Minds not Brains: Introducing Theoretical Cognitive Science

[Brief summary of this post]

I’m going to make a big deal about the difference between the mind and the brain. We take our concept of mind for granted, but it is completely without scientific basis. Conventionally, the mind is “our ability to feel and reason through a first-person awareness of the world”. This definition begs the question of what “feel”, “reason” and “first-person awareness” might be, since we can’t just define the mind by using terms that are only meaningful to the owner of one. While we can safely say they are techniques that help the brain perform its primary function, which is to control the body, we will have to dig deeper to figure out how they work. Our experience of mind links it strongly to our bodies, and scientists have long made the case that it resides in our nervous systems and the brain in particular. Steven Pinker says that “The mind is what the brain does.”1 This is only superficially right, because it is not what, but why. It is not the mechanism or form of the mind that matters as much as its purpose or function. But how can we embark on the scientific study of the mind from the perspective of its function? As currently practiced, the natural sciences don’t see function as a thing itself, but more as a side effect of mechanical processes. The social sciences start with the assumption that the mind exists but take no steps to connect it back to the brain. Finally, the formal sciences can study theoretical, abstract systems, including logic, mathematics, statistics, theoretical computer science, information theory, game theory, systems theory, decision theory, and theoretical linguistics, but leave it to natural and social scientists to apply them to natural phenomena like brains and minds. What is the best scientific standpoint to study the mind? Cognitive science was created in 1971 to fill this gap, which it does by encouraging collaboration between the sciences. I think we need to go beyond collaboration and admit that the existing three branches have practical and metaphysical constraints that limit their reach into the study of the mind. We need to lift these constraints and develop a unified and expanded scientific framework that can cleanly address both mental and physical phenomena.

Viewed most abstractly, science divides into two branches, the formal and experimental sciences, with the formal being entirely theoretical, and the experimental being a collaboration between theory and testing. Experimental science further divides into fundamental physics, which studies irreducible fields and/or particles, and special sciences (all other natural and social sciences), which are presumed to be reducible to fundamental physics, at least in principle. Experimental science is studied using the scientific method, which is a loop in which one proposes a hypothesis, then tests it, and then refines and tests it again ad infinitum. Hypotheses are purely functional while testing is purely physical. That is, hypotheses are ideas with no physical existence, though we think about and discuss them through physical means, while testing tries to evaluate the physical world as directly as possible. Of course, we use theory to perform and interpret the tests, so it can’t escape some functional dependency. The scientific method tacitly acknowledges and leverages both functional and physical existence, even though it does not overtly explain what functional existence might be or attempt to explain how the mind works. That’s fine — science works — but we can no longer take functional existence and its implications for granted as we start to study the mind. It’s remarkable, really, that all scientific understanding, and everything we do for that matter, depend critically on our ability to use our minds, yet don’t need an understanding of how it works or what it is doing. But we have to find a way to make minds and ideas into objects of study themselves to understand what they are.

The special sciences are broken down further into the natural and social sciences. The natural sciences include everything in nature except minds, and the social sciences study minds and their implications. The social sciences start with the assumption that people, and hence their minds, exist. They draw on our perspectives about ourselves and on patterns in our behavior to explain what we are and help us manage our lives better. Natural scientists (aka hard scientists) call the social sciences “soft sciences” because they are not based on physical processes bound by mathematical laws of nature; nothing about minds has so far yielded that kind of precision. Our only direct knowledge of the mind is our subjective viewpoint, and our only indirect knowledge comes from behavioral studies and evolutionary psychology. The study of behavior finds patterns in the ways brains make bodies behave that support the idea of mental states but doesn’t prove they exist. Evolutionary psychology also suggests how mental states could explain behavior, but can’t prove they exist. The differences in approach have opened up a gap between hard and soft sciences that currently can’t be bridged, but we have to bridge it to develop a complete explanation of the mind. This schism between our subjective and objective viewpoints is formally called the explanatory gap, referring specifically to the fact that we don’t know how physical properties alone could cause a subjective perspective (and its associated feelings) to arise. I closed this gap in The Mind Matters, but not rigorously. In brief, I said that the mind is a process in the brain that experiences things the way it does because creating a process that behaves like an agent and sees itself as an agent is the most effective way to get the job done. So perceptions are just the way our brains process information and “present” it to the process of mind. It is not a side effect; much of the wiring of the brain was designed to make this illusion happen exactly the way it does.

