Minds not Brains: Introducing Theoretical Cognitive Science

I’m going to make a big deal about the difference between the mind and the brain. We know what minds are from long experience and take the concept for granted, despite an almost complete absence of a scientific explanation. 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 said it resides in the nervous system 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 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 dependence on function. 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 and may 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 between hard and soft sciences have opened up a gap 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 sometimes called the explanatory gap. The gap is 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. More to the point, it feels like an agent because it has to have some way of thinking about its senses and that way needs to keep them all distinct from each other. 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 system for three reasons: complexity, function, and control. Living tissues are complex systems with many interacting components, so while muscle tissue can be modeled as a set of fibers working together as a simple machine, like any complex system its behavior will become chaotic outside normal operating parameters. Next, the mind (and muscles) have a different metaphysical nature than nonliving things. Unlike rocks and streams, muscles and nerves are organized to perform a function rather than employ a specific physical form. And most significantly, the mind is not organized to perform functions itself but to control how the body will perform functions, and so could be called metafunctional. These three complicating factors make developing and testing hypotheses about the mind vastly more complicated than doing it for rocks and streams, so paradigms based only on natural laws won’t work. Yet the attitude among natural scientists is that the mind is just an elaborate cuckoo clock and so understanding it reduces to knowing its brain chemistry. That will indeed reveal the physical mechanisms, but it won’t reveal the reasons for the design, any more than understanding the clock explains why we want to know what time it is. When we study complex systems, like the weather, we have to accept that chaos and unpredictability are around every corner. When we study functional systems, like living things, we have to accept that functional explanations — and all explanations are functional — need to acknowledge the existence of function. And when we study control systems, like brains and minds, we have to accept that direct cause and effect is supplanted by indirect cause and effect through information processing. Natural sciences study complexity and function in living systems, but not the control aspect of minds. Control is addressed by a number of the formal sciences, but since the formal sciences are not concerned with natural phenomena like minds, the study of control by minds has been left high and dry. It falls under the purview of cognitive science, but we need to completely revamp our concept of what scientific method is appropriate to study function and control. We will need theories that seek to explain how control is managed from a functional perspective, that is, using information processing, and we will need ways to test them that are less direct than tests of natural laws.

Nearly all our knowledge of our mind comes from 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. While we have no natural understanding of it, we do know it is a construct of information managed by the brain. Understanding the physical mechanisms of the brain won’t explain the mind any more than taking a TV apart would explain TV shows, because for both the mind and TV shows the hardware is just a starting point from which information management constructs highly complex products. So the mind is less what the brain does than why it does it. It is about how it physically accomplishes things so much as what it is trying to accomplish. This is the non-physical, functional existence I have argued for. In fact, for us, functional existence is primary to physical existence, because knowledge itself is information or function, so we only know of physical existence as mediated through functional existence, i.e. from observations we make with our minds (i.e. “I think therefore I am”).

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. If anything, causality seems like it should reduce to something physical and not mental, yet it doesn’t. But the language of the mind is not intended to explain how understanding or the mind works, just to let us use understanding and our minds. If we are to explain how understanding and other mental processes work we will need to develop an objective frame of reference that can break mental states down into causes and effects or we will remain trapped in a relativistic bubble.

Let’s consider which sciences study the mind directly. Neuroscience studies the brain and nervous system, but this is not direct for the same reason studying computer hardware says little or nothing about what computer software does. On the other hand, psychology and cognitive science are dedicated to the study of the mind. Psychology studies the mind as we perceive it, our experience of mind, while cognitive science studies how it works. One could say psychology studies the subjective side and cognitive science studies the objective side. Psychology divides into 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. Cognitive science focuses on the processes that support and create the mind. Most cognitive scientists, including me, are functionalists, maintaining that the mind should be explained in terms of what it does. But science continues to be almost completely dominated by a physicalist tradition, which suggests and even claims that studying the brain will ultimately explain the mind. I have adamantly argued that function does not reduce to form, even though it needs form. And it is true that knowing the form provides many clues to the function, and it is also true that form is our only hard evidence. But we are still a long way from unraveling all the mechanics of neurochemistry, though rapid progress is being made. In the meantime, without any more information than we already have at hand there is much that we can say about the brain’s function, that is, about the mind, by taking a functional perspective on what it is doing. So cognitive science should not be an interdisciplinary collaboration, but should reboot science from scratch by establishing a scientific approach to studying function that can meet a comparable level of objectivity as our paradigm for studying form. I have, so far, proposed that all of science be refounded on the ontology of form and function dualism. The prevailing paradigm, which derives as I have noted from the Deductive Nomological Model, uses function to study form, while I propose to use function to study both form and function.

