Evolution and the humanities
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My triad’s first branch is matter, pretty much as science describes it. My second triad concerns mind. In this chapter I’ll describe mind as I experience it (for that see Triadism 1) and how it differs from matter.
Imagine being suspended in space above the surface of Mars. You have a camera, it’s facing down towards that surface; every so often it takes a photo. So far, all very physical. On the retina of your eyes, as you too face down towards the surface, there is an image, that closely resembles the image gathered by the camera; at some point you reach out and press a button. Again, all very physical. But unlike the camera you have a mind and, between seeing the planet and pressing that button your mind establishes a connection between your glance at the planet’s surface and what happens when you press that button. In both cases there’s a chain of causation. What I want to account for is the difference between those two chains of causation, between the mechanical linkage of camera viewfinder and shutter and what in you connects visual sensation and muscular actuation.
From the previous chapter (Triadism 1) recall that some people aren’t aware of anything linking sensation and muscular actuation, they can’t monitor how it happens and aren’t likely to be curious about what makes it happen. It’s simply whatever does connect sensation to muscular actuation, for them probably by default a physical connection similar to the workings of the automated camera. That’s one answer to what mind is--there’s nothing to account for. I mean, really. End of story.
If the rest of us do have something we want to account for, I suggest first of all it concerns meaning. I visualize our minds as equipped with huge libraries of meanings. First, a sensation such as an image gets tagged with one or two meanings, these meanings then engage a blizzard of other meanings, sometimes leading to a final meaning that triggers some muscular actuation. I suggest a chain of causation in mind is a pattern of connections between meanings.
This pattern of connections can operate independently of consciousness. It can operate autonomically as in changes in the beating of our hearts or our ability to drive while being conscious of something else--we can know our minds are working without that knowledge contributing to the direction of our behavior. That was how it felt to be an epiphenomenalist, my purely physical body seemed not to have access to my mind, what I was thinking, I just assumed my behavior was driven entirely by autonomic processes. To understand my behavior I’d have needed only an account of the successive meanings leading up to it. And that’s what this chapter is limited to. Consciousness, and how it contributes to any causal chain, I leave to a final chapter.
What do meanings consist of? I conceive of them as quite similar to what Plato referred to as ideas, so refer to him for what they’re made of. I can only give you examples. Looking down at the surface of Mars and referring to “ground” and “atmosphere” is relating how it looks to ideas, imposing meanings on it. “Returning” and “re-entering” would be meanings. “Deciding” and “doubting” are meanings. “The” has a different meaning from “a.” All words correspond to meanings. Many bodily reactions correspond to meanings, such as blushing or fleeing in panic. Rationality and spirituality consist of meanings.
Some we come with at birth, such as several dozen cells in our brains that label things around us with directions and distances of them from us. Others came as machinerry for memory, sensation, prediction, decision-making, doubt. Meanings can be linked by association and contradiction, by reason and logic, by being answers to questions, by being causes and their effects. Here’s an example: “Mother” and “Father” may be among the first meanings we form. But from these we can construct “Motherland” and Fatherland,” the former the country where our mothers nurtured us, the latter the territory our fathers call on us to defend. And so on. As long as we live our stock of meanings continues to grow.
Neuroscientists like to identify meanings with circuits in our brains. But meanings can do things matter can’t. Look down once again at the surface of Mars, can you see meanings down there? Anything that can want something, or expect something? If you’re like me, you can’t. Mars consists of rock and gas with no agents able to distinguish “if… then” from “while… do” as living creatures can. Only what’s alive, or is made by a creature like us, can do that, can attach meanings to what's purely physical.
Science itself couldn’t exist without trafficking in meanings. Just to carry out any experiment a scientist has to employ meanings: noticing a discrepancy in how matter presents itself, conceiving of hypotheses to account for that discrepancy, reasoning to a procedure that could distinguish between them, designing apparatus able to make that distinction, pursuing in rational order the steps in the experiment, recording results, coming to a conclusion, publishing the results and reporting on them at a conference. Think of the physical world as a box; to practice science on something physical you have to think outside that box, you have to employ meanings that lie in mind. The machinery in our brains that supports our mind’s employment of meanings may observe the laws of physics but the meanings themselves belong to a world apart from the physical.
A remaining mystery is, how did we come by the equipment needed to generate and accommodate meanings? Apart from machinery we’ve built and use to mimic our own mental processes, such as our computers, we won’t find any such equipment in non-living matter. Volcanos can’t decide when to erupt for example, as we can decide when to urinate. How did equipment supporting meanings get built into us? To answer that I call on traditional wisdom for help in figuring out how this equipment evolved in us.