Being of Two Minds: Anomalous Monism

“Anomalous monism resembles materialism in its claim that all events are physical, but rejects the thesis that mental phenomena can be given purely physical explanations.” D. Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events, Clarendon Press, 2001, p. 214.

The lack of clarity in philosophy of mind is a lack of clarity of its terms. That lack of clarity of terms is, in its turn, nothing else than a lack of terms. There was a time the discussion was about mind/body dualism whilst most recent scientific writing is, implicitly at least, based on the identity of brain and mind. It’s all a blur and no matter how many tokens of supervenience or emergency types are exchanged, it remains a blur of bodies, minds and brains. The classical solution to this lack of terms is to index terms like consciousness1 or prefix them with an adjective like ‘basic’ mind or some such. This is then a temporary definition just good enough to make a local argument without risking to enter into holistic arguments. Good for publishing but bad for discussion.

I have always thought that Davidson’s anomalous monism was a basis for getting out of this black hole of terminological unclarity. It has the strength of common sense: there are no extra-natural things but mental descriptions of natural things aren’t something purely physically determined either. The thing is this: anomalous monism of what? Of the mental and the physical, sure, but what about the brain and its mind.

Let me repeat that: what about the brain and ‘its‘ mind? That the mind is ‘of’ the brain would not startle many if I had not also italicized it (and – to play it safe – put it in scare quotes too). Well, if the mind is of the brain I think we don’t have enough anomalousness and still too much monism. Since the mental indeed doesn’t allow itself to be reduced to the physical, this leads to minds1 and minds2 and hence right back into the muddy waters of going mental at or talking past each other.

So I made a picture to try to put the mind right back where it belongs: very much outside the brain. So far out that the mind does not have a location at all, which seems to me rather in tune with the anomalousness of the mental.


Here goes the not so short explanation:

You have the physical world on one hand and a brain (some set of nervous circuitry) on the other hand. The brain picks out as many relevant regularities out of the world as ‘brain’-ly possible out of the uncertain and incomplete input it can get. This is not a one-directional and static thing which leads to some magical ‘brain states’ reflecting ‘states of the world’. This is a matter of inter-dependency between brain and world because they interact and this interaction leaves neither the brain nor the world unaltered. I believe it is crucial to see anomalous monism already here. If we describe how the brain (and – in this case yes – ‘its’ body) interacts with a world then we create a description which is no longer the description of a brain but of a mind; of something which is neither in the brain nor in the world but somehow connects the two. I coin that mind the “natural environment” mind or, for short, ne-mind. Even if all of the interaction somehow is the result of physical changes in either the brain or (and this is crucial) in the world, then still it will not be possible to reduce the current state of the ne-mind to a purely physical description of the brain alone.

As Gibson would have it, this ne-mind is already fully and utterly ecological and cannot be considered in isolation via its brain. The present point is not limited to human beings and as such attributes an ne-mind to all embodied creatures that actively explore affordances of their environment. The crucial thing is that anomalousness starts here in us requiring to describe a response as fleeing because of a belief that there’s an exit strategy or as a response of flight because the organism believes it’s cornered. Sure, the organism would flee or fight independent of us making in this way sense of its behavior. That doesn’t alter the fact that the organism’s brain cannot be reduced to some physical state that would predict flee or fight as the outcome of an inevitable calculation. The reason why we impute agency to creatures that have a certain complexity of nervous system is precisely because their brains have interacted with their environment to constitute a mind, an ne-mind, that can no longer be reduced to physical laws or, to state the same, mechanistic state-change descriptions. Ne-minds are of a mathematical complexity that does not allow that kind of reduction. I believe that to be a fact.

It’s a fact that corresponds to a commonsense notion that one ought not torture creatures of this complexity or take pleasure in killing them. The moral reason for this is that these creatures have an ne-mind like we do. The evidence for this is that we attribute agency to them in order to make sense of them, and that this attribution is necessary. Ne-minds are different from genes that – for sure – also adapt to the environment (and vice versa). The difference lies in the ne-minds interacting with their environment in real time whereas genes are the statistical outcome of many such interactions in a quite deterministic sense. We can attribute – in ways shown by Dawkins – agency to ‘selfish’ genes but that is just a metaphor of the same status as voracious black holes. This can help our understanding but it cannot replace a scientifically precise formulation of exactly what happens. A gene cannot adapt to such a specific environment in the way a brain can; genes are outcomes whilst brains are causes. This doesn’t mean ne-minds are moral (or even can be selfish in any other than a genetically pre-programmed way; although for sure they can be confused in ways genes can certainly not be). There is no room for morality, representations or even causes in an interactionist ne-mind.

