The Mind: What Are You?

What are you? Are you the body I am talking to? The collection of cells sitting in front of your computer, clustering for long enough in order for it to be given its own identity? Or are you something else? Are you the something that lies within your body? A something that is far less tangible or even intangible? Is the real you some kind of spirit? We feel like we are more than just a collection of cells, right? But can there actually be something like a spirit inside our bodies? I mean: how would this intangible spirit ever be able to control our bodily – and thus physical – motions? How can something intangible make something tangible move? Let’s take a look at that.

It’s a quest that is underway for hundreds of years now: the quest to find the true nature of the mind, the key to who we are. And by the mind I am not (only) referring to human intelligence, since the search for explaining intelligence is for the biggest part about totally different questions. These are questions like: what is intelligence? Does our intelligence lie – as a group of people called “the cognitivists” proclaim – in our ability to observe distinct symbols, transform these symbols into symbolic structures and extract meaning from these symbolic structures? Or resides our intelligence – as “the connectionists” claim – within the connections between the neurons in our brains, which makes intelligence a inherently distributed property?

These are interesting questions but none of them touch upon the most important issue: what exactly is the mind? Because it is in this mind of ours that the answer to who we are might be found. Our minds do not merely contain our ability to be intelligent. After all, computers might be considered to be intelligent as well; intelligent in the sense of being capable of detecting and manipulating symbolic structures. The mind seems to go further than this. The mind is about what, assuming that there is something like that, makes us different from inanimate objects. It questions the very nature of our existence. It questions what it is that makes you you and me me. It is about what makes you different from a tree or a mobile telephone. Besides the fact that we believe that we are different from a tree or a mobile telephone of course.

However, isn’t it just this ability of ours to reflect upon who we are and what we do that is what we consider to be our mind? The mind as some kind of power to reflect upon our animalistic urges and being capable of intervening if considered to be necessary? Maybe, but this still doesn’t seem to be much of an answer to the question of what our mind actually is. It merely describes in what manner our minds might differ from our animalistic urges.

Maybe we should take a look at how the mind might have come into existence. Let’s see what would happen if we would follow the biological route: it might be that, at some point in time while a fetus is in the womb of its mother, some kind of complexity threshold in the fetus’ brain is reached that triggers an ever recurring neural signal; some kind of signal that can – at least partially – be directed by an “autonomous” entity: the mind. But this observation immediately raises many new questions. Let’s say, for example, that we would indeed be able to control in some sense the neural activities within our brain; that we would be able to steer our neurons, and thereby our bodies that are connected to the neurons by strings of nerves. Then the question that comes to mind is: where does this autonomy of our minds lie? It must be somewhere inside of the neural activities, right? But then: where did these neural activities come from, given that they are “different” from the non-autonomous or non-mind like brain activities? And if these special neural activities driving our “free will”, or that part of our human brains that is responsible for our seemingly autonomous actions, need to be present in order for the brain to be able to send out its “free will” signals, then what is pushing these signals? New neurons again?

I haven’t found a satisfying answer yet. Therefore I ask you: what do you think? Do you think that there is some kind of spirit inside of us that is fundamentally separated from our human bodies, in the dualistic sense that Descartes proclaimed? Or do you think that the human mind is nothing more than a byproduct of our neural activities, because of which it is fully intertwined with our physical existence? And if the latter would be the case, how come that we seem to be able to control this physical existence of ours, without having some kind of autonomous spirit responsible for this? And if the first would be the case, how would it be possible for an intangible spirit to make a connection with the tangible life we, because of our bodies, are living? How is the connection made between these two seemingly incompatible worlds? That is philosophy, and that is interesting.

Note: if you have found this article interesting, you might also enjoy this one.

Written by Rob Graumans

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