3 poor questions to ask about ‘the’ mind

A Joke

Father: Point to where my left foot is.

Son [points down and to the left]: There!

Father: That’s right. Now point to where my right hand is.

Son [points upward and to the right]: There!

Father: That’s right. Now point to where my heart is.

Son [points to chest]: In there!

Father: That’s right. Now point to where my brain is.

Son [points to the head]: In there!

Father: That’s right. Now point to where my mind is.

Son [smiles, shrugs]

Three Erroneous Questions Based on Category Mistakes

1.) Where is my mind?

There is no ‘where’ to the mind if by ‘where?’ we mean that some thing can be plotted on an X-Y-Z axis. This is because the mind does not occupy physical space. It is also because one mental activity just is providing the conceptual framework whose categories are ‘space’ and ‘time,’ the sorts of categories that allow us to point out hands and feet and to distinguish the placement of your hands from the placement of mine.

So, ‘where is the mind?’ makes no sense to ask.

2.) What is my mind?

The mind is not an entity. Neither is it a physical object (like apple) nor is it a concept (like horse). Not actually being an ‘it,’ the mind is not a substance but a concatenation of verbs.

3.) What goes on in the mind?

Well, nothing actually. The mind is not like a private theater in which various ‘inner’ secret plays are performed. The mind is not a container like a house in which family members do all sorts of things.

The mind just is an array of certain activities: thinking, emoting, proposing, willing, believing, imagining, doubting, disposing, replaying (thoughts, say), worrying, etc. It is not that thinking occurs in the mind; it’s that one is minding when one is thinking–and nothing else. (Better: minding as pondering.) It’s not that emotions take place in the mind; it’s that one’s minding just is the feeling of anger. (Minding as getting angry.)

It’s better, then, to think of mind as mindings, some of which unfold at once (in some cases), others occurring one after the other (in other cases), others happening repeatedly (in yet other cases), and so on.

A Few Implications

1. Minding is not secret or hidden, though various mental activities can be silent, less silent, noisier, etc. One can speak to oneself without saying anything aloud, and that is fine so far as it goes.

2. Minding is not mysterious since it lies ‘open to view,’ provided that we understand it in the proper ways. Well, and one can always inquire of another if one is confused about another’s mental life. ‘What you did there–what in the world did that mean?’

3. I can know my mind as well as other minds if only I learn to inquire properly and come to understand these activities. (About this, more in future posts.)

4. Since mental activities are not identical with or analogous with bodily activities, the former are not subject to ‘illness’ or ‘health.’ (How weird if they were.) Mental activities are performed, conducted, brought off (etc.). Moreover, these mental activities can be performed excellently or poorly, clearly or not, spontaneously or deliberatively, carefully or carelessly, etc. And mental activities also admit of degrees: ‘John’s thinking about the math problem was undertaken in a somewhat sloppy manner.’

5. Mental activities admit of poor habits, good dispositions, and needless repetitions. If Jane worries a lot about insignificant things, then Jane’s mental activity is poor, and she is–with each repetition–making this poverty worse. If Sue inquires quite well about herself over and over again, then Sue is doing a good job learning about herself.

‘If the world is not fallen, then it is not in need of saving…’

Here is an excerpt from a post-philosophical conversation note I wrote to one philosophical friend today.

All of the assumptions below are typically made. My tacit suggestion is that they amount to what Gilbert Ryle famously terms ‘category mistakes.’ Of course, some things are problems; but, logically speaking, a human life cannot be a problem. It is neither a problem nor a pseudo-problem nor a non-problem. Etc.

The implication is that one has to let go of all these assumptions (e.g., that human beings are broken) before one can come to greater understanding of oneself and the world in which we live.


See whether you would go along with these unorthodox theses?  

1.) If the world is not fallen or lost, then it is not in need of saving.  

(Compare: a Christian believes that human beings are fallen beings as a result of Original Sin; thus, they are in need of saving. This is where Christ comes in. But our world may not fit the Christian description. If it does not fit this description, then it is not clear why people think that it needs to be–or that it could be–saved.)

2.) If human beings are not inherently weak and full of needs, then they are not necessarily in need of [my, our] help.  

(Compare: a baby has some needs (though not a lot of needs) and is physically weak (i.e., dependent on another to secure these needs). So, it will need helping, e.g., being fed, etc. But a mature human being isn’t like a baby. A mature human being is strong and has few needs. In the spirit of wu wei, he may do well to let him come around to sorting things out.)

3.) If human life is not a problem, then it does not call for a solution.  

(Compare: a math assignment consists of a set of problems. All of these require individual solutions. A conundrum is a kind of problem. But a human life isn’t like a math problem, and it isn’t, writ large, a conundrum. )

4.) If the mind is not numerically identical with the brain and if the mind cannot be ill (though the brain can indeed be sick), then the mind does not need healing or curing.  

(Compare: an older man may be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But the fact that a man is grieving over the loss of his wife doesn’t make him ill; it means that he is in the midst of bereavement. [And bereavement is neither ‘sick’ nor ‘healthy.’]

(A human life is not the sort of thing that can be ‘ill’ or ‘healthy.’)

5.) If a human being cannot be broken, then he is not in need of fixing.  

(Compare: a car can be broken; thus, it can be fixed. But a human being is not like a car. So, there is no way in which it could possibly be fixed.)

6.) If a human life cannot be dis [hyphen] ordered (though Daoists believe that a mind can be out-of-order), then it does not beg to be restored to some prior state.  

(Compare: after a storm, a house may be out of order, things having fallen this way or that, broken off, etc. Thus, the house may need to be restored to some prior state. But a human life is not in this sense like a house: it does not call to be restored to a prior state. If Smith is longing, e.g., it could be that he is longing for a higher way of being. Hence, he has no interest in being restored to a way of life that couldn’t possibly overcome (say) the challenge posed by nihilism.)