Wednesday June 3, 2009

Professional philosophers are people who make a living from thinking about stuff, and given that they make their living from the activity of the mind, it is not surprising that many of them can tend to have a rather starry-eyed view of the virtues of what Woody Allen once called his “second most favourite organ”. Often, however, when I listen to philosophers talking about the mind, I find myself wondering precisely whose mind they are talking about. Certainly, I fear, not mine. For when philosophers talk about the mind, they often claim that the mind is a pretty spiffy thing. Indeed, the overwhelming impression that they frequently give is that the mind is about the spiffiest thing that there is. No doubt this is a gratifying belief, given that the same philosophers often go on to imply that their own minds are, as minds go, to be counted amongst the very spiffiest examples of this already spiffy organ.

But speaking personally at least, I’m pretty much convinced that my own mind is really not that spiffy at all. OK, so it can perform a trick or two when it needs to. It’s not without its uses. So far it has managed to get me by. But at the same time, when I take a cool and dispassionate look at it, it seems a fairly shoddy affair. Any mind that does not accurately file important information about where I last left my glasses, or that seems to so stubbornly resist the tidy logic of the word-order of German sentences, is clearly not as spiffy as all that.

So it is nice to know that it is not just me. Gary Marcus’s is a useful corrective to starry-eyed pronouncements of some philosophers. Marcus’s contention is that the engineering of the mind is much more ad hoc than we are often prepared to admit. Sure, it can do some smart stuff. But much of the smart stuff that it does is due to kluges, in other words, shortcuts and Heath Robinson-style fixes, and the kind of slapdash engineering that would make you queasy with unease if the mind were, for example, a car or an airplane.

In his book, Marcus draws on a large body of research in psychology to explore the various kluges that lie behind those everyday things that minds do – remembering, believing, choosing, generating language, experiencing pleasure, and (alas!) malfunctioning – and by the end of the book he has built up a picture of the actual workings of the mind that would be a useful corrective to any idealist philosopher. Or, for that matter, any idealist Buddhist.

My own interest in the kluginess of the mind is closely related to my Buddhish tendencies. When I started out meditating some fifteen or so years ago, I did so out of the vain (in both senses) hope that I might thereby manage to upgrade my mind to something a bit spiffier. I’d read all kinds of books about Buddhist sages who had minds perfected by the long practice of meditation, and I gave myself fifteen or so years to do the same. But from the very start, things didn’t seem to turn out quite as I had hoped. When I sat down on the cushions and directed my mind to simply following the coming and going of the breath, I found that I was even more feeble at performing this kind of simple task than I might have feared. My mind wandered off before I had even counted ten, or five or even two breaths. This was dispiriting stuff for a beginner, but I persevered out of the hope that one day I would triumph.

As the years went by, however, I began to realise that it doesn’t really work like this. Sometimes I managed to rein in my mind’s tendencies to wander a little, and sometimes I didn’t. But the more I got to know my own mind, the more I had a sense that it was both tricksy and fundamentally recalcitrant. And although certain approaches to Buddhism present the kluginess of the mind as a problem to be surmounted, I became increasingly sceptical of the possibility of the mind overcoming its own haphazard nature, and increasingly convinced that the mind – or my mind at least – was klugey through and through. Not only this, but the more I looked at what people in general were like, the more I came to the conclusion that it was not just me, but everybody was saddled – for better or worse – with a mind irredeemably afflicted by kluginess. Even the most accomplished Zen master may sometimes forget where they have left their glasses. A decade of meditating in a solitary cave in the Himalayas is no guarantee against fallacious beliefs.

Alongside this growing awareness of the fact that we are all irredeemably klugey has come a different attitude to meditation. These days, I no longer think of meditation as a kind of upgrade, replacing my gimcrack, shoddy, not-quite-fit-for-purpose mind with one that is sleek, shiny and new, one that functions with a cool, unruffled grace. Instead, it seems to me that the reason meditation is both useful and fascinating is that it is a way of exploring directly this kluginess of the mind, of recognising the slips and the fudges and the shortcuts, and of finding ways of living with them. It is not, that is to say, a means of perfecting the mind, but instead as a kind of empirical practice that acts as an antidote to the fantasy that there could ever be such a thing as a perfected mind, and that finds what could be called practical kluges for living as best we can with the klugey mind.

