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PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | July 2004  

 

 

                    

 

                 A Survey of the Mind

 

 

 

                Swami Satyaswarupananda

 

 

 

     Amidst the Gita discourse, when Arjuna confessed his helplessness in getting to terms with his mind, comparing it to the impossible task of controlling the winds, he was not just speaking out the minds of all spiritual aspirants; he could well have been speaking for the endless stream of thinkers and scientists whose wits and imaginations have been engaged in cracking the riddle of the mind. For, just as spiritual aspirants have always been struggling to master their own minds, philosophers and empiricists have been trying, with limited success, to understand the nature of the human mind in intellectual and scientific terms. The human mind, however, has remained an enigma. Be that as it may, the range of knowledge and discipline that has been brought to bear on these investigations has been truly phenomenal, and even a brief review of some of these conceptual and empirical efforts can be highly educative.

 

 

     Early Philosophical Theories

 

 

     The classical Western (1) concept of the mind has been defined by Rene Descartes’ dualistic view of it as an ‘unextended and think­ing substance’ distinct from the body, a view that could be traced back to the Socratic and Platonic concept of the ‘psyche’ (a word traditionally translated as ‘soul’) as distinct from ‘soma’, or the body. Of course, what Descartes actually meant by ‘substance’ has remained obscure and this has been a cause of much confusion in Western thought; but this position lead to what Gilbert Ryle called, the ‘ghost in the machine’ view of an immaterial entity called ‘mind’ controlling bodily function. Termed dualist-interactionism, this theory is also favoured by some neuro­scientists who are convinced about the inadequacy of neural events in explaining mental phenomena. (2) However, nobody has been able to provide a plausible explanation as to how a non-material mind could bring about physical changes in the brain. Monistic viewpoints of an immaterial mind were also propounded as a reaction to the rising popularity of materialism. Bishop Berkeley took an idealistic position and argued that ‘existence is perception’ (esse et percipii), for one is aware of even the so­called objective world only in terms of the impressions it leaves on the mind. Bradley insisted that there is only one infinite Mind, Idea or Experience that comprehends all of existence within it. Spinoza considered both matter and mind as attributes of an underlying substance called God or Nature.

 

     In contrast, almost all mainstream Indian philosophical positions since ancient times took a materialistic view of the mind ever since the Sankhyas conceived of a sharp distinction between the conscious Purusha and the material Prakriti. The latter (comprised of three basic constituents called gunas3), with all its evolutes (which include the mind), has been conceived of as dynamic but devoid of consciousness. The Vedantists essentially accept this duality, though they discovered a transcendent unity, of the nature of pure consciousness, in Brahman. While the Sankhyas considered the mind to be one of the early evolutes of Prakriti (there being twenty-three other evolutes), the Vedantists conceived it as composed of a combination of the sattvic components of the five elements in their subtle (or tanmatra) form. The Naiyayikas, or logicians, on the other hand, proposed that the mind was a distinct material category (at par with eight others, namely the five elements, time, the directions and the soul).

 

     With the progress of the Enlightenment, the triumph of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, and the concomitant rise of empiricism and positivism (which recognized only scientifically established facts as valid), Western thinkers veered progressively towards a material explanation of mental phenomena.

 

     Gilbert Ryle, who was for many years the editor of the reputed philosophical journal Mind, in his well-recognized and polemical work Concept of Mind tried to refute the Cartesian view of the separation of mental and physical existence - ‘the ghost in the machine’ concept. He argued that human nature differs only in degree from a clockwork and that thought, imagination, perception, feeling and the like are nothing but expressions of different physical states (a position termed reductive materialism) if not, on occasions, simple meaningless verbiage (eliminative materialism). In his later days, however, Ryle was more discreet about writing off mental phenomena, probably realizing that doing so would reduce all his arguments also to meaningless verbiage; arguments after all are not physical entities. Although Ryle’s was essentially a linguistic analysis, his ideas were also boosted by the behavioural school of psychologists, remarkable advances in neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, and the early ideas of the exponents of artificial intelligence.

 

 

     Early Experimental Studies

 

 

     The first half of the twentieth century saw the behaviourists describing human behaviour as determined responses to environmental stimuli. Pavlov demonstrated the classical conditioned response of involuntary bodily function to a conditioning environmental stimulus - the famous Pavlovian dog salivating in response to a bell that was earlier sounded regularly before food. Skinner and his associates studied the process of operant conditioning whereby voluntary behaviour is controlled through rewards and punishments - rats learning to run in a maze or pigeons press­ing a lever for food are typical examples. Behaviourists like Watson and Skinner were convinced that all observable human behaviour could be explained in terms of conditioned learning. Although behaviourism remained very influential through much of the last century, it is now well recognized that a great deal of what is distinctively human behaviour is not simply conditioning but is acquired through cognitive learning, a process that involves understanding how a task is accomplished. Comparison of the language used by chimpanzees and humans illustrates this very well. Although chimpanzees have been taught to communicate through sign language, this chimpanzee language has been entirely of the expressive and signalling variety, totally devoid of abstraction. In contrast, even a two- or three-year-old human child spontaneously learns to speak according to the rules of grammar (though rudimentary to begin with), and uses language for abstract descriptive and argumentative purposes.

