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We will never see the mind. Yet we know, more than we know anything else, based on our own experience as thinking beings, that it’s there.
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Absent-Minded Science – Part I
by Tam Hunt
We learn from an early age that “to be scientific” means avoiding attributing to nature humanlike tendencies such as mind or purpose. To be “anthropomorphic” in science is a cardinal sin. Modern science, with its amazing successes in improving human understanding, did in fact spring in part from this tendency, made clear with Descartes’ philosophical separation of reality into two categories, physical stuff and mental stuff. The mental stuff is the realm of spirit, and this is God’s domain. The physical stuff is also God’s handiwork, but it works according to identifiable rules (laws) that humankind may discern through careful observation and experiment.
However, as with most big ideas, Descartes’ idea was overly simplistic and, we now know, inaccurate. Very few modern scientists or philosophers would argue in favor of Cartesian dualism, though this view is still fairly common among more religious-minded people. But its direct residue is “reductionist materialism,” which simply ignores the mental-spiritual realm that Descartes proposed and attempts instead to explain everything as simply matter in motion. Recent challenges to Cartesian dualism and reductionist materialism from a non-religious perspective come from such philosophers as Galen Strawson, David Chalmers, and David Ray Griffin, who realize that modern science went astray long ago by trying to expunge mind from its explanations.
The problem becomes apparent when we try to explain mind itself within the “scientific method,” which does its best to ignore mind in nature. The prevailing theory of mind argues that mind emerges from mindless matter when a certain level of complexity is reached in both evolutionary history and in each organism. That is, at some point in the history of life on our planet, a mind appeared for the first time where it was wholly absent before. In this view, the constituents of matter are completely devoid of mind until the required level of complexity is reached – whether physicists decide that matter is ultimately comprised of quarks, energy, fields, strings, or what have you.
But here’s the problem: It is literally impossible for mind to spring forth from that which is wholly devoid of mind.
The problem becomes clear if we envision the ultimate constituents of matter as akin to little billiard balls. (This is not an accurate notion, even in terms of the prevailing views of matter, but it is accurate in terms of my point here.) No matter how we arrange any number of little billiard balls, the collection will never give rise to any type of mind unless there is some type of mind contained in the billiard balls from the get-go. And the prevailing theory of mind today denies that there is any mind at all in the little billiard balls or in any of the ultimate constituents of matter.
To bring the problem closer to home, imagine your own development in your mother’s womb. You – originally a single cell – developed steadily in complexity and size. Your body grew, and your nervous system differentiated itself from other types of cells in your little body. Nerve cells grew, lengthened, interconnected, and eventually formed your brain, spinal cord, and so on. Every step of this process was incremental – small change after small change. At what point did your mind emerge? At what point did it suddenly pop into existence where it was wholly absent before? And if it did suddenly emerge, why at a certain point in time and not a moment earlier or later?
Here’s one more way of thinking about the problem: Imagine observing a brain surgery. You are able to peer into the brain from the outside through a hole cut in the skull. You have a microscope that allows you to peer into the structure of the brain. Let’s imagine you could even go further than modern technology allows, and you could look into the living brain with such detail that individual dendrites and synapses are distinguishable. Where is the mind? All we will ever see by looking at a brain and its components from the outside are the electrochemical energy flows that comprise the brain’s activities. We will never see the mind. Yet we know, more than we know anything else, based on our own experience as thinking beings, that it’s there.
Something from Nothing?
There seem to be two options here: (1) Accept that the prevailing view, that mind mysteriously emerges from mindless matter, is not much different than the religious notion of a soul attaching to the fertilized egg or at some point later in its development. (2) Accept that mind is inherent in all matter to some degree and that there is a tiny sort of mind in the fertilized egg (and even tinier minds in the constituents of the egg) and that as the egg complexifies into you, so your mind complexifies.
