Minds, heads and philosophy

[The following post is the first in a series which will describe my philosophical project for the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO).]


What is the mind? Is it a thing? Can it be located? Many philosophers have endorsed the distinct but related ideas that the mind is a thing and it is located inside your head. The standard view seems to be that the mind is identical to the brain, or simply the mind is the brain. Not everyone is convinced, however.

For example, philosophy of mind and cognitive science has recently seen the emergence of two paradigms that challenge mind/brain identity. The first, enactivism (Varela, Thompson and Rosch, 1991), contends that minds are “enacted”. You think, believe, desire etc in the ways that you do because of the activities you engage in. The second, extended mind (Clark and Chalmers, 1998), claims that, under certain circumstances, minds can be “extended”. That is, the states or processes that make up a mind can, on occasion, be partially located in the environment.

Given that both paradigms challenge the standard view, then it is perhaps not surprising that both paradigms have come under sustained attack. This has led to a heated back-and-forth with, on the side, internalists, who defend the orthodox position that the mind is an internal, brain-bound phenomenon, and on the other, externalists who counter that the mind is variously an enacted phenomenon (enactivism), or an internal-external phenomenon (extended mind). At present, the literature remains divided, with an apparent standoff between the two sides. All of which raises the question: can this internalist/externalist issue actually be resolved?

In this post, I will consider one strategy that has been favoured by both internalists and externalists alike. I will suggest that consideration of this strategy indicates that we should be sceptical that this internalist/externalist issue can in fact be resolved.

The strategy in question involves appealing to what I am going to call ‘special mechanisms’. Special mechanisms are causal states or processes that constitute or compose a given cognitive and/or mental state or process. Interestingly, appeals to such mechanisms have been used to vindicate both internalist and externalist positions.

For example, Clark (2009) has argued that there are special mechanisms in the brain that demonstrate internalism about consciousness. He claims that consciousness depends on high speed (or high bandwidth) information processing. Such processing is brain-bound, according to Clark, because, first, this processing depends on the synchronous activation of neural populations in the brain (Singer, 2003), and, second, the body acts a low pass filter and so slows down the transfer of information (Eliasmith, 2008). If consciousness is dependent on high-speed information transfer and, as a matter of contingent fact, this can only occur inside the brain, then the states or processes that realise or made up consciousness do not extend outside the skull. Simply put, consciousness is an internal phenomenon.

However, Thompson and Varela (2001) use similar empirical data i.e. data about the synchronisation and de-synchronisation of oscillating neural populations, to claim that consciousness is in fact an interactive, brain-body-world affair. They argue that brain mechanisms are “a paradigmatic example of self-organisation” (ibid, p419). That is, they understand the synchronous activation of neural populations in the brain, not in terms of the binding together of bodies of information, but rather as a self-organising emergent feature of the brain. They claim that emergence through self-organisation entails that neural, bodily and worldly elements can interact to produce emergent global organism-environment processes. Consciousness is consequently an emergent phenomenon, one that “cut[s] across brain-body-world divisions” (ibid, pp421-424). In other words, consciousness is external.

I offer this brief comparison between Clark, Thompson and Varela to illustrate the point that the same empirical data e.g. data about neural synchrony, can be used to defend opposing views on consciousness. Yet if appeals to such data can support such opposing views, then arguably this data cannot be used to settle the internalist/externalist debate.

(A further example of the same back-and-forth about special mechanisms could be recent Predictive Coding accounts of the brain, since such accounts have been used both to vindicate an externalist position (e.g. Clark, 2015) and various internalist positions (e.g. Milkowski, 2015; Gladziejewski, 2015)).

This offers us grounds to think that appeals to special mechanisms are not decisive in the internalist/externalist debate. I think this should encourage a certain scepticism that the debate can be resolved. But we can motivate this scepticism further by considering another means of settling this debate.

For one might take the alternative view that rather than going ‘top down’ – that is, from the mind down to the causal states or processes that accompany mentality – we should instead go ‘bottom up’ – that is, from the necessary and sufficient conditions needed to regard any state or process as mental or cognitive to the mind itself. This would then enable us to demarcate the boundaries of the mind and so answer the question as to where the mind is located. I shall consider this view in my next blog post. However, as with the appeal to special mechanisms, I shall argue that this view encounters its own set of problems.