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, imagining or thinking. While scientists are fairly certain our minds are the consequence of fantastically intricate but natural processes in the brain, from our first-person perspective they seem magical, even supernatural. Thanks to the theory of evolution and the computational theory of mind we can now imagine how they could be natural, but we can only explain them in broad strokes that leave most of the answers to the imagination. In a world where seemingly everything important is now well-understood, must we still accept that the very essence of our nature has not been explained? 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. It is hard enough for normal science to shift course from its established paradigms, but additional obstacles are the subversion of science for commercial and political purposes, pseudoscience, and even fake news. We only understand a small 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 our guesses can be very informed. We do 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 see many viewpoints, it is no longer so early that we can’t roughly agree on much of what is going on that is supported by an extensive body of common knowledge and established science. It is my goal to pull together what we already know and to back it up with a new philosophical perspective to form a single, coherent, overarching scientific theory of the mind.

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 Works1, to me they seem to miss the key point, which is that thought is a computational instrument of function and that its form is largely irrelevant. Natural scientists are biased to see things mostly in physical terms, which leaves them in the awkward position of explaining functional phenomena through physical processes. Evolutionary psychology embraces functional explanations but still seems to miss the forest for the trees, which is this: the physical mechanisms of the brain, i.e. the neurochemical bases of instincts, emotions and thought, including the genes, 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 ignored by physical science. Cognitive science should recognize this but has become bogged down by an excess of perspectives. I think recognizing form and function will unify science, especially cognitive science.

  1. Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, W. W. Norton, 1997

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