This Sunday we are discussing: Are we the creation of our own mind?
An although this question is not the same ask whether we are self made
millionaires, I am sure we can get as excited discussing our topic as
depositing such a large sum of money. However, on Sunday the banks are
closed, but the pub is open.
See you Sunday and take care
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Are we the creation of our own mind?
As human beings we feel justified in believing that these two
propositions are true:
- We are different from other creatures.
- We identify ourselves with our mind*.
It is quite reasonable to assume that we are different from other
creatures. Not only do we have a sense of ourselves in our environment,
but we are also able to change and dominate our environment. We can do
this in a very spectacular way and, moreover, we are the only creatures
who can reshape our environment with such success. The fact that you are
reading this essay on a screen is proof of this claim.
Even the use of the word creature offends some people when we refer to
human beings. Although it is now accepted that we are none other than a
biological extension in the tree of evolutionary life, some do not like
the idea that we are even animals.
No doubt this idea of superiority must partly come from our ability to
construct and reconstruct structures and biological entities to suit our
needs. We build houses to shelter us from the elements, we build dams to
manage water supplies and we can build roads to make travelling over
distances much easier. We also selectively breed animals for food and in
the past as beasts of burden. We can say that control is equated with
However, we also understand the concept of creation. We design a house
on paper and then build it with our hands and the technology we humans
have invented and put together. For example, captured wild horses and
bred them into machines for all sorts of tasks: to fight, pull wagons or
buggies, ride for entertainment and so on. We can say that superiority
gives us the power to create.
But having a sense of superiority and a sense of power to create do not
in themselves explain our supposedly unique position. One thing we also
understand well is that we seem to have a hold on the chaotic
environment around us to the extent that we can indeed control it and
create things, including living creatures. Think, for example, of the
philosophy of Thomas Hobbes or the doctrines of Social Contract. These
philosophers and philosophies recognise that nature is nasty and it is
our capacity to enter into an agreement of cooperation amongst ourselves
that stops us from destroying ourselves. Not only can we control and
create when we are put to the test, but we also rise to the occasion
with exceptional grace. In other words, we are also moral agents, and
not just barbarians manipulating our environment. We have the capacity
to know what is right and what is wrong; what is good and what is bad.
We have the capacity, for example, to enter into a social contract; in
reality we adopt win-win strategies, but this is not important for us now.
This is important for our question at hand because the mind is regarded
as the source of who we are. And we are rational and reasonable beings
guided by some moral rules or principles. This, we have been told over
the centuries, is what makes us human. Given all this background and
happy turn of affairs, it also makes sense to ask ourselves: who created us?
Of course, this is a very difficult question, especially if humans
started asking this question some 50,000 years ago. Until recently,
1953, to be precise, we had a good understanding of the "big" bringing
about or creating the "small" and I don't just mean in size but also in
status. The builders of the pyramids were sending a message that they
were superior than those who built small temples for their gods. We
believe that children (small) are different from adults (big) not to
mention that adults beget children and not the other way round. In a way
we clearly understand that small is followed by big which is usually
Newton confirmed this for us by showing us how big celestial bodies
attract smaller celestial bodies. Furthermore, Newton also confirmed our
belief in causality and that everything worked this way. The big causing
the small, the superior causing that which is inferior to it. Once
again, the adults causing children analogy. So the question, who created
us?, can only be answered by assuming that someone more superior more
powerful than us must have created us. Not forgetting that we already
believed that we were quite superior and powerful ourselves. We clearly
understood the principle that better and superior went all the way up.
The new world of quantum mechanics was quite a shock to this well
ordered system. Of course, many philosophers before had postulated the
existence of microscopic entities. For example, Democritus (other
cultures had their own ideas) believed in atoms, which he used to
explain the dispute between change and change being an illusion.
Democritus, believed that the atoms where the smallest thing to exist;
according to the Wikipedia article the word atom means "uncuttable".
However, the idea that there are entities smaller than us with equal
importance was never too welcomed in philosophical circles: consider the
hostilities shown towards reductionism. Although we reluctantly accepted
the atom of Quantum physics our superiority was never challenged even if
we recognised that it needed explaining. Today we would say that
philosophers were in denial about accepting smaller entities being as
important as us.
As we know Descartes was the first, in modern times, to try and explain,
or rather reconcile, this problem of our superior position in nature and
the fact that we have many characteristics in common with other
creatures. The question that humans might have asked themselves and
probably did, was, how can we be different from other creatures when we
have so much in common with them?
