Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Origin of the Mind Lead: Willem DeVries


Summary by Abigail Crocker

Origin of the Mind

After the class settled in their chairs with the cake Professor Moebius ordered in celebration of Darwin Day, Professor deVries began the Feb. 11 lecture on the “Origin of the Mind” with the “definition problem.” According to Professor deVries, philosophers and psychologists are not able to clearly define what the mind is. For that matter, it’s also unclear who should even be stating what the mind is. Psychologists and mental health professionals seem to be the most logical answer. However, deVries said that people in general have a problem with psychologists being the ones to discern what the mind actually is, since no set credentials have been established. The nature the mind is thought of as a philosophical problem, not so much as a scientific problem.

Psychologists have made progress in understanding how the mind works since Wilhelm Wundt started the first psychology laboratory in 1879. William James, known as the father of pragmatic psychology, conducted studies at Harvard University in the late 19th century. This is when psychology began to be thought of as more of a scientific study rather than philosophical – the armchair vs. the laboratory debate. DeVries made the comment that scientists understand that rods and cones in the retinas are what deliver color signals to the brain. According to deVries, “we have no scientific ways of telling what the color experiences of other organisms are like---that is a point still open to debate---but that we have no way of explaining why the neural activity that realizes our ability to experience color (which is a welter of synaptic firings in certain layers of the visual cortex) appears to us the way it does (as smooth fields of color). That’s where the explanatory gap lies.” This is why science and philosophy are both needed in this philosophic debate as to what the mind is. According to the scientifically inclined, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology basically hold the key to understanding the origin of the mind.

The lecture lead back to the question: what things actually have minds? The class concluded that things that are living have minds. However, machines are not living, but may have minds in the future. Therefore, what is the definition of a mind? Do plants have minds? Are there any minds at all in the world? These questions need to be solved in order to discern what a mind is and where it originates.

There are some living organisms that philosophers have concluded don’t have minds. These would be simple immobile life forms such as plants, etc. There are also organisms such as humans and animals that do have minds. However, there are “problem cases,” cases that don’t fit neatly into any clear mind-definition box, such as reptiles, fish, mollusks, insects. The commonly held notion is that something has a mind or it doesn’t – there is no in between.

Descartes thought that the mind wasn’t housed in a body; it was on a higher plane. He believed that there is a partnership between the body and the mind and that animals did not possess minds and believed that maybe angels and God do in addition to humans. Aristotle had the idea of a “soul” but since our society is influenced by Christian doctrine, our culture associates the term “soul” with a different definition than Aristotle would have associated with the term. Aristotle’s “soul” can be thought of as a life-force or psyche.

DeVries then raised the question as to whether or not a plant had a mind. In order for things to have a mind, they must be able to perceive and then move based upon the information received in the mind. Animals do this, but the rational soul, the soul housed by humans, is able to recognize eternal truths, reason, infer, and use language, logic and math as well. Animals are unable to perceive eternal truths. And while animal souls are more complex than inanimate objects or lower forms of life, animals respond to their direct environment and little more.

Rachel Ripperger, a senior psychology major, said that she thought animals have reasoning due to their ability to form complex languages. DeVries responded that in today’s world, animals and humans are not viewed as vastly different creatures with different levels of mind. Today’s emphasis is more centered on the debate on the differences between human and machine. While animals exhibit highly sophisticated communication systems, deVries argues that animals do not encompass language. Centuries ago, Descartes thought of animals as highly sophisticated machines.

Professor Davis, a plant biologist, asked if the Venus fly trap would fall under the abovementioned categories for perceiving and moving. The class concluded that it was a hard question to answer. DeVries raised the question as to whether or not a mind needed to be an all or nothing concept or are there any grey areas when it comes to the mind. The problem case of a bat was raised. Bats utilize the sense of echolocation. Human beings are not able to do so and therefore, would never be able to understand what it is like to be a bat. According to deVries, “the idea here was that the differences between human minds (in non-pathological cases) are small compared to the differences between animal species.” Except in the case of a pathological circumstance, for example except a person in vegetative state, minds are a constant throughout living humans. Descartes believed that a mind would be unable to “fall apart” since it was in a higher state than the body.

This leads to the question of consciousness. While there is an agreed upon definition of what consciousness is, according to deVries, “under the term ‘consciousness’ we have gathered a set of diverse phenomena that do not, in fact, possess any deeper unity, but just happen to coincide within us more as a syndrome than a unitary quality.”

This then leads to a higher question. Does anything in nature have a purpose? Does this lead to God? All objects and evolutionary events in nature have a purpose. For example, sight led to great advantages for our ancestors. The heart beats to circulate blood. Professor Davis then asked if the circulatory process was created to serve a specific function for the heart. Meaning, there was a purpose to the evolutionary process. DeVries and Davis debated this question as to whether or not the blood pumps to circulate blood or whether blood is circulated to make the heart beat. No resolution was made between the two professors. Then the question as to how the first mind was created. It was created due to the evolutionary process, but how and when did that occur? Only people can infer that our minds have a purpose.

DeVries said that the question as to whether or not there is purpose is a circular question. DeVries said that “looking to God to supply a purpose for the world gets one nowhere or at best postpones the problem, since one then must explain how God could acquire a purpose.” This raised the questions related to God’s origin and purpose. If there was purpose created by a great inventor, God, then how would God receive his purpose? How would he have been created? “We are purposeless things in a purposeless world,” said deVries. Davis then asked if there’s no purpose, what’s the cause?

It seems as though it will be a long time, if ever, until these questions are brought to a conclusion. However, one person in the class raised the point that humans have been searching for these universal answers for thousands of years. This searching is perhaps ingrained – even essential – to the human experience.