 

     Around the middle of the last century scientists and clinicians were also making rapid advances in their understanding of neuronal and cerebral structure and function. By selectively stimulating or destroying small portions of the brain, in experimental animals as well as humans, Penfield, Old, Gazzaniga, Sperry and others dramatically demonstrated how discrete areas in the brain subserved distinct sensory, motor or emotional function. This was the beginning of the idea of a ‘modular’ brain, wherein the brain was seen as an ensemble of specialized units or modules, each subserving a specific mental function. Mental functioning thus became identified with definitive brain activity, a position upheld by most scientists. Physicists went a step further and attempted to simulate this activity. Neuroanatomists had shown that the human nervous system, including the brain, was essentially a massive mass of extensively interconnected neurons along which information could flow in the form of electrical impulses. In 1943, McCulloch and Pitts, in a classic paper, presented A Logical Calculus of the Idea Immanent in Nervous Activity, (4) essentially a mathematical algorithm that could be used by a computer (which were at that time at a rudimentary state of development) to simulate neural function. The idea caught on quickly. If the function of one neuron could be simulated, then so could that of an entire mass of nerve cells, and thus, essentially of the entire brain. Subsequently, phenomenal advances in computer technology as well as neurophysiology have kept alive this idea (termed artificial intelligence or AI) of man-made machines being able to simulate human brain function some day.

 

     The development of rudimentary computers in the first half of the twentieth century was preceded by the attempt by mathematicians to work out a set of algorithmic procedures that could be used to solve any, and every, mathematical problem. This was the famous Hilbert programme, essentially an attempt to show that every mathematical problem could be reduced to a finite series of calculations (and was therefore amenable to computer simulation). This effort was given a decisive blow by Kurt Godel through his classical ‘incompleteness theorem’ (formulated in 1930) which indisputably established that no formal system of sound mathematical rules of proof can ever suffice, even in principle, to establish all the true propositions of ordinary arithmetic. Although the formal proof of this theorem is complicated, it essentially amounts to showing that even if one managed to construct a ‘super-algorithm’ that could consistently be used to check the validity of other mathematical propositions, it could not logically be used to prove its own validity. (5)

 

     Tremendous advances in recent times in computer technology and cybernetics, however, testify to the fact that the failure of the Hilbert programme has in no way deterred people in their attempt to develop AI systems; and they have achieved no mean success. Cyber­systems can handle massive volumes of logical operations at phenomenal speeds as well as electronically store and retrieve entire libraries of information as ‘memory’. Modern robotics has been used to carry out complex operations, and ‘servo-control’ mechanisms have been developed not only to fine-tune robotic ‘intentionality’ but also incorporate ‘experiential learning behaviour’ in robots. Machines have also been programmed to sense and respond to apparently subjective issues like human emotion. A lie-detector is a simple example.

 

 

     The Criterion of the ‘Mental’

 

 

 

     Despite these remarkable achievements, no one is willing to grant machines a ‘mental’ status - all these efforts remain mere simulations. What, then, characterizes mental activity? While a lot of phenomena are commonly taken as mental, a strict defining criterion for mental events has been difficult to formulate. The subjective nature of mental events - of consciousness, of ‘raw’ feeling and the privacy of the mental world - has been recognized. Awareness (including self-awareness), understanding (or abstract thinking), purposeful or intentional behaviour, emotional dispositions, and the ability for introspection and reflexive thinking (knowing that one knows) have all been proposed as phenomena suggesting the presence of a mind. The very subjectivity of these effects has made an objective definition difficult to come by. This, in itself, is an indicator of something fundamental involved in that consciousness which typifies mental phenomena, the thing-in-itself in Kantian terms that remains unknown and unknowable.

 

 

     Physical Theories of the Mind

 

 

     While the subject-object dichotomy has been taken as an inviolable principle by many philosophical systems, the empiricists and positivists - who constitute the dominant philosophical position in the present scientific community - have either tried to avoid the issue of subjectivity or tried to wish it away, naively taking it to be an epiphenomenon or a by­product of objective events in the brain. (6) This epiphenomenalism, as also the more reductive identity theory, which takes the mind to be simply another description of physical events in the brain, unfortunately runs into several pragmatic problems. First, none of the laws of physics or neurobiology has anything to say about the emergence or existence of consciousness, which is a fundamental attribute of mental phenomena. Second, till date, it has not been possible to show that consciousness emerges spontaneously at a certain level of complexity in a material system. The recent interest in theories of Chaos, that is, the study of highly complex and irregular systems determined effectively by a few initial physical parameters (for example the behaviour of a complex cyclone, which could dramatically change with small changes in the weather conditions at the origin), has failed to provide any meaningful insight into consciousness, although it is true that the apparently random train of thoughts emerging from an idle mind could, technically speaking, be quite accurately described as chaotic. So to aver that with further advances in the neurosciences, all mental phenomena, including self-awareness, would be shown to result from specific brain activity remains wishful thinking. This position has been termed promissory materialism by the philosopher of science Karl Popper.

