Mind and world: Isolation or world-involvement

Recall where we are. We are in the midst of dismantling an erroneous picture of the mind and, in so doing, we are making it possible to inquire into the everyday mental activities we perform: into how they operate, into how they involve us n the world, and into how to bring them out when they are going well.

Part of that erroneous picture of the mind seeks to ask and answer the mistaken question of where the mind is and then to describe what goes on in there. The mind, it is held, is (a) a substance that exists (b) within the head and (c) in which certain functions are executed. These assumptions can be combined to form a picture of the ‘private drama’ about which Gilbert Ryle writes with a critical eye.

What makes this picture suspicious, at least in part, is the distinction it assumes between ‘inner contents’ and ‘external reality.’ The question for epistemology then becomes how the inner contents of the mind represent the external world. Given this puzzle, the epistemologist seeks to tell a certain kind of story about representation in order to show how the mind is connected to the world.

I have no desire to follow out the details of that story and this for two different reasons. I do not believe the story to be true, and I do not think the initial question is worth asking. If there is no such thing as ‘the’ mind, there is no such strict analogy between the properties of the body and those of the mind, and if there is no ‘drama’ being performed on the mind’s stage, then one needn’t get hung up on the mind’s ‘hooking itself up’ to external reality.

Even though I have no aspirations to follow such a line of inquiry, here I am interested in spelling out the danger inherent in this picture. That danger is solipsism, the view that there is no going beyond the circle of consciousness. At best, I may be privy to my own thoughts, this view suggests, yet I can have no way of knowing whether these thoughts bear on the world. Because of this, I am trapped within this circle, isolated from gaining purchase or traction on what there is, and–in the beautiful words of the philosopher John McDowell–‘spinning in a void.’ One observes this profound sense of isolation from the world in any individual who wholeheartedly subscribes to this mental picture and, in addition, adopts a skepticism regarding the representability of external reality.

Last time, we tracked skepticism concerning the problem of other minds to a sense of distrustThis time, we can place the skepticism about the unknowability of reality in the context of isolation. Both forms of skepticism are forms of estrangement, an estrangement that is no doubt horrifying to experience.

To move away from this picture, suppose we take up Alva Noe’s suggestion that minding just is the complex interaction of brain, body, and environment. Then, we don’t have to worry about there being an ‘in here’ and an ‘out there’ nor do we have to concern ourselves with how the two are connected. This is because minding already includes one’s senses and one’s environment; looking about, smelling, feeling about, probing, and other activities are always already world-involving. For instance, perceiving, which often requires conceptualizing (seeing some item as some kind of thing), tracks what there is in my environment. I turn my head to the left and see an oriole atop a bush. I wonder what brought him here, and I begin to read about the lives of orioles. I form some reasonable hypothesis. I suggest to Aleksandra that she look at the oriole and she does. Perceiving, believing, wondering, investigating, surveying, suggesting, and other such mental acts are precisely what I do when I engage with my environment. It would be difficult to say what minding were if it were some other (alien) activity. Moreover, it is hard to know, as Noe points out, what our mental lives would be like if we didn’t do these things: didn’t use our senses, didn’t puzzle through something in silence, didn’t have a human-involving environment.

There is no question, therefore, of my losing the world unless I have the bad fortune of going mad. It is only a question of how to involve myself in the world in order to bring out its qualities: those that can be perceived and appreciated (aesthetics) and those that cannot be perceived yet, for all that, may come to be affirmed (mysticism). Perhaps, we shall discover that the existing world is wider, broader, and fuller than we had previously believed.