May 04 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-4: Understanding the mind

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Currently people seem to be pinning their hopes for a skyhook on the workings of the human mind. This is not because the case here is stronger. In fact, there is no reason whatsoever to think that science cannot explain how the mind works because, unlike with origins of the universe, there are no extraordinary circumstances involved. There is every reason to think that the laws of science that apply outside the brain, and which we can study carefully under controlled conditions, also apply within the brain. There is no reason to suspect that there is anything more to the mind than brain activity.

The reason that skyhooks have a foothold here is because advocates can draw upon a strong human prejudice to want to think of the human mind as something mysterious and ineffable. We humans tend to be impressed by our ability to think and reason and be self-aware, and assume that there must be something very deep and mysterious going on.

But there is no reason to think that the normal laws of science do not apply to the mind although the sheer complexity of the system being studied and the restrictions on this type of research makes progress hard. But again, I think that with the new non-invasive techniques that are being developed for studying the brain, we have shifted the problem of consciousness from a mystery to a puzzle, and that is the first major step towards solving it.

But not everyone is happy with that development. People seem to want to avoid the conclusion that the mind is just the product of the physical brain, which in turn is purely the product of the evolutionary process. They seem to desperately want there to be something transcendent about the mind that cannot be reduced to material causes.

This desire for skyhooks for the mind is quite powerful and one sees even distinguished scientists falling victim to its siren song. Biologist Francis Collins, physicist Roger Penrose in his book The Emperor’s New Mind, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, linguist and political scientist Noam Chomsky, and cognitive scientist John Searle, are among those who are skeptical that evolution can do all the work to create the mind by itself, and either implicitly or explicitly have looked to find some form of skyhook, even if it is not a religious one.

So if you are determined to believe that the mind could not have come about by the plodding mechanism of natural selection, how would you insert a skyhook to create the mind? In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), Daniel Dennett suggests some possibilities.

One way would be to espouse outright Cartesian dualism: the mind can’t just be the brain, but, rather, some other place, in which great and mysterious alchemical processes occur, transforming the raw materials they are fed – the cultural items we are calling memes – into new items that transcend their sources in ways that are simply beyond the ken of science.

A slightly less radical way of supporting the same defensive view is to concede that the mind is, after all, just the brain, which is a physical entity bound by all the laws of physics and chemistry, but insist that it nevertheless does its chores in ways that defy scientific analysis. This view has often been suggested by the linguist Noam Chomsky and enthusiastically defended by his former colleague the philosopher/psychologist Jerry Fodor, and more recently by another philosopher Colin McGinn. We can see that this is a saltational view of the mind, positing great leaps in Design Space that get “explained” as acts of sheer genius or intrinsic creativity or something else science-defying. It insists that somehow the brain itself is a skyhook, and refuses to settle for what the wily Darwinian offers: the brain, thanks to all the cranes that have formed it in the first place, and all the cranes that have entered it in the second place, is itself a prodigious, but not mysterious, lifter in design space. (Dennett, p. 368)

This reluctance to accept the idea that there is nothing essentially mysterious or not understandable about the mind and soul is deep seated. As this article by Rich Barlow in the October 18, 2008 issue of the Boston Globe says:

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, who researches why people are religious…has written that humans are “natural dualists,” seeing our physical bodies as separate from our supposedly nonphysical minds and souls. It’s a legacy in part of the great French philosopher René Descartes, a religious man who believed our thoughts survived the death of our brains, says Bloom.

The problem, Bloom believes, is that this dualism is inaccurate. Brain science increasingly shows that “the qualities of mental life that we associate with souls” – memory, self-control, decision-making – “are purely corporeal; they emerge from biochemical processes in the brain.”

“I don’t believe dualism is true, because there’s a scientific consensus that hard-core dualism, which says that people can think without using their brain or that memories will survive the death of your body, is just flat mistaken. Your mental life is a product of your brain.”

