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 despite best efforts, we only know a little bit about what they are up to. So what can we really do? We can just wait for neuroscientists to 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 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.1

Some disciplines, for example 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. The absence of a supernatural creator doesn’t preclude natural selection from achieving intelligent outcomes, if by intelligent we mean purposeful. Genes perform specific purposes and create larger biological structures that perform larger purposes, leading up to organisms, whose purpose is to propagate the gene line. The purposes are not written down; genes encode proteins whose purposes can be inferred by generalizing kinds of effects from their behavior. That it is only a “kind” of effect and not a specific effect is the crux of information: it produces benefits that link to patterns in a general way, conferring advantages with a better than random chance. 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 that function better will be selected more than those that don’t, which causes more 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 mechanism that achieves the most useful purposes 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. Minds achieve knowing and awareness from the real-time analysis of information, while genes use evolutionary-time analysis requiring at least one, and usually many, generations to incorporate information.

We’ve never doubted that thoughts themselves are teleological. We set goals and try to achieve them. And because we control our bodies, we can see that human invention is teleological. We imagine something existing and can then bring it into existence. 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. We know our ability to use teleological thought doesn’t imply that the physical mechanisms of the brain are teleological, i.e. that evolution “set out” to create thought. But can we say that evolution is teleological? Yes, provided we understand the constraints. Evolution didn’t aim to create intelligent creatures or creatures with any specific traits. But it does set out to leverage information, just as we do with our minds, and because of that, it is equally valid to say it pursues purposes and is teleological. The reason is that teleology never aims to create a specific thing, but only to create things that are similar to things that were created before. Goals are generalities; when we reach them it is not because we accomplished a specific thing, but because what we did was similar enough to what we had in mind. Everything we do is different from everything we have done before in all the finest details; it is only the same when viewed as kinds of things by generalizing patterns and finding matches. The mind has its own way of assessing patterns in real time and establishing when a match is “good enough”. Evolution doesn’t have a mind, so it is not comparing what it does against modeled patterns to find good matches, but it does rate its designs on their ability to thrive. This feedback is sufficient to select genes whose traits or purposes that are more generally useful than others. Mouths have purposes related to consumption and respiration, while brains have purposes related to regulation and control. Evolution selects genes that improve the ability of mouths and brains to achieve their purposes. While we can only approximately understand the purposes of genes (e.g. mouths and brains may have other purposes we have overlooked, and the genes that build them may build other things as well), their true purpose is felt by organisms statistically through millions of uses spread across many individuals. Although our descriptions of purposes can’t precisely match true purposes, they are useful as proxies because purposes are approximate in the first place and so approximate descriptions of them can work nearly as well as knowing the true purposes. The control of the body requires a wide range of subsidiary purposes to be fulfilled which can be identified. While those purposes are not understood by evolution, since understanding is a real-time and not an evolutionary-time form of data analysis, and while those purposes change over time, evolution is directed in the sense that organisms better able to achieve purposes, whatever they may be, will outcompete those less able. Consequently, we should look to teleology, and not to physical mechanisms, to explain evolved traits. Evolutionary psychologists, in particular, embrace the idea of explaining our psychology by identifying the purposes served by mental traits, and they have developed some compelling explanations for human behavior. It is my principle goal to develop this approach further to see what it implies about how we think.

Psychology is the scientific study of the mind. Our only direct evidence of the mind is from our own personal experience with it. Observing the behavior of others is a large source of indirect evidence. Neuroscience is the study of the brain and nervous system, which is closely related since the mind is an emergent phenomenon of the nervous system. We can’t yet account for why the mind is a byproduct of the brain. Presumably out of frustration with the progress of psychology to explain the mind, cognitive science was founded in 1973, and now has departments in most universities. Cognitive science is not a field in itself, but rather an interdisciplinary approach to studying the mind that embraces psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, artificial intelligence, linguistics, and anthropology. Most notably, we can’t continue to ignore the links between psychology and neuroscience and the implications that the study of the mind has on philosophy. A comprehensive theory of the mind must consistently integrate the leading theories from all these fields, so it makes sense to share expertise to develop a unified theory. Reinvigorating teleology as a guiding force represents a dramatic philosophical shift in thinking about the mind, so we will rethink what it implies for the philosophy of science.

