mind

The word mind has a long history, deriving from the Proto-Indo-European root *men-, to think, remember, via the Old English gemynd for think, remember, or intention. The Oxford English Dictionary has three broad definitions of mind, “senses relating to memory,” “senses relating to thought,” and more inclusively, the “the seat of awareness, thought, volition, feeling, and memory” which consist the mental faculty. The first two meanings are indicative of philosophical thought in the Greco-Roman world, where the thoughts of objects and memories were highly discussed mental processes. The third refers to a later period of consolidation and classification of all mental phenomena in general.
Traditionally, <memory(2)> was considered separately as one of the five parts of rhetoric. Students of the classical rhetoricians would train and develop an artificial memory to aid them in delivering long speeches. Thus, memory was seen as a highly valuable, as well as malleable, faculty. In this sense, mind is more related to a level of learning and understanding, rather than the amalgamation of the faculties themselves. Plato, in the support of his metaphysical enterprise, considered thought separately with respect to <forms>. Under Platonic metaphysics, the <perception(2)> of an object is based on its similarity to an idealized Form of that object. A world containing all Forms exists, nonphysical in nature. From this, Plato argues in the Phaedo that the soul (in this case, the perceptive faculty), in that it has an affinity toward immaterial Forms, is itself immaterial. The distinction that is thus drawn, between the <body> as physical and the mind as nonphysical, forms the basis of the Dualist principle.
Dualism, with its compatibility to Western religion, carried on strongly. For instance, in the New Testament, a distinction is made between the mind (which serves the laws of God) and the flesh (which serves the laws of sin). [1] Through the Enlightenment, the notion of mind was expanded as the sum and unifying substance of the various mental processes. Notably, Descartes, in Meditations, presents the modern Dualist argument. Because Descartes clearly and distinctly perceives himself to be (and only to be) a thinking thing (the mind), he knows that he is not a thing which does not think (the body). [2] This distinctive perception must be true, he argues, because God is supremely powerful and benevolent, and would never deceive us. Moreover, the body is perceived as having material and dimension, but not the mind. Since material objects are divisible but not immaterial entities, it follows that mind must be a unified whole.
Dualism’s antithesis, Monism, the belief that the mind is a material part or manifestation of the body, has been around since the time of Seneca and the Stoics, although it remained a minority belief into the nineteenth century. At that time, the growth of mechanism in the biological sciences led to the popular belief that the mind was an epi<phenomenon> of the brain and central nervous system. The British biologist Thomas Huxley writes:

Modern physiology, aided by pathology, easily demonstrates that the brain is the seat of all forms of consciousness, and fully bears out Descartes’ explanation of the reference of those sensations in the viscera which accompany intense emotion, to these organs. It proves, directly, that those states of consciousness which we call sensations are the immediate consequent of a change in the brain excited by the sensory nerves. [3]

