Introduction: The Mind Explained in One Page or Less

“If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.” — Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

We exist. We don’t quite know why we or the universe exists, but we know that we think, therefore we are. The problem is that we don’t know we know anymore. Worse still, we have convinced ourselves we don’t. It is a temptation of modern physical science to mitigate ourselves right out of existence. First, since the Earth is a small and insignificant place, certainly nothing that happens here can have any cosmic significance. But, more than that, the laws of physics have had such explanatory success that surely they must explain us as well, reducing the phenomenon of us to a dance of quarks and leptons. Well, I am here to tell you that Descartes was right, because we are here, and that science took a left turn at Francis Bacon and needs to get back on the right track. The problem is that we’ve been waiting for science to pull the mind down to earth, to dissect it into its component nuts and bolts, but we’ve had it backward. What we have to do first is use our minds to pull science up from the earth into the heavens, to invest it with the explanatory reach it needs to study imaginary things. Because minds aren’t made of nuts and bolts; brains are. Minds — and imagination — are made of information, function, capacity, and purpose, which are all well-established nonphysical things or forces from the human realm which science can’t see under a microscope.

I am going to go back to first principles to reseat the foundation of science and then use its expanded scope over both real and imaginary things to approach the concept of mind from the bottom up and the top down to develop a unified theory. The nature of the mind was long the sole province of philosophers, who approached it with reason but lacked any tools for uncovering its mechanisms. Wilhelm Wundt, the “father of modern psychology“, took on the conscious mind as a subject of experimental scientific study in the 1870’s. Immanuel Kant, himself probably the greatest philosopher of mind, held that the mind could only be studied through deductive reasoning, i.e. from an a priori stance. He disputed that psychology could ever be an empirical (experimental) science because mental phenomena could not be expressed mathematically, individual thoughts could not be isolated, and any attempt to study the mind introspectively would itself change the object being studied, not to mention opening up innumerable opportunities for bias.1 Wundt nevertheless founded experimental psychology and remained a staunch supporter of introspection, provided it was done under strict experimental control. Introspection’s dubious objectivity caught up with it, and in 1912 Knight Dunlap published an article called “The Case Against Introspection” that pointed out that no evidence supports the idea that we can observe the mechanisms of the mind with the mind. This set the stage for a fifty-year reign of behaviorism, which, in its most extreme forms, sought to deny that anything mental was real and that behavior was all there was2. Kant had made the philosophical case and the behaviorists the scientific case that the inner workings of the mind could not be studied by any means.

A cognitive revolution slowly started to challenge this idea starting in the late 1950s. In 1959, Noam Chomsky famously refuted B.F. Skinner’s 1957 Verbal Behavior, which sought to explain language through behavior, by claiming that language acquisition could not happen through behavior alone3. George Miller’s 1956 article “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” proposed a mental capacity that was independent of behavior. Ideas from computer science that the mind might be computational and from neuroscience that neurons could do it started to emerge. The nature of the mind might be studied scientifically was reborn, but it was clear to everyone that psychology was not broad enough to tackle it. A new field was, cognitive science, was conceived in the 1970s, driven at first mostly from the artificial intelligence community, to figure out how the mind works. Psychology remains the study of the mind as informed only by its use, but because other fields could supply insight into how it works, cognitive science was intentionally chartered without a firm foundation. Instead, it floats on a makeshift interdisciplinary boat that lashes together rafts from psychology, philosophy, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, linguistics, and anthropology. And it has taken this interdisciplinary ball and run with it, welcoming contributing ideas from any direction. Detailed work is being done on each raft, with assistance from the others, but with no clear idea of how everything should fit together. While it has been productive, much of the forest can’t be seen for the trees. Open-mindedness is a big improvement over the closed-mindedness of behaviorism, but cognitive science desperately needs to find a prevailing paradigm, like one finds in all other fields. What philosophical stance can pull its diverse subfields together? I will propose a unifying philosophy that plants cognitive science on solid ground, and I will then use it to explain how the mind works.

