Trying to understand mental activities

Last time, I wrote about the common category mistakes we make. We are in error when we think of minding as it if were like the body or some bodily organ. It is not. Since minding is not only not the body but also not like the body, it follows that minding cannot be healthy or ill (though the brain, a part of the body, can be healthy or ill), and it follows further that minding cannot be treated, diagnosed, prescribed, or cured. From erroneous conceptions and assumptions, we arrive at hazardous courses of action.

Now, if we are not warranted in speaking of mental activities as if they occupied a spatial location (where is the mind?), as if they were a kind of thing (what is the mind?), and as if they were a container (what takes place in there anyway?), then how shall we speak of mental activities?

Alva Noe, a philosopher of mind and cognitive science, has a nice way of speaking of mental activities. These are the complex mutual interactions of brain, body, and environment. Without a brain, there would be no minding. Without the kind of body we have (with our hands, our turning neck, our eyes, etc.), we wouldn’t experience the world in the way we do. And without the kind of environment we find ourselves in, we wouldn’t have minding–or at least not the kind of minding that is the one with which we are familiar. Of course, minding is not identical with the brain, the body, or the environment. Conceivably, a different sort of brain-body-environment configuration would produce a different sort of being, only not the one we recognize in our daily lives, in works of literature, and elsewhere.

But if minding just is the continuous way of unfolding of this configuration, then what sorts of activities are identifiably mental? Provisionally, I want to say that mental activities can be analyzed as follows:

1.) Typically (always?), we attend to one thing at once. It is impossible for us to multitask. I can smell the cooking sauce, then look at the uncut vegetables, then infer that these need to be cut next, then hear the oven beeping, then check the food to see whether it is done, then determine whether it would have to be in the oven longer, and so on.

This is to say that mental activities just are sequences of activities–concatenations of activities–occurring over certain durations with certain qualities and certain intensities: e.g., closely perceiving the lavender tint of the desert flower for a few minutes, posing a question about the color (is it really lavender?), considering various things one knows about purples, remembering various purple samples, proposing that it’s closer to magenta, and so on.

2.) Th sequence of activities above could be called ‘first-order.’ Now, I can become aware that I’m feeling (e.g.) angry. This is a second-order consideration. It is not being angry but the awareness of being angry. The same is true of other mental activities. (Though what is less clear is whether I can sense something at the same time that I become aware of sensing something. What seems more plausible is the claim that sensing something is followed by being aware of sensing something, and then I may focus on my awareness.)

3.) Mental habits would, on this understanding, would simply be commonly repeated sequences. Clearly, there are excellent mental habits, poor mental habits, and those habits that are neither excellent nor poor (trivial, say). Take an example of someone with poor mental habits: a worrier. He reviews his finances, concludes (possibly fallaciously) that he does not have enough, believes that he must make more, is pretty sure that the future will be worse than the present, does not have clue how to make more money, imagines what it would be like to have all kinds of insurance, does not think that he has the powers to engage with an uncertain world, tends not to be generous with others, and–over the course of years–keeps running through sequences of thoughts such as this one.

4.) Various mental exercise programs–for instance, philosophy as a way of life, Daoist mysticism– rightly assume that we can generate ‘vital’ mental sequences, which sequences have good qualities, long or different kinds of durations (that is, nothing other comes in), appropriate intensities, and fine aims constituted by the activity itself. Thinking clearly is itself one kind of tranquility that ‘feels like’ eternity.

5.) One can learn to think with less effort and strain over time. This is thinking as ‘second nature.’ Just as there is spontaneous acting, so there is spontaneous thinking.

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