Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Mind in the Cosmos
Willem deVries


Summary by Ciara Dimou

Mind and its Place in Nature


Alter & Howell: “A Dialogue on Consciousness”, Chapter 1
D. Papineau “The causal closure of the physical and naturalism”
“Strange Behavior”

Professor Willem deVries’s lecture “Mind in the Cosmos” provided insight into the idea of minds; how they fit in, who possesses them, and what defines them. Wilfrid Sellars states that “the aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together.” This leads Professor deVries into a discussion of whether minds are only possessed by living things or if minds are ‘things’ we have ,‘things’ we do or ‘things’ we are?

The discussion is started by first contrasting the ancient notion of psyche verse modern “conceptions” of mind. The ancient philosopher Aristotle believed that all living things have psyche, including but not limited to plants, animals, and humans. If an organism can grow, reproduce, feed and perform necessary life functions, then it possesses a psyche. At the animal level, however, emotion and perception are introduced. At the human level the idea of thought, along with emotion and perception needs to be considered as well. The differences between animal and human psyches are the higher level, more complex functions of soul. A student, Emily Pacetti, posed the question, “what makes a matter qualified for being considered life and what if the part can be regenerated?” Is it still considered living? The consensus as a class was that that if a living being contains a mind then they can sense, think, will, or act. To be considered living they must contain the ability to metabolize, reproduce (or have the ability to), and maintain respiratory function. However, if for instance, a hand detached from the body is a hand in name only: it no longer functions as a hand. But the body without the hand still functions.

It was also determined that living complex things have minds, but how complex must they be? For example, I believe that every human has a mind, because we can eat, feel, reason, love, think, suffer, feel pain and other emotions. I also believe that dogs and animals possess minds because they, too, can experience those things. However, I do not feel that a worm, or a mosquito, or an object that is not living contains a mind. Although they contain a ‘brain’ it is yet to be proved that an insect can feel or experience emotion. Which leads to another important point; to have a brain do you have to have a mind? This type of relationship is unknown and cannot be determined. An interesting thought was whether the ability to “learn” defines a mind. For example, if we examined the learning capabilities of an insect, such as a wasp, and a mammal, such as an ape, we would be able to define many differences (I am relating apes and wasps to humans because apes have a close proximity and wasps do not). Differences in how apes can memorize and learn things, how they interact with other animals and humans, and their close proximity to humans might prove that apes possess psyche. If wasps were studied, they probably show no ability to “learn” actions or thoughts, which would show they do not possess a mind. Numerous studies of apes have revealed that they possess human-like qualities with emotions and feelings related to how humans interact with others. However, studies have proved none of wasps similar to humans.

Descartes’ philosophy of mind argues for substance dualism; he sees a normal person as a team of two distinct entities, the core of which is the mind (thinking substance) but he does not take into account the flaw that it is not a real team, because one is of more importance than the other. He states that there are two fundamental kinds of substance; mental and material. Case in point is that one can clearly and distinctively conceive of a mind existing without a body and of the body existing without a mind, such as a corpse. The simplified argument claims that “if x can clearly and distinctly be conceived without y and y can be conceived without x, then x can exist without y and vice versa.” Therefore, the movement in the argument is from what we can think to what can exist. As a counterargument to Descartes’ argument it has been questioned whether it is really clear that a mind can exist without any physical embodiment, for it is not clear that our conceptions of minds and bodies are exhaustive. If Cartesian dualism is true, and there is division between mind and body, then there is a problem accounting for our belief that other people exist and that there are other minds. The standard justification for belief in other minds is sometimes known as the argument from analogy. For example, I still know that I have a mind, that when I get nervous I bite my nails, that when I am happy I smile, or that when I feel pain I say ‘ouch’, allowing me to witness some causation that goes from states of my mind to states of my body. In other living beings, I can observe states of their body, which gives me some incentive to believe that they, too, have minds and that these events in their minds are causing the events in their body. Although I can never directly observe minds, there is still reason to think that they exist, which may disagree with Descartes by arguing that mind and body are not entirely two distinct entities.

“The Gammas” was another topic that was introduced. In the short story the idea is proposed that metal things cannot have minds. The humans in the story distinguish between the orgogammas and robogammas. The orgogammas and the robogammas recognize that there is essentially no difference between them.

In conclusion, the idea of mind and who is entitled to be attributed a mind, so far, has been restricted to organisms that are living, possess thought, soul, and emotion. It is determined, however, that in order to have a mind, one must possess a brain. The question still arises whether the mind and brain are two separate entities and can exist without each other. The parameters of having a mind are still up for debate and rely on who you talk to. Difference in opinion and beliefs in these ideas can lead to questions that are still unanswered and ideas that are unconfirmed.