I too used to think that the mind was somehow special and distinct from the brain but that was because I had not really thought about it and simply accepted the conventional wisdom. I still recall the moment when, after thinking about it for a while, I came to the sudden conclusion that, of course, the mind had to be simply the product of the workings of the brain and nothing more. How could it possibly be otherwise? Anything else would require belief in an extraordinary mind-brain dualism, a non-material entity that we call the mind mysteriously existing separate from the material brain inside our skull and yet able to interact with it. That was patently absurd.

It was one of those realizations where the conclusion, once you have arrived at it, is so obvious that you wonder how you could ever have believed anything else. But accepting this has huge repercussions, which is why we tend to not want to go there, to resist pushing our reasoning to its logical conclusion.

A major consequence of accepting this conclusion is that all beliefs in god and the afterlife have to be also jettisoned and this is what happened to me. If there is no transcendent mind, if the material brain is all there is, then there is no god. Period.

Initially there was something disconcerting about this realization. I too shared the view that humans were somehow special and was reluctant to let go of that grand conceit. But now it seems the most natural thing in the world that we are just one branch in the grand evolutionary tree of life. While all species differ in many ways and in some ways are unique, there is nothing magical or especially mysterious about the human mind anymore than there is about the elephant’s trunk.

POST SCRIPT: Daniel Everett’s challenge to universal grammar

Daniel Everett is an interesting character. Working with his family as a missionary to the small Piraha tribe in the Amazon, he claimed that their language defied Noam Chomsky’s widely accepted theory of universal grammar based on recursion. He also became an unbeliever and estranged from his still-religious family. Patrick Barkham profiles him in The Guardian of Monday 10 November 2008.

(Thanks to Machines Like Us.)


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  1. 1
    Josh Friedman

    ” Anything else would require belief in an extraordinary mind-brain dualism, a non-material entity that we call the mind mysteriously existing separate from the material brain inside our skull and yet able to interact with it. That was patently absurd.”

    I have to disagree. If you take a structuralist approach, you can say that the mind (aka human consciousness) does indeed consist of two parts, one being the processor, or the brain itself, and the other being a subset of ideas or definitions built slowly over thousands of years of human society.

    While it’s clear that a non-functioning brain cannot achieve consciousness, studies of feral children strongly suggest that a functioning human brain, without access to the knowledge of society, cannot achieve consciousness either. I don’t think there’s any skyhook to this line of reasoning. It seems plausible that the human mind is product of both a physical and societal evolution. But it also implies, that since consciousness requires both parts, the mind cannot exist solely outside the brain (or some form of neural network to store and process information).

  2. 2

    Josh: I think you misunderstood Mano’s phrase “of course, the mind had to be simply the product of the workings of the brain and nothing more”. I read that as pertaining to an individual mind, not the whole of hominid development through the ages. I think he would (as I do) fully expect ‘societal knowledge’ to be a critical environmental factor in the success of Homo sapiens’ brains (versus some of the extinct Homo species). In the same way environmental factors created a niche where the elephant’s trunk became extremely useful, intelligence and social reasoning were indispensable for roving bands of bipedal hunters with fewer physical defenses than other predators.

    In other words, of course the physical structures wouldn’t exist without the history of selection events that created them. Those events aren’t a separate, dualistic part of the brain, but they are the story of how/why the brain exists in its current form.

    Now regarding feral children — could you post a link? That sounds interesting. How are you defining “consciousness”? I’m not convinced it’s a black & white term, but rather a spectrum consisting of a wide variety of cognitive abilities. Where exactly does it start and stop? I would expect a feral child’s thoughts to be highly disorganized, but not “unconscious”. Would FMRI show similar patterns in a wakeful feral child as in an “unconscious” sleeping normal child?

  3. 3


    It is undoubtedly true that our brains are the products of genetic hardwiring and the influences of the environment. What I was saying is that the “mind” arises purely out of the working of the brain, and is not an independent entity.