Natural science currently operates on the assumption that natural phenomena can be readily modeled by hypotheses which can be tested in a reproducible way. This works well enough for simple systems, i.e. those which can be modeled using a handful of components and rules. The mind, however, is not a simple phenomenon. Unlike a muscle in which every fiber works the same way for the same purpose, the mind is structured around complexity, with every thought being different for different purposes. More than just complexity, the mind has a different metaphysical nature. While thoughts are apparently implemented using nerve impulses through neurons, their significance is not in how they are implemented but in what they refer to; their physical instantiation is of less significance than their mental worth. Consequently, developing a hypothesis and testing it is vastly more complicated than for simple natural phenomena, so the prevailing practices and conventions in the natural sciences won’t work. Yet the attitude among natural scientists is that the mind will ultimately just boil down to brain chemistry; once we know all the details, it will reveal the workings of the mind like a cuckoo clock. This work will indeed reveal the physical mechanisms, but it can’t reveal the reasons for the design, the purposes to which the mechanisms are employed.

Of course, it is no big secret that the ultimate purpose of the mind is to facilitate survival, but because the brain manages information instead of muscle fibers, there are essentially an infinite number of hypotheses that might explain how it does it. The brain is a somewhat general-purpose information management platform that is biological instead of digital. But in a sense, the brain chemistry doesn’t matter because any mechanism that can manage information could get the job done; we could probably simulate minds on digital computers given more know-how (a contentious point I will address more later). What this means is that the primary problem we need to address to understand the mind is how the information is managed, and to do this we need focus more on developing plausible hypotheses and algorithms than on analyzing brain structure. This is the part that falls outside natural science’s comfort zone, because the success of natural science has followed from hypotheses that are never more complex than ball-and-stick models and a few equations. But this approach doesn’t begin to address the complexities inherent to information management. What we need most are theories about the control of information, not theories about physical mechanisms.

How many programmers does it take to screw in a light bulb? None, it’s a hardware problem. How many natural (or social) scientists does it take to explain the mind? None, it’s a software problem. Of course, hardware and software are more interdependent than that, but I’m highlighting a systemic flaw in the structure of science: it can’t see the programmer’s perspective. Programs are a series of actions to accomplish desired tasks. Minds perform actions to accomplish desired tasks. From a functional standpoint, they are the same kind of thing. I will argue that this is the only standpoint that defines either programs or minds and that as their definition it both establishes and proves their existence. Their physical manifestation, be it on a computer or in a brain, is incidental (but not coincidental) to their functional existence because many similar physical mechanisms could perform the same function. Information, too, exists functionally but only secondarily physically. Information is patterns that help functional processes work, and the way it is represented is incidental to this objective. And what branch of science can even recognize functional existence? This is entirely the province of the formal sciences, chiefly theoretical computer science, which focuses on the algorithms and data structures that perform functions. The natural and social sciences are currently equipped to address functionality only in straightforward ways and not in the complex ways that programs and their data can create, and certainly not as a new form of existence. So we need to expand the scope of science to embrace functionality and the complexity that comes with it.

