Shaking up the Science of Mind

Sure, we’d all like to know how the mind works, but the brain has over 100 billion neurons, and the world’s top scientists can’t figure out more than bits or pieces, so what can we really do? We just keep hoping those neuroscientists will work harder and get to the bottom of it. But the thing is, they won’t find it. It isn’t like a secret hidden under a rock. The mind isn’t anywhere, if by where we mean a place. The question is not where but how, and the answer lies in understanding what “how” means. How means in what manner or way, or for what reason: why? The reason for something is its purpose or cause, and a purpose is a goal that is a target of achievement. The idea that the world is fashioned so that things will achieve goals is called teleology. Science dismissed teleology as a force of nature almost four hundred years ago:


Since the Novum Organum of Francis Bacon, teleological explanations in physical science tend to be deliberately avoided in favor of focus on material and efficient explanations. Final and formal causation came to be viewed as false or too subjective.

Some disciplines, in particular within evolutionary biology, continue to use language that appears teleological when they describe natural tendencies towards certain end conditions. While some argue that these arguments can be rephrased in non-teleological forms, others hold that teleological language cannot be expunged from descriptions in the life sciences.

With teleology out of favor longer than phlogiston (thought until the 1770’s to be the hidden substance inside combustible material released by burning), you won’t find many (if any) hard scientists willing to stick their neck out for it. It’s safer for biologists to maintain that evolutionary outcomes are the product of chance events without purpose and are in no way driven toward any goal. Any stronger stance seems to suggest intelligent design, i.e. a creator, which is clearly not how evolution works. But this is a misunderstanding of what evolution is doing. Evolution is all about purposes; not purposes known in advance, but purposes that develop over time. Mouths have the purpose of eating; they may also have the purpose of breathing. Biologists can make no useful progress studying animals without positing purposes like these. Life is drawn toward purposes by natural selection — more purposeful mechanisms, those that function better, will be selected more than those that don’t, which causes very effective mechanisms to proliferate. There is no other long-term objective than survival so it would be wrong to suppose that there is a higher goal to create more complex or intelligent organisms in preference to less, but at every step along the way the more effective mechanism is chosen, so purpose is paramount in evolution. Life doesn’t know this purpose and is completely unaware of it because knowing and awareness are functions of minds, since they require real-time analysis of information, which minds can do but genes can’t do by themselves.

Within the mind, teleology was never doubted. We know perfectly well that we constantly set goals and try to achieve them. But we know this isn’t a scientific explanation for why we do things. We know our minds have the capacity to imagine possibilities, so we are not surprised that we might try to make something we imagine come to pass. We know we haven’t really seen the future; we have only made something similar to what we imagined happen. While we don’t know how our minds do this, we have no reason to doubt that our capacity to imagine is a natural, evolved skill of the brain that will eventually be explained as a consequence of natural, physical laws like everything else. So we don’t confuse our ability to use teleology in our minds with the possibility that our minds themselves are pulled toward purposes. And that’s fair, because the mechanisms of our minds are evolved, just like our bodies, and are not pulled toward purposes that are known in advance. But they do move toward purposes because of evolution, and just as biologists could never explain much of anything without identifying purposes, so are minds quite impossible to understand without identifying the purposes they are evolved to fulfill. Evolutionary psychologists, in particular, embrace the idea of seeking to explain psychology by identifying the purposes served by mental traits, and they have developed some compelling explanations for human behavior. I’m just going to take this approach to a whole other level but reformulating our whole conception of what hard science should be and then applying this new perspective to the inner workings of the mind.

