Welcome Reader

I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

Mind and Self

By Michael E. Berumen 7-5-89

What presents itself is the given, whether a representation of something external to ourselves or not. It might not correspond to anything independently that we deem independent and real or anything other than itself. The presentation can be simple and immediate, such as an instance of a patch of color, a sound, a smell, a taste, or a tactile sensation. It can be a memory of something past. It does not matter that the memory is false, and that, in fact, it might have only occurred in the here and now and we mistakenly interpret it as a memory. It can be a feeling of pain or pleasure, an awareness of self, or a recollection (so we assume) of having experienced these things, not to mention a wide range of more complex ideas or passions.

That there is perception or awareness at some level, that there is a given, is indicative of existence, of being. It is something. There need not be any thought or idea about the experience, a meta-thought, just the experience itself, an object with no sense of subject or self-awareness, no sense of separation between the perceived and the perceiver. On the other hand, the perception could lead one infer that there is an act of perceiving and a self that perceives and is aware of having perceived, that there is some difference between the two, the subject that apprehends, and the object apprehended. Perhaps this occurs at some primitive level without even having any idea about a self, as such, just an awareness of the separation between that which is apprehended and that which apprehends it.

The more complex idea of self, an "I" with a continuous past into the present and a future is but an inference, one we do not ordinarily even think about at any given moment. Only philosophers pay much attention to such things. When we do think about it, however, the immediacy of the present awareness or mental state is itself known to exist (I use "known" advisedly). The sensation, feeling or thought that is before us, and that which is inferred, need not be a representation of reality, including the inference of a self that exists through time as some quasi-permanent personality or perceiver. In other words, Rene Descartes did not go far enough with "cogito ergo sum," for he assumed too much in postulating himself or believing there was a kind of receptor for sensations and ideas, in assuming that "I" exist insofar as I has a past, present, and future and is the same this moment as the last.

At a minimum, we can say with certainty that there is an awareness of some kind, in this instant, even if that something is the perception without a notion of a perceiver. I might begin to have ideas about my awareness, ideas that I can separate, for example, from the table that I am observing, the sensation of color or hardness; ideas about the table, which is about the shape, color, and hardness, but that is not the same as my actual perception or sensation of the table and its constituent parts. While I am looking at it, for example, I can imagine how it might look if I were to move it to another location or if it were a different size or color. I can also shut my eyes and no longer see the table, but, at the same time, I can continue to have an idea about it, one that does not depend on my having a present sensation or perception of the table, but that (we assume) might depend upon my having had such an experience at some point in time, directly (my own perception), or indirectly (having been told about it or something like it that enables me to imagine it).

David Hume showed us that we cannot find the connection between then and now, cause and effect, one event and another, and that we are always reduced only to knowing correlation rather than connected causality. We also assume that there is a uniformity in nature that we are unable to demonstrate, which is to say, that things will behave similarly everywhere, that physical laws apply everywhere in the same way as they do in the time and space of our present, even if that only subsists in our minds or the mind of god, as suggested by the likes of the philosophical idealists. Immanuel Kant showed that we cannot step outside of ourselves to know reality as it might exist in and of itself, for our awareness of the external world is but our own representation within our minds, not something external to us, and that what we imagine it to be is only inferred and then filtered through our senses and the categories of our understanding. The noumenal world, the world as it exists in itself, is forever beyond our reach.

Philosophers such as Berkeley and Hegel came to the conclusion that all is mind, that reality is perception. They of course also said that perception requires a perceiver. Indeed, taken to its extreme, that that which is perceived does not exist without its having been perceived. Is it not the height of philosophical and anthropomorphic hubris to suppose that the world is mind and that it depends on being perceived, whether by us or a superior being, one who happens to take on many of our own characteristics?

Of course, modern philosophers rejected the extreme view of the universe as mind perceiving itself. They embraced the common sense view that the table is there in space and time, and that it does not depend for its existence on our having perceived it. It remains after we have closed our eyes and when we leave the room. My body and mind seem to follow one another around, and when I have a particular urge or thought, my body behaves in a particular way. When I will my arm to go up, it does. Further, there are other minds and bodies, other persons, and they can do similar things. And, though reality and the way it appears to me might not have a direct correspondence, there is a relationship between them, and what I apprehend through perception is roughly what is real. The way the tree appears to me is roughly the way the tree really is. Occam's razor at work. 

While I have considerable sympathy with this common-sense view, some of its major proponents have made a fundamental mistake, one that has resulted in considerable confusion. They have reduced our mental states to biochemical, brain processes. Just as the Hegelians rejected dualism by casting aside the physical world, so did they, but instead of everything being mental, it was material, something that ultimately can be described by physics, biology, and chemistry.