One other discipline formally studies the mind: philosophy. Practiced as an independent field, general philosophy studies fundamental questions, such as the nature of knowledge, reality, and existence. But because they don’t establish an objective basis for their claims, philosophers ultimately depend on the subjective, intuitive appeal of their perspectives. 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 at best loosely defined and really depend on a common knowledge of what they are. Philosophy builds on common knowledge ideas without attempting to establish an objective basis. What principally distinguishes science is the effort to establish objectivity, and the way it does this it itself studied unscientifically as the philosophy of science. It is an ironic situation that the solid foundation upon which science has presumably been built is itself unclear and ultimately pretty subjective. George Bernard Shaw said, “Those who can do, those who can’t teach,” and this is a theme I have been repeating. We are designed to do things but not to understand how we do them or, much less, to teach how they are done. But understanding and teaching are important to get us to the next level so we can leverage what we know in new ways. We have long been perfectly capable of practicing science without dwelling too much on its philosophical basis, but that was before we started to study the mind. We desperately need an objective basis of objectivity itself and how to apply it to the study of both form and function in order to proceed. Philosophers have asked the questions and laid out the issues, but scientists now have to step up and answer them.

Philosophy of science and philosophy of mind have detailed the issues at hand from a number of directions, and characteristically of philosophy have failed to indicate an objective path forward. I believe we can derive the objective philosophy we need by reasoning it out from scratch using the common and scientific knowledge of which we are most confident, which I will do in the next chapter. But a brief summary of 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. 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 says 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 theory (i.e. by Occam’s razor) seems more compelling. In the middle of the 20th century, cracks began to appear in logical positivism (and its apotheosis in the DN Model, see above) 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 continued full steam without clarifying its philosophical foundations. Again, while this is good enough to do science that studies form, it is not enough to do science that studies function. Arguably, we could and very well might develop a scientific tradition for studying function that lets us get the job done without a firm philosophical foundation either. After all, we need news you can use regardless of why it works. Maybe it will happen that way, but I personally consider the why to be the more interesting question, and because function is so much more self-referential than form that I think studying it will turn out to require understanding what it means to study it.

The philosophy of mind is studied as a survey of topics including existence (the mind-body problem), theories of mental phenomena, consciousness/qualia/self/will, and thoughts/concepts/meaning. My goal, as noted, is to establish an objectively supportable stance on these topics and on objectivity itself, which I will then use to launch an investigation into the workings of the mind. It will take some time to do all this, but as a preview I will lay out where I will land on some fundamental questions:

I endorse physicalism (i.e. minimal or supervenience physicalism), which says the mind has a physical basis, or, as philosophers sometimes say, the mental supervenes on the physical. This means that a physical duplicate of the world would also duplicate our minds. While true duplication is impossible, my point here is just that the mind draws its power entirely from physical materials. Physicalism rejects the idea of an immortal soul and Descartes’ substance dualism in which mind and body are distinct substances. Physicalism is often taken to simultaneously reject any other kind of existence, making it a physical monism, but that rejection is unnecessary. At its core physicalism just says that physical things are physical. That one might also interpret something physical from another perspective is irrelevant to physicalism.

I endorse non-reductive physicalism, which is just a fancy way of saying that things that are not physical are not physical, and in particular, that function is not form or reducible to it. More accurately, mental explanations cannot be reduced solely to physical explanations. That doesn’t mean that physical things like brains, that can carry out functions, are not physical, because they are entirely physical from a physical perspective. But if you look at brains from the perspective of what they are doing you create an auxiliary kind of explanation, a functional one. And because explanatory perspectives are abstract, there are an unlimited number of functional perspectives (or existences) about everything. The brain is still physical, the explanations of it are not. To the extent the word “mind” is taken to be a functional perspective of what the brain is doing, it is really the union of all the explanatory perspectives the brain uses when going about its business. These functional perspectives are not mystical, they are relational, tying information to other information using math, logic or correlation. A given thought has a form as an absolute, physical particular in a brain, but its meaning is relative, being a generalization or idealization that might refer to any number of things. Thus, “three” and “above” are not physical particulars. A thought is a functional tool that may be employed in a specific physical example but exists as an abstraction independent of the physical.

I endorse functionalism, which is the theory that mental states are more profitably viewed from the perspective of what they do rather than what they are made of, that is, in terms of their function, not their form. In my ontology of form & function dualism mental states have both kinds of existence, with many possible takes as to what their function is, but they evolved to satisfy the control function for the body, and so our efforts to understand them should take this perspective first.

I endorse the idea that consciousness is a subprocess of the brain that is designed 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. As a special spoiler, I will reveal that I endorse free will, even if the universe is deterministic, which to the best of our knowledge it is not.

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 this says much about where I am going, it doesn’t say how how I will get there or how a properly unified philosophy of science and mind imply 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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