Saturday, April 8, 2017


310.  Connecting the separate worlds of the mindless and the mindful

I am puzzled by the ongoing debate between the mindless and the mindful. I came across it again in a review, in the March Issue 2017 of the New York Review of Books, of a recent book by Daniel Dennet, protagonist of the mindless, by Thomas Nagel, defender of the mindful.

According to the mindless, all we have in our brains is neural structures of physical/chemical entities and processes. Minds, in reality, are ‘nothing but that’. Subjective experience of consciousness is an illusion. A useful illusion, but illusory nevertheless, ‘not part of reality in the way the brain is’. Dennet c.s. claim ‘that the representations that underlie human behaviour are found in neural structures of which we know very little’.        

The mindful, by contrast, claim that ‘our subjective inner lives are not describable merely in physical terms’.

The two views are said to belong to ‘separate worlds’ that cannot be combined. I disagree.

This is an old debate, going back to Descartes’ separation of mind and matter, soul and body.  

In this blog I have adopted the argument that our mental structures are indeed physical, in patterns of neural connection, and arise from action in the world, according to a Darwinian process in which network patterns survive, in mutual competition, according to perceived success, in the form of perceived well-being.

Most of this is indeed subconscious. However, those structures in the brain are representations, not as mirror images but as mappings, of experience, from interaction with a world of physical objects and other people, with their use of language, shared symbolic orders and corresponding social structures and processes. To understand mental structures it helps to study such influences from outside.

Perhaps this is similar to the way in which species represent the selection environments they evolve in.

The body is built from the food it eats. The brain is built from the experience it feeds on. 

This indeed implies that our subjective inner lives ‘are not describable merely in physical terms’. Sooner or later, perhaps the gap will be closed, when subjective experiences, as functions of our dealings with the world, can be rendered in terms only of neural networks.

But precisely because, as Dennet avows, we know very little of these neural structures, we need the non-physical to make headway in explaining cognition. Understanding underlying physical structures and processes will require some understanding of the non-physical factors that generate their construction.

Admittedly, the physical structures of the brain generate illusions, more or less, of consciousness, free will, and knowledge of truth, but these illusions are real in their consequences as we act upon them, in judgement, speech and other communicative action, the outcomes of which feed back into construction of the reality of the physical inside the brain.

So, the two worlds are connected, and it is silly to maintain their separation.