Saturday, March 25, 2006

Mind matters: or mind boggling mind blogging

I just got back from a trip to the San Francisco Bay area. To the left is a photo of a T-shirt I bought at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose (which is well worth a visit, by the way). Various family members have opined that it's just too geeky to wear in public, but what do I care? It certainly encapsulates some of my recent thoughts about consciousness (together with humour, one of the mind's stranger characteristics).

I just finished reading Mind : A Brief Introduction by John Searle, which is a fairly accessible work on the philosophy of mind. It seems that some people believe that scientific study of the workings of the brain will eventually reveal all the secrets of the mind. Even if that were true, we're obviously a long way from a good understanding of the brain. On this point, here's a quotation my mother pointed me to:
If the human brain were so simple
That we could understand it,
We would be so simple
That we couldn't.

- Emerson M. Pugh (as quoted by George E. Pugh, Emerson's son in G.E. Pugh, The Biological Origin of Human Values, 1977, p. 154)
Hmmm ... not sure I agree, but maybe there's something to it.

In any case, the brain and the mind are not the same thing. I think I'm probably quoting John Searle in saying that "The mind is what the brain does." Understanding how the brain works, through the methods of neurophysiology and cognitive science, can inform our understanding of the mind, but the scientific method only goes so far.

The mind is certainly not unique in this respect. For example, science may inform an understanding of music (through the physics of sound, our auditory system, and the brain's response to music), but there is more to music—and likewise other aesthetic experiences—than science. Likewise, science may inform an understanding of ethics (through evolutionary biology), but surely notions of right and wrong go beyond biology. My point here is that many of the things that concern us (and I haven't even touched language, literature, culture, or politics) are not entirely—or perhaps not even primarily—matters of science.

Incidentally, mathematics seems to me the clearest example of something to which the scientific method has no application. Mathematics proceeds not by empirical observation but by deductive reasoning. Of course, as a scientist, I place enormous value on the scientific method, but I don't think that reality is exclusively physical.

Ultimately, what puzzles me most is this: how is it that matter can develop the ability to contemplate itself? To me, this is a fundamental mystery.

Searle explores a number of other mind-boggling mind questions, concerning things like free will and the self. And here's one for the A.I. researchers: Could we create robots who would behave just like humans, but with no mental life at all? Or does consciousness click in at some point? Is free will the key issue?

Finally, here's a link to a piece by Nicholas Humphrey, a theoretical psychologist who has worked on the evolution of human intelligence and consciousness, along with comments from a bunch of people including Daniel Dennett.

I'd be delighted to hear other people's thoughts on this subject ... or should I say, I wouldn't mind hearing what you have to say?
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Anonymous Mohammed-TA said...

"how is it that matter can develop the ability to contemplate itself? To me, this is a fundamental mystery"


The Contemplation (the Thought)
developed matter.............

11:59 AM, March 26, 2006  

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