Descartes' approach was to split the problem into a mind question and a
body question. Sure, we had all these things in common with other
creatures, but we had this mind that was something these other creatures
do not have. At the time some believed, and today some still do, that
our mind was much closer to the idea we have of god, than our idea of
our body. Once again we find the superior inferior argument as proof,
not only our mind but also, maybe god.
Later on, Newtonian physics confirmed the important position physical
bodies have in our universe. The fall out from all this was to start
marginalising the concept of the soul in favour of the mind. After this
revolution, philosophers could now study the mind without the hazards,
maybe in the form of the Inquisition, they faced when studying the soul.
Eventually the mind would become the centre point for such philosophers
as Kant (rational moralist) or scientists, such as Freud (the mind that
can be fixed). Ironically, by making the mind the centre point of our
existence and exclude the soul we unwittingly played the
superior-inferior game and elected to come down a rung or two on the
ladder of perfect superiority. Today we still, more or less, believe
that the mind is our unique selling feature.
But how can we today speak of the mind given our knowledge about
evolution and genetics? Of course, successful memes, such as soul and
mind are very hard to purge from our collective social knowledge . That
these have survived for so long is prima facie evidence that they are
very powerful memes.
The mind-body problem has certainly established in our psyche that, at
the very least, what we call the mind is something different from the
brain. We indeed feel that when we speak of our mind we are not
referring to the brain. Even today we believe that an fMRI image of our
brain is not an image of our mind. And that such images do not tell us
what the mind is, what it is composed of, or where it is seated.
However, those who argue that the mind is indeed some independent entity
from the brain do have some seemingly good models to argue from. Apart,
that is, from the inferior-superior model.
We can think of the mind in the same way that modern astronomers today
speak of black matter. They still haven't found any hard evidence of
black matter, they certainly can explain a few things if it did exist.
However, there is at least one problem for us with this model. Black
matter can still be explained by using our understanding of Newtonian
physics, Quantum Mechanics, and or the Theory of Relativity and so on.
And even if astronomers needed to create a new physics I am confident
that this new physics would not be incompatible with the other physics I
have just mentioned. QM did not oust Newtonian physics, it just helped
us understand some phenomena which the old physics could not explain.
Thus, any black matter analogy or model would fail to describe the mind
unless it can accommodate the body or the brain.
We can also revisit the inferior-superior argument by considering
mathematics as a variant of this argument. A two dimension mathematical
model can be said to be inferior to a three dimension model and so on.
Maybe the mind functions in a similar fashion. A sort of dimensional
ferris wheel where we can go up or down dimensions, the same way we can
draw a square on sheet of paper and then build a three dimension cube
from balsa wood.
Unfortunately, apart from the mathematical complexities involved in this
model, not to mention we might be involved in an infinite projection by
having to deal with Gödel's incompleteness theorems, there is an
immediate problem for us. It does not make sense to speak of inferior or
superior in mathematics, these are value judgments which supposedly
pertain to our mind and not mathematics. So mathematics might tell us
something about dimensions, but not about superiority values.
In 1953, Crick, Watson and Wilkins discovered the structure of DNA
molecule. In a way, this was a symbolic biological blow to the idea that
the mind was somehow an independent entity from the brain. But this, in
my opinion, was not the philosophical blow to our belief that the mind
is somehow an entity with an independent identity. The philosophical
blow, in my opinion, came with Darwin's theory of evolution or survival
of the fittest. For the first time Evolution gave us a new model to
understand the mind not as an independent entity existing at a higher
level, but maybe as an entity that changes at the same plane or
dimension as the body or the brain. Not superior or inferior, but maybe
With hindsight, the evolutionary model had been staring humanity in the
face for millennia. Apart from grand parents, numbers are themselves a
form of evolutionary process with larger numbers being different from
smaller numbers. But being different does not mean that numbers have
somehow changed their numberness: 2, 3, and 23 are all numbers even
though 2 is an even number and three an odd number. And their unique
property of being prime numbers does not in any way change their numberness.
In a way, lots of things can be done with numbers but no matter what we
do with numbers they still remain numbers. Genes seem to follow a
similar process by being flexible with what happens to them, evolve,
change have different functions but they still remain genes. This should
not come as a surprise since both genes and numbers are information
holding systems. Moreover, like the Greek atom or the atom in physics
the mathematical constant "1" is as ubiquitous as the atom in physics.
This opens, in my opinion, the possibility of understanding the mind not
as an independent and superior entity, but maybe as some evolution of
the same entity.
