Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Mind in the Cosmos
Willem deVries


Summary by Gina Chaput

Mind and its Place in Nature


Alter & Howell: “A Dialogue on Consciousness”, Chapter 1
D. Papineau “The causal closure of the physical and naturalism”
“Strange Behavior”

Cut a person’s head open and you lift up pink tissue matter with hundreds of wrinkles, shrunken with age (Guttman, 2001) and covered with slime. It is this organ that causes so many questions and drives us to look for the answers. This is the brain. Science has been able to inspect it inside and out for hundreds of years, trying to explain the processes and role the brain has in a life; not with just cadavers of humans but of animals as well; however, there is something that science cannot explain through all of its dissecting, something that cells cannot give away in their structure and behavior, and that something is consciousness, or also known as having a mind in addition to having a brain.

In lecture 3, Prof. deVries discussed his topic which was “Mind in the Cosmos…sort of.” This is the first philosophy lecture so we had to understand what philosophy is, which in a sense is unbounded compared to sciences of chemistry and biology. deVries used a quote of Wilfrid Sellars which stated, “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” In philosophy it is not so much what the world is but what we should say about the world.

What do you say about the mind then? When dealing with the mind, you are asking a lot of different questions on a lot of different levels. First, you have to look at how the mind fits into our view of the world. We use our minds every day, so we must have a full understanding of it already right? Yet the concept most familiar to us is hard to define, we have to be wary before making common assumptions. Is a mind a thing, an activity, or something we simply are? Basically, when you are speaking of mind, what category are you placing it in? Aristotle thought there were three different categories of minds: vegetative, perceptive (animated/motion), and human “rational” soul. The functions of the mind of a specific organism place it in one of the categories; each level of mind adds new capacities for the organism. With this stated, a student then asked, “What’s the fine line when matter as a whole is considered non-living? Example, cells are still living even after you “smash” yourself.” The answer was depicted through an example that Aristotle would have looked at. If you cut off a hand, the hand is no longer simply a hand. The organism however, is still the organism because it still has its purpose or goal to realize itself while the hand no longer has any purpose. Then the next question was asked, “What happens if that part regenerates, such as a worm split in half? At the time of splitting are the two equal in living?” This is when Aristotle doesn’t have all the answers!

Based on “what things have minds?” we began discussing certain questions. One of these was: does a mind entail free will? The class at first believed that yes, a mind entails free will. Yet how far down that phylogenic scale do you go before you say, “Do they have a mind?” What would count as evidence that a mosquito or an oyster has a mind? There has to be some points that would count as evidence that a mind is present. For instance, a sphex wasp will paralyze its victim, lay its eggs in it, and then will drag it up to the hole of the nest. Before it brings it into the nest, the mother wasp will go inside and check inside for intruders. At first you think that it has a mind, the free will to act and decide certain behaviors such as looking for intruders. Yet if you move the victim over at all, the wasp will come up and see it moved and start the whole routine again. No matter how many times you move the wasp’s victim, even by the slightest bit, the wasp will not catch on and will continue to go through its routine. Therefore the wasp doesn’t have a mind, it is merely programmed, an instinctual behavior. Logic is a key factor in determining what animals have a mind.

The capacity to learn is to have a mind but are there more specifics involved in order to determine if one has a mind? Is it simply you do or you don’t? Is it a level like Aristotle believed? This affects our ethics with how we treat animals. For example, killing a mosquito is not questioned in western culture, but killing a dog is looked down upon. A student questioned this by asking if emotions are associated with a mind. More specifically, does the fact that we know the dog suffers but we don’t know if a mosquito suffers cause us to assume that mosquitoes have no feelings of pain? Or in other words, are there accepted parameters for this determination? The fact is that emotions are one aspect of mind, yet there isn’t a general widespread agreement on what a mind is; however, in this class, there are a few things that are looked at to having a mind. These are usually things that can sense, think, and act. Sensing means being aware of something out there in the world in virtue of some qualitative states that you are monitoring. An example is the difference of having a toothache compared to thinking of having a toothache. To think is to have the ability to represent the world and a goal, and plan reasonable means to one’s ends. To act means changing the world in accordance with one’s plans or intentions.

Modern day, the newest metaphor for the mind is a piece of software; however, centuries ago a man known as Rene Descartes thought humans consisted of two fundamental substances, the extended and the thinking. The extended substance is the body and the thinking substance is the mind –the mind can exist without the body and therefore is immortal, like a soul, in other words. This is known as substance dualism, having two distinct entities that are intertwined with one another but can be separate. His theory was that if he can clearly and distinctly conceive the existence of the mind without the body and vice versa, then they can exist without each other and are distinct. He applied a method analogous to mathematical theory to this, similar to an equation–if he can clearly and distinctly conceive of X without Y then X must be able to exist without Y and Y must be able to exist without X. The key here is the “clearly and distinctly”. If you do not think clearly or distinctly and come up with an impossible mathematical situation, even in metaphysics, i.e. the study of things not part of the physical world, then it cannot exist.

There were some disputes over Cartesian Dualism, including one argument from Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia. She argued that in Cartesian Dualism, souls have no spatial properties at all but this could not be so. How can a soul that is causally isolated interact with a physically isolated object? An example that illustrates this is from Howell’s book, where it was explained that if you were asked to flush a toilet in the women’s restroom while being in the men’s restroom, the fact is you can’t. Even with a force field that can act at a distance, such as a magnetic field, the concept of a soul still would not apply because some spatial location would still need to be involved. And according to Descartes, souls have no spatial properties at all. So based on this perspective, the soul is “magical”.

The class ended with a discussion about one of the stories we were assigned to have read called “Strange Behavior”. We discussed how the humans determined that the aliens, known as Gammas, were like the robots they built –having no mind. The reasoning used by the humans in the story for this is because metal things cannot have a mind. If there is no essential difference between the RoboGammas and the Gammas themselves, then the Gammas cannot have a mind. The key aspect of this determination was also because Gammas did not understand mental terms; however, two students argued that, based on how Gammas could feel sadness and enjoy music and culture, they did in fact have minds. Taking the observations out of context and basing it on the notion that that metal things can’t have minds, then, yes, they would have to agree with the humans in the story; however within the context of the story, the Gammas were too similar to humans to not have minds. Another interesting point a student brought up is if the humans went deeper into the investigation whether or not these Gammas had minds they’d find the possibility that maybe we as humans don’t have minds as well, since we are so similar.
What we can take away from this class is that simply having a brain does not mean you have a mind, and that we are not yet fully sure just what is involved with having a mind


Guttman, Monica. "The Aging Brain." USC Health Magazine 2001. Web.