranormalism will be a hindrance to such investigation).

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