Tuesday 1/21



Today I briefly discussed the mechanics of the course (website, problem sets, and the term paper project--fairly straightforward all) and tried to motivate our fascinating investigations this semester.

Specifically, I asked, what is the most remarkable thing to be found on the beach? There were many good suggestions: The sand, the surf, the birds, the molluscs, the fish, etc. I suggested the most remarkable thing to be found on the beach is, however and unequivocally, you. That is, if we view ourselves as natural phenomena, we are altogether extraordinary. Nor is this mere egocentrism. It is, after all, we who are astonished and eager to investigate the waves and the molluscs; neither the waves nor the molluscs are in the least bit astonished and eager to investigate us.

Permit me to put the point a little differently here by taking a page from Andy Clark's excellent Mindware: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science. Consider the recent biographies of me and a rock.

Rest assured, my biography differs greatly from a rock's. Whereas my recent history is best described in terms of my doing things--getting up for the day, making coffee, reading the news, etc.--the rock's recent history is best described in terms of the things that happen, and are done, to it--sitting on my shelf, warming as the heat is brought on, having light cast upon it from the window as the sun comes up, etc. The rock, that is, is an entirely passive object. It does nothing.

Most of the time, though, it appears that I am an active subject. I make things happen. I have ends in mind. Intentions. Purposes. Goals. I am also, we presume, free to make the things I make happen, happen. Even more importantly, I'm aware of having made things happen. I perceive. I'm self-aware. I'm conscious.

All-in-all, I suspect it is vastly better to be me than the rock.

The upshot of Clark's example is that there appears to be a huge gulf between me and the rock. Indeed, the divide between me and the rock is so enormous our minds boggle at the proposition that we could be entirely made of rock-stuff. According to this view, if you break us down far enough, say to individual atoms, then we are virtually indistinguishable from the rock. Call the position from which this view derives naturalism: Explanations of detectable events and objects may only invoke detectable events and objects. This is the key methodological assumption of every science today. It says that a scientific explanation will not invoke supernatural entities or objects, including things like God and souls. This is not an ontological assumption. It says nothing about whether there in fact are supernatural objects, only that, being supernatural, we can't use them in our explanations. This is tantamount to claiming that what separates us from the rock is nothing more than how those individual atoms are put together. But how can mere complexity--little complexity, in the case of the rock, great complexity, in my case--make such an astounding difference?

If we consider the gulf between me and the rock, we find during the transition from the rock to me that an increase in complexity is followed by an increase in certain rather important properties:

  • Activity
  • Autonomy
  • Phenomenal Consciousness
  • Complexity

So astounding are my capacities in comparison to the rock it is often felt that we cannot explain me in naturalistic terms. We have to invoke souls or spirits, since there is no other way to explain how mere complexity can account for these capacities. Yet explaining minds in terms of souls or spirits invites a deeper worry: How do we in turn explain souls or spirits? If the explanation in terms of souls or spirits abruptly and arbitrarily stops at souls or spirits, then we don't have an explanation. (Don't worry if you're not following at this point of the synopsis: I plan to revisit these issues in the coming weeks.)

So we seem to have a puzzle on our hands. Modern Cognitive Science, adopting naturalism, seeks to understand the mind in terms of the organ which seems to have the most to do with underwriting the mind: The brain.

Yet how precisely is it that the brain, however complicated and fantastic an organ it is, can underwrite the mind, given that the capacities of the brain seem to have little or nothing to do with the capacities of the mind? This question directly leads us to the fundamental question of this course:

How do we build a mind?

One recognizes the overwhelming importance of this question when one recalls Dretske's Dictum,

You don't understand it if you don't know how to build it.

To be sure, we use minds without understanding them, just as we drive cars without understanding them. But to understand a car, we have to know how to build it. (Sure, we may not be able to build it for want of the right parts, but knowing how means we could and means, at least, that we understand the car.) Similarly, to understand the mind, we have to understand how to build one.

This, we say, is an engineering obligato. It places a sort of "put up or shut up" constraint on our investigations.

The task of building minds, however, is beset with apparently insuperable difficulties. Yet nature builds minds every day.

Our study of how to build a mind will take us into many fields, including

  • Philosophy
  • Computer Science
  • Cognitive Science
  • Psychology
  • Biology
  • Anthropology
  • Linguistics
  • Mathematics

Now, we are most fortunate to have students from Psychology and Philosophy in this class. I expect this to rich and rewarding semester for all of us as we delve into that most spectacular, peculiar, and surprising of phenomena, the Mind.

Having introduced the topic for the course, let me briefly revisit the mechanics (requirements, policies, etc.) of the course. There's not much I wish to add here, except perhaps to emphasize once again the importance of attendance. I provide lots of notes, handouts, and synopses, but not as a way of making it possible to do well without attending class. The truth is quite the opposite. I provide all these materials precisely because class-time is so valuable we need to off-load as much as we can to make time to discuss the various issues we take up this semester. I encourage you to make it a personal goal to never miss class; you may still unavoidably have to skip a class, life being what it is, but please do your best, especially when we get to truly daunting material and the inevitable sense of futility sets in.

Further, this course requires you to do a great deal of writing throughout the semester--more, perhaps, than what you are accustomed to seeing in your other classes. Rare is the individual who never procrastinates. Nevertheless, you should employ whatever strategies you can find to help you keep up with the assignments. Falling behind is simply not an option.