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?
Comments are turned off for this article.
Today's Most Popular
Saltwater Buddha: Tuesday July 14, 2009
A review of Jaimal Yogis’s “Saltwater Buddha”.
On Desire: Wednesday April 16, 2008
Link to online review of William B. Irvine’s On Desire
Pick and Mix: Friday August 26, 2011
Western Buddhists and the spiritually sweet-toothed.
Without authority...: Tuesday August 25, 2009
Blogs, mainstream media and the idea of authority.
Speaking With Inanimate Things: Friday August 15, 2008
The curious tale of a bronze bull and its many secret worshippers.
A Little Light Reading: Friday October 26, 2007
A handy resource for consciousness studies….
Meditation in Schools?: Monday August 6, 2007
Should meditation be taught in schools?
Baboon: Tuesday June 6, 2006
Feeling like a grumpy old baboon?
Meditation as Natural History: Monday January 7, 2008
Meditation, natural history, and medieval books of beasts.
This Material Frame...: Tuesday November 8, 2005
More on materialism!
Zen, Brains and Making Friends With Your Own Head: 10 Nov, 2008
It’s a complicated business having a brain.
Lies in Which not Everything is False: 10 Sep, 2008
Stories – they are nothing but a pack of lies.
The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: 30 Oct, 2007
Aidan Delgado on Buddhism, ethics and the war in Iraq.
Baboon: 06 Jun, 2006
Feeling like a grumpy old baboon?
Meditation as Unphenomenology: 07 Feb, 2008
Meditation, cartography and the territory of the mind.