Explaining the mind from a scientific perspective is the domain of psychology. Many ancient civilizations tried to explain the mind through philosophy, which is to say by thinking about the mind rather than performing experiments. Analytic and experimental methods arose from the 1870’s through the modern era and culminated in the more comprehensive approach of cognitive science starting in 1973. Today most universities have departments in cognitive science to emphasize its interdisciplinary aspects and to distance it from psychology, which (as an academic field) has been categorized as a social science and continues to focus more on behavioral aspects than their link to biological mechanisms in the brain. Broadly speaking, though, cognitive science is a subfield of psychology. Unlike other sciences, which have firm paradigms that underly their explanations, cognitive science revels in a plethora of competing theories and a cross-disciplinary approach that draws on paradigms from different fields to explain different aspects of the mind. While I applaud the initiative to move forward rather than waiting for a comprehensive theory to emerge, this amalgamation of partial theories has become something of a stand-in for a firm foundation. Teaching a smorgasbord of incomplete, flawed theories would not work in any other science, and it is not sufficient for studying or explaining the mind, either. I’m going to try to fix that here by developing a big picture of what kind of thing the mind is, how it arose, how we should go about trying to understand how it works, and then filling in what we already know about how it works. This comprehensive view should integrate existing scientific knowledge into one framework. The foundation is a unified philosophy of the mind, and its application should produce a scientific understanding of the mind. The study of philosophy is hence the critical bedrock on which science is built, so it is unacceptable that the philosophy of science is grouped academically under philosophy but not science. The actual science that scientists do is done without any formal underlying philosophy. Philosophers of science may believe they are doing something to explain the underlying philosophies that scientists use, but they are kidding themselves. Scientists don’t particularly care about and are largely unaware of their efforts. What matters to scientists is that science works. The theories are the theories, they work or they don’t, and they don’t need underlying philosophies to explain them. And the reality is, this works so long as the existing paradigms hold up. Widely regarded as most significant work in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions argued that normal science moves along with little concern for philosophy until a scientific revolution undermines and replaces the existing paradigm(s). This change, which we now call a paradigm shift, doesn’t happen as soon as a better paradigm comes along, but only after it gains enough momentum to overcome the stubborn, close-minded majority. Kuhn inadvertently alienated himself from the scientific community with this revelation and never could repair the damage, but the truth hurts. Anyway, most scientists only need to be familiar with the paradigms under which they operate and to steer clear of breaking them unless they are prepared for a battle. But to explain the mind, we are going to have to break a few paradigms and shake science up. Creating a new branch called cognitive science that simply borrows paradigms from different fields isn’t going to cut it. To explain the mind, I’m going to propose a new paradigm for science overall that has special relevance to the mind. It won’t so much undermine the prevailing paradigm as expand and strengthen it, so I would hope that it will simply be seen as an uncontroversial and logical extension. But it changes everything about what we think of as the structure of reality by adding new building blocks to create minds.

So how should we start to think about the mind? 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 these functions 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, and we’ve veered off course since. The modern theory is that it is all vegetative powers, and that sensory or intellectual “powers” are just more of the same kinds of biochemistry used for metabolism. Understand biochemistry and the structures it builds, and you will can crack any biological problem. But this is quite wrong; the sensory and intellectual powers are a different kind of thing entirely from other vegetative powers, and we will have to develop an entirely different approach to study them. The study of the mind has been neglected by the way science has branched, leading to detailed study of specialized areas, but missing the forest for the trees. We need to back up and rethink our first principles before we can move forward.

My approach is scientific, but to achieve that we have to agree on what it means to be scientific. 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. Practicing scientists conduct original scientific research, which includes both new hypotheses and new experiments to test them. While this approach makes sense if one is filling in details of existing paradigms, my goal is to reorganize existing scientific knowledge into a more explanatory framework and to propose some new hypotheses about the mind that follow from them. If that comes together well, then developing ways to test those hypotheses may follow. While I believe what that nothing I am proposing contradicts existing scientific findings, that doesn’t mean it is proven. Do watch out 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 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 it and contrasting it with alternative theories. In this way, we will empower all scientists to work from the highest level of generality down and not just on the details. The status quo becomes an immovable block only if we have no mechanism to move it. Instead of simply hoping we will magically manage to overthrow worn-out paradigms at the exact moment we need to, we must build the seeds of change into the scientific method. 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 an open attitude toward alternative assumptions. Not every paper needs to launch a scientific revolution, but the only way to be open to new ideas is to stop tacitly requiring conformity.

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

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