February 21, 2010

Common Sense: Practical Knowledge

A recent edition of In our Time suggested that the thesis that there is a separation between the mind and the brain is now completely rejected by most neuroscientists. Quite what the link is between the conscious mind and our actions is uncertain- work on how a human being picks up a jar reveals the moment at which the conscious decision is made appears to be half a second after the moment at which the brain actually 'decides' to do the picking up. The conscious brain, the mind, appears in this sense to be a book keeping thing- it tells us what we have done- it also does extensive plans into the future but it coordinates everything else with the unconscious mind. All human beings though appear to be born with a theory of mind- ie that they think that there is something independent of the clusters of neurons and electrons that reside in our brain. What's interesting about this belief is that the only people who do not believe it are those who are severely autistic and therefore limited in their ability to sympathise with another within society. Empathy depends on the division of labour in our heads between matter- like this computer which does not feel me drumming my fingers over the keyboard- and mind like you who I hope will have a certain reaction to what these words say. That insight depends on me having a theory of mind which distinguishes between the computer- inanimate and uncaring- and you- animate and sensing in some way what I have to say.

In a sense therefore all human life depends on a lie. It depends on something which is not strictly speaking true- that the mind is something entirely different from all other matter within the universe- a Cartesian illusion. There are plenty of other similar illusions out there- so for example we rely on the fact that things are solid. I'm sitting currently on a bed- I think of it as a solid and stable thing- but actually the collection of atoms that make up the bed are constantly changing, there are gaps between them- when I say solid, what I mean is that for my purposes the bed is solid. I can sit on it. Strictly speaking though it is evolving as I sit on it and even moving slightly. These useful illusions are what we generally might say to be common sense and they work- in that they enable us to live our lives. It does though create an issue for us in terms of the truths that we live with and the truths that emerge as true: those two categories are not the same thing. The issue this creates of course is that our mind is hardwired not for truth but for utility: consequently the world we imagine to be true is often not the world that is there, but the world that it is useful for us to imagine is there. This should make us cautious about common sense and truth: just because something seems true doesn't mean it is true. We can never escape our human perspective and there is no view from nowhere on the world- but what I find interesting about this is that even within our human perspective, we discover two types of knowledge- one for practice and the other for knowledge.

Neither is worse or better than the other, but if we are to understand our thinking it is worth keeping the two separate and understanding which we are interested in at a particular moment.


lady macleod said...

Yes. This is an area that fascinates me. Buddhism puts emphasis on the fact that were are NOT "the mind" but in control of it - so then we are separate. But separate how and in what context?

Your words about those who do not wrestle with this dilemma brings home another observed truth for me (selective perception) in that my new step-daughter is autistic - diagnosed as Asbergers, but that is coming more and more to be thought a label to make parents feel better rather than a actual diagnosis. There are ranges of Autism - something else I am learning about. It is in this venue that I view her perception of the world, her place in it, and how she interacts with other humans.

We are complicated beings are we not? And therein lies the fun and the confusion.
Excellent post. I enjoyed it.

gracchii said...

Yes, yes and yes. I think you are right entirely about the interesting area fo the mind- I reccomend the In our Time I linked to on that. On the way that definitions are useful as well as truthful I also agree- the disability thing is definitely true, many highly intelligent dyslexics I know became much happier at school once they knew tehy were because they had an explanation for having to try hard at certain subjects. You could also think say of the way that we self define in groups as a way of helping our selves cope with life: we become special in a sense!