Having broadly established the need for change, I’m not going to look at little closer at what we know about the mind itself and how we know it. We have two sources of knowledge: introspection and investigation. In other words, personal and scientific. Our personal knowledge is what we gather from our own experience. This knowledge is enriched by a wealth of cultural knowledge about the mind ensconced in language, common knowledge and social institutions like school, work, and religion. However it comes to us, what we think about it is called introspection. Investigation, on the other hand, is the outward search for knowledge from more objective sources than personal whims. When it is practiced according to agreed-upon standards, it is called science. As I have said, natural sciences study the brain but not the mind since it can’t be directly observed. Consequently natural science purists think of the mind as a mysterious, emergent side effect of the brain that will we will be able to explain away (i.e. by reductionism) as we learn more about the brain. This idea of “emergence,” or springing from nothing, is the way they acknowledge functional existence. As I will show later, it doesn’t spring from nothing, but it is a wholly other kind of existence that arises from physical feedback loops. Social scientists take the existence of minds as a starting point and study the patterns of behavior that result. They are thus wholly concerned with the study of function, but more with macroscopic effects than the algorithms and data that produce them. The formal sciences study tools that can bridge this gap but from a theoretical side and so don’t directly concern themselves with the methods of the brain or any physical system.

Nearly all our knowledge of our mind relates to using it, not understanding it. We are experts at using our minds. Our facility develops naturally and is helped along by nurture. Then we spend decades at schools to further develop our ability to use our mind. But despite all this attention on using it, we think little about what it is and how it works. Just as we don’t need to understand how any machine works to use it, we don’t need to know how our mind works to use it. And we can no more intuit how it works that we can intuit how a car or TV works. We consequently take it for granted and even develop a blindness about the subject because of its irrelevance. But it is the relevant subject here, so we have to overcome this innate bias. We can’t paint a picture of a scene we won’t look at. We can’t literally see it because it is a construct of information hiding in the brain and we can’t mentally see it because we just use it without understanding how. And understanding the physical mechanisms of the brain won’t explain the mind any more than taking a TV apart can explain what’s on TV. The programming and structure of the mind derive primarily from the function it is trying to accomplish. The mind is a construct of that function, both shaped and defined by it. So the mind is not just what the brain does, it is why it does it. It is not about the way it physically accomplishes it; it is about what it is trying to accomplish. It is an abstract thing and home for all abstract things that exists to animate our bodies to keep them alive. This non-physical or functional kind of existence (which is a mentally functional existence in the case of functions of the mind) has as much claim to existence as a subject of conversation as physical things. Actually, it has a better and prior claim to existence because our only direct knowledge of existence comes from the mind — I think therefore I am — and our knowledge of the physical world is secondary, being derived from observations we correlate using our minds.

Knowing that functional existence is real and being able to talk about it still doesn’t explain how it works. We take understanding to be axiomatic. We use words to explain it, but they are words defined in terms of each other without any underlying explanation. For example, to understand is to know the meaning of something, to know is to have information about, information is facts or what a representation conveys, facts are things that are known, convey is to make something known to someone, meaning is a worthwhile quality or purpose, purpose is a reason for doing something, reason is a cause for an event, and cause is to induce, give rise, bring about, or make happen, which we understand from experience but are not part of natural science, which says that things happen without causes as a consequence of particles hitting each other. To make progress explaining understanding itself, we will either have to stop using all the circular words that describe mental phenomena or define them better; otherwise everything we say will remain in a relativistic bubble. Science gives us a way to get past our subjective viewpoint with an objective toolkit. But it is not a toolkit that is well-equipped to address the mind itself as natural science depends on physical observations, which we can’t make, and social science depends on behavioral observations, which don’t prove anything. So again it seems that expanding the scope of science to address functionality in a new way would help.

