What is it?
For a long time my stance was to not talk about minds.
I'm interested in how it's possible for people to have the mental capabilities we have and I found that talking about minds was short-circuiting my understanding.
We have mental capabilities because we have a thing we call a mind.
I found it much more fruitful to say "I think" rather than "I have a mind. I found I could investigate the action of "I think" in quite a bit of detail even as a self taught independent scholar.
I've learned a lot about how our neurons work and how when they are interconnected in certain sorts of networks the networks can learn. I've learned that you can construct similar networks out of wires or even software and those networks learn too. The network just learns. It doesn't have a mind that learns.
Not everything learns. People do. Dogs and cats do. I'm not sure if frogs learn and I don't really know where to draw the line. But it's plain that learning only emerges in nature when it gives an evolutionary advantage. Learning helps people but probably not frogs. And outside of biology what good would learning be? Why would a rock or a star need to learn?
When I learn something I remember a situation: what the state of affairs was and/or what happened. The things I learn coexist with other things I've learned. The set of things I have learned don't just lay there in a heap. They are a mutually reinforcing set of ideas that form a kind of mental structure that I call a structure of understanding. A structure of understanding is like an abstract ecosystem and not all the things we learn survive that in that environment.
Raw sense data is meaningless; It needs to be interpreted which is what the neocortex does. It's wired as a neural network that takes in data at a low level and outputs meaning at a higher level. The meaning is presented to the structure of understanding which understands and acts. This of course is a continuous loop that continues as long as we live.
Years ago I did a bit of a study of Merleau Ponty. Wikipedia tells us that he wrote about "foundational role that perception plays in the human experience of the world. Merleau-Ponty understands perception to be an ongoing dialogue between one's lived body and the world which it perceives, in which perceivers passively and actively strive to express the perceived world in concert with others.. " (at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maurice_Merleau-Ponty)
That is, reality provides us with raw data but what we experience is a world that is an interpretation of that data and this is a dynamic process that continues all our lives. From Daniel Dennett I learned that we experience that dynamic process as a narrative about what's going on around us. Traditionally that's called being conscious. That is, not only do we not experience "the thing in itself", when we see an apple, we barely perceive the apple in isolation. We perceive the apple as an element in the story about what's happening around us. And just to make even more abstract. Each of us experiences a different story. Culture and society are the outcome of us all trying to experience mutually compatible stories.
My reluctance to use the concept of a mind was that I saw it as a thing that exists in some immaterial mental space that "I" had access to. But I'm thinking that the ideas I'm working with here like "structure of understanding" and "story we tell ourselves" are not material but can readily be linked to material reality: no mental space required so perhaps I can think of that as "a mind"
I'm taking a cultural studies class this term called Humanities 101 (HUM) at UBC and recently we had a lecture about semiotics or the study of signs. Signs are made of a signifier (i.e. apple) + the meaning signified (i.e. knowledge) . The denotation of a sign is whatever makes it recognizable. The connotation of a sign is whatever it means to the person experiencing it.
Clive Bell once wrote that an essential aspect of experiencing a work of art is that we know it was made for us to experience; it didn't just happen. No matter how glorious and uplifting a sunset might be, it's not a work of art. A picture of the sunset is. Signs have a similar property - we need to know that they were made for us to read.
HUM has a set of "touchstones";
We can link signs to the touchstones pretty easily. The sign was put in a particular place by a person and is seen at a time. All of those form a context that interacts with the knowledge in the mind of the viewer. Power is the relation between the viewer of the sign and the maker of the sign.
Is a mind something that can be seen through the lens of the touchstones? A mind is pretty different from the sort of things we've been applying the touchstones to. The context of the touchstones seems to be the interactions among individuals and groups. I've learned to think of a mind as something like an ecosystem that evolves. It's like a pond with lots of life in it, but I don't think a fish is in a power relationship with the other lifeforms in the pond. And the pond is in a place, but the place is just a depression in the ground.
For years I've worked with the idea of "levels of abstraction". As an experiment I asked ChatGPT what levels of abstraction meant. It said:
"Levels of abstraction refer to the different levels at which a system or process can be understood or represented. These levels can range from a high-level, conceptual understanding of a system to a low-level, technical implementation of that system. For example, in computer programming, there may be a high-level abstraction of a program's overall functionality, and a low-level abstraction of the specific lines of code that make up that functionality. The idea behind abstraction is that it allows the user to understand and work with a system at a level that is appropriate for their needs."
(Here's an essay I wrote about that: http://www.simulat.ca/introductionsv2.php?title=Levels%20of%20Abstraction%20and%20Minds. It's not nearly as concise.) I've used this idea outside of computer programming, as an important aspect of physical reality that links low level things like atoms to high level things like minds and cultures. I've been mostly interested (philosophically) in the mind level of abstraction along with Natural Selection and a bit of physics. There are many levels, like chemistry and biology that I only know from a distance.
I encounter other minds and I'm learning to think of them in terms of the HUM touchstones. I'm learning to consider where we are, who we are, what's our relationship, what do I know about us, and how much time do we have.
What do you think?