So we have to turn now to the biped elephant in the room, one just like the one reading this text. Surely we have brains and surely we have ne-minds but that does not suffice for this activity of depicting and describing the world with symbols external to us. We have brains that do not just interact with our natural environment, we have brains that interact with a symbolic environment that’s having predictable effects on other brains of creatures like us. The fact is that our brains are not unlike that of other animals but it is sure that our worlds are very different from those of other animals. Our worlds include tools, symbols, language, institutions and conventions. Our brains interact with this cultural environment in a way that’s very similar to how our brains interact with a natural environment. We don’t need more I think to say that we are of two minds: on top of our ne-mind, we have a ce-mind, a mind that’s attuned to our cultural environment (and attuned is the right word for any mind).

There’s no mystery here. We can trace the emergence of the ce-mind easily – some genes evolved such that they created brains in organisms that were able to not only interact with the environment but manipulate it. Such brains created external tools that were helping them with survival. For those brains the interaction with the natural environment wasn’t just interaction, they could see a cause and mark it as a cause. The survival value for single organisms may look huge, but the cost of re-inventing these tools over and over again is in itself prohibitive (try raising a child). The thing is that if you have a ce-mind and you have fellow creatures with a ce-mind, you are able to create a host of symbols whose meaning can travel from ce-mind to ce-mind (without need for intervention of genes) as long as a ce-mind has enough complexity in the brain. Crucially, this requires at least two ce-minds co-operating (triangulating – see ‘this on that’), but once this is achieved culture evolves much more rapidly than genes can such that the brains with ce-minds will quickly out-evolve any other brain (barring dramatic events of a Hitlerian or global warming nature).

History, then, is in the making.

The symmetry of this account is not co-incidental. The ne-mind and the ce-mind come to be in exactly the same way based on the interaction of brains with worlds. The difference is that the ce-mind can transcend the basic uncertainty facing one individual creature. It can do this only because it inhabits a world of symbols that come to be in the interaction of ce-minds and can not only easily be shared between ce-minds but pass across generations of ce-minds as well. Brains do not need to change; once the ce-mind capability is there, as said, the rest is history. We do not have to be physically not very special compared to the apes – the difference is in entirely a matter of culture. The culture that allows us to make sense of the world, and attribute causes, and establish sciences, and inquire into/with other minds. This cultural thing we find anomalous enough to be driven to believe that we are so special as to require some kind of dualism, a soul and all kinds of transcendent stuff that makes us special. It blinds us to the commonsense evidence right in front of us: that our ce-mind is there thanks to other ce-minds and that the only way we make progress is by creating more culture, and be grateful for every ce-mind that helps us to build more culture from the heterogeneous and diverse inputs and insights of Levinasian Others. We are sometimes so blinded that we, uncritically, take progress for granted!

A key thing is that brain and world are necessarily coupled and so are our two minds. Our two minds are not just coupled via our brain but also via our world which is necessarily a world of both nature and culture/nurture (both of power/desire and of care). We can’t split these two aspects of our world just as we cannot make an artificial split within our brain between lower and higher functions. This is the start of arguments against both cultural relativism and the possibility of Artificial Intelligence of the computer metaphor kind.

I won’t go there now. I just want to conclude in saying this is a sketch and, as sketches go, incomplete. Even if right – the last word hasn’t been said about consciousness of the self-reflexive kind because that type of consciousness isn’t a feature of the brain if an account such as this one is true. Consciousness in this sense is an emergent feature of the ce-mind and not even a necessary feature at that. Consciousness emerges as a product of charitable co-operation of ce-minds through language so a community was first, a culture second, a language third and consciousness comes last – which is another blow to religious and non-religious myths of original sin or duty.

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