1.1 Approaching the Mind Scientifically

“You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into… the Twilight Zone.” — Rod Serling

Many others before me have attempted to explain what the mind is and how it works. And some of them have been right on the money as far as they have gone. But no explanation has taken it to the nth degree to uncover the fundamental nature of the mind both physically and functionally, fully encompassing both how the brain and mind came to be and what they really consist of. Each branch of science that touches on the mind comes at it from a different direction, and each is fruitful in its own way, but a unified understanding requires a unified framework that spans those perspectives. I don’t see much effort being expended to do that unification, so I am going to do it here. My basic contention is that science has become too specialized and we’ve been missing the forest for the trees. Whose job is it in the sciences to conceive generalized, overarching frameworks? Nobody; all scientists are paid to dig into the details. I believe minds are designed to collect useful knowledge, and each of us already has encyclopedic knowledge about how our mind works. Our deeply held intuitions about the special transcendent status of the mind have merit, but science finds them hard to substantiate and so discounts them. Scientists are quick to assume that the ideas we have about how we think are biased, imaginary, or even delusional because they don’t fit into present-day scientific frameworks. I don’t agree that we should discount the value of intuition on these grounds, and instead propose that intuition should lead the way. I am going to use intuition and logic to devise an expanded framework for science that encompasses the mind that aligns with both common sense and the latest scientific thinking. I am not suggesting we are immune to delusion or bias. They are very real and are the enemy of good science, but if we are careful, we can avoid logical fallacies and see the inner workings of the mind in a new light.

We know things simply from experience, which leverages a number of techniques to develop useful knowledge. Advice columnists expound on new problems based on their presumably greater experience in a subject domain. But science goes beyond the scope of advice by proposing to have conceived and demonstrated cause-and-effect explanations for phenomena. Science is a formalization of knowledge, which, in its fully formalized state declares laws that can perfectly predict future behavior. We recognize that science falls a bit short of perfection in its applicability to the physical world for two reasons. First, we only know the world from its behavior, not from seeing its underlying mechanisms. Second, most laws make simplifying assumptions, so one must consider the impact of complexities beyond the scope of the model. The critical quality that science adds above experienced opinion from these steps to formalize and verify is objectivity. What objective exactly means is a topic I will explore in more detail later, but from a high level, it means to be independent of subjectivity. Knowledge that is not dependent on personal perspective becomes universal, and if it uses a reliable, causal model then we can count it as scientific truth.

My explanation of the mind is part framework and part explanation. It is easier to establish objectivity for an explanation than a framework. An explanation stands on models and evidence, but a framework is one level further removed, and so stands on whether the explanations based on it are objective. A framework is a philosophy of science, and philosophy is sometimes studied independently of the object under study. What I am saying is that to establish objectivity, I can’t do that. I have to develop the philosophy in the specific context of the explanations it supports to establish the overall consistency and reliability that objectivity demands. I do believe all existing philosophies and explanations of science have merit, but in some cases they will need minor revisions, extensions, or reinterpretations to fit into the framework I am proposing. I am going to try to justify everything I propose as I propose it, but to keep things moving, I won’t always be as thorough as I would like on the first pass. In these cases, I will come back to the subject later and fill in. My primary aim is to keep things simple and clear, to appeal to common sense, and to stay as far within the scientific canon as possible. I am presuming readers have no specialized scientific background, both because I am approaching this from first principles and trying to make this accessible to everyone.

Even the idea of studying the mind objectively is questionable considering we only know of the mind from our own subjective experience. We feel we have one and we have a sense that we know what it is up to, but all we can prove about it is that it somehow resides in the brain. Brain scans show what areas of the brain are active when our minds are active. We can even approximately tell what areas of the brain are related to what aspects of the mind by correlating personal reports with activity in brain scans.1 Beyond that, our knowledge of neurochemistry and computer science suggest that the brain potentially has the processing power to produce mental states. Other sciences, from biological to social, assume this processing is happening and draw conclusions based on that assumption. But how can we connect the physical, biological, and social sciences to see the mind in a consistent way? This search for common bounds quickly takes us into a scientific twilight zone where things and ideas join the physical world and the world of imagination. It is very easy to overreach in these waters, so I will remain cognizant of Richard Feynman’s injunction against cargo cult science, which he said could only be avoided by scientific integrity, which he described as, “a kind of leaning over backwards” to make sure scientists do not fool themselves or others. I’ll be trying to do that to ensure my objective — a coherent and unified theory of the mind — stands up to scrutiny.

Science has been fighting some pitched philosophical debates in recent decades which reached a standstill and left it on pretty shaky ground. I am referring to the so-called science wars of the 1990s, in which postmodernists pushed the claim that all of science was a social construction. Scientific realism alone is inadequate to fight off postmodern critiques, so, given that this is the stance on which science most firmly depends, science is formally losing the battle against relativism. The relativists have been held off for now with Richard Dawkins’ war cry, “Science works, bitches!”2, which presumably implies that a firm foundation exists even if it has not been expressed. I aim to provide that solid ground using a philosophy that explains and subsumes relativism itself. These skirmishes don’t affect most scientific progress because local progress can be made independent of the big picture. But relativism is a big problem for the science of mind because while battles can still be won, we don’t, in a sense, know what we are fighting for.