What we need to do is roll the clock back to when things started, to the beginning of minds and the beginning of science. We need to think about what really happened and why, about what went right and what went wrong. What we will find is that the essence of more explanatory perspectives was there all along, but they did not quite get past making intuitive sense to forming an overall rational explanation. With a better model that can bridge that gap, we can establish a new framework for science that can explain both material and immaterial things. From this new vantage point, everything will fit together better using only available knowledge. I don’t want to hold you in suspense for hundreds of pages until I get to the point, so I am going to explain how the mind works right here on the first page. And then I’m going to do it again in a bit more detail over a few pages, and then across a few chapters, and then over the rest of the book. Each iteration will go into more detail, will be better supported, and will expand my theory further. I’m going to stand on firm ground and make it firmer. My conclusions should sound obvious, intuitive, and scientific, pulling together the best of both common sense and established science. My theory should be comprehensive if not yet complete, and should be understandable in broad principle by everyone and not just a few scientists.

From a high level, it is easy to understand what the mind does. But you have to understand evolution first. Evolution works by induction, which means trial and error. It keeps trying. It makes mistakes. It detects the mistakes with feedback and tries another way, building a large toolkit of ways that work well. Regardless of the underlying mechanisms, however, life persists. It is possible for these feedback structures to keep going, and this creates it them a logical disposition to do so. They keep living because they can. Living things thus combine physical matter with a “will” to live, which is really just an opportunity. This disposition or will is not itself physical; it is the stored capacities of feedback loops tested over long experience. These capacities capture the possibilities of doing things without actually doing them. They are the information of life, but through metabolism they have an opportunity to act, and those actions are not coincidentally precisely the actions that keep life alive another day. The kinds of actions that worked before are usually the kinds that will work again because the ways those kinds are delineated have themselves worked before. And yet, ways that can work better exist, and organisms that find better ways outcompete those that don’t, creating a functional arms race called evolution that always favors capacities more effective at survival.

Freedom of motion created a challenge and an opportunity for some living things to develop complex behavioral interactions with their environment, if only they could make their bodies pursue high-level plans. Animals met this challenge by evolving brains as control centers and minds as high-level control centers of brains. At the level the mind operates, the body is logically an agent, and its activities are not biochemical reactions but high-level (i.e. abstract) tasks like eating and mating. Unlike evolution, which gathers information slowly from natural selection, brains and minds gather information in real time from experience. Their primary strategy for doing that is also inductive trial and error. Patterns are detected and generalized from feedback into abstractions like friends, foes, and food sources. Most of the brain’s inductive work happens outside of conscious awareness, that is, outside the mind, but it then feeds a relevant distillation of that work up to the mind as instincts, senses, emotions, common sense and intuition. This distillation creates a high-level, logical perspective for the mind that we think of as the first-person: the capacity to experience things. This mind’s-eye view of the world is analogous to a cartoon vs. live action, and for the same reasons: the cartoonist isolates relevant things and omits irrelevant detail. For minds to be effective at their job, the drive to survive needs to be translated into preferences that appropriately influence the high-level agent to choose beneficial actions. Minds therefore experience a network of feelings from pain and other senses through emotions that can influence complex social interactions to make sure they are properly motivated to act in their agent’s best interests.

Humans and some of the most functional animals also use deduction. Where induction works from the bottom up (from specifics to generalities), deduction works from the top down (generalities to specifics). Deduction is a conscious process that builds discrete logical models out of the high-level abstractions presented to consciousness. First, it takes the approximate kinds suggested by bottom-up induction and packages them up into buckets called concepts. Then, it takes the approximate implications suggested by bottom-up induction and packages them up into fixed rules called causes and effects. Then it tunes those models with feedback until they work effectively as a simplified but useful high-level view of the world that we think of as knowledge and understanding. Deduction can only happen consciously because logical models, their concepts, their rules, and how to think with them are themselves all learned behaviors, and our nonconscious intuitive capacities are all innate. Conceptualization and the deduction it supports are hard-won skills we consciously build over a lifetime.

That the mind exists as its own logical realm independent of the physical world is thus not an ineffable enigma, it is an inescapable consequence of the high-level control needs of complex mobile organisms. Our inner world is not magic; it is computed.

  1. Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006, 2016
  2. The American Response: Behaviorist Iconophobia and Motor Theories of Imagery, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  3. Chomsky, A. Noam (1959), “A Review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior”, Language. 35 (1): 26–58. doi:10.2307/411334. JSTOR 411334. Retrieved 2014-08-26., Repr. in Jakobovits, Leon A.; Miron, Murray S. (eds.). Readings in the Psychology of Language. New York: Prentice-Hall. pp. 142–143.

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