While science does not, in my opinion, attempt to study the mind head on, it does study it from a number of directions that I consider indirect. In the natural sciences, neuroscience focuses on the mechanical aspects of brain function. A few subfields of neuroscience merge into social science, like behavioral, cultural and social neuroscience. Social sciences all study the mind but from indirect perspectives. Anthropology, sociology, economics, law, politics, management, linguistics, and music study mental behavior and thus characterize the mind without trying to explain it. Psychology is the direct study the mind and approaches the subject from a variety of subdisciplines, including neuropsychology, behavioral psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive psychology, psychoanalysis, and humanistic psychology. They each draw on a different objective source of information. Neuropsychology studies the brain for effects on behavior and cognition. Behavioral psychology studies behavior. Evolutionary psychology studies the impact of evolution. Cognitive psychology studies mental processes like perception, attention, reasoning, thinking, problem-solving, memory, learning, language, and emotion. Psychoanalysis studies experience (but with a medical goal). Humanistic psychology studies uniquely human issues, such as free will, personal growth, self-actualization, self-identity, death, aloneness, freedom, and meaning. Finally, the third branch of science, formal science, intersects with some capacities of mind. Mathematics addresses quantities and rules, computer science deals with algorithms, and formal systems can describe language and potentially other kinds of mental abstractions. I noted before that cognitive science is designated to be the field that directly studies the mind, but I have felt underwhelmed by its approach, which has mostly been to seek collaboration between the sciences rather than to formulate and complete a prevailing paradigm.

This brings me to the one social science I need to address separately: philosophy. Broadly, philosophy is the theoretical basis of a branch of knowledge, so every field needs its own philosophy, its own paradigm. Practiced as an independent field, general philosophy studies fundamental questions, such as the nature of knowledge, reality, and existence. From my perspective, general philosophy has failed as a field because it lacks focus, a way of assessing the value of any approach. Lacking such firm support, every perspective floats on quicksand, only able to appeal to an audience willing to buy into tacit assumptions that have no real support themselves. For example, universality is the notion that universal facts can be discovered and is therefore understood as being in opposition to relativism. Universality and relativism assume the concepts of facts, discovery, understanding, and perception, but these assumptions are undefined. A philosophy that builds on assumptions we share from language and culture doesn’t really say anything. This fault extends to all philosophies because they all fall back on unsupported assumptions we make about and with our minds. I contend that science provides the firmest kind of support we have found so far: objectivity. I will undertake a lengthy inquiry into the nature of objectivity later on, but for now we can think of it as precisely avoiding the kind of assumptions from our own minds to which I have been objecting. So we need to be objective in our approach to philosophy and to focus in particular on the philosophies we will need to study science and the mind.

As fields of study, philosophy of science and philosophy of mind have suffered significantly from a lack of objective focus, and consequently they exist more as surveys of perspectives with no consensus as to which is best. I believe we can cut through all that red tape and get to the philosophy we need by reasoning it out objectively from scratch using personal and scientific knowledge we confidently hold. But a brief summary the fields is a good starting point to provide some orientation. Science was a well-established practice long before efforts were made to describe its philosophy. August Comte proposed in 1848 that science proceeds through three stages, the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive. The theological stage is prescientific and cites supernatural causes. In the metaphysical stage people used reason to derive abstract but natural forces such as gravity or nature. Finally, in the positive or scientific stage, we abandon the search for absolutes and embrace an ever-progressing refinement of facts based on empirical observations. So every theory must be guided by observed facts, which in turn can only be observed under the guidance of some theory. Thus arises the hypothesis-testing loop of the scientific method and the widely accepted view that science continually refines our knowledge of nature. Though this remains the prevailing paradigm used by practicing scientists, not everyone knows that this philosophy progressively collapsed in the 20th century, leaving science without a firm foundation today. I consider it a huge problem that needs to be repaired, but to fix it we will need to develop an expanded objective framework to support science.

In short, here is how the philosophy of science was undermined. Comte’s third stage developed further in the 1920’s into logical positivism, the theory that only knowledge verified empirically (by observation) was meaningful. More specifically, logical positivism states with mathematical precision that the meaning of logically defined symbols could mirror or capture the lawful relationship between an effect and its cause2. Every term or symbol in a theory must correspond to an observed phenomena, which then provides a rigorous way to describe nature mathematically. It was a bold assertion because it says that science derives the actual laws of nature, even though we know any given evidence can be used to support any number of theories, even if the simplest (i.e. by Occam’s razor) seems more compelling. In the middle of the 20th century, cracks begin to appear in logical positivism as the sense of certainty promised by modernism began to be replaced by a postmodern feeling of uncertainty and continuous change. In the sciences, Thomas Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, which is remembered popularly for introducing the idea of paradigm shifts (though Kuhn did not coin that phrase specifically). Though Kuhn’s goal was to help science by unmasking the forces behind scientific revolutions, he inadvertently opened a door he couldn’t shut, forever ending dreams of absolutism and a complete understanding of nature and replacing it with a relativism in which potentially all truth is socially constructed. In the 1990s, postmodernists claimed all of science was a social construction in the so-called science wars. Because this seems to be true in many ways, science formally lost this battle against relativism and has yet to mount a response. And yet scientists today still consider conclusions made under prevailing paradigms to be effectively true. They know that paradigms and truths will shift over time, but what matters seems to be that today’s truths are useful as far as they go.