  4. 4

    This site has a wealth of info on specific studies and stories of feral children, including MRIs showing how a lack of human interaction affects the physical development of the brain and the ability to learn language:


    I think maybe I was unclear about the difference between “mind” and “brain”. I think you are arguing more against the idea of a “soul” or distinct entity separate from the brain, so I guess that what I’m saying isn’t really in disagreement with you. I understood “brain” to be the physical neural network that sits in our bodies and “mind” to be the processes, or thoughts occurring in the brain. My point was that a function is useless without inputs. I understand that cognition and consciousness are very subjective terms, but whatever they are, human thought in its current form cannot exist without constructs that have been built over time. Carl Jung’s idea of “Collective Unconscious” would be the best description of this idea. That would imply that while the “brain” exists solely inside the body, the “mind,” as I defined it, exists in part inside and in part outside.

    So while semantic issues may have thrown me for a loop, I think maybe my own confusion may have shed some light on your own question. Perhaps at some level people understand that part of their cognition/conscious/understanding comes from outside them and assume that the outside influence must be “soul” or “god” or some transcendent entity, when in fact it is simply the collection of knowledge that has accumulated through human history. In fact, on the website on Feral children there is a story of the “Forbidden Experiment” in which Frederick II, Emperor of Germany purposely raised children devoid of language in order to find which language was the natural “language of God”. Needless to say, none of the children spoke ever a word, and all died at an early age.

  5. 5


    I think we are in complete agreement! Thanks for the link. Language is an interesting case. Chomsky argues that some basic universal grammatical structures are hardwired in the brain but what the environment does is throw various switches so that depending on where we grow up we “naturally” learn the grammar of that language.

    Of course, if we are kept free of any outside influence, no switches are thrown in those crucial formative years, and people are are hopelessly deprived. What a cruel experiment Frederick did. In the name of religion, people can believe the worst things to be good.

  6. 6
    Heidi Nemeth

    I recently met a researcher, David Fisher, who is developing a theory of emergence. Examples of emergence are the development of proto-language from animal calls, the development of language from proto-language, the development of life forms from molecules, and the development of the mind from the brain. Other applications of emergence theory include surface chemistry, epidemics, and the spread of ideas.

    I told David I thought the mind was the same as the brain, much as Mano argues in his post. David disputed that idea, saying consciousness is more than the physical structure.

    Recently National Geographic had an article on animal consciousness, describing various animals which can count, learn some language and communicate, learn from others of their kind to make and use a tool, and even show some self-awareness by recognizing themselves in a mirror. The article chipped away at the idea that only humans have consciousness.

    Yet, there is something more to the human mind than the physical structure and the genetic blueprint. The young chimp learning to make and use a tool is doing something more than what can be explained by the physical structure and chemical reactions in his brain. To explain his actions, you must look at his (social) environment.

    Josh’s comment, “the human mind is product of both a physical and societal evolution” reminds me of the nature vs. nurture debate. We are more than the sum of our parts. Both nature and nurture are relevant to the functioning of our minds. And our minds have emerged(evolved)from being physical structures (brains)designed for sensing the environment and reacting appropriately to it, to being the amazing interactive, programmable and conscious phenomena that they are. Our minds physically consist of our brains and the chemical reactions therein; but our minds are more than our brains, just as life is more than the chemicals and the chemical reactions of which it is comprised. It is the addition of the social environment and language, in other words, nurture, that makes our brains into truly exceptional minds.

  7. 7


    I think that it depends on what we mean by “more than” when you say “our minds are more than our brains, just as life is more than the chemicals and the chemical reactions of which it is comprised.”

    What I think people mean by “more than” is that an explanation of life and the mind that reduces it to chemicals and chemical reactions may not be enlightening or satisfying. I can agree with that but that does not mean that there is something mysterious and nonphysical going on.

    It is like saying that my appreciation of music is nothing more than a neurological response to certain vibrations of the air. This is true but not very helpful in understanding why I like some music and not others. But it is a far cry to go from there to saying that music appreciation is a mystical process that exists independently of any physical basis.

  8. 8

    I find myself in agreement with the philosophers of the mind who say that reductionism is correct (i.e. that consciousness arises out of physical events such as particles interacting), but that it is itself not a particularly useful language to understand how consciousness works. That is, trying to understand thinking by looking at neurons is as useless as trying to understand a very complex computer program by looking at binary codes.

    Actually, it is probably more opaque then that.

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