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The Global Brain
"It is not guilty pride but the ceaselessly reawakened instinct of the game which calls forth new worlds." (Heraclitus Reloaded)
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    Mind - The need for a new model
    Project: Polytopia
    At the very core of being human, at the core of human social and cultural fabric lays the human mind, and the knowledge of the mind. Its roots are as ancient and as diverse as human civilization. It is colored by myth, folk psychology, cultural belief systems, common sense, philosophy and relatively recently by science. How do we perceive? What is there to perceive? What is consciousness? What is the nature of reality? What are thoughts and how do thoughts arise? How do we know whatever we know? Is there continuity beyond physical death (or before birth)? These are just a few of the fundamental riddles a theory of mind should answer. Whether we are aware of it or not, every perception, thought, emotion, behavioral stance, interaction or value we have is entailed by an underlying theory of mind.

    Theories of mind held by individuals arise at a very early age as a consequence of interactions with the environment. They can be fairly simple or incredibly complex depending on factors such as the individual’s mental and emotional capacity, upbringing, education, life experience and cultural background. At a higher level, a theory of mind operates as cohering glue that guides human interactions and integrates human individuals into complex cultural organisms. With very few exceptions, diverse theories of mind operated by individuals are instances of the theory of mind sustained by the larger cultural organism they belong to. In this sense, both the dynamics of an individual mind and the collective dynamics of cultural organisms derive from the same theory of mind.

    Due to its profound influence on the reality of being in all dimensions, a theory of mind is perhaps the single most significant and remarkable reflection of a civilization. Moreover, the fitness of a civilization to address existential problems that arise in the course of its evolution is intimately connected to what openings, opportunities and fields of interaction its underlying theory of mind allows.

    Recently it is becoming overwhelmingly clear that modern civilization is experiencing change on scales and speeds never experienced in human history. In the face of such massive transformative pressures, a revision of the prevailing theory of mind, the very manner by which we perceive reality and ourselves, seems to become imperative.

    In a 1970 lecture Gregory Bateson, a prominent thinker who realized the connection between mind culture and nature said:

    If you put God outside and set him vis-à-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or con-specifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables. If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of over-population and over grazing.

    Most remarkable in Bateson’s reflections is the connection he makes between the theory of mind and the dynamics of culture, and between this dynamics and the culture’s prospects of continuity and evolution. As we address an increasing imbalance and collapse of ecological systems verging on a disaster of a planetary scale, we still think in terms of ‘protecting nature’, ‘saving the planet’, or ‘warding off climate change’. The change in attitude is perhaps apparent, but sadly it is fundamentally constrained by a language and conceptual system belonging to the increasingly obsolete separated and separating worldview reflected in Bateson’s words. We still try to handle ‘the situation out there’ instead of addressing the Mind- our mind as the only state of affairs.

    At the beginning of the 3rd millennium we witness a very wide spectrum of similar observations. More than that; it seems that much of our deeper understanding of mind which is still rooted in biblical myth and the Judeo-Christian-Islamic worldview is becoming inadequate and profoundly so. The abuse of the environment is only one extreme example of such inadequacy. Dysfunctional governance systems, fragile economy, corruption, the decline of individual mental balance and emotional fitness are additional symptoms of the dangerously decreasing fitness of human civilization on this planet. Even the immense impact of science on our understanding of the brain and human psychology do not compensate for the fact that at the root of our deepest scientific understandings lays an obsolete theory of mind.

    Indeed, a civilization is a very complex organism with immense capabilities of adaptation and transformation. Adjustments are taking place at many levels with varying degrees of effectiveness. Yet, most of these adaptations are superficial. It seems that civilization is reaching a phase where an effective response to the accelerating selective pressures at play invites a profound revision of first principles: we need to augment our theory of mind. It is perhaps the first time in the history of humanity that an intense inquiry into the nature of mind is becoming a clear imperative.

    The inquiry into the nature of mind does not and cannot belong to any specific field of human inquiry, not even to philosophy or religion or science that historically, each in turn, claimed a privileged authoritative status or even ownership in regards to what mind is or might be. It is my belief that the inquiry into the nature of mind should be all encompassing, multidisciplinary and multidimensional, integrating all aspects of the phenomenal and mental realms. Above all it should be open ended: there are no final truths to be uncovered, no fixated conceptions. Moreover, the inquiry into the nature of mind should become a primary challenge of every human being as hinted by the ancient aphorism ‘Know thyself’. Such inquiry holds the promise of the deepest most profound aesthetic pleasure. It seems to capture and distill the very essence and meaning of being an intelligent evolving conscious being.

    Fri, May 15, 2009  Permanent link

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    Self-Evolving     Mon, Jun 8, 2009  Permanent link

    "Even the immense impact of science on our understanding of the brain and human psychology do not compensate for the fact that at the root of our deepest scientific understandings lays an obsolete theory of mind."

    Which is what exactly?? And why/how is it obsolete? Do you mean the idea that the "the mind is what the brain does" conception?