I have tried to show so far that the mind cannot be some entity that
exists at a superior level to the brain or body. But the key issue to
our question is whether minds can be a causal systems. By appealing to
numbers and dimensional mathematics I tried to show that although things
can be different there still needs to be a direct causal line between
one entity and an other if one is to cause the other. Thus if 23 is to
be a prime number we need to have a causal line from somewhere to have
23: for example, 22 + 1 do add up to 23. And of course, 23 is a prime
number which 22 is not so, 23 is different, but no matter how different
it is we can still trace back the causal line to 1. We must be able to
perform the same causal trick if our mind is to create us since we are
not only mind but also body. I don't believe such a causal trick will be
I do not think that minds are causal systems or entities and therefore
they cannot possibly create us. Incidentally nor do I believe that
brains or bodies create minds, but I will show why later on in the essay.
It is today accepted that if we are to find the mind we have to look
directly at the brain. The brain is either involved or implied in the
mind, the question is which and how? Those who want to argue, as I want
to do, that the brain is the cause of the mind, but not create the mind,
must answer the question, why is it that we do not see structures in
images of the brain which we can identify as the mind?
But this question makes the same mistake as the Cartesian argument by
assuming that the mind is something we can point at on an image or a
scan of the brain. In my opinion, by asking such a question one would be
missing the point. The point is that the mind is the state of the brain
at a given time. And if there is something missing from an image of the
brain it is probably because there is nothing to scan or because our
technology cannot scan the whole brain in detail; not to mention the
issue of the uncertainty principle.
Thus my attempt to answer the question what is the mind?, I would point
at two specific things about the brain. The first is that the brain is
very good at ordering perceptions from highly entropic data into
meaningful sets of coordinated perceptions. And secondly, the brain is
very good at naming coordinated perceptions for recall later.
If we take sight as an example, the raw data that reaches the brain from
our eyes is very entropic, meaning that it is full of imperfections and
information that needs interpreting before it means anything. Visual
images reach the brain up side down which the brain has to orient it in
the right direction to make them representations of the real world. At
the same time it is doing this the brain also has to fill in the details
left out by our blind spot. This is an incredible feat of information
processing not only because it is done in real time but also because it
is constantly doing this during our conscious states and under all
possible conditions we can find ourselves in.
The recall system is equally impressive because it is an efficient way
of interpreting entropic data. Seeing our face in the mirror in the
morning we immediately recall what the image we see is all about.
However, should we happen to see a spot on our face one morning, the
system will go into action stations and tries to deal with the intruder
on our face (put some cream or go to the doctor). Being able to compare
two sets of data is therefore very useful. Naming things is also
efficient because we need very little information to recall the entire
information of the item in question. By naming things I do not
necessarily mean giving something a language tag, but only an
identifying mark or marks such as red colour and spottiness type of
relief on our face. Thus, a few well placed data bits can recall a huge
amount of meaningful information.
My conclusion is that what the brain calls mind, is the singularity
event (and I intentionally use this term from astrophysics) when this
entropic data arriving at the brain becomes meaningful information. Thus
it is not that the minds creates us, but that we are the brain when it
is making sense of the world around it. We are a state of the brain;
caused but not created.
But I am not about to jettison the concept of the mind just because I
believe that what is really going on here is the brain doing some very
serious data processing. Incidentally, I do not believe that the brain
is anything comparable to a computer system, at most computer systems
are bad imitations of what we believe to be the functions of the brain.
But I do not feel this is a useful argument for us.
The concept we call "mind" is none other than the brain celebrating its
incredible facility to bring order out of a disordered collection of
data perceptions coming to it from the world around it. Maybe Descartes
was the first brain in the history of life to permanently record its own
discovery. "I think, therefore I am", is maybe none other than the brain
telling itself that it is capable of bringing about its own order from a
stream of disordered data collections.
Maybe, my attempt at explaining the mind is another feeble attempt to
keep the brain without having to give up the mind. However, my account
clearly shows that there is a direct causal line between what the brain
receives from the world and who we are. Let's, therefore, just hope that
it is not a case of garbage in, garbage out.
*The debate on the Mind-Body problem has been exhaustively studied and
there are huge amounts of information available on the internet. I have
tried to keep away from the standard historical thinking on the subject,
if only not to repeat what we already know. All the terms and Names I
refer to in the essay can be found in Wikipedia, and for a good
historical introduction to the mind-body debate you can start with the
article in Wikipedia on the Philosophy of Mind.
from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Are we the creation
of our own mind?