The Mind from Behind the Scenes

We are all the stars of the movies that play in our own heads. We write our own parts and then act them out. Of course, we don’t literally write or act: we think about what we want, then we imagine ways to get it, and then we do things to achieve it. We know why we do it: to preserve our lives and lifestyle. But we don’t know how we do it. We don’t know, in a detailed, scientific sense, what is happening when we are wanting or imagining. While scientists are fairly certain our minds are the consequence of fantastically intricate but natural processes in the brain, from our first-person perspective it looks to us like magic, even supernatural. Thanks to the theory of evolution and the computational theory of mind we can now imagine how it might be natural, but we can only explain it in very broad strokes that leave most of the answers to the imagination. In a world where seemingly everything important is now well-understood, must we must continue to accept that the core of our being has not been explained and won’t be anytime soon? I am bothered by this because I think we can do better, and more to the point, I think we already know enough to do better.

This shortcoming in our knowledge hasn’t gone completely unnoticed. It has interested philosophers for thousands of years and scientists for over a hundred, leading to the formation of cognitive science as a discipline in 1971 and for the 1990’s to be dubbed the “decade of the mind”. Much has been learned, but not much consensus has formed around explanations. Instead, the field is littered with half-baked theories and contentiously competing camps. The casual observer might wonder whether we have made any progress at all. Contrast this for a moment with consensus on climate change, which has risen to nearly 100% in the forty some years since Wallace Broecker first brought the matter into the public eye in 1975 with his paper Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?”1. What separates the two is that the theory of global warming rests on the well-proven warming effects of carbon dioxide and the human contribution of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, while theories of the mind rest on an almost unlimited number of less certain factors. We only understand a tiny fraction of the phenomena at play in the brain and mind. This suggests that any explanatory theory will mostly be guesswork. Yes and no. Yes, we have to guess, i.e. hypothesize, first before we can see if those guesses hold up. But these can be very informed guesses. We know enough to establish a broad scientific consensus around an overall explanatory theory of the mind. Though it is still early days, and we should still expect a wide range of viewpoints, it is no longer so early that we can’t roughly agree on much of what is going on, as supported by an extensive body of common knowledge and established science. It is my objective to pull together what we already know into a single, coherent scientific explanation, i.e. an overarching scientific theory.

While some interesting and insightful books have been written that summarize what we know about how the mind works, e.g. Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works2, their authors somewhat necessarily stay close to their area of expertise, which is where their knowledge and credibility is highest. From my perspective, Pinker covers a broader range than anyone else but still does not actually touch on what I consider to be the core issue, which is the existential character of thought. It is a bias of natural scientists to see things mostly in physical terms, which leaves them in the awkward situation of explaining functional phenomena in terms of physical processes. This leads ultimately to evolutionary psychology, in which scientists use evolutionary arguments to explain psychological traits as chemical consequences of adaptation. These arguments make sense, and they are even true, but they miss the forest for the trees, which is this: the physical mechanisms of the brain, which provide a neurochemical basis for instincts, emotions and thought, are not themselves the objects of existence under discussion. The mind is actually about function, information, and purpose, which is an alternate plane of existence with which we have intimate familiarity but which is invisible to physical science. I am going to correct this fundamental oversight herein, and develop its consequences into a unified approach to science, and especially to cognitive science.

  1. Wallace S. Broecker, Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?, Science, New Series, Vol. 189, No. 4201 (Aug. 8, 1975), pp. 460-463
  2. Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, W. W. Norton, 1997

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