Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Russell on mind

Alan Wood writes in ‘The Analysis of Mind’, the twelfth chapter of his Bertrand Russell: ‘In prison, Russell had proclaimed the freedom of the human spirit, and the power of mind to move unfettered even though the body was confined: “I am free, and the world shall be.” Simultaneously he was working towards a philosophy whereby not only were the thoughts of his mind hardly free, but his mind did not even exist in the commonly accepted sense, and any difference in kind between mind and matter was declared illusory. He told Clifford Allen in April 1919 that “the gods, seeing I was engaged in proving there is no such thing as mind, have sent me such a cold as to give me, for the present, personal proof of the truth of my thesis”.’ (p. 118)

I am still preoccupied with The Problems of Philosophy which Russell wrote in 1912. At that time, he viewed Mind as an entity in its own right, and I find his characterization of it valid and valuable: ‘The faculty of being acquainted with things other than itself is the main characteristic of a mind. Acquaintance with objects essentially consists in a relation between the mind and something other than the mind.’ (Chapter IV. ‘Idealism’, p. 37 in Amazon’s edition). Had Russell properly reflected on this insight, he could never have assimilated Mind to Matter, and he could never have developed his erroneous sense-data theory. For the division that separates ‘me’ from ‘the world around me’, ‘you’ from ‘the world around you’ is the fundamental ‘datum’, the fundamental characterization of our minds. I put the term ‘datum’ in quotation marks, for everything presented to my mind as a ‘datum’ is constructed for it by an X, the part of our nature of which we are not conscious, which receives the information as it is processed by our brains and transforms it into that which our minds accept as given, as something outside us. The ‘given-ness’ of this ‘outside us’, which is in fact inside us, in our minds, is absolutely essential for our interaction with one another and with the physical world in which we live.

I believe that this fundamental faculty of mind spotted by Russell, ‘the faculty of being acquainted with things other than itself’ characterizes in principle all living beings that are capable of avoiding danger on the basis of the physical effects of that danger while it is yet at some distance, however small, and capable of following a source of nutrition on the basis of the physical effects of that nutrition on their organism while yet at some distance. For this involves perceiving those physical effects as something what they are not. I think that we should contemplate the possibility of rudimentary minds emerging as far back as we can meaningfully talk about elementary ‘brains’. Let me quote Roger Carpenter and Benjamin Reddi: ‘For a single-celled organism such as an amoeba, coordination is essentially chemical: its brain is its nucleus, acting in conjunction with its other organelles. But a multicellular organism clearly needs some system of communication between its cells, particularly when, as in the primitive invertebrate Hydra, they are specialized into different functions: secretion, movement, nutrition, defence and so on. Communication between cells practically always means chemical communication.’ (Neurophysiology, p. 3) Up until that moment in the development of life it makes sense to talk of ‘neutral monism’, with no differentiation between Mind and Matter, this Mind-Matter having an unrealized potentiality of constituting Mind and Matter as different from each other.

This is evolutionary speculation. What is not a speculation, is a realization that in human beings our Minds and our bodies are two different though closely interrelated entities. We realize this the moment we contrast the way in which our brains are organized and structured in space and time, and the way in which the world of our minds is structured, based as it is on the functions of our brains. This realization, in my view, leads of necessity to evolutionary speculation, for we face the question, how is it possible that we all, enclosed as we are in our ‘private’ minds, linked to and separated from the outside world by our brains, can see the same trees, the same houses, can see each other: sitting at the table, I can ask my daughter ‘pass me the salt, please’, and she does so. Just think for a minute that Russell were right and that we all construed physical objects around us from the ‘sense-data’, and think of how difficult it is for many children to learn to read, and how individually varied is such performance from child to child, from adult to adult. Yet ‘constructing’ what we read out of letters on the paper or the computer screen is incomparably more simple task than would be constructing the world around us, the world we all inhabit, in which we interact, out of Russell’s sense-data. How could we all possibly accomplish such a feat at least in principle within the first two or three years of our lives?

If the world of our minds had been originally constructed from simple ‘sense-data’, the beginnings of this construction must go far back in our evolutionary history. Take again how we learn to read. At the beginning we may construct our words out of single letters (at least in Czech language we mostly do, for our language is phonetic), which in English is, I believe, problematic even at the initial stages of learning to read. But the moment we really begin to read, we read words, phrases, where the letters are just the triggers that help us read.

At the early stages of the evolution of Mind, its ‘faculty of being acquainted with things other than itself’ must have been very rudimentary. But on the level of human beings it is the world in front of us, which we see when we open our eyes, which is the primary datum with which our mind is presented, and within the framework of which we can focus our attention on this or that thing, on this or that person.

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