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Structures of Understanding

Pictures and Essays by Martin Hunt

Structures of Understanding
As a part of my own philosophic practice for a long time I have shied away from the idea of ‘mind’. It’s not that I don’t understand what mind means in daily conversation. Rather it’s an idea that seems solid but sort of falls apart like a wet tissue when examined.

People used to think that they can think and feel because they have minds. But let’s remember how when Descartes descended into the depths of skepticism to find the solid ground for belief he ended up at:
“I think, therefore I am.”
He didn’t say “I think, therefore I HAVE A MIND”. He stopped at saying “I think”. I’ve stopped there, philosophically, when I consider the issue of; how is it possible that I can think. After all, saying it’s because I have a mind gets me noplace in understanding how I can think.

The idea of a “structure of understanding” has been central to how I think about how we can think for a long time. And I’m sure that many philosophers have dealt with the same idea and called it by a different label. So let me expand on what I mean by that label.

Our brains have many structures of neurons that do surprisingly particular tasks. For instance, there is structure (I forget the name) that recognizes faces (literally). If a person has that structure damaged, for whatever reason, they can’t recognize faces. They can’t recognize their own mother by face but can by voice. Other structures in our brains do similarly specific thing and all of those structures inform each other all the time in realtime. What we do from moment to moment is the result of this or that coalition of structures becoming influential in that whole dance. This all happens at the level of neurons but there is a higher level of abstraction that is involved that has to be considered too.

An interpreter is a structure that takes in data from various sources and then fires if certain conditions are met. These interpreters in the neocortex are vastly interconnected in a cascading structure. The firing of each becomes the input data for many others, and those in turn fire and provide data for still other layers of interpreters. This is a process that takes in data at the bottom and produces meaning at the top. The moment to moment meaning coming out of the neo-cortex mixes with other inputs like memory and emotion to determine what we do from moment to moment. The level of abstraction we need involves thinking about how do all those modules interact.

A level of abstraction is not hard to understand - it happens when the interactions of simple things make more complex things. For instance; the way electrons, protons, and neutrons interact produce atoms. The atoms have properties that the protons and neutrons and electrons do not have. When the complex things produced by the interaction of simple things occur we see a level of abstraction. Obviously - the complex things like atoms can also interact as simple things to produce other levels of abstraction like ‘water’ or ‘salt’ and also obviously this expands to very many levels of abstraction.

We call it reality.

Returning to how our mental modules interact. If the mental modules interact chaotically nothing can happen. And in fact the process of growing and learning produces mental modules that generally interact harmoniously. For instance; I want bread, which interacts with my memory that knows how to get to the store which interacts with my body that knows how to walk - it’s a structure - an abstract structure. This is a structure of understanding.

Think back to the neocortex and it’s cascade of interpreters. That cascade is an intricate structure built up over time as we grow and learn. The more we grow and learn and the more intricate that structure becomes the harder it gets to inject new things into it without breaking it. And breaking a structure of understanding is very dangerous. Let me be plain - that structure enables us to understand reality - and breaking it means we can’t. And because of that we are not open to all information. Information and ideas that do not fit my structure of understanding do not make it in and the structure goes on without them. I’m not talking here about whether my structure of understanding is superior or anything. I’m talking about how my structure of reality has to be pretty inflexible or it wouldn’t work and I have to defend it (and I do unconsciously).

I think a structure of understanding is a bit like a building - it needs a solid foundation. Most of the elements of the structure are self-reinforcing in the sense that what I know about ice makes igloos make sense. But we do need to take some things on faith - they aren’t part of that self-reinforcing loop. I take on faith that reality exists and that we can learn about it via experience and thinking.

What do you think?