    Also, how do you really see, assuming the type of theory of mind you have in mind is possible, such a model translating into real life changes that will effect the problems you outlined above. It is my view that systems are inherently flawed, and thus government, the enviroment, etc., will unleash tumults because of their natural innate asymmetries. In other words, how will the average Joe that does not even care enough to pick up a newspaper be influenced by some breakthrough theory of mind? And if the average person does not attend to it, then what be its effectiveness? (I find the theory of mind quest invigorating, I just think the idea that it is going to solve the worlds problems is a bit far-fetched, at least at this stage of the game).

    I'm glad to be back to the SC!

    Spaceweaver     Fri, Jun 12, 2009  Permanent link
    Self-Evolving: Welcome back and thanks for your interest and your questions. I will try to start answering them.

    Which is what exactly?? And why/how is it obsolete? Do you mean the idea that the "the mind is what the brain does" conception?

    Our current theory of mind is not a coherent and consistent body of knowledge. It is rather a huge collection of common sense knowledge, beliefs, assumptions and wishful thinking very sparsely patched by pieces of good philosophy and good science. Actually there is no coherent theory that describes what is mind. There isn't even a beginning of a research program framing how the investigation of mind can be approached. I believe neuroscience to be an essential key to the understanding of mind, yet the neural correlates of the mind are far from being the whole story, and sometime it feels as if the study of mind was literally hijacked by fMRI imaging... Moreover, the mind being the very organ of cognition and thought cannot be approached as yet another phenomenon where the standard methods of science can apply without second thought. I have much to add here but will try to keep it relatively short.

    There are many aspects of our current concept of mind which are obsolete. One of the primary ones is what I would call 'a paradigm of separation' also mentioned in the quote by G. Bateson mentioned in the post. Our very cognitive apparatus is build upon subject-object separation which seems to have a progressively destructive consequences as our existence becomes more complex. Another aspect is the belief that the mind is entirely a product of the brain. This is a very limiting assumption. Not that I wish to introduce here non physical elements, not at all. But questions like whether societies have a collective mind, or whether the web has or might have a mind, or whether a complex ecology is a mindful entity, or what would amount to a mind in future artificial intelligences and cybernetic organisms, cannot be answered from within the current models. These are questions we would certainly like to try and answer; in fact, very shortly we will need to answer them.

    In other words, how will the average Joe that does not even care enough to pick up a newspaper be influenced by some breakthrough theory of mind? And if the average person does not attend to it, then what be its effectiveness?

    This is a very good question, which is certainly present in my thoughts. Indeed it seems that dealing with the mind is hugely removed from our very pressing here and now issues. But I do not think so. I argue that the majority of problems in the world today are only symptoms of something which goes much deeper and is much less apparent. These symptoms, it seems, can be traced back to our most primal patterns of perception and minding. Territoriality, greed, prejudice, and exaggerated self interest on the expanse of others, are all products of obsolete patterns of minding. Current theories of evolutionary psychology are trying to understand such patterns and other aspects of human psychology in terms of evolutionary processes. While this kind of research is producing some very valuable insights, it depicts the average human as a product of a millennia of adaptation. It does not emphasize properly the nearly limitless potential of transformation resulting from the general plasticity of our highly evolved neural systems (let alone possible augmentation by technological means). This direction certainly does not favor the image of mind as capable of a radical change in the course of the life time of an individual.

    Who is average Joe? Average Joe is a mind product of culture, education, communication between humans, beliefs, behavioral patterns, emotional stances etc. Average Joe is an instance of our collective mind model. Change the model, Joe is transformed. This is indeed a complex and large scale process, which I believe can, at least in part, be guided by a vision.

    Such transformative processes, guided by vision can be extremely effective. See for example how our idea about aging, so deeply rooted, is recently shifting. Aging that once was believed to be an inevitable natural process (like childhood), is slowly shifting to become an array of health conditions that might one day be cured to the effect of a radical life extension. A whole belief system is shifting; and why? Have we found the fountain of youth? Certainly not. This is a change in image initially propagated by a relatively small number of visionaries. It starts with a dream of an individual and eventually it reaches, or better, it becomes average Joe, because average Joe whether he knows that or not is endowed with very high level of mind plasticity. It is quite easy for average Joe to change, as strange as it might sound. Once an aspect of our mind model, even a single image changes, large scale changes will ensue.

    meganmay     Sat, Jun 20, 2009  Permanent link
    and sometimes it feels as if the study of mind was literally hijacked by fMRI imaging

    I'm glad this post got dug up again because I think I missed it's debut, and it's got me pumped up. The mention of neural plasticity reminded of a conversation I had the other day about how people are so strongly influenced by what happens to them during childhood. It occurred to me, and forgive me for stating the obvious, that babies are equipped with these extraordinarily receptive brains because they are in a position to adapt to whatever world they might find outside the womb. It's a very very basic thought, but it implies that babies, at the moment of their birth, are ready to live in the future.

    Thanks for another great post Spaceweaver