Monday, October 20, 2008

Mental life








We are all persons with thoughts, desires, emotions, memories, and awareness. In some sense we have first-hand knowledge of all this -- we are the ones who experience the situation of going through a difficult job interview, of feeling angry at an aggressive driver, of trying to decide what to do in a moment of important choice, of remembering an incident that occurred months or years earlier. We're not in the position that Thomas Nagel assumed when he tried to reason about what it feels like to be a bat ("What is it Like to Be a Bat?" in Ned Block, ed. Readings in Philosophy of Psychology v.1). And yet we have a surprisingly thin set of theories of what is involved in this active experiencing of the world as a thinking, acting person -- and some of our theories are obviously wrong. So why is it so hard to formulate a clear, simple philosophy of the mind -- an overarching sketch of how various mental states and processes relate to each other within the functioning person?

One sign of the confusion this subject engenders is the great variety of terms we use to capture what we're talking about: the mind, the agent, the self, the person, the subject, the knower, the actor, the ego, the conscious being, the soul. Each of these terms might be said to refer to the same thing -- the experiencing, wanting, acting human individual. And yet each highlights a different aspect of the topic: the act of perception, the gathering of knowledge, the experience of wants and desires, the fact of subjectivity, the problematic unity of the self, the process of decision making and action, the causality of the emotions, the situation of awareness. And, sure enough, there is a separate strand of philosophical thinking about each of these perspectives.

So here is my question: is it possible to sketch a basic theory of the conscious human being that allows us to assign a place to each of the mental activities and processes that we think are taking place; and can the various parts of psychology and neuroscience give us greater understanding of how this system works and greater confidence in the theories we advance? Can we arrive at a schematic but phenomenologically and behaviorally adequate sketch of how these bits of mental activity and process fit together? The diagrams above are pulled from the web with the search term "models of mind." They illustrate some very different ways of representing these different aspects or features of the person's mental experience, and they are, in some sense, the sorts of theories I'm looking for in this posting. But none is close to being satisfactory. So the question is, can we arrive at a sketch that can be defended on the basis of the evidence of logic, phenomenology, and behavior?

I think this was a large part of William James's goal in writing The Principles of Psychology. James wanted to explore the complexities of human mental life as presented through introspection; and he wanted to do this in a scientific fashion. (See a very good article from SEP on James here.) James describes his scientific goals in these terms in the first few sentences of the work:
Psychology is the Science of Mental Life, both of its phenomena and their conditions. The phenomena are such things as we call feelings, desires, cognitions, reasonings, decisions, and the like; and, superficially considered, their variety and complexity is such as to leave a chaotic impression of the observer.

Scientific psychology left this program behind almost a century ago, although parts of the effort are reflected in current cognitive psychology and social psychology. But it isn't sufficient to simply legislate the problem away; it is impossible to deny that memories, impulses, intuitions, aversions, feelings, desires, emotions, daydreams, and calculations all play roles in human mental life and action. So we need to have at least a sketchy idea of how we think the mental world we experience is organized and how this soup of mental life is related to action and behavior.

The effort to find concepts and frameworks in terms of which to analyze human mental life has been a continuing part of philosophy, in the fields of the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of psychology, and cognitive philosophy. One place to start on this large field is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, with articles on folk psychology, mental representation, the computational theory of mind, memory, and Merleau-Ponty. Philosophers have continued to take seriously the questions of consciousness, subjectivity, representation, and thinking.

But another place where one can turn in attempting to get a handle on the nature and organization of mental experience is literature. Great novels often capture a lot of the complexity of ordinary human mental experience in their narrations of individuals as they navigate life: Stavrogin in Dostoevsky's The Possessed, Julien Sorel in Red and Black, Rufus Scott in Baldwin's Another Country. These are "interior" novels -- novels where the author is making a sustained effort to get inside the head of the character, giving the reader a view of the nature of the subjective experience and thoughts that the character undergoes. And it seems to me that the intellectual work that the author is doing is very similar to the work of a philosopher in grappling with the nature of consciousness: he/she is attempting to arrive at a language that allows for description of these fleeting interior moments, and a framework of observation about how they may fit together -- how passion or jealousy affects action, how calculation interferes with love, how the experience of discrimination colors one's relationships. These theories aren't necessarily true -- in fact, one of the things we can do as critical readers is to see how well the novelist's framework of mental life holds together from the points of view of consistency and phenomenology -- but they represent significant intellectual efforts at understanding mental life nonetheless.

I think the subject is important for understanding the social world, because the subjective, active human individual is the "molecule" of social life. The ways in which individuals reason, act, form beliefs, create affinities, and emote are deeply important to social processes. And we won't understand many features of social life unless we can make some degree of progress on the problem of formulating an abstract model of the human person.