The Poetics of Thought

Little Mind

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 1, 2009

The place I am trying to get to by the end of this overall section is a position where it makes sense to ask questions like ‘What is knowing?’ and there are a number of conditions that have to be in place before that kind of question can be asked.  This isn’t the kind of question you can direct at a rock.  To ask whether a rock ‘knows’ anything stretches the definition of ‘knowing’ beyond viability.  Nor is it the kind of question which can be applied meaningfully to an ant, an amoeba, or a trilobite; ‘knowing’ cannot even by attributed to Fred  and Wilma Flintstone, our distant ancestors.  As I will be arguing later, when we talk about this thing we call ‘knowing’ as if it was capable of existing outside of the narrowly circumscribed domain of the bodies of homo sapiens we are indulging in anthropomorphism, applying human attributes to non-human entities.  To possess knowledge or to engage in knowing requires a very particular conceptual apparatus which seems to be uniquely associated with the tottering, chattering bipeds that wandered out of Africa and colonized the Earth around 50,000 years ago. And what goes for knowledge also goes for all of the other architectural elements of thinking that make human life so interesting; believing, hoping, desiring, wishing, dreading, doubting, but if I want to talk about these things I have to start with rocks, or at least the metabolising chemical goop that gathered on the back of rocks at the start of it all.  The causal narrative that that I will be tracing leads from the simplest of organisms to Lucy to you and I speaking and listening, reading and writing.

If I can approach this narrative by playing the tape backwards we might hear, amongst the satanic messages always found in backmasked audio, the sound of thought leaving the building, accompanied by the trailing off of a disappearing mind.  By this I mean that what we call ‘thinking’ requires the existence of something called ‘mind’, which in turn requires the existence of a brain capable not only of carrying out the usual functions of managing the body but also of supporting that mind.  A brain of this sophistication must have been preceded by a simpler brain which was equally good at organising the body but which would not support something like a mind.  This simpler brain would be an enhancement of a central nervous system solely employed to negotiate the interface between body and world, and this in turn must have grown from some elementary feedback system which allowed for an adaptive reflexivity.  The key point is that ‘mind’ is not synonymous with cognition but is the latest in a long series of upgrades to the basic operating system our single-celled ancestors evolved  for getting along in the world.

I realize this is a contestable point and that ‘mind’ is a fluid concept which has very diverse applications.  Some may well say that ‘mind’ can be meaningfully attributed to the simplest life forms or to non-living systems or even to inanimate matter, the philosopher David Chalmers flirts with this idea very eloquently in his book ‘The Consciousn Mind’ (1996, especially chapter eight), and of course it also features within some spiritual discourse.  Some mystics and panpsychists might say that mind is a constituent part of the fabric of the universe and we are simply its local instantiations, giving voice to this mind-at-large from the viewpoint of where we individually stand.  Attractive as this idea might be, this is not the position I am taking here.  Although I will be qualifying this later, for the moment I am assuming that mind is the result of a bottom up process involving something like emergence, adaptation, exaptation, or epiphenomenalism and begins with simpler entities.  Furthermore, I will be arguing that whilst cognition is commonplace among living organisms, and possibly among entities not usually considered cognate, ‘mind’ is a peculiarity of human cognition.

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Chalmers, D. (1996). The Conscious Mind. Oxford: University of Oxford Press.


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