May 04, 2009
Skyhooks and cranes-4: Understanding the mind
(For other posts in this series, see here.)
Currently people seem to be pinning their hopes for a skyhook on the workings of the human mind. This is not because the case here is stronger. In fact, there is no reason whatsoever to think that science cannot explain how the mind works because, unlike with origins of the universe, there are no extraordinary circumstances involved. There is every reason to think that the laws of science that apply outside the brain, and which we can study carefully under controlled conditions, also apply within the brain. There is no reason to suspect that there is anything more to the mind than brain activity.
The reason that skyhooks have a foothold here is because advocates can draw upon a strong human prejudice to want to think of the human mind as something mysterious and ineffable. We humans tend to be impressed by our ability to think and reason and be self-aware, and assume that there must be something very deep and mysterious going on.
But there is no reason to think that the normal laws of science do not apply to the mind although the sheer complexity of the system being studied and the restrictions on this type of research makes progress hard. But again, I think that with the new non-invasive techniques that are being developed for studying the brain, we have shifted the problem of consciousness from a mystery to a puzzle, and that is the first major step towards solving it.
But not everyone is happy with that development. People seem to want to avoid the conclusion that the mind is just the product of the physical brain, which in turn is purely the product of the evolutionary process. They seem to desperately want there to be something transcendent about the mind that cannot be reduced to material causes.
This desire for skyhooks for the mind is quite powerful and one sees even distinguished scientists falling victim to its siren song. Biologist Francis Collins, physicist Roger Penrose in his book The Emperor's New Mind, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, linguist and political scientist Noam Chomsky, and cognitive scientist John Searle, are among those who are skeptical that evolution can do all the work to create the mind by itself, and either implicitly or explicitly have looked to find some form of skyhook, even if it is not a religious one.
So if you are determined to believe that the mind could not have come about by the plodding mechanism of natural selection, how would you insert a skyhook to create the mind? In his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), Daniel Dennett suggests some possibilities.
One way would be to espouse outright Cartesian dualism: the mind can't just be the brain, but, rather, some other place, in which great and mysterious alchemical processes occur, transforming the raw materials they are fed – the cultural items we are calling memes – into new items that transcend their sources in ways that are simply beyond the ken of science.
A slightly less radical way of supporting the same defensive view is to concede that the mind is, after all, just the brain, which is a physical entity bound by all the laws of physics and chemistry, but insist that it nevertheless does its chores in ways that defy scientific analysis. This view has often been suggested by the linguist Noam Chomsky and enthusiastically defended by his former colleague the philosopher/psychologist Jerry Fodor, and more recently by another philosopher Colin McGinn. We can see that this is a saltational view of the mind, positing great leaps in Design Space that get "explained" as acts of sheer genius or intrinsic creativity or something else science-defying. It insists that somehow the brain itself is a skyhook, and refuses to settle for what the wily Darwinian offers: the brain, thanks to all the cranes that have formed it in the first place, and all the cranes that have entered it in the second place, is itself a prodigious, but not mysterious, lifter in design space. (Dennett, p. 368)
This reluctance to accept the idea that there is nothing essentially mysterious or not understandable about the mind and soul is deep seated. As this article by Rich Barlow in the October 18, 2008 issue of the Boston Globe says:
Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, who researches why people are religious…has written that humans are "natural dualists," seeing our physical bodies as separate from our supposedly nonphysical minds and souls. It's a legacy in part of the great French philosopher René Descartes, a religious man who believed our thoughts survived the death of our brains, says Bloom.
The problem, Bloom believes, is that this dualism is inaccurate. Brain science increasingly shows that "the qualities of mental life that we associate with souls" - memory, self-control, decision-making - "are purely corporeal; they emerge from biochemical processes in the brain."
"I don't believe dualism is true, because there's a scientific consensus that hard-core dualism, which says that people can think without using their brain or that memories will survive the death of your body, is just flat mistaken. Your mental life is a product of your brain."
I too used to think that the mind was somehow special and distinct from the brain but that was because I had not really thought about it and simply accepted the conventional wisdom. I still recall the moment when, after thinking about it for a while, I came to the sudden conclusion that, of course, the mind had to be simply the product of the workings of the brain and nothing more. How could it possibly be otherwise? Anything else would require belief in an extraordinary mind-brain dualism, a non-material entity that we call the mind mysteriously existing separate from the material brain inside our skull and yet able to interact with it. That was patently absurd.
It was one of those realizations where the conclusion, once you have arrived at it, is so obvious that you wonder how you could ever have believed anything else. But accepting this has huge repercussions, which is why we tend to not want to go there, to resist pushing our reasoning to its logical conclusion.
A major consequence of accepting this conclusion is that all beliefs in god and the afterlife have to be also jettisoned and this is what happened to me. If there is no transcendent mind, if the material brain is all there is, then there is no god. Period.
Initially there was something disconcerting about this realization. I too shared the view that humans were somehow special and was reluctant to let go of that grand conceit. But now it seems the most natural thing in the world that we are just one branch in the grand evolutionary tree of life. While all species differ in many ways and in some ways are unique, there is nothing magical or especially mysterious about the human mind anymore than there is about the elephant's trunk.
POST SCRIPT: Daniel Everett's challenge to universal grammar
Daniel Everett is an interesting character. Working with his family as a missionary to the small Piraha tribe in the Amazon, he claimed that their language defied Noam Chomsky's widely accepted theory of universal grammar based on recursion. He also became an unbeliever and estranged from his still-religious family. Patrick Barkham profiles him in The Guardian of Monday 10 November 2008.
(Thanks to Machines Like Us.)