“The emergence of mind” is a devilish question;
The way that it’s phrased is a trick in itself.
We’re looking for something that’s somehow “emerging”
Not merely complex, but a difference in kind
So take a step back, is my humble suggestion,
From dualist analyses filling the shelf
The hidden assumptions could use a good purging
That lay in the phrase “the emergence of mind”
The mind in inferred from what people are doing;
(A skull’s not transparent—we don’t look at brain)
An answer depends on the question we’re asking:
The way that we look may distort what we find
Reductionist models are just misconstruing;
They merely describe, though they claim to explain
To look at our neurons may merely be masking
The real explanation of “emergence of mind”
Over on NPR’s 13.7 blog, one of my pet peeves is on display, if only as a small part of the post. The big question is one of the influence of technology on our ability to observe; clearly, technology expands our senses hugely–allowing us to see spectra far beyond what evolution allows us, for instance, or to curve that radiation and focus on objects too small or too far away for our own eyes. Technology can let us hear, smell, or taste things (rather, detect the existence of pressure waves or molecules in air or water) beyond our own senses. We may have a tough time feeling the difference between 10 pieces of paper and 11, but technology can build us a scale that can measure even the weight of the ink it took to sign one of those papers.
Some problems are easier, some more difficult–some more linear, others chaotic.
As I tell my students, most of the easy problems (those that can be solved analytically) have been dealt with. Now, we must move on to the tough, nonlinear domain. Among the many open problems in many fields, here are three: the climate, the emergence of mind, and the origin of life. Not too shabby. None will be thoroughly understood without computers or, as scientist Katy Börner of Indiana University calls them, our “macroscopes.”
And there we have my pet peeve. The emergence of mind, being written about by a theoretical physicist. Now, I don’t mean to imply that “mind” is necessarily an easy thing, but it does not help that we continually ask the wrong questions about it. The very phrase “emergence of mind” (sometimes other, similar phrases are used, like “gives rise to consciousness”) implies a qualitative difference, a difference in kind between the biological meat puppet and the controlling mind. Even when this is not intended, the language gets fuzzy, and possible answers are entertained or denied in part due to how they fit this fuzziness (quantum consciousness, anyone?).
In the discussion at 13.7 (as, it seems a law of nature, with similar discussions wherever the question is raised), the complexity of the brain is trotted out, and it is implied that mind somehow emerges (or cannot, depending on your stance) from the workings of the brain. This view is so commonplace now that to question it seems heresy. But it is wrong.
We infer mind from behavior, not from brain activity. My car has a mind of its own, as does my computer–I say this because neither acts the way I want them to, and the real explanation for what they are doing is beyond my personal knowledge. When the external causes of X’s behavior are unknown to me, I put the causes inside of X; this “theory of mind” allows me to predict what a person, an animal, a car, a computer, will do. Imperfectly, of course, from which I infer that it has a will of its own (rather than just admit my ignorance of causes).
Our observation of the behavior of others, combined with our vocabulary describing this, is what leads to an understanding of “mind”, and indeed to “mind” itself. Aaaaand, I think I’ll leave this here for now. I can unpack it more, and have done so, but I’d have to start charging you for tuition. Bottom line is, a given problem can seem more intractable than it actually is, when you pursue it by asking the wrong questions. We are complex enough when we ask the right questions.
Oh! and I almost forgot– for one of my all-time favorite discussions (for my money, it is the best comment thread in all of the history of blogging) of this topic, take a look at the comment thread on this post from a couple of years ago, in which my commenters clearly outclass me.