With Dualism taking the retreat as a result of this shift in scientific thought, twentieth century philosophy has been left to work out the kinks of a monist, materialist notion of the mind. It is at this point in mind’s development that it has been taken up by Media Studies and a growing futurist tendency, and reworked in a new direction, to the extent that an entirely novel reconception of Dualism has emerged.
Rather than the typical mind-matter opposition, the dichotomy between <information> and <materiality> takes precedence. Hans Moravec conceives of a scenario in which a robotic surgeon will be able to scan the layers of a patient’s neurons, extracting the mental information directly and uploading it piece by piece into a waiting computer. At the end of the operation, the patient will have his essence (consciousness and all the mental faculties) within the machine. In Moravec’s neo-Dualist framework, the information of our mind only has to be reencoded into computer code for our essence to transfer into a machine. Moreover, he refutes the link between mind and body with the notion of pattern-identity. The body-identity position, in which the structure of the brain is necessary for one’s essence, would hold that when the transference is complete, the patient is dead. The computer containing the mind has only a copy of it, and so acts as an imposter of the patient. However, Moravec argues that essence is defined by the patterns and processes occurring in the body, not the machinery supporting that process. The implications are far-reaching – if the patient never died in the transference procedure, then both the human and computational version of the patient would retain his identity.
N. Katherine Hayles, however, argues against a discrete categorization of information and materiality. The information in a medium is intimately related to the structure of the material that represents it. Thus, reliably transferring information from the biochemical material of neural connections to computer <code> is impossible (see <virtuality>). Hayles, moreover, reaffirms the modern conception of the brain itself as mediating the individual and his conscious experience. Consciousness then allows access to the memory, perceptions, and the rest of the mental faculties, all media in their own rights.
Media Studies has elucidated a critical feature of the mind – that it is a dynamic entity, constantly changing in relation to the media that it engages. Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media, argues that the introduction of each new medium results in the extension of some part of man. For example, the written word has become an extension of the visual sense. These media cause a change in “sense ratios or patterns of perception.” [4] Because the organization and quality of perceptual and thought processes exist as faculties within the mind, the adoption of new <technology> for McLuhan implies a gradual mental reorganization. The introduction of electric technology, though, brings about a much more direct change in the operations of the mind. McLuhan (through an analogy linking electricity with the synaptic transmission of neurons) argues that electric technology brings about an extension of the central nervous system. Rather than the faculties within the mental space, the space itself is altered as the underlying biological machinery becomes extended and redefined.
A provocative example of this mental alteration is in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. In the film, Max Renn (played by James Woods) watches the subliminally encoded Videodrome message in a pornographic television program. The signal causes a tumor to grow in Max, producing striking hallucinations that become indistinguishable from <reality(1)>. The tumor (a physical manifestation of the medium’s mental extension) produces the hallucinations by altering the mind on a synaptic level. The power of the Videodrome medium relies in the loss of user awareness. Thus, the mind is presented as the foundational medium, mediating the individual and reality. When the mind is altered, the perceived reality changes, and this medium cannot be disengaged. The mind precludes all of human experience, and so nothing effectively exists outside of it. The change induced by the adoption of this medium, as with all others, is irreversible.
Just what implications this alteration has on the mind is subject to debate within Media Studies. McLuhan maintained that the implosion caused by the immediate access to information would be progressive in nature. The bringing together of social and political issues would cause a feeling of heightened social awareness and the urge to actively bring about social change. Herbert Schiller takes a reactionary stance, arguing that the media industry, or what he terms the mind managers, have aimed to bring about passivity and stupor in the viewer in the age of television. Two features of the medium of television, Schiller claims, are to blame – fragmentary (commercial interrupted) content and the immediacy of information. The fragmentary nature of television programming reduces the capacity of the viewer to grasp the totality of an event. In children, for whom the expansion of the attention span is an important part of their development and intellectual capacity, conditioning to fragmentation is deleterious. [5] Moreover, information immediacy and competition have led to the tendency of news stations to heighten the significance of breaking stories. Because every event, regardless of magnitude, is regarded as significant, the viewer’s mental capacity to distinguish between degrees of significance is impaired. This disorientation, combined with the skewed portrayal of society in content approved by the mind managers, leads to a dulling effect on the mind and thus passivity.
Another line of inquiry with this new treatment of the mind concerns the extent of its exteriorization. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek takes a radical posthuman stance on the issue. Rather than reducing the mind to its materialist workings, the aim of research should be to grasp how the “mind can emerge only by being embedded in the <network> of social relations and material supplements.” [6] The advent of writing, for instance, has led to an exteriorization of <memory (2)> (see Bernard Stiegler’s essay on memory). New technology, exteriorizing other mental faculty, will subtract so much of ourselves that in the end, we are left as pure subjects. At that point, we will be left to confront the void of subjectivity. Žižek proposes that the result is a combination of our minds with these future media, rather than the obsolescence of the human mind in favor of the machine (as with artificial intelligence). As with McLuhan, technology is a catalyst to change in our individual natures. Moreover, becoming embedded in the “network of social relations” seems to imply a future where the nature of interpersonal communication itself is transformed and made more intimate. Taken as a whole, the increase in exteriorization, intimacy, and transmission speed could mean an entirely new reformulation of the mind, where individual minds merge together to create a unified social entity.

Greg Mitseas
Winter 2010

NOTES

[1] Rom 7:25 (cited in ISBE)
[2] Descartes, pg. 54
[3] Huxley, pg. 201
[4] McLuhan, pg. 117
[5] Schiller, pg. 25
[6] Žižek, pg. 16

WORKS CITED

Descartes. Meditations on First Philosophy. Translator Cottingham, John. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Dualism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online (rev. 2007). 27 January 2010.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Toward Embodied Virtuality.” How we Became Posthuman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Huxley, Thomas H. “On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata, and Its History.” Collected Essays I. http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/CE1/AnAuto.html. 1998. 27 January 2010.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. http://www.bible-history.com/isbe/. 11 February 2010.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. MIT Press, 1994.

“Mind.” Online Etymology Dictionary (2001). 27 January 2010.

“Mind.” Oxford English Dictionary online (2009). 27 January 2010.

Moravec, Hans. Mind Children. Harvard University Press, 1988.

Plato. Phaedo from Five Dialogues. Translator G.M.A. Grube. Hackett Publishing Company, 2002.

Schiller, Herbert I. The Mind Managers. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973.

Stiegler, Bernard. Memory from Critical Terms in Media Studies. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Yates, Francis. “Three Sources for the Classical Art of Memory.” The Art of Memory. University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Becoming-Machine.” Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences. New York: Routledge, 2004.