Mission Statement: The Need to Know Our Own Minds

We want to live our lives responsibly and effectively, but what makes us think we are qualified to do it? We depend on a combination of nature and nurture to give us the confidence to act. Our lives are filled with actions, all of which we need to be confident enough about to perform. So, for better or worse, we become confident about the quality our knowledge and move forward. That’s a justification, and a good one since we have to act, but it sets no standard about the level of responsibility or effectiveness we will achieve. Of course, we need standards because how good a job we do affects the quality and length of our own lives, of those around us, and of the planet itself. So we create millions of standards to improve our responsibility and effectiveness in as many ways across as many subjects as we can, which we enforce through good character, peer pressure, and laws.

My mission here is to go beyond this ad hoc network of improvements to establish a scientific basis for responsible and effective action. To scientifically understand how and why we act we need to know how and why our minds work, that is, the purpose and methods of the mind. This will put us in a better position to say what it even means to be responsible and effective and whether those objectives are worthwhile, and, assuming they are, it will position us to start addressing the question of finding paths to achieve them better. The scope of all possible actions is unlimited, and I am not proposing that one perfect scientific path forward will emerge. But I think we will quickly be able to see how many actions and the standards that support them are flawed, and how we can develop strategies compatible with our nature and nurture that would work better. I think we can increase our confidence that we know what we are doing if we understand our motives, goals, and how we set and reach them.

I’m going to address this subject in two parts, through two books. The first book will establish a scientific basis for the mind and the second will investigate how we can use it better. It is important to know that my goal is to write the second book so you understand my focus in the first book. I am not so much interested in the details of how neurotransmitters or 3D vision work as in what kinds of functions they make possible. Also, our technical knowledge is still pretty rudimentary, but our knowledge of what we do is pretty good. We have a fair idea how sensory perceptions get started, but we are harder pressed to explain how they feel (qualia), awareness, thinking, understanding, emotion, purpose, and morality. These things are not physical, which means that to the hard sciences they don’t exist. But they do exist, and if the framework of science is not big enough to encompass them, then it must be expanded. Of course, we address them through the social sciences, but these have deserved reputations for being soft because they are built on a quicksand of assumptions (or standards) about human nature that must be taken as givens. To really understand human nature we need to link the hard and soft sciences. We have to find a hard basis for soft things.

This is the purpose of cognitive science, and so that is what I am doing here. But I am trying to relaunch cognitive science with a fresh start because it has gotten bogged down in classical quandaries and neurochemical details. I think the available evidence can support much stronger and broader theories than have yet been proposed, so I am going to propose some. I remember being entranced when I was a teenager by the idea of Harry Seldon’s psychohistory in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy because it raised the prospect of understanding human nature. Psychohistory made it possible to predict what we will want and how we will get it, which allowed for perfect prediction of the future. That is an extreme and unattainable use of the understanding of human nature. My more practical goal is to understand what we should want and how we should get it. Two short books on the subject won’t give us all the answers, but I hope it will help inspire us to start devising methods in which we can justifiably have greater confidence than the methods that have been handed down to us.

My investigation into the scientific nature of our mental states will reveal that they really do exist and are not just illusions or rationalizations our brain creates to explain why we did what we did after the fact. It will reveal that the fabric of those states is information, which can and must be represented physically (using 0’s and 1’s in computers and neurochemistry in humans), but which is fundamentally not a physical substance. Understanding is created from information and is new information itself. The mind is a deeply interconnected web of information all the way down, and the brain is the mechanism that makes it possible. Understanding the mind becomes an exercise in figuring out what kinds of information and information processing the mind uses to accomplish what purposes.

In our native configuration, we know how to use our minds but we don’t understand how they work. From science, we are pretty sure about a few more things, most notably that our minds arise from neural activity in our brains and to a lesser degree our whole nervous system. Beyond that, the rest of our bodies and what we do in the world stimulate our nerves. We know minds are not supernatural, yet attempts to characterize them as purely physical seem unconvincing. So we hit a wall. I’m going to take us through that wall by proposing dualism, meaning the existence of two independent kinds of things, physical and informational. Classical dualism is mystical, and I am not reviving that. My dualism is more about the value of taking different perspectives, two in this case, and on the value and nature of perspectives themselves, which are useful informational structures.

As I devise a basis for understanding what understanding itself is I will start to weave it into what the mind is up to and how it goes about doing it. I will try at all points to keep this new basis of understanding compatible with the available scientific evidence. Since I am not an experimentalist, I am necessarily a theoretical cognitive scientist. All that distinguishes me from just being an armchair philosopher is my methods, which I aim to make as rigorously scientific as possible. This means I will entertain a discussion about what science and the scientific method even are, and in so doing I will define them more clearly than they usually are, and I will expand their definitions while I am at it. That said, because this is a very high-level book and I have limited time, perspective, and space, I am aiming for a level of rigor suitable to a book of this scope and directed at a general audience.

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