The Story of the Mind: A New Scientific Perspective into Our Essential Nature

We all have minds. We use them continuously every waking moment of every day. We take what they can do for granted. Why we have them and how they work has no direct bearing on our lives, so we mostly just carry on and don’t worry about it. It’s remarkable that all understanding, scientific or otherwise, depends critically on our ability to use our minds, yet we don’t have to understand them to use them and thus far have failed to do so. Similarly, we can use software without having read its source code, much less having been able to have written it. The “software” of our minds, usually called wetware, was “written” to meet our needs in the ancestral state, not the rapidly changing and increasingly artificial environment we have created. We can’t afford to remain mere users; we have to understand what makes us tick and even to tweak or upgrade our programming if we want to survive in the long run. To get started, we have to find a way to make minds and ideas into objects of study themselves. But how should we go about it? The Greeks started with the psyche, which is analogous to what we would call the soul. Aristotle wrote in Peri psyche that the psyche is that which makes the body alive and able to perform its characteristic functions. He divided them into vegetative powers, concerned with nutrition and growth; sensory powers (that is, vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, as well as the internal senses of imagination and memory); and intellectual powers (understanding, assertion, and discursive thinking).1. From my perspective, this is pretty close; closer than anyone has come since. The theory I will develop here will corroborate his view. What Aristotle had that has been in short supply lately is a broad mandate. Science did not yet exist, so he created it, substantially filling in the major branches. As the tree of science has grown, it has become less fashionable and feasible to address the big picture with fresh eyes the way he did. Science has trended toward specialization, not generalization. There are perfectly good reasons for this, which I will address later, but suppose we take it as a challenge. What if our understanding of the mind has been held back by the way science has branched, leading to detailed study in specialized areas while missing the forest for the trees? What if I took on the broad mandate to explain the mind from first principles, rethinking the structure of science and what it means in relation to the mind?

That challenge is a raison d’être quest for me. I’ve always been just a bit obsessed with examining my own thought processes to get to the bottom of it all. We all have thoughts about our thoughts and don’t expect to make a career of it, so I was not surprised to find no obvious path forward in college. I started out focusing on genetics, but it was all lab work in those days and I am more of a theorist than an experimentalist. I turned my attention to computers but saw no promise in the artificial intelligence of the time, which was based entirely on representation and logic. I put my thoughts on the matter aside as something to get back to in the future and settled into a career in systems and application programming, which kept me off the streets. But it kept bothering me, so I started writing a book to explain the mind in 1996. But with a family and a full-time job, I was only able to make sporadic progress until I retired in 2016, at which time I decided to fulfill the quest. I’ve rewritten the first few chapters dozens of times as my ideas have evolved.

Many other people have also been thinking about the problem. Unraveling the mind has become something of an international obsession over the past fifty years. But I don’t think many have looked at it with a broad mandate and fresh eyes. It’s all dividing and no conquering because it is not a problem that can be solved with specialization. We need to step back to a state of maximal generalization and from there start to focus in. I am not here to refute any of the findings of science. I am here to embrace them. But our scientific knowledge that bears on the mind is scattered and does not speak to the nature of mind confidently from the top down. Different schools of thought have evolved to cover different aspects but have only culminated in a lot of conflicting schools of thought. I’m going to try to develop a firm foundation for a comprehensive view that integrates our scientific knowledge into one framework.

My approach is scientific but to achieve that we have to agree on what it means to be scientific. For starters, I will take on the philosophy of science itself, both defining meaning in science and providing an expanded framework of what science should be. Science is founded on educated guesswork, by which I mean proposing hypotheses to explain phenomena. One then tests the hypotheses, which either confirms them or highlights the need for new hypotheses. All practicing scientists are expected to conduct original scientific research, which includes both new hypotheses and new experiments to test them. I am not an experimentalist; I am a synthesist. My goal is not to make new scientific discoveries, but to reorganize existing scientific knowledge into a more explanatory framework. Consequently, I will only be proposing hypotheses that are already supported by abundant evidence. My claims, as I state them initially, may not seem adequately supported, but as the book proceeds I will fill in the gaps. It is not my intention to be contentious or even controversial as I am only seeking to form a larger accord in scientific thought, which is necessary to propose and advance theories of the mind. Keep your eyes open for any claims that contradict settled science and feel free to call me out on them.

I take heart from Joscha Bach’s essay Is Scientific Genius a Thing of the Past? on the current sad state of paradigm shifting in the sciences. Bach argues correctly that many sciences are in dire need of a revolution, but there just isn’t a framework for uprooting the status quo in the sciences. As he puts it in the case of cognitive science, it is “a bunch of incompatible methodologies competing for the same funding bucket” which has rather foolishly put most of its eggs in the brain scanning basket. Once paradigms have taken hold, as Thomas Kuhn taught us, strong sociological forces take hold that make it hard for new paradigms to overtake them. We don’t need to tear science down and build it up again, but we do need to reform from within to include the foundations of science in scientific discussions. Scientists know that science must always iterate and cannot produce absolute knowledge, so they must also admit that the foundations are not absolute either. Instead of just propping up status quo paradigms, every paper should question the paradigm it seeks to support both by describing what that paradigm even is and by offering some alternatives. In this way, we will empower all scientists to work on generalities and not just details. The status quo becomes an immovable block only if we have no mechanism to move it. Instead of simply hoping social forces will be strong enough to overcome the establishment, we need to put the seeds of change into the establishment. So I open the challenge to any scientific discipline: insist that every paper go beyond the details to encompass the full range of assumptions on which it rests, with at least a nod to alternative assumptions. It is not that every paper has to launch a scientific revolution, it is that every paper must be empowered to do so. We need to be given access to levers that can move the earth or the institutions we have constructed to keep civilization running will inadvertently destroy us by failing to respond adequately to change, which is always accelerating.

  1. Philosophy of Mind – Ancient and Medieval – Ancient Greek And Roman Views

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