Of Mind and Brain

One takeaway I get from the brand of New England Transcendentalism I tend to study, is that it’s wasteful to treat “mind” and “brain” as purely synonymous.

These are such different words, each with its own connotations and lineage. Deliberately keeping them apart, in terms of allowing them to mean different things, seems a smart move to me. Conflating them seems dumb.

Let me drag Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy into my reasoning. The phrase “mean different things” (used above) suggests a certain picture of “meaning”: that what is meant (by words) are always “things”.

That’s a picture (a “picture theory of meaning”) Wittgenstein specifically encourages in his early philosophy (which made him famous) and specifically discourages in his later philosophy (which made him even more famous).

In the case of “brain” it’s easy to picture a “thing” in that one might imagine anatomical drawings, or think of the brain in one’s skull. However Wittgenstein wanted to steer us away from imagining “meaning” as a mental process, wherein what one imagines is so essential.

One may use or read the word “brain” without any particular mental image or experience, and still mean it just as much. “Meaning” should not (need not) be imagined as some spooky mental process that accompanies the act of speaking or reading. Don’t imagine introspection as a way of getting to the bottom of what “meaning” means.

That was Wittgenstein’s later view, which most people agree is not that easy to get across. He’s trying to talk us out of possibly deeply ingrained habits of thought, especially hard to escape if we’re in the habit of thinking philosophically.

So let’s talk about “mind” without imagining there’s anything in particular we need to picture. Let’s not look for a “thing” that is “the meaning”.

Instead, I’ll piggy-back on Buckminster Fuller’s take and offer a more operational impression: “mind” is a source of intuitions which may free us from habits of thought. In contrast, we may associate “brain” with precisely those stored habits. We’re often thinking on autopilot, reacting solely on the basis of what’s currently in our memory banks.

Religious thinkers often bring a nuanced vocabulary to the table. We may look over the shoulders of various scholars to find them “praying to a muse” for inspiration and illumination, and sometimes having those prayers answered.

Strokes of genius seem visited upon us sometimes. We experience them as “coming from outside ordinary thinking” and therefore may speak of Divine Grace. The experience of getting insights is what predisposes some thinkers to imagine an intelligence greater than their own everyday mundane thinking.

By recognizing precedents in religious vocabularies, in having Mind school the Brain, we establish why “transcendentalism” is an appropriate label. Intelligence comes from some great beyond. Such vocabularies may be experiential, not blindly believed in as acts of faith.

However, a dogmatic materialist holding the view that mental events are a phenomenological signature of chemical reactions, nothing more, may sense any such “Mind teaches Brain” dictum as “fighting words” meant to erode the intellectual integrity of a materialist belief system.

We may thereby fall back into a vortex of philosophical debates of the type Wittgenstein considered akin to a mental illness, albeit time-honored.

Consider a dogmatic materialist trying to solve some troubling puzzle, or prove a theorem. Prior knowledge does not seem to be helping. New insights are needed. In a flash, or perhaps in a dream, an answer comes. The muse is generous.

The same vocabulary is available to those nevertheless seeking to rule out any dualistic metaphysics, with mental and physical phenomena somehow ontologically distinct.

Anyone may pray to one’s muse, and even have those prayers answered, without believing in fairytales.

The Mind / Brain distinction is more about a process than about dictating specific beliefs.

Wittgenstein tended to use the word “grammatical” in place of “ontological”. We’re developing meanings through usage patterns, not through a process of identifying “things that exist” and then naming them.

Those subscribing to a name → object picture of meaning may be more Biblically influenced than they realize, in that Genesis pictures Adam & Eve in the naming business.

“In the beginning was the Word” (the space of names, a namespace) yet we consider “the World” a different “thing” (the space of objects named). Language is on the one hand, what language means is on the other.

Both Platonism (so-called Realism) and Nominalism tend to share the same name → object model. Language, at bottom, consists of nouns.

This essentially noun-based view of language is what Wittgenstein wants us to join him in countering. “I seem to be a verb” wrote Buckminster Fuller. Shifting our emphasis to “usage” over “pointing” or “labeling” has the effect of making words seem like tools.

A screwdriver doesn’t point to its meaning out there in the world. A screwdriver participates in the world, by screwing screws, by prying open paint cans, by poking holes.

Meaning arises from how a word is put to use within various “games” (grammatical structures). Think of the meaning of “pawn” in chess. This was Wittgenstein’s later view.

Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language is freeing because “forms of life” may coexist more successfully when we’re not imagining some fight to the death, some either / or metaphysics, over whether fairies and muses “really exist”.

“Existence” is not a prerequisite for meaning. We have the whole genre known as fiction to prove that point.

Language, to have meaning, need not rest on a bed of facts, any more than a dance number or piece of music must be so founded.

My bias is to use American Transcendentalism (inheriting from the New England variety) as a more up to date basis for both Liberalism and Secularism.

Liberalism means “live and let live” and celebrates one’s freedom to modify and re-design, as we talk about in the Free Software movement (with “free” as in “freedom”, not “free” as in “free beer”).

Secularism does not mean disavowing religions or belief systems, so much as providing infrastructure to all. Secularists allow many temples, churches, synagogues, meeting houses, lodges, to share resources, without any wish, in principle, to crush diversity.

Whereas Planet Earth is finite, with only so many molecules at any given time, cyberspace, and the realm of the imagination, is not so definitely circumscribed. We have a lot of elbow room in cyberspace, a lot of freedom to spread out. That you have lots of gigabytes to express your philosophy need not be at my expense.

American Transcendentalism embraces Pragmatism in the sense that we wish to encourage experimentation by reducing barriers to entry. Because of the economies of scale, it may be the case that only a few automobile companies will come to dominate. But when it comes to lifestyle options (which may or may not involve automobiles), the field is wide open to the extent that the basics of food and shelter remain affordable.

Who says I’m entitled to use “we” when talking about American Transcendentalism? What gives me the right to (a) include myself and (b) state its goals? I’m not actually seeking permission, as I notice few if anyone has any need of “American Transcendentalism”. I’m taking a similar approach with “General Systems Theory” which got off to a promising start in a generation before mine, but then who was using it going forward?

Call me a squatter amidst abandoned properties if you like. I consider myself more a speculative developer.

Transcendentalism of the New England variety is usually presented as tied off. Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller… then it fizzled. Very few try to add Buckminster Fuller to this lineage as that would mean taking him more seriously than most literati are wont to do these days.

He was a globalist, true, in the sense that he thought globally while acting locally. He was also the product of Americanisms, from the US Navy to the corporate boardroom. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Reagan.

Regardless of any shallowness on the part of today’s cognoscenti, I’m seeing a generation of thinkers and writers, including Alan Watts, Norman O. Brown, Robert Anton Wilson, and Werner Erhard, all making ample use of Fuller.

Thom Hartmann cites Grunch of Giants in an epigraph. Ralph Nader took up Corporate Personhood as something to question. There’s a cultural matrix of sufficient scope and depth to provide context for an “American Transcendentalism” included in which is “brain versus mind”.

I take things further with regard to Quakerism. Kenneth Boulding, a Friend, was a contributor to General Systems Theory. He and I actually exchanged some correspondence, about the meaning of “matter” versus “energy” for example — big picture stuff. I merge my branch of Quakerism with both GST and American Transcendentalism. These designs have mnemonic value. Friends decry outward war as obsolete. Fuller did also. That’s an American meme as much as any, regardless of what corporate persons might say or do.