Look After Your Mind – The Thinking Reed

Look after your mind

The French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) famously said that ”Man is but a reed, the feeblest one in nature, but he is a thinking reed”.

It is our ability to think and to manipulate our thoughts that makes us unique among all living creatures on Earth. Such an ability is known as metacognition – going beyond thought to think about thought. And yet even though we take our mind completely for granted, thinking and consciousness itself remain profoundly mysterious.

There are plenty of theories about what the mind might be. People who subscribe to the idea of materialism – that matter and energy are the only reality – believe that the mind is caused by the electrochemical activity of the brain.

This is an example of what I call ‘nothing-buttery’. That the mind is nothing but the firing of the brain’s neurons. The difficulty with this idea is that no one has yet explained how the sensory input of seeing and smelling a red rose, for instance, translates to the actual experience of the rose.

Linking what the brain does with what the mind experiences is known in philosophy as the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Some people, such as the materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett, even go so far as to suggest that consciousness doesn’t exist. That it is an illusion.

Other theories

Slightly less extreme is the notion that mental activity is an epiphenomenon of the brain. This is a kind of by-product caused by the brain’s physical activity but having no effect upon it. So for instance I feel sleepy and I yawn. An epiphenomenalist would say that tiredness doesn’t cause the yawn but rather that both are effects of an underlying neural state.

These and other ideas are attempts to tackle the so-called mind-body problem. How the mind relates to the body, or more specifically how the non-physical mind can affect the physical body.

Another suggestion, called idealism, is that the mind is all that exists and that physical reality is either itself mental, an aspect of all-pervading consciousness, or an illusion. In this theory consciousness doesn’t mean the individual ego-consciousness that we think of as ‘I’, but rather a kind of universal awareness or sentience that encompasses all of reality.

The philosopher Bernardo Kastrup subscribes to this idea. He uses the analogy that if such consciousness was an ocean, then individual consciousness is a wave that rises up out of it, exists briefly and then subsides back into the water. Interestingly, the ancient Eastern philosophy of Taoism uses water as a metaphor in a similar way.

So you can see that there are wildly differing notions of what the mind is. Here, we’ve touched on just a few. A number of scientists have stated frankly that we don’t yet know even how to begin framing the questions that will start to untangle the puzzle. Some even feel that the human mind will never be clever enough to understand itself. Not that this would stop any of us from thinking about it.

Steve Bowkett.