Numskulls, Dumskulls and the Evolution of the Mind

Thursday September 27, 2007


For several days there has been a funny smell about, just inside the front door: half burnt fish and half decay. It’s one of those things that you try to ignore as long as possible, trying your best not to think about the cause, and hoping that it will go away. However, this morning, the thin pall of smoke that accompanied the now much increased stench made ignoring the problem impossible any longer, and we had to switch off the electricity and call someone out to fix the fusebox, which seems to be the culprit.

So I have betaken myself to a cafe where I have been preparing my next class in my Introduction to Consciousness series. Tomorrow we are looking at the idea of the Cartesian Theatre, and trying to gnaw away at that persistent hunch that we humans seem to have that somewhere lurking in the brain or the mind there is a little homunculus who is taking in all the data and then, little the rational little philosopher that he is, pulling the right levers to cause us to act.

Of course, nobody believes in homunculi quite like this and more (do they???). But still this basic model of there somehow being a person “in here” who is doing the doing of my life, thinking the thinking of my thoughts and experiencing my experiences, and who is, of course, ultimately responsible for my actions, is one that underpins much of our everyday thinking, as well as our legal, judicial and moral systems. Philosophical, Buddhist or scientific objections to this idea of the self on one side, I have always found it seems a highly improbable model of the mind. My own mind has always seemed much more like a pack of monkeys than anything like a homunculus.

And all of this reminded me of my misspent youth reading the Beezer, a kid’s comic from the 1980s. Many visitors to thinkBuddha will be too young/old/serious of mind to remember the Beezer, no doubt, but it was not without its philosophical merits, and it was in particular the strip called the Numskulls that, well, sticks in my head.

The Numskulls were little characters who lived in the head of an ordinary everyday bloke and who had various duties assigned to them. One looked after the food coming in, one looked after visual perception, one looked after the ears, one (called “Brainy”) did all the clever stuff with the grey matter, and one dealt with the nose department. (Fústar, who has also blogged on the pressing philosophical issues raised by the Numskulls, gives a couple of nice pictures of the cartoon strip).

What was interesting about the strip was that the behaviour of the man who was home to these curious little creatures was not obviously anything other than the result of these several interacting agents going about their business. Differently put, it was not clear that, over and above the daily lives of the numskulls, there was much that actually was their host’s mind. And certainly, if you have a head full of Numskulls, there isn’t actually a single centre of consciousness, a place where it all comes together. There is no Cartesian Theatre, just the interaction of lots of curious little guys with agendas of their own, out of which something coherent emerges. Moving from the idea of a homunculus to the multiplication of homunculi is, perhaps, a way – or at least a staging post along a way – that we can begin to rethink just what is going on with our minds.

As the numskulls were depicted in the strip as intelligent agents, then philosophically speaking (although we shouldn’t ask too much of the Beezer) we have the problem of infinite regress, as Fústar points out. Does each Numskull have a brain filled with Numskulls? And if so, does each Numskull-in-the-brain-of-a-Numskull have a brain filled with further Numskulls?

But we don’t need to fall into this trap. The problem here is assuming that we need intelligent agents to build intelligence. This is, it seems to me, as fallacious as the idea that the components of a living being (the Carbon, the water, all that good, healthy goo) must also have the property of “life” for the being that they constitute to be alive. What is interesting is how awareness, intelligence (such as it is!) and consciousness might arise out of dumb agents.

So perhaps we are talking not about Numskulls but about Dumskulls. If we have five or six Numskulls, they have to be pretty damn smart. If we have sixty, they can be rather simpler. If we have six thousand, then our Numskulls can really be not too bright at all. And if we have millions of them, then we can have a whole load of stupendously stupid Numskulls that truly deserve the name Dumbskulls, and yet – out of their innumerable interactions – we have the arising of all the clever stuff that we folks do.

Looked at like this and using what might be called a strategy of “divide and conquer”, it seems to me that the evolution of consciousness (or of the various clever things that we do, which we lump, perhaps infelicitously, under the single banner “consciousness”) is no longer quite the strange and baffling thing that we are often persuaded it seems to be. Dumskulls may not be too bright: but with enough of them doing their dumb thing, it is not unthinkable that out of this, something a bit smarter can begin to take place.

This is an attractive approach to the question of consciousness for several reasons. First of all, it fits with the idea that consciousness is not a single thing located in a single place. Secondly, it fits with my own sense (which comes both from thinking about thinking and also from the practice of meditation) that what goes on in my head is not really some transcendent process, but a seething mass of rather dumber processes that together occasionally conspire to do some relatively clever stuff. Thirdly such a perspective does not suffer from that horrible divide between res cogitans and res extensa, between thinking things and extended things, that have dogged discussions of consciousness since Descartes. And fourthly, it gives us a way of returning questions of consciousness to the realm of the natural sciences. And this, I think, must be one of the first steps along the way of beginning to understand what this thing is that we call the human mind. Or am I just being a numbskull?

# · Richard

I think you are arguing for reductionism: selfaware-skulls come to be from the interactions of squillions of dumskulls. That doesn’t float my boat.

It has a surface appeal: Complexity “should” be able to emerge from the simple building blocks of what “really” exists, shouldn’t it? (I am not sure of the phenomenological grounds for favouring the reality of dumskulls over the reality of our self actually!). But we know that this common-sense notion can be importantly false. For example, Frege & Russell showed that the complex-skulls of mathematics cannot emerge (be derived from) from the dumskulls of simple logic. Godel seems to extend this further (quite where, who knows!).

In short, I think the infinite regress point cannot be swept aside so easily.

Western philosophy has the Cartesian consciousness problem of course. But this is not unrelated to the problem in Eastern philosophy of the reality of ignorance? Does Buddha-hood just mean letting the dumskulls “do their thing”? Why should squillions of dumskulls have ever acquired a self and yet forgotten their true nature in the first place? In any case, what difference does it make to anything whether one collective of dumskulls gets to “see” this in some state of enlightenment, whilst another just carries on regardless “suffering”? And which particular dumskull, or set of dumskulls does the suffering? (and, more importantly, how?)

# · Will

Hello, Richard,

On the grounds of the relative (although perhaps not absolute) numbness of my skull, I’m going to neatly (or not so neatly) sidestep the Russell and Frege (not to mention the Godel!), to go for a more Buddhish kind of response to the second part of your comment.

But you are right, this is a kind of argument for reductionism. However many boats it floats, I don’t see a problem with that as long as we don’t fall into eliminativism.

And you are right that suffering doesn’t matter to dumskulls. It matters to us. And this is, I think, important. But also perhaps part of the reason that it matters to us is because of we take it personally – that is, because of the very problems of self-theorising and self-cherishing that the Buddha identified.

If so, then in the light of this, your final question seems to me not so much an objection as something akin to the kind of Abhidhammic (which is to say reductionist) analysis that is certainly a feature in early Buddhism.


# · fústar


Glad to see my little spot of comic book, “infinite regress” speculation is getting such an articulate and informed critique!

By the way, is (alas) no more. It has been replaced by

The relevant link is now:…

I’ll be back to visit when I’ve fully sorted the new domain out.


# · Will

Thanks, Fústar. I’ll update my links. I visited your old site yesterday, as I thought I’d leave you a comment, and I found that it had gone, so I am glad that you are resurrected elsewhere.
All the best,

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