With this shift in attitude has come something else, as well: instead of finding meditation frustrating, I have found myself increasingly intrigued by the kinds of things that my mind does. Sitting there on my cushions, my mind does what it always has done and always will do: sometimes it remains with the breath, sometimes it gets tangled in obsessive thoughts about German word-order, sometimes it drifts off to wonder about what I should have for breakfast, sometimes it dozes, sometimes it rumbles away with irritation, sometimes it is as raucous as a cage of monkeys… And this, when it comes down to it, is the deal. But the way I see it now, this is not the occasion so much for self-recrimination as for curiosity. Perhaps it is only by recognising how deeply klugey the mind, and by giving up on the idea of perfection, that it is possible to be a little more understanding of ourselves and of others, a little more aware of the ways in which we can move and the possibilities that are open to us, a little less sure of ourselves, and a little wiser in how we respond to ourselves, to others and to the world.

# · barbara/kitten

Thanks for suggesting this book and writing about the mind so concisely. I heartily agree with you and,unfortunately, haven’t managed to tame my “monkey mind” enough to even sit and meditate very much at all.

When I get hold of a copy of kludge: I’ll let you know what I think, but right now I am in the process of reading cargo fever which I got via interlibrary loan because I found your blog…the brain may be a kludge, but serendipity rules.


# · Will

Sorry, Barbara – your comment for some reason was not posted immediately. Anyway, it’s now restored. Thanks for stopping by again, and enjoy Cargo Fever.

# · Robert Ellis

I’m very much in agreement with this, and it also fits my own experience of meditation. Another favourite word of mine which would fit this kind of view of the mind is bricolage: the mind constantly patches its own mistakes using whatever tools are to hand.

More profoundly, though, this point suggests that it is a mistake to think of the mind as perfectible, and thus to base a religion on concepts such as enlightenment or pure mind. It would also fit my view that the ego does not need purifying or overcoming in any sense, but rather stretching to become more adequate to conditions. This stretching is making better use of what we have, rather than trying to create something else. After a reasonably successful meditation, I am not purified, as all the preceding tendencies are still there; but I am stretched, at least temporarily a bit bigger.

# · Mathias

It is always interesting that those who make money out of thinking, usually comes up with the fact that the mind is very important and needed :)

I agree with you, I have stopped trying to tame my mind, it can run in any direction it wants, and when relaxing into this, not needing to fix anything, things become quite nice…

# · Bodhipaksa

This is an interesting piece and it fits with my growing sense that the enlightenment that the Buddha experienced might not have been the complete purity of mind that tradition suggests, but more of a powerful field of equanimity that allowed the Buddha to deal effectively with his “stuff”. He seems, for example, to have gotten pretty pissed off on several occasions.

I think you could be accused of employing a straw man argument in your introduction, however, by repeatedly referring to the views of “some philosophers” without citing any names or examples. Also it’s quite possible to regard the brain as both “spiffy” (meat that can do math and fall in love seems spiffy to me) AND kludgily prone to bias and other kinds of error. It seems like the intro was thrown together without the more careful thought that went into the body of the article. Maybe in itself that’s an example of the brain’s kludginess?

# · Will

Hi, Bodhipaksa, and very nice to hear from you.

Straw man? Perhaps. But I do think that there could be plenty of examples to back what I’m saying up (Hegel comes to mind as an advocate of an extreme kind of spiffiness, but I could chose others). What the initial thoughts came out of was a paper I attended not long ago during which an expert in 18th century philosophy was talking about animal cognition, and along the way seemed to be attributing things to my cat that I would not even attribute to myself.

Anyway, I’m sure you are right, the brain can be both kludgy and spiffy. Kludges often are spiffy, although you may still want to exclude the kluge at the beginning of this piece from spiffiness.

All the best,

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