Ancient civilizations, especially the Greeks, tried to explain the mind through philosophy, which is to say by thinking about the mind rather than performing experiments. Analytic and experimental methods for studying the mind did not appear until the 1870s2. Long before, “Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) declared in his Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786) that psychology might perhaps never become a “proper” natural science because its phenomena cannot be quantified, among other reasons.”3 Psychology was nevertheless founded and uses as its foundation a multitude of theories that exist more as a large, competing collection than as a firm, unified basis. It now falls to cognitive science to cull the wheat from the chaff and develop a consensus view. So far, it has not succeeded and instead teaches a smorgasbord of sketchy theories. I’m going to attempt here to achieve that unification. I think we do have good prevailing paradigms in many of the subfields involved but just haven’t found the right glue to join them together. First I’ll aim for a unified philosophy and then apply that philosophy to develop a unified understanding of the mind.

Scientific philosophy has been dominated by physicalism for centuries now, which presents a bit of a quandary with respect to the mind because the mind is not physical. Consequently, the unified philosophy I am going to develop is not physicalism, though it will be a superset of it. Physicalism, however, specifically rejects any thesis that something could be said to exist that is not physical, so even a philosophy that fully endorses physicalism but also posits something beyond the physical must be rejected by physicalists. In what is widely regarded as the 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 change the minds of 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. And the truth is, we have to extend physicalism. My extension is naturalism. Naturalism says that the world arises from natural forces. However, the idea that natural laws only create physical entities is mistaken; under just the right circumstances they can also create what I call functional entities, about which I will have much more to say as I proceed. Physical and functional entities represent distinct kinds of existence, which means naturalism, as I will present it here, is founded on what I call form and function dualism. Conventionally, naturalism is taken to be synonymous with physicalism and is spoken of mostly to contrast it with supernaturalism. But it is not synonymous: just as physicalism distinguished itself from materialism with the introduction of energies and forces, so does naturalism distinguish itself from physicalism with the introduction of function. Function most broadly includes the capacity to leverage feedback to influence future events, but more narrowly includes the creation of information and applying logic to it to achieve purposes. While my extension may take some time to get used to, it is more of an unexpected but logical extension to physicalism than a paradigm shift away from it, so I hope it will come to be accepted as relatively uncontroversial. It is based entirely on settled science interpreted through a broader lens.

To frame the question of how we should start to think about the mind, let’s go back to the beginning of Western thought. 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).4. From my perspective, this is pretty close, and we’ve veered off course since. The modern theory is that vegetative, sensory, and intellectual powers are just different sides of the same thing, being side effects of neurochemical processes. By this view, as we chip away at the underlying neurochemical processes, we will come to understand how the mind works. But this is quite wrong; the sensory and intellectual powers are a different kind of thing entirely from vegetative powers, and we will have to develop an entirely different approach to study them. The way science has branched has left it without an appropriate perspective of these powers, essentially 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’ll have to agree on what it means to be scientific. The experimental sciences are 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. The formal sciences, which include math, just propose formal systems and then see what implications they can draw from them. They arguably define their own foundation, but they do need criteria for distinguishing useful or meaningful work from pointless work, and therein lies a more subtle groundwork. I intend to tease these things apart and fit them back together again.

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, 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 clarify and unify the foundations of science in the light of what we now know.

  1. Teleology, Wikipedia, “The received intellectual tradition has it that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, revolutionary philosophers began to curtail and reject the teleology of the medieval and scholastic Aristotelians, abandoning final causes in favor of a purely mechanistic model of the Universe.” Ransom Johnson, Monte (2008), Aristotle on Teleology, Oxford University Press pp. 23–24.
  2. Overview, History of psychology, Wikipedia
  3. Emergence of German experimental psychology, History of psychology, Wikipedia
  4. Philosophy of Mind – Ancient and Medieval – Ancient Greek And Roman Views

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