Two diametrically opposed frameworks of science collide in the mind and we have to resolve that conflict to proceed. The first framework is physicalism (described below), which supports the physical sciences. The second framework is an assortment of philosophies which support the biological and social sciences. These philosophies use life and the mind as starting points and then build on that premise. Biological philosophies, which now mostly rest on Darwinism and refinements to it, are fundamentally naturalistic, which means that they assert that the forces that created life are natural. But it is not clear what those forces are, because life already exists as complex, self-sustaining, engineered systems, and our theories describing how it managed to arise naturally are still somewhat incomplete. The social sciences are also naturalistic but usually add humanism as well, which emphasizes the fundamental significance and agency of human beings. In this case, it is not clear why humans or their agency should be fundamental, but to make progress, these premises are taken as foundational. While I agree with the mountains of evidence that suggests that life and the mind are natural phenomena, and hence I agree that naturalism correctly describes the universe, it is not at all clear that it is the same as physicalism, and I will show that it is not. Spoiler alert: the extra force found in nature that is not part of physicalism is, in short, the disposition of life to live and of minds to think. After correctly defining naturalism, we will be in a much better position to explain complex natural phenomena like life and the mind.

As I am planning to stay within the bounds of the best-established science, I want to highlight the theories from which I will draw the most support. Everything I say will be as consistent as possible with these theories. These theories do continue to be refined, as science is never completely settled, and I will cite credible published hypotheses that refine them as needed. Also, some of these theories are guilty of overreaching, so I will have to rein them in. Here they are:

  1. Physicalism, the idea that only physical entities comprised of matter and energy exist. Under the predominant physicalist paradigm, these entities’ behavior is governed by four fundamental forces, namely gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. The latter three are nicely wrapped up into the Standard Model of particle physics, and gravity by general relativity. So far a grand unified theory that unites these two theories remains elusive. Physicalists acknowledge that their theories cannot now or ever be proven correct or reveal why the universe behaves as it does. Rather, they stand as deductive models that map with a high degree of confidence to inductive evidence.

  2. Evolution, the idea that inanimate matter become animate over time through a succession of heritable changes. The paradigm Darwin introduced in 1859 itself evolved during the first half of the 20th century into the Modern Synthesis to incorporated genetic traits and rules of recombination and population genetics. Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA in 1953 as the source of the genetic code provided the molecular basis for this theory. Since that time, however, our knowledge of molecular mechanisms has exploded, undermining much of that paradigm. The evolutionary biologist Eugene Koonin feels that “the edifice of the [early 20th century] Modern Synthesis has crumbled, apparently, beyond repair”3, but updated syntheses have been proposed. The most widely-supported post-modern synthesis is the extended evolutionary synthesis, which adds a variety of subtle mechanisms that are still consistent with natural selection but which are not as obvious as the basic rules behind genetic traits. These mechanisms include ways organisms can change quickly and then develop full genetic stability (facilitated variation, the Baldwin effect, and epigenetic inheritance) and the effects of kin and groups on natural selection. The Baldwin effect is the idea that learned behavior maintained over many generations will create a selection pressure for adaptations that support that behavior. Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb proposed in Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life that the Baldwin effect lets organisms change quickly using regulatory genes (epigenes), learned behavior, and language to shift more transient changes permanently into DNA.

  3. Information theory, the idea that something nonphysical called information exists and can be manipulated. The study of information is almost exclusively restricted to the study of the manipulation of information and not to its nature, because the manipulation has great practical value but the nature is seen a point of only philosophical interest. However, understanding the nature of information is critical to understanding how life and the mind work, so I will be primarily concerned in this work with nature rather than manipulation. Because the nature of information has been almost completely marginalized in the study of information theory, existing science its nature doesn’t go very far and I have mostly had to derive my own theory of the nature of information from first principles, building on the available evidence.

  4. The Computational Theory of Mind, the idea that the human mind is an information processing system (IP) and that both cognition and consciousness result from this computation. While we normally think of computation as being mathematical, under this theory computation is generalized to include any transformation of input and internal state information using rules to produce output information. This implies that the mind has ways of encoding and processing information, which seemed radical when this idea was first proposed 70 years ago, but now seems obvious and inescapable. Where mechanical computers use symbolic states stored in digital memory and manipulated electronically, neural computers use neurochemical inputs, states, outputs, and rules. This theory, more than any other, has guided my thinking in this book. It is considered by many to be the only scientific theory that appears capable of providing a natural explanation for the much if not all of the mind’s capabilities, yet its implications have not been thoroughly pursued. I am going to do that here. However, I largely reject the ideas of the representational theory of mind and especially the language of thought, as they unnecessarily and incorrectly go too far in proposing a rigid algorithmic approach when a more generalized solution is needed. Note that whenever I use the word “process” in this book, I mean a computational information process, unless I preface it with a differentiating adjective, e.g. biological process. Although my focus in this book is on the mind, I am incidentally proposing the Computational Theory of Life, which is the formal statement that all life is first and foremost information processing systems and only secondarily biological processes. There is de facto acceptance in the biological sciences that life is computational because it is known that genes drive life and genes contain information, but the full implications of this fact should have transformed the biological sciences, and they have not yet. Also, note that I am not saying that everything is computational; I am specifically saying that life and the mind are computational. Some generalists like to extend this line of thought to propose that the universe is a giant computer, but this is a bad analogy because the universe is, for the most part (i.e. the part that is not alive), physical and devoid of information and information processing.

While the scientific community would broadly agree that these four theories are the leading paradigms in their respective areas, they would not agree on any one version of each theory. They are still evolving, and in some cases have parallel, contradictory lines of development. I will cite appropriate sources that are representative of these theories as needed. When I don’t cite sources, you can assume that I am presenting my own proposal or interpretation, but if I have made my case well then my points should seem sound and uncontroversially.

  1. Beyond the Brain, National Geographic, March, 2005. Brain surgeons now identify important brain tissue before cutting using real-time scanning techniques coupled with questions to patients.
  2. Aaron Souppouris, “Richard Dawkins on science: ‘it works, bitches’“, The Verge, at Oxford’s Sheldonian Theater, 2013
  3. Koonin’s ‘post-modern’ evolutionary synthesis, 2009, Modern synthesis (20th century), Evolution, Wikipedia

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