The philosophy of mind as a discipline is mostly studied as an array of topics rather than as a problem in need of a unified approach. The principle topics are existence (the mind-body problem), theories of mental phenomena, consciousness/qualia/self/will, and thoughts/concepts/meaning. Because the field of philosophy of mind has so many contrasting viewpoints, it is hard to separate helpful from hurtful. Rather than surveying the field, which would give airtime to any number of invalid viewpoints, I plan to approach the subject from a well-founded perspective in the first place so as to hit on the correct views. But before I get to that, I will reveal in brief (much more detail later!) just what I consider the correct views to be on some of these topics:

I endorse physicalism (i.e. minimal or supervenience physicalism), which is the position that everything we think of as mental has a physical basis, or, as philosophers say, the mental supervenes on the physical. This means that if we could physically duplicate the world, it would also duplicate it mentally and socially. Note that because quantum events in such duplicates would begin diverging immediately, they would not remain the same for long, but if somehow quantum events also stayed in sync then the mental would as well. This stance is also called physical monism: only physical things exist. Note that this position rejects the idea of an immortal soul and Descartes’ substance dualism in which mind and body are distinct substances.

I endorse non-reductive physicalism, which means I think there are non-physical aspects of mental phenomena. There is nothing mystical about these aspects; it is just that they are relational, like math or logic, and not tied to physical particulars. A given thought is a physical particular in a brain, but what it is about, it’s indirect meaning, is not. Thus, “three” and “above” are not physical particulars. This is exactly the point where the subject starts to become confusing because discussions on the subject don’t characterize mental things in a meaningful way. They might talk about mental properties or types or tokens or states, without defining these terms particularly well, in an apparent attempt to keep the discussion abstract, while at the same time they aim to connect the mental to the physical. But physical things can’t be abstractions because they are particles, or waves, or something concrete in spacetime. The key notion is that while mental things have a direct, physical nature, they usually also have an indirect, referential nature that is what they are “about” that has no physical description at all. I call the idea something non-physical about the mental exists form & function dualism, where physical equates to form and mental equates to function. It is not exactly inconsistent with physical monism because everything mental is simultaneously physical, but it does point out that physicalism overlooked functional existence, which is clearly wrong because “three” and “above” must have some kind of existence since we can talk about them.

I endorse functionalism, which is the theory of mental phenomena that says that mental things are identified by what they do rather than what they are made of. Put another way, mental things are about something rather than being something. This is why I call the dualism of physical and mental form & function dualism, because physical things are all form and mental things are all function.

I endorse the idea that consciousness is a subprocess of the brain that is designed so as to create a subjective theater from which centralized control of the body by the brain can be performed efficiently. All the familiar aspects of consciousness such as qualia, self, and the will are just states managed by this subprocess.

Finally, I endorse the idea that thoughts, concepts, and meaning are information management techniques that have both conscious and subconscious aspects, where subconscious refers to subprocesses of the brain that are supportive of consciousness, which is the most supervisory subprocess.

While I have thus revealed much about where I am going, I have not yet revealed how I got there or why a properly unified philosophy of science and mind implies these things.

  1. Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, W. W. Norton, 1997, p21
  2. Klee, Robert, Introduction to the Philosophy of Science: Cutting Nature at its Seams, Oxford University Press, 1997, p32

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