 

     There have also been dissenting voices from within the scientific community. One such person is Roger Penrose, a mathematician and theoretical physicist of renown, who has in recent times contributed substantially to the understanding of the fundamental scientific and philosophical issues involved in the working of the mind. Penrose believes that, as empiricists, scientists must try to explain mental phenomena in terms of physical processes - consciousness, after all, manifests itself through the physical medium of a brain - but he is convinced that ‘any genuine progress in the physical understanding of the phenomenon of consciousness will also need - as a prerequisite - a fundamental change in our physical world view. (7) And how does Penrose view the physical world? ‘We might well ask,’ says he, ‘What is matter according to the best theories that science has been able to provide? The answer comes back in the form of mathematics, not so much as a system of equations (though equations are important too) but as subtle mathematical concepts that take a long time to grasp properly.’ (8) He adds, ‘Every one of our conscious brains is woven from subtle, physical ingredients that somehow enable us to take advantage of the profound organization of our mathematically underpinned Universe - so that we, in turn, are capable of some kind of direct access, through the Platonic quality of “understanding”, to the very ways in which our universe behaves at many different levels.’ Penrose is referring here to the world of ‘Absolute Ideas’ that Plato conceived of as underlying (and, in a way, of greater permanence than) the perceptual world. He concedes that some people find it hard to conceive of this Platonic world as existing on its own - they may think of mathematical concepts merely as idealizations of our physical world (a useful tool for understanding it) - but is quick to add:

 

     Now, this is not how I think of mathematics, nor, I believe, is it how most mathematicians or mathematical physicists think about the world. They think about it in a rather different way, as a structure precisely governed according to timeless mathematical laws. … One of the remarkable things about the behaviour of the world is how it seems grounded in mathematics to a quite extraordinary degree of accuracy. The more we understand about the physical world, and the deeper we probe into the laws of nature, the more it seems as though the physical world almost evaporates and we are left only with mathematics. The deeper we understand the laws of physics, the more we are driven into the world of mathematics and of mathematical concepts. (9)

 

     Anybody involved deeply in theoretical physics should be able to corroborate Penrose’s thoughts. Eugene Wigner had also discussed this issue in a paper titled ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Physical Sciences’, written in 1960. The ability of scientists to arrive at physically valid results through thought experiments, the high degree of experimental accuracy of apparently counter-intuitive propositions like ‘warping of the space-time continuum’ as the Einsteinian explanation of gravity, and the ability to make strong, experimentally verifiable predictions as a test of validity of any new physical theory - all suggest a close link between the ‘mental’ and the ‘physical’ world.

 

     Mathematical truths, in fact, constitute only one of the Platonic absolutes. Plato also conceived of Beauty and Goodness as absolute values. Physiologists tell us that the human brain with its two cerebral hemispheres often shows a clear distinction between its two halves - the left hemisphere is involved primarily with logical operations, as in mathematics, and the right in appreciating spatio-temporal configurations essential to the aesthetic sense. Of course, many people have a harmonious blend of these faculties. Paul Dirac, the famous quantum physicist and Nobel laureate, was reputed to judge the validity of his mathematical formulations in terms of their intrinsic aesthetic ‘beauty’. As regards human ethical values (the correlate of goodness), however, biologists have, till now, very little to offer in terms of explanation, although the idea of a conscience or of dharma has been taken by various civilizations as intrinsic to human nature. (10)

 

 

     (To be continued)

 

 

 

     Notes and References

 

 

     1. In an era of globalization the use of the terms Eastern and Western may appear anachronistic. However, the fact remains that modern scientific discipline is closely aligned to values developed in the Western hemisphere, while Yoga and Vedanta still remain largely identified with Eastern cultures, though millions of people in the West are actually using it in one form or other. Also, the world-views espoused by these two paradigms are very dissimilar in some respects. This article highlights some of these dissimilarities with the aim of suggesting a fusion of horizons at a deep­er level.

     2. For example see Sir John Eccles and Daniel N Robinson, The Wonder of Being Human: Our Brain and Our Mind (Boston and London: Shambhala, 1985).

     3. The three gunas are tamas (inertia), rajas (activity) and sattva (the principle of equilibrium). In the physical world tamas and rajas manifest as matter and energy while sattva mediates consciousness (sattvam laghu prakashakam).

     4. Reprinted in W S McCulloch, Embodiments of Mind (Boston: MIT Press, 1965) and quoted in Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 352.

     5. See Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 138-41; also, Swami Atmapriyananda, ‘Vedanta and Mathematical Logic’ in Prabuddha Bharata, May and June 1999.

     6. Darwin had wondered why thought as a secretion of the brain should be considered more wonderful than gravity as a property of matter.

     7. Shadows, 391.

     8. Ibid., 419.

     9. Roger Penrose et al, The Large, the Small, and the Human Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 2-3.

     10. See Swami Vivekananda, ‘The Real Nature of Man’ in The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.70-87; also, Swami Bhajanananda, ‘Why Should We Be Moral?’ in Prabuddha Bharata, January 1985.

 

 

     Read more:

 

     A Survey of the Mind (August 2004)

     A Survey of the Mind (September 2004)



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