Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


The Origin of Mind Lead: Willem deVries


Summary by Davida Harris

The Origin of Mind

Nicely finishing out the trifecta initiated by Professor Moebius’ lecture about “The Origin of the Universe”, followed by Professor Davis’ talk examining “The Origin of Life”, was today’s discussion given by Professor deVries who explored “The Origin of Mind”. The topic began with Professor deVries noting that Dr. Moebius did not necessarily begin his lecture trying to define what is meant by the term, universe, while conversely Dr. Davis made students acutely aware of the problems and machinations one must consider to begin to understand the complexities of defining what is or is not “life”, and how it is all still quite debatable.

It was Professor deVries opinion that defining “The Origin of Mind” was more problematic than the two prior topics (universe and life). He explained that even the concept of defining the mind, within the realm of science, was relatively new…and only within the last 100-150 years. This concept poses challenges such as how one would go about empirically measuring the science/study of the mind, and would such endeavors likely have to be a mixture of philosophical and scientific qualifications. He was quick to point out that often times when a specific concept is considered a philosophical problem it is likely because it is a notion that is not easily, if ever, solvable. Not directly discussed but somewhat intimated was that due to the scientific aspect of defining mind, what ways could issues or problem solving be quantified in considering the mind.

These questions that were initially raised in a philosophical sense often led to implementing means and methods to discover answers and from this many of the sciences were born. In the late 1870s the first psychology (still in its infancy as a scientific discipline) research facility was established in Germany. Still, the idea of what constitutes “mind” has been evolving from the beginning. The idea of dualism arises when the topic of “mind” is debated, meaning there’s a particular school of thought that suggests that either something has a mind or does not, there is no in-between. Further, there is thought that there is “ a special stuff”, a ghost in the machine as it were…the basis of what “mind” is, that either you have or you do not.

Yet, it is difficult to determine what beings (or even non beings as the question of life is still yet unanswered) possess the concept of mind. Certainly most would agree that humans and highly functioning mammals would fall into a category of having mind capability. However, there are those that believe that non-human mammals are nothing more than very sophisticated machines, they may process thought in some ways but are not considered as having minds. For some component of people, granting the idea that upper mammals do have minds is not too highly debatable, yet the question remains to as to where to draw a line, if any, separating beings with minds from those that do not have minds. For example, would one consider a bird following migratory patterns as an animal that is using its mind, or perhaps is it a rote/instinctive response written into its genetic code imprinted early on by its mother? Would that differ from the family dog being lost from home, hundreds or even thousand miles away, using scent techniques and whatever other skills it can employ to eventually make its way back to those that it loves---or at least those it consistently has gotten food from if you are inclined to make an argument regarding the love of our canine companions. Do other creatures possess what is normally considered brainpower inasmuch as using their mind? Could a line be drawn within the reptilian world where one might suggest that alligators most certainly possess minds while surely crocodiles do not? Going even “lower”, beneath insects and parasites, can a case be made that bacteria using chemotaxis to seek out vital chemicals for its existence or other physiological traits be considered using mind power?

Aristotle established a set of three criteria in order to determine which beings do or do not possess this concept of mind. He also described the notion of mind as a life force and intangible, not a “thing”. This was Aristotle’s tripartite theory of what he referred to as psyche, meaning soul. First, lower level beings exhibit only the basics of life such as reproduction, gathering nutrients, growing etc. Higher on Aristotle’s list are animals that have the ability to perceive and react within certain or many circumstances. Aristotle realized that the ability for motion is a critical one whether it is tied to seeking out nutrients or for means of escape in dangerous situations. A few students questioned how Aristotle would have classified plants such as Mimosa or Venus Fly Trap that have the ability to move towards light or to capture insects to consume. Also the idea that certain bacteria can employ means of locomotion for nutrition was mentioned, although Aristotle would not have had any idea of what bacteria was.

Finally humans, described by Aristotle as having a rational soul, define the remaining category with the capacity to cognize eternal truths, reason, infer, and use logic, language and mathematics. Aristotle further described a rational soul as one that is attributed with the ability to deliberate and reason, one that can make plans and/or allow for contingency plans, and one that can sequence behavior based on events that might be counterintuitive yet still demand action. When students questioned whether or not Aristotle would have somehow elevated the level of mammals to the third category by citing examples of how some animal mothers forage for food for their offspring, Professor deVries stated that Aristotle would have classified this as strictly instinctual while conversely he would likely not acknowledge any instinctive characteristics in humans.

Further discussions focused on separating absolute clear-cut examples of those with minds as contrasted by more difficult to define cases. Generally those with perceptive abilities, and the ability to modulate behavior based on perception would be considered as having minds. Often perceptions are relied upon input received from sensory organs (eyes, ears, nose etc.). Yet even having sensory perception does not necessarily infer conscious thought. A great example given by Professor deVries was when he alluded to how we can drive from point A to point B and afterwards realize that we cannot recall a single detail from the trip…basically we were operating on autopilot…yet all of our senses were fully functioning at the time.

Other examples cited regarding the usage of sensory perception included the idea of bats using echolocation as a means of motion and monitoring while searching for food or avoiding prey or single celled organisms that travel throughout cold waters to the north based on internal magnetic sensing systems. Were bats then, and perhaps microbes actually perceiving the world around them and modifying behavior based upon their perception(s) of sensory input?

Throughout this part of the talk students and Professor Davis discussed conscious thought and what role it might play in determining the origin of mind. The further we delved into this topic the more it seemed apparent that the concept of mind was often coupled with the concepts of beings having self awareness of how things in the world were affecting them. Naturally, this led to trying to define what exactly is meant by consciousness. Could our class come up with a definition, which also includes the idea that consciousness was not a unitary thought, but might also include the contrasts between qualitative and phenomenal states as well as a set of inner and private thoughts and beliefs?

Beliefs as well as irony were also discussed as to how they might pertain to conscious thought and self-awareness. One student, Chris, mentioned that irony might in fact be a secondary notion. He indicated, it was likely that in order to detect any irony in a given situation it would be necessary to have experienced something similar prior to understand the subtleties of contrasts that might lead to a sense or irony or twist of humor.

Dr. Davis pointed out that some computers might actually have many of the features in place that are generally considered criteria for consciousness. He discussed the artificial intelligence used by computers to play chess, which incorporated not only the use of a robotic arm (motion), but also the ability to learn strategies to win the game. In this case, these particular computers might indeed have all the capabilities that in general are considered when determining consciousness albeit perhaps a sense of self- awareness and sense of pain etc.

The final topic regarding the origin of mind began with the question, “how did there come to be organisms that are perceptive, deliberative, and subjective”. Obviously this was a philosophical question, one that is probably unanswerable at this point in time. This question presupposes a prior one that questions how can there be perceptions/or non-perceptions/or, deliberations/or non-deliberations and subjectivity/non-subjectivity. Since these concepts are not made of physical matter, one answer is that we may not need to worry about ideas such as non-deliberative or non-perceptive thoughts. Yet, it is precisely these kinds of questions that direct students such as ourselves into taking classes like this one. We are all looking for answers that we know we probably aren’t going to find, yet we still feel the need to question over and over again.

These questions are centered around the much bigger issue of how the mind and body actually link together. So far these kinds of questions may be unanswerable for a myriad of reasons which include: limits in our ability to understand the answers, any explanation might exceed what we know about our natural world, and because maybe we are just not in a position to answer these kinds of questions at this time. Perhaps in the future the disciplines of neuroscience and evolutionary science might help to further our understanding of not only how to answer these questions, but to also allow us to understand better the questions themselves.