This second view is known as panpsychism, fleshed out to some degree by Greek and Indian philosophers thousands of years ago and developed significantly since then. David Skrbina’s Panpsychism in the West is a wonderful history of these ideas and more. Panpsychism, while out of fashion for much of the twentieth century, is coming back into fashion in the twenty-first century as more and more thinkers realize that the prevailing “emergence theory of mind,” a type of reductionist materialism, fails as a matter of principle.
Arthur Schopenhauer, the surly German nineteenth-century philosopher, perhaps said it best: “Materialism is the philosophy of the subject (consciousness) that forgets to take account of itself.” Panpsychism, by comparison, holds that mind is the inside of matter, no matter how simple. So while we can only see the outside of objects available to our senses, like the neurons and dendrites of our hypothetical brain surgery patient, we know from our own direct experience that matter also has an inside, and this is what we call mind. The inside of matter is only directly accessible to itself, such that my mind is knowable only to me, as is the case with every human, cat, bat, rat, gnat, and so on, down the chain of complexity.
“Absent-minded science” that is part of reductionist materialism is not a problem just in cognitive science and philosophy of mind; it’s also a major problem in biology. The prevailing view of evolution, known as adaptationism or the modern synthesis, holds that we must avoid ascribing any purpose to the evolutionary process at the organismic level or higher. Indeed, the view that nature is completely devoid of purpose is a widely held and explicit assumption for the majority of biologists today. When mainstream biologists talk about “design” and “intention,” it is always considered tongue-in-cheek shorthand for processes that are wholly devoid of purpose or mind.
Yet here we are, humans with minds and intentions, trying to explain how we got here. Our purpose in devising theories of evolution is to explain key aspects of nature, including ourselves, in terms of our history and place in the universe. Thus, if we are indeed part of nature – as we surely are – then the mere fact of our presence in the universe demonstrates unequivocally that mind is very much a part of nature. And if there is mind in us, and by extension in all matter to some degree, then mind surely has had a role in the evolution of life from the very beginning. Sewall Wright, a well-known American evolutionary biologist, stated it well in a 1977 article: “[E]mergence of mind from no mind is sheer magic.”
The evolution of life has not, then, been a mindless process of random mutation and natural selection. Rather, the evolution of life has surely been a multifaceted process with both random and purposeful elements from the very beginning. Pioneering evolutionary theorist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck wasn’t entirely wrong in supposing that acquired traits can sometimes be heritable, nor were Darwin and his successors wrong in supposing that random mutation of germ-lines were the cause of variation. The modern synthesis is now being extended into a new synthesis that recognizes a broader and richer view of evolution, which encompasses both Darwin and Lamarck. Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb’s excellent Evolution in Four Dimensions, for example, delves into some of these ideas, exploring the epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic dimensions of evolution in addition to the traditional genetic dimension, as well as ways in which some acquired traits can indeed be heritable (a later essay in this series will explore these ideas in more depth).
We are Mind
It is clear, then, that we must no longer ignore mind in nature. Moreover, it is time for science and philosophy to wholly repudiate Cartesian dualism and its slightly less pernicious cousin, reductionist materialism, and acknowledge that matter and mind are an undivided whole. Science has progressed far by expunging mind from its explanations, and anthropomorphism can indeed be a lazy philosophical position if we simply extend human attributes reflexively (and unreflectively) into the universe around us. But to go further than today’s impasse we need to re-embrace mind and ourselves as an inherent part of nature.
Mind doesn’t have to be humanlike – most of the minds that exist in the universe are surely little like human minds because of an almost total lack of complexity. But a simple mind is still a mind. The panpsychist view is that each little speck of matter throughout the universe is both a speck of matter and a speck of mind. And as matter complexifies, so mind complexifies.
This is not anthropomorphism as much as it is a legitimate “psychomorphism,” because we realize that mind must indeed be part of the very fabric of reality if we are to explain our very existence as human beings. We are here. We have minds – or, to be accurate, we are mind. What we call matter and mind are two aspects of the same thing – the outside and inside of matter, respectively. We are part of nature. Ergo, mind is ubiquitous, part and parcel of the unbroken fabric of reality. And to ignore this is to misunderstand nature and ourselves.