Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Mind and Its Place in Nature
Willem DeVries


Summary by Kathryn Fox

Mind and Its Place in Nature

What is the Mind? What is the Soul? And where does Nature fit into any of this? Our concept of nature as human beings has defined our concept of ourselves throughout history, and continues to do so today. Human concepts of the relationship between mind and nature have not been stable ideas in human history. This lecture, given by Professor deVries, is an exploration on what it means to have a mind and to fit into the ‘natural’ world. We started off with the ancient world. Nature in the ancient world was thought of as an ordered whole (cosmos)—our universe at the time, mainly the earth, the atmosphere, and the observable cosmos. Nature was not an artifact; it was viewed as an organism, and was given personal pronouns, such as Gaia (meaning land or earth) who is the Greek goddess that was a personification of the earth. The earth was not made by anyone, for it was not an artifact. More or less, Mother Earth, as we may refer to her, is self generating. The earth had a cycle of renewal, such as can be read in the Mayan beliefs that ‘humans’ have been through several trials of creation before the gods got it right, each time wiped out by the earth (I am greatly paraphrasing here; forgive me). The Greeks assigned to nature a causal order, meaning that nature is a system of interacting causes, and a moral order of high and low beings inhabiting it. For example, Humans are not the same as other animals—there is more to Humans. And while Humans are natural, they have reason, think, and process thoughts not necessarily required for survival. Natural things all have different sets of capacities; plants have a vegetative soul, and animals have a vegetative and motive soul, but humans have a third soul as well; the rational soul. What makes humans special is this third soul, and as far as we know, we cannot know for sure that other organisms do not have that soul, because we cannot ask them (yet). Aristotle thinks that all things have an internal purpose—all things ‘aim’ for something, i.e. heavy things want to go down, and all things strive for their natural resting place. This ‘aim’, the cause, is a thing’s/organism’s natural resting place. The ancient gods are not supernatural. They are part of nature and follow the same natural order of things as humans do.

We move to the medieval world’s concept of nature. Our knowledge of the world is still limited at this point, to the earth and its surrounding observable universe, but the development of monotheism has come into play. Instead of the personal non-supernatural gods that humans enjoyed in the ancient world, humans now have a personal god who exists outside of nature and our world as we know it; this god is supernatural and is in no way like us, who are a part of nature. Humans were created by this god, as was the entire earth and all things on it. Nature is now an artifact and has an external purpose; it is a text that God has written for us to interpret for his/her/its meaning/message. God’s message is perfect and nature is not. There is still a perceived moral and causal order to nature, but Nature is associated with corruption—the body and its ‘urges’. In this view, Humans are even more special; not animals and not fully natural. The immortal soul is the defining characteristic. It is the soul that, again, makes us special. Everything on earth was thought to be put on earth with a meaning by god—essentially this can be referred to as the Doctrine of Signatures, where all things have an assigned purpose by god for the use of humans, and hints to this purpose can be found in certain traits that the things possesses (for example, liverwort, a common plant name, was named such for its liver shaped leaves which was thought to cure liver problems).

The Western notion of Nature in the early modern world morphed into a view of nature working like clockwork. Space and time are infinite, and both are occupied by passive matter. One of these ideas, called the Corpuscularian Conception, was the idea that all physical bodies are made of indivisible small particles. With the rise of science and math, theories and laws about the world and space came into play, helping to define nature. Universal laws dictate the motion of matter, and space and time are governed by strict universal laws. Yet even though mathematicians and scientists had discovered these theories and laws, the ideas of purpose, meaning, and morality were all entirely foreign to nature. All the purpose, meaning, and morality in the world come from outside of nature—which humans are outside of, or at least the soul is outside of. God at this point in time is transcendent, and increasingly impersonal and abstract; God is outside of space and time, and is not governed by universal laws and truths.

Humans are a problem; we are beings of God and nature. The bodies of humans are machines, but our souls are immaterial and immortal, thus we are governed by nature, just as we are subject to morality. While new information about the earth and the surrounding heavens was being discovered, God was not ignored or rejected within these new guidelines for nature. Instead, as God as the creator, God was able to come and fix the universal laws when a calculation didn’t work out—God was needed to fix the clockwork that God had created (Thank you Newton). Theories about life on other plants or universes arose—but what would happen with god? If god is the steward of earth and the heavens, god would also be the steward of the rest of the universe because god is outside of it.