But my awareness, my sensation, feeling, or thought is not itself a material thing, something that I can locate in a microscope, on an MRI, or on a graphic representation from some electronic gizmo. I might get a synaptic burst here, an indication of neural activity there, or a wiggle on my register, but such phenomena are not the same as the awareness, itself. Seeing my synapses and neurons behave in a particular way is not tantamount to seeing my thought. The mind is not mere brain tissue, any more than a computer chip is a software program. Indeed, my awareness might be precipitated by such organic processes, but the thought is not the organic process, itself. And it is also not a program, which is itself an algorithm, not the content of what it orders. If there is a program, an arrangement, a design (whether from natural selection or Providence), it is not the same thing as what I am thinking.

The mind is a property of some or all of the things that make up our mental processes, such as the biological, chemical, and electrical activities, but it is not the same thing as those activities. It is more akin to the whir of the motor. The whir is not the same thing as the motor, but it is a property of it, and it depends on the motor for its existence. There is a duality between the whir or the motor and the motor, wetness and the water, music and the piano. These are not perfect analogies, but, alas, nothing is quite the same as the mind is. But it is also clear that the mind is not the same thing as the body, the physical being; it is, however, a property of it. There is a kind of duality between mind and body, but not of the sort Descartes and others imagined.

Though the mind and body are not the same, the mind does not exist independently of our brain processes; at least, there are no good reasons to suppose that it does. While inferential and not apodictic, wherever my body goes, at least while I am conscious, my mind is present, and vice versa. My mind does not exist in the same sense as a stone, a house, or a brain does. It is more akin to the stone's texture, the house's shape. It is not a separate, non-corporeal entity. It is a property of a substance, a property of the arrangement of the physical components that we call ourselves, more specifically, our brains, within which activity correlates significantly to our having sensations, feelings, and thoughts those things that collectively constitute the property, mind.

Awareness is the first principle of mindedness---which is to say, the awareness of something. Scientists now believe that emotions, such as the limbic senses of pleasure and pain, that which animals naturally seek or avoid, might well be the first stage or even the necessary condition for the development of consciousness and hence, of our self-awareness. Emotions would, therefore, seem even more important than rationality in our mental development. These perhaps represent the most incorrigible, incontrovertible, and direct of all of our perceptions, our most important sense of self, for we know for certain when we experience pain or pleasure. Such events are indubitable.

Sentience is having the power of sensation. Awareness at its most primitive level need not entail a sense of self. The most primitive creatures that have a capacity for sensing might simply exist moment to moment with no sense of having had prior ones or of there being the possibility of others. The inference of a continuous being that is in some sense substantially the same from one moment to the next, with a past prior to the present continuing into the future, and with some sense of separation of that which perceives from that which is perceived, is what it means to be aware of oneself, an awareness that presumably allows creatures with various capacities to "plan" for something that will occur later, perhaps most importantly to avoid pain and to pursue pleasure (the latter is a much more complicated matter than pain). This, in turn, leads to a more advanced stage of self-awareness, which is being aware of our awareness.

How, though, can a person whose skin and organs and chemical composition change throughout its life, such that it is not the same one moment as it was during the last one, or as it will be in the next, be the same person. What is it about me that is different from, say, replacing every part of the space shuttle and then calling it the same ship? How can I identify myself as that person I was yesterday, a year ago, ten years, ago, and before, or the one I will be tomorrow or ten years from now? How does my personality or personhood remain constant when my body and my mind have changed completely or nearly so? What is there about "me" that continues from the past into the present and future that remains constant, that enables me to continue to be me? This is more than fancy, philosophical trickery, for, among other things, it has important moral implications. How, for example, can I be held responsible for my actions of yesterday, a year ago, or ten years ago when in every physical (and even mental) sense, I am a different person at this instant than the person I was then?

We assume there is a connection between our past and our present and our future, and the glue that binds these things (other than the trivial point of our name or description) is our mind, that collection of sensations, thoughts, and feelings, including our memory, which, in combination, have something to do with our personhood, our personality. As with our physical self, the mind is in flux. But it is aware of itself in the present and, to a large degree, its former self, which it manages to incorporate into the here and now, and it makes plans for its future self. Our mental nature, we presume, has much to say about what we do, our actions, our behavior, which is how others come to judge us. The fact that there is a relationship between our thoughts and our actions (or lack thereof) is the critical path to moral agency. Not only does the mind prompt (many of) our actions at any given moment (others are presumably instinctive or autonomic without forethought), but also what we will do later.

Our minds, therefore, provide the continuity between our former selves and our future selves, what we were before, what are today, and what will be tomorrow, notwithstanding the fact that what we do today or in the future might be different than what we did before, or that we might be, in many respects, different people. It is this continuity of mind and its presumed power over our behavior, which enables us to think someone is the same person as before and, assuming he is rationally capable, to make him morally responsible for his actions.

End. Michael E. Berumen