What is the mind?

Ray Scanlon rscanlon at wsg.net
Fri Dec 4 10:02:22 EST 1998

Anders N Weinstein wrote in message
<7452d2$lrm$1 at usenet01.srv.cis.pitt.edu>...
>In article <3665c939.0 at ns2.wsg.net>, Ray Scanlon <rscanlon at wsg.net> wrote:

>You need to understand that behavior can be described in many ways.

I'm of the opinion that I do understand that. (Possibly a delusion?) My
favorite way of describing behavior is that of neural activity. I find no
need of soul or whatever word (mind, intelligence, mentation) is presently
popular among the wordsmiths. Signal energy flows in through sensory
neurons, filters through the interneurons, and exits through motor neurons.
I find no need for a little man, sitting in the middle of the head, watching
a TV screen, and punching buttons. To call this little man soul (mind,
intelligence, thinker, whatever) is just to shuffle words until people think
you are saying something meaningful.

>The event of, say, one person snubbing another one dead is perfectly
>observable, but it has both a physical and a meaning-giving description
>as expressive behavior. Just because you can describe it as a motion
>fo molecules or whatever does not mean you can't describe it in other ways.

Of course you are right. But there is a world of science and you are not of
it. To give life meaning you must turn to religion. The basic questions of,
"Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going?" are not
answered by the wordsmiths. They belong to religion.

When we wish to be scientific we turn to neurons. When we wish to consider
the soul we turn to God. We turn to the wordsmiths for amusement.

>When taken under appropriate mind-laden descriptions, then, we can say
>that human beings as minded creatures are certainly phenomena that show up
>for us as elements in the experienced world, not immaterial souls outside

You are so clever with words, too clever by half. By "minded" possibly you
mean "ensouled". One of the tricks of the wordsmiths is to use an uncommon
word with a twist of new meaning and chant that they are using the "common
language". Stick to neurons when you talk about behavior.

>>Man lacks the intellectual equipment to understand the relationship
>>between body and soul (mind). The best course of action is to accept this
and be
>>quiet, but then what would the philosopher do for publication? This is not
>>to mystify, this is merely to accept human limitations.
>There is no such limitation to accept. There is no limitation because
>there is no mind-body problem to solve. There is only the illusion that
>there is a problem to dissolve.
"Solving" the mind-body problem is like showing a person who thinks he
>is trapped how to escape from what is in fact an unlocked room. That
>can be very hard, for the subject one may be getting something from
>the delusion and may not want to have this pet mystery exposed as
>a structure of air.

I am well aware of this Pollyanna notion that you can always solve a problem
by shouting that it does not exist. This is popular among some philosophers.
In its present form it sprang up among those British philosophers who
started "doing philosophy in the new way" in the thirties. I have always
thought it tiresome.

I like McGinn's formulation that it is possible to recognize our
limitations, to realize that we simply lack the mental capabilities. This
was wonderfully brought out in Flatland by A. Square (1870?). This
formulation is helpful to the man of science who is troubled by his

>>If you are uneasy with the soul (mind) and its "baggage" then just drop
>>subject. A materialistic explanation of the brain has no need of soul
>>(mind), biology has no need of soul. Only the philosopher needs a
>>conjunction of soul and body so that he may have something to talk about.
>A materialistic explanation of the brain has no need of soul -- true.
>But an intentional explanation of the doings of a human person does, in
>a sense, have need of soul. For it needs to cite intentional (and
>other) psychological attributes of the person, and these are irreducible
>to the terms of mechanistic explanations.

That psychological attributes are irreducible is the flat assertion of a man
desperate for publication. Of course they are reducible to neural
explanation. That the reduction can be difficult is irrelevant. Aplysia
decides to retract his mantle and does so. We say we can trace out the
neurons involved because it is a (relatively) simple case. Aplysia only
thought he had decided, the neurons did it for him. So it is with man.

>For example, there is a perfectly mundane, common-sense intentional
>explanation of why I stopped in at the convenience store on my way home
>today -- I remembered I was out of milk and wanted to pick some up to
>have with my Cornflakes tomorrow morning. I know the milk costs a little
>more there than it does at the supermarket, but that is OK with me since it
>easier to get it on my way home than make a special trip. And so on.

You remembered? Why did you remember? I hypothesize that a memory is the
activation of a constellation of neurons. An examination of the situation
would produce a triggering event. Possibly the sight of the convenience
store sent a burst of signal energy flowing through your interneurons and
excited the constellation that you call "a memory of the need for milk". But
you hesitated for a fraction of a second, "It costs more, but that's all
right". Why and how did you hesitate? I hypothesize you hesitated because
the constellation of neurons "milk" and a constellation "convenience store"
activated another constellation "costs more" that activated neurons in the
reticular nucleus of the thalamus which inhibited neurons in the ventral
anterior-ventral lateral nucleus of the thalamus and stopped the motor
program "turning into the convenience store" for a fraction of a second. You
hesitated. Then "future hungry" neurons in the brainstem overrode  the "cost
more" neurons in the cortex and inhibited the neurons in the reticular
nucleus of the thalamus and disinhibited the neurons in the V.A.-V.L.
complex and the motor program flowed through to the motor and pre-motor
cortex and you turned into the convenience store. You said to yourself, "I
decided that I need the milk more than I need the money."

Naturally this is a most abbreviated version of what actually went on among
your neurons because there were ever so many involved. Probably you won't
see this reduction as other than babble because your mind is made up. Pity.

Those interested in how the brain works might look at

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