The late modern world, from Darwin to Quantum confusion (now), the ideas about space, time, and nature have evolved. Space and time are finite but unbounded, matter is energy, and our biology and connection with nature is based on biochemistry and the process of natural selection. Humans are the same stuff as everything else, but more complicated. The understanding of ecology has put humans back in nature; humans are no longer separate or unaffected by the world around us, and we suffer direct consequences of our lack of understanding. BUT humans are still a problem. We have an ever increasing understanding of our bodies, provoking more and more enlightening research, which has allowed us to see the similarities to other animals. Consciousness is still a topic of philosophical inquiry, and science has only begun to try to unravel its mystery. Humans are still spiritual. But now there is the issue of free will. We live in a human society where there is meaning and morality in what is still considered a mechanical world.

The Mind

Where did our original concept of mind come from? The ancient Greeks had no mind/ body problem. They did not see the cognitive separate from the human body. Aristotle and his three levels of Psyche determined that humans have many capacities, more so than other animals…BUT he also believed that the rational soul may be separated from the body. A capacity is the ability to do something and has to have a subject in which the ability resides. If the rational soul can be taken out, then it must be the ability of something. How can the rational soul be a form that is not informing some matter?

Can a non-physical thing induce a change in a physical thing? What about thoughts?? Are thoughts just a brain state? Physics cannot, to my knowledge, be applied to psychology…What created the rational soul? If one believes the soul is separable, what are its causes?? WE DO face the mind/body problem…but what is a mind?? Is it substantive? If so, then we have it, but we could lose it…Is the mind an attribute? If so, then it is not a thing, it is a property and characteristic of humans. What is a mind’s relativity to a person? Are minds things we have? Something we are? Something we do? The mind is what the brain does—it is a combination of brain activity and out of this activity arise the mind and consciousness. We certainly talk about our minds as if we are conscious of them. What makes a mind conscious versus unconscious? How are our minds different and how are they the same? Is the mind an object of consciousness, or does the mind constitute and enable different levels of consciousness? We cannot find a tangible mind to look at and answer these questions with. Is consciousness illumination? Is the mind illuminated by consciousness? MIND is an ambiguous term…what exactly is the difference between the mind and spirit? What is different between spirit and consciousness? Is the mind a conjunction of the brain function and consciousness? Language can often get in the way of understanding the differences in perceptions of the mind and soul due to cultural differences, such as in the short story we read. Some cultures may have many different words to describe the nuances between mind, soul, body, and consciousness, whereas some may not differentiate these terms at all.

Can a mind exist while unconscious? OR is it that wherever there is a mind, there is consciousness? How does a conscious human being determine unconsciousness? Could there be other forms of consciousness that we as a society have not recognized because it has not been scientifically tested? Yet there are many other cultures that believe in altered consciousness, or different levels of consciousness. Our memories reside in the brain, and we can gain access to these memories. But do we consciously remember these memories? I often find I cannot choose what memories I remember at any given time. I do know that some stimuli will almost always remind me of a certain memory, but I can never be sure. What about people who have suffered horrors, and have blocked memories, yet their lives are affected in ways they cannot understand or know why? And why do some things suddenly allow a person to remember what they have blocked? What chooses what we remember? Do we subconsciously choose, or do we run into ‘free will’ again…does god choose what we remember?

When people are deemed vegetables, do they still have minds? Often the answer is no, but is that the answer? How do we know!?? Is the mind subjective and we are all sharing one consciousness? Is the mind a storage unit, and consciousness is its essence? But the mind is seen as interactive, so is to have a mind to be conscious of that mind OR is the mind just an object of consciousness?? HOW can we define the unconscious…are we conscious of the unconscious? Then is it really the unconscious? How can we be conscious of something we are supposed to be unaware of? Isn’t that why it is called the unconscious??

Lots of questions, not too many answers.