May 15, 2010


Thinking Again: What Do We Mean by Mind? (Marilynne Robinson, 5/07/10, Commonweal)

By ‘‘self-awareness’’ I do not mean merely consciousness of one’s identity, or of the complex flow of thought, perception, memory, and desire, important as these are. I mean primarily the self that stands apart from itself, that questions, reconsiders, appraises. I have read that microorganisms can equip themselves with genes useful to their survival—that is, genes conferring resistance to antibiotics—by choosing them out of the ambient flux of organic material. If a supposedly simple entity can by any means negotiate its own enhancement, then an extremely complex entity largely composed of these lesser entities—that is, a human being—should be assumed to have analogous capabilities. For the purposes of the mind, these might be called conscience or aspiration. We receive their specific forms culturally and historically, as the microorganism does also when it absorbs the consequences of other germs’ encounters with the human pharmacopoeia.

If the brain at the level of complex and nuanced interaction with itself does indeed become mind, then the reductionist approach insisted upon by writers on the subject is not capable of yielding evidence of mind’s existence, let alone an account of its functioning. One who has inquired into the properties of hydrogen and oxygen might reasonably conclude that water is a highly combustible gas—if there were not his own experience to discourage this conclusion. As proof of the existence of mind we have only history and civilization, art, science, and philosophy. And at the same time, of course, that extraordinary individuation. If it is true that the mind can know and seek to know itself in ways analogous to its experience of the world, then there are more, richer data to be gleaned from every age and every culture, and from every moment of introspection, of deep awareness of the self.

The strangeness of reality consistently exceeds the expectations of science, and the assumptions of science, however tried and rational, are inclined to encourage false expectations. As a notable example, no one expected to find that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and that the rate of its acceleration is accelerating. It is a tribute to the brilliance of science that we can know such things. And it is also an illustration of the fact that science does not foreclose possibility, including discoveries that overturn very fundamental assumptions, and that it is not a final statement about reality but a highly fruitful mode of inquiry into it.

The fact of the accelerating expansion of the universe is a conclusion arrived at in the first place by observation. Theory and hypothesis have followed. What was thought to be known about the effect of gravity, that it would slow cosmic expansion, could not be reconciled with new data, and a major and novel factor, in effect an antigravitational force, emerged as a hypothesis in a changed conception of the universe. The best wisdom and the most venerable of natural laws do not have standing to preclude our acknowledging solid data, though the grounds for refusing to take account of them could perfectly well be called “scientific.” The exclusion of what the brain does from an account of what the brain is is “scientific” in just the same sense. By this kind of reasoning, the laws of nature supposedly tell us what we must exclude from what we might otherwise consider entirely relevant, one example being our own inwardness. This distinction between science and parascience is important in considering the mind over against the materialist position that would understand it in reductionist terms, that is, in terms that limit the kinds of interpretation that are appropriately brought to bear on it. The neo-Darwinists argue that the brain evolved to maximize the chance of genetic survival, to negotiate access to food and sex, presumably before the species evolved to the point where the prolonged helplessness of infants made genetic survival dependent in some degree on cooperation. Therefore, they tell us, we may not assume that any motive can depart from an essential qualitative likeness to these original motives. The “evolutionary epic” explains the brain exhaustively.

But “the material” itself is an artifact of the scale at which we perceive. We know that we abide with quarks and constellations, in a reality unknowable by us in a degree we will never be able to calculate, but reality all the same, the stuff and the matrix of our supposedly quotidian existence. We know that within, throughout, the solid substantiality of our experience indeterminacy reigns. Making use of the conceptual vocabulary of science to exclude a possibility which in a present state of knowledge—or a former one—that vocabulary would seem to exclude, has been the mission of positivist thinking since Auguste Comte declared scientific knowledge effectively complete. If doing so is a reflex of the polemical impulse to assert the authority of science, understandable when the project was relatively new, it is by now an atavism that persists as a consequence of the same polemical impulse.

The ancient antagonist that has shaped positivism and parascientific thought and continues to inspire its missionary zeal is religion. For cultural and historical reasons, the religions against which it has opposed itself are Christianity and Judaism, both of which must be called anthropologies, whatever else. “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” The very question is an assertion that mindfulness is an attribute of God, as well as man, a statement of the sense of deep meaning inhering in mindfulness. If I were not myself a religious person, but wished to make an account of religion, I believe I would tend toward the Feuerbachian view that religion is a human projection of humanity’s conceptions of beauty, goodness, power, and other valued things, a humanizing of experience by understanding it as structured around and mirroring back these values. Then it would resemble art, with which it is strongly associated. But this would dignify religion and characterize the mind as outwardly and imaginatively engaged with the world, as, in parascientific thought after Comte, it never is.

Steven Pinker says, “Religion is a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they have exhausted the usual techniques for the causation of success.” Then a little farther on he lists the “imponderables” that lie behind the human tendency toward religion and also philosophy. These imponderables are consciousness in the sense of sentience or subjective experience, the self, free will, conceptual meaning, knowledge, and morality. He says, “Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or meaningless or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our brains are organs, not pipelines to the truth.”

How odd that these “imponderables” should be just the kind of thing humankind has pondered endlessly. Neo-Darwinism allows for hypertrophy, the phenomenon by which evolution overshoots its mark and produces some consequence not strictly useful to the ends of genetic replication, the human brain as case in point. How strange it would be, then, that this accident, this excess, should feel a tropism toward what Pinker himself calls “the truth.”

Beauty is in the I of the beholder.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 15, 2010 4:43 PM
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