Monday, February 27, 2012

An Organized Mind

We so want to make sense of things, don't we? The first thing when we meet a new person or see a new place is to try and bucket this new experience in with the old. What is this person like? What does this restaurant remind me of? We are insatiable organizers of our own experiences.

This categorization of everything we encounter is of course useful, because otherwise we would be adrift without the ability to make connections or properly react to the new. But it also makes us qucker to judgment than we sometimes should be, and at risk of over-simplification. Thus, some of our best ideas come from resisting our initial impulse to label and looking at stimuli without preconceived notions.

I was reminded of this by two quite disparate articles. The first was a reflection on the meaning (or lack thereof) of the races that we have lumped the human race into. In the course of noting that these racial categories are largely artificial, he notes that this is also true of other classifications that are much less controversial:
Do races exist in human biology? Is it a useful concept? That depends on criteria in both cases. The reality is that I’m not sure I know what a species is in an axiomatic sense, let alone race (many biologists don’t, that’s why there’s a whole area devoted to studying the issue of the definition). Rather, for me species are evaluated instrumentally. Is the classification of a set of individuals as a species useful in illuminating a specific biological question? Species are human constructions, categories which are mapped upon reality. That doesn’t make them without utility. Many of the same “where do you draw the line?” questions asked of race can be asked of species. In a deep ontological sense I don’t believe in species. But in a deep ontological sense I don’t accept the solidity of a brick (most of the volume is space of any object of course!).
Of course our catalogue of species gives a useful shorthand of evolutionary branching, but it is easy to forget that the idea of species predates evolutionary theory, and was meant to capture the distinct types of creatures that had existed in their current forms for all of history. So the idea of distinct, hard-and-fast species can lead us into some false assumptions.

A similar idea crops up in a totally different area: our depiction of the mind. In this piece, provocatively entitled "The Mind is a Guess", the author notes that some cultures do not understand the mind as a singular thing that controls all our thinking function.
In traditional Haitian culture, there is no direct equivalent of the mind. The self is made up of a three components. The corps cadavre is the physical body; the ti-bon anj or ‘little good angel’ loosely represents what we would consider as agency, awareness and memory; while the gwo bon anj or the ‘big good angel’ is the animating principle that manages motivation and movement. Incidentally, a traditional Haitian zombie is created when a sorcerer steals the ‘little good angel’ leaving a coordinated body capable of understanding and following instructions but without reflective thought, clearly demonstrating a split where we see a single mental realm.
The idea of a single mind is so fundamental for most of us that trying to imagine it split or otherwise defined differently is almost impossible. We think of the mind as one thing (generally housed in our brain), but different types of thought could function differently enough that it makes more sense to talk about two minds, or four, or twelve. The usefulness of the 'mind idea' might be blinding us to a more nuanced understanding of how we think.

Who knows what other things that we think we know, that we perhaps even think are proven, that are in truth flaws of our mental organization?

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