Embodying the mind

A common phrase these days is the “embodied mind,” and make no mistake, I am for it even though its epistemological basis is murky, for the use of ‘embodied’ carries the implication that the mind was embodied by nature, when it was, truth be told, embodied by us and that only recently in any rigorous sense beginning with Darwin’s statement that the human mind is different from the minds of other animals only by degree and not in kind. Before Darwin established that profound truth, for many centuries and countless generations, we, except for a few skeptical geniuses in ancient Greece and others like Spinoza, disembodied the mind by believing it was a spiritual manifestation from one’s god(s). I will explain below that we continue to disembody the mind today despite the advances of neuroscience, even in its service.

I have begun reading Frans de Waals’ newest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? In the text he says that the title should read ‘how smart other animals are’, and that he uses ‘animals’ as shorthand for all of our relatives. I must say I love his writings; he has broad humanistic knowledge and he is an excellent and rigorous scientist.   And while I acknowledge that mentioning humans and animals as if they were two separate categories is one of my pet peeves, I want to argue that the title is actually quite apt.

De Waals quotes Werner Heisenberg, one of the giants of 20th century physics as saying, “What we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning”. Here is an important epistemological observation (I think it is clearer if instead of ‘to’ he had used ‘by’ our method of questioning). Heisenberg ‘discovered’ that the act of measuring imposes limits on what can be known (either location or mass but not both) and that the act itself changes what is measured. This, it seems obvious to me, applies to our understanding the mind, so when de Waals asks if we are smart enough to understand animal intelligence, while he is mainly referring to our denigration of other animals’ minds, I think the question also includes our own minds, and our measurements are often specious given our narrow perspective. And given our current culture, especially its lack of intellectual depth as seen in our political discourse and the media’s reporting of it, I have my doubts.

When we disembodied the mind as something from god, all knowledge came from god and so we have most of medieval philosophy trying to reconcile that with Aristotle who, of course, knew different gods. Quite a dilemma. Then sometime after the Copernican revolution we went the other direction and disembodied the mind by pretending it was rational and orderly. Thus the English, who knew they were the most logical because their trains ran on time, could justify bringing civilized order to the rest of us, and now we have gone even further by disembodying the mind to be an information processing machine, i.e., our minds run by some logical algorithms, even though Freud had thrown a monkey wrench into those works a century ago when he pointed out the power of the subconscious.

I struggle to understand how so many discussions seem pointless as we talk past one another, have no common factual frame, and rarely adjust our thinking given another’s input. (Of course looking at some of that input, I wonder that we even listen). I remember Thomas Kuhn’s books on the Copernican and scientific revolutions where he says that a new paradigm comes to predominate only when the older generation who espoused the old paradigm dies off. I do understand how Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist studying moral and political discourse, came up with his article, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail,” thereby saying the tail wags the dog, i.e., logic over emotions, albit very poorly. These days I watch how our current political discourse confirms research findings that out of 32 or so modernly advantaged nations, the USA ranks 30th in educational achievement. Actually I wonder if it is really that high.

It seems clear enough that our knowledge does not come from god nor is it rational or logically based; those views arise when we disembody the mind. When we embody the mind (more on that in a future post), we find that our minds are indeed a muddy mess with all epistemology suspiciously complicated. How smart are animals? Without the talents for symbolization and making it up, other animals seem to have a clear, clean intelligence that serves them well enough to escape our clutches when they can. With those talents, whereby we disembody the mind and believe that we are more intelligent than we really are, not so much.

In my clinical training and practice I learned and endeavored to see the object whole, to stay close to the data in my interpretations, remembering by what I measured and how my perspective was lacking. Yeah, I know I will come back soon enough to how our empathy and symbolization are strengths, but right now, those are not particularly manifest in the data. So with this road sign lit up rather brilliantly by the road, “Caution: human minds at work,” travel on.

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