About the Presence of Mind

Mission Statement

We all know how to use our minds, but we don’t understand how they work. I am going to combine what we know about the mind both from science and from our own experience and devise a single coherent theory that explains how it works. Much of the current canon of science conflicts with itself, in that there are multiple theories to explain some things, and still more of our own experience conflicts with science, so I am going to filter out the best of it to arrive at the most solid and objective overarching theory. I’m going to try to just lay out my conclusions without engaging in a comprehensive review of every approach and theory that has ever been proposed. I have to do it this way because otherwise I will get bogged down in a detailed critique of all these alternate theories and will not get to make my case. But it is a catch-22 because while I can present my view without getting into the alternatives and their shortcomings, it won’t convince you that I am right. You ultimately need to know why I went one way and not another, and I can’t wait until I am done to say why or you will lose patience. So I will do a little of each, iterating, and hopefully, over time construct and defend from first principles a perspective on the mind that scientists and laypeople alike can read and agree is sensible.
Although I consider myself a scientist, I am a theorist and not an experimentalist, and since all my work is cognitively oriented, I would call myself a theoretical cognitive scientist. In addition to culling scientific theories and common knowledge to extract the correct pieces, I also create new theory to fill holes, theory that will require subsequent research and experimentation to validate. I believe we are at a point where theory is lagging far behind available information, so theory needs to catch up. Generally speaking, and usually for good reason, scientists are expected to be experimentalists first and theorists only as necessary to drive further experimentation. But when the theoretical framework needed to support further experimentation doesn’t even exist yet, it is time to take a step back and work on theory. We need someone to take their eyes off the trees to find the forest.

Like many curious kids, I tried from an early age to figure the world out, and quickly become more entranced by the complexities of how we think about the world that about the world itself. How can one distinguish true from false? The revelation that struck my 13-year old mind was that the answer was relative, relative to the framework in which the question was asked. In a thoroughly specified framework, everything that is true is clearly defined to be true or follows inescapably from clearly defined truths. Vaguer frameworks work more like a set of possible worlds, each of which is fully defined and full of necessary truths, but together just define a range of possibility. These thoughts left me with the notion that the mind could be explained, but the idea of studying it formally never entered my mind. When I got to college in 1979, cognitive science was only eight years old (as a named field), and the first cognitive science department would be formed until 1986. Nowadays most universities have one. My first thought was to study genetics as it is surely the source of the mind, but I lacked the patience for lab work, and the field seemed to be decades away from world-changing results. Computer science satisfied both my desire for immediate impact and my urge to construct frameworks entirely from necessary truths. I worked as a computer programmer for thirty years both designing and implementing a number of large-scale systems for both personal and high finance. But I haven’t lost my interest in explaining the mind, and I have been studying and pondering the matter for over twenty years. I have been focusing on it full-time since 2016.

In brief, the mind creates a subjective world of ideas that makes human life special, just as Plato and Descartes thought, as culture has always maintained and as our intuition tells us. The subconscious mind does most of the hard work for us with specialized modules that process senses (e.g. 3-D color vision), recognize things, manage our bodies, distinguish causation, process language, understand other people, attach emotional color to experience and more. The conscious mind is a top-level process of the mind that funnels inputs from the subconscious into a single stream so it can direct the body. Free will exists despite the world being deterministic because free will derives from a lack of foreknowledge, not from the ability to break the laws of nature. I aim to strengthen the foundations of science, explain the meaning of life, and provide a better basis for human action (a field called praxeology). Also, an objective understanding of the mind can inform metacognition (our subjective self-knowledge) to optimize our use of innate, personal and cultural sources of knowledge.

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. — John F. Kennedy1

Providing a single but objective explanation of the mind in one text is hard. I have reformulated and rewritten my ideas now many times, each time trying to get every idea into its proper place, but always chasing my own tail. I have taken on this challenge because I feel that understanding the mind is a prerequisite to being able to “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”, and so without it, we will not be able to meet our increasingly challenging future proficiently. Perhaps more to the point, it is a challenge I see as underserved which I feel well-equipped to address.

Approach

I am trying to write an explanation of the mind that anyone can understand, that aligns with current scientific thinking, that solves all the major problems in the philosophy of mind, and that fits the pieces together coherently. However,

• anyone can write highly technical language that loses most readers in the first paragraph, and
• anyone can write opinions that don’t align with science and objective thinking, and
• anyone can tell a story that is entertaining but doesn’t accomplish the mission, and
• anyone can write about specific points in isolation without developing a clear big picture, and
• anyone can focus on strengths (pros) while ignoring weaknesses (cons) without being fair and balanced.

I will try to avoid these pitfalls because I feel they would undermine truth and transparency, which I care about. This means I will be avoiding anecdotes, just-so stories, and other curiosities that many authors use to keep a book interesting, but I consider the subject matter itself to be the interesting part.

Site Layout

All the posts (aka chapters) are reachable from the menu on top through these five pages:

Contents lists every post in the order they should be read (currently chronological)
Chapters Wide shows the full text of all the posts in reading (chronological) order
Recents shows the most recent posts in reverse chronological order
Recents Wide shows the contents of the most recent posts in wide format
About is this page

The full content of the site (except this About page) is on the Chapters Wide page.  Clicking on a post title on this page takes you to the page for that post, which is helpful to comment on the post or see footnotes or comments for it.

Me

I have bachelor degrees in computer science and molecular biochemistry & biophysics (Yale, 1983). I am well-versed in logic, math and science overall, and I have studied the mind extensively for decades. I worked from 1983 to 2016 as a computer programmer and systems architect. I most notably designed and implemented SEESAW (System Elegantly Enmeshing Screens and Worksheets) in 1983-85 at MECA to support PC applications, including the bestseller Andy Tobias’ Managing Your Money, and did considerable design and implementation for JAVAH (Just Another Value and Hedge) in 1996-2010 at AIG Financial Products to manage derivative products. I consider myself more an engineer than a scientist, more a synthesist than an experimentalist, more a pragmatist than a realist or idealist. As a software engineer, I like to pull diverse ideas together into elegant and encompassing solutions, and I have translated this skills to this project.

I have any number of other hobbies and interests, all pretty mundane, and a pretty normal family and American lifestyle. I am a trivia buff, I generally find all subjects at least somewhat interesting, and I enjoy speculating on and debating any topic, especially from a nonconformist or devil’s advocate position.

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Blog Announcements

Starting a blog 5/4/16
My blog goes live 11/7/16

  1. John F. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Moon Speech – Rice Stadium, September 12, 1962