How the Mind Works (Or Can It?)

UnknownYou’re parachuted onto an alien planet. Of course, the language is unlike any you’ve ever heard. In fact, imagine further you don’t know any language – or even what language is. Yet your mission is to decode the language, just by listening, so you can understand and speak it.

One more thing: you’re two years old.

Of course, we all do this. That’s amazing. Seemingly impossible, if you think about it. And what does “think about it” really mean?

I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s 1997 book, How The Mind Works.* My main conclusion: it can’t.

Though I must admit I don’t understand all of the book. And, to be sure, nobody truly does understand how the mind works. Pinker gives us the best scientific insight.** We do understand a lot, in schematic terms. But I’m the kind of guy who wants to know on a nitty-gritty mechanistic level how the neurons actually carry out the processes and encode the information they’re supposed to. I want to understand how my mind carries a picture of my mother; and nobody can yet really tell me.

imagesIn my own last book, I cited the language example above; another was hitting a baseball. As the ball is pitched, the brain has a fraction of a second to gauge its speed and trajectory – a particularly difficult problem because remember that you’re seeing it from the worst possible foreshortened head-on perspective. Then you must calculate the exact mid-air spot where the bat will have to be to intersect with the ball, a window of opportunity lasting milliseconds; then calculate the exact arm movements needed to get the bat to that rendezvous, at the right angle, at exactly the right moment; and finally transmit the requisite instructions to the muscles. All this has to happen in a second or so.

I say it can’t be done. The mathematics are beyond complicated. But, you say, your beer-soaked loser brother-in-law does it regularly? Hmm . . .

Now, leaving aside physical feats like that, you might suppose that pure thought is pretty simple business. You’d be wrong, as Pinker’s book makes clear. Ever the careful analyst, he dissects down to its nitty-gritty what a “thought process” must entail. Suppose you have a bunch of information about a family and want to figure out whether X is Y’s uncle. Simple? Pinker takes us through the logic steps – for images-1pages and pages before you get to the answer. (Reminded me of Principia Mathematica wherein Russell and Whitehead sought to ground mathematics in pure logic and after literally 362 pages finally proved 1+1=2.)

So no thought process is “simple,” not at all, when you really, er, think about it.

And how ‘bout them eyeballs?

Here’s where it gets truly hairy. To begin with, the problems of interpreting what is seen are immense. Remember that baseball coming straight at you. Figuring out what you’re seeing when you see a three dimensional object, with two eyes each seeing a slightly different image, the two having to be collated, with a foreground and a background, together with a whole mess of other objects, some of them partly in front of others, under variable lighting conditions, that may be right side up or upside down, near (and seemingly large) or far (and seemingly small), and moving at great speed besides – whoa!

Nobody has ever been able to program a computer that comes remotely close to sorting this out.

images-2But that’s only the beginning. The really hairy problem is how the results of such visual interpretation are seen by the mind. No, there isn’t a little man in there viewing images projected on a screen. Now, as I sit here writing this, I “see” a rather complicated scene. You could render it into language – there’s a vase of a certain shade of blue, of a certain shape, with a bunch of a certain kind of flowers in a certain configuration, in front of another one . . . to actually get in all the details would take quite a lot of verbiage, that could fill a book; and it all could be encoded into ones and zeroes, like a computer does with pixels. And the brain could process that. But what I’m seeing is not a welter of ones and zeroes. I see an image. How can that be? Without a little man?

Pinker actually suggests that at least part of it involves literally physically mapping a picture across the brain. He cites an experiment with a monkey viewing a bull’s eye target, with a brain scan of neural activity showing a similar bull’s eye pattern. Well, maybe. But I can’t be convinced that such a mechanism accounts for the finely-grained complexity of what I’m seeing right now.

And this all concerns seeing what’s in front of us. But we can see other things. Things we remember (like that picture of my mom). And things we only imagine.

images-3Dreams of flying are common. In mine, I can swoop at high speed over a landscape of great intricacy, changing by the millisecond. How does my brain create that imagery? Sometimes I wonder whether it’s as simple as a program instructing me to imagine I’m seeing a complex landscape. But how would my imagination comply, supplying what is certainly experienced as detailed visual imagery?

It’s a chicken-and-egglike conundrum. I can accept that visual information goes from eye to brain, and the brain can know what’s being seen. But, again, how do we experience it not as information but as a picture? There’s got to be a little man in there! (And of course a little man inside his head . . . )

That’s why I say this too can’t be done.

But, to be serious, the point is what a fantastically advanced, profoundly subtle technology the human mind is – far more than anything Apple has come up with. And I haven’t even mentioned consciousness! Siri is one smart cookie, but doesn’t know she exists, and that’s a giant chasm between us.

Unknown-1Religious believers look at all this and say it could only have been designed by a divine intelligence. I draw the opposite conclusion. I can’t see any single mind, no matter how divine and omnipotent, designing such a system from scratch. It could only have evolved stepwise over eons of time by an iterative natural trial-and-error process. And, of couse, if you do envision a divine intelligence capable of such a feat – who the heck designed that mind? As Pinker says, religion answers baffling mysteries with ones even more baffling.

* A little out of date, admittedly, but while our understanding of the subject has grown since then, it has not radically changed.

** And being Pinker, it’s not all dry and pedantic. One topic deeply explored is how the mind works in sexuality. He quotes an older hooker mentoring a younger one who can’t understand a rich handsome man paying for sex. “Honey,” she’s told, “he’s not paying you for the sex. He’s paying you to go away afterward.”

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5 Responses to “How the Mind Works (Or Can It?)”

  1. Gregg Millett Says:

    Nice reflections Frank.So here we are — magnificent creatures (bacteria are pretty cool too) — contemplating space, and time and our existence — so why is it so difficult for us to create a beneficent, loving world — human to human and human to nature? I know, “we’re better off than we have ever been.” unless we missed it on atomic energy or global warming — and the religious thing still has the potential to get pretty nasty. I’m hopeful!

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    Gregg, It is “so difficult for us to create a beneficent, loving world” only in relation to a perfect ideal. Nature — the laws of the Universe — entail no component of “beneficence” or “loving.” Those are purely human constructs, and the only beneficence and loving there is is what we have made. And I think we’ve made quite a lot of it.

  3. Liz Says:

    I just read your article on Freedom in The Humanist. I am wondering if you’re familiar with the work of Jonathon Haidt. Specifically, Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind I think would be of some interest to you as a complement, and counterpoint, to your ideas.

    Regards,
    Michigan Atheist

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    Liz, I reviewed Haidt’s book on this blog: http://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2012/03/28/the-righteous-mind/

  5. Joel Birkeland Says:

    According to modern physics, it is not possible to know both the position and momentum of a particle (as I recall; it’s been a while since I was a physics student). I wonder if there are similar restrictions on how much we can know about the nature of consciousness.

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