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You and Your Mind
by Rick Lewis
One cloudy morning Sheila walked to the café and dropped her rucksack rather roughly on the floor next to her habitual chair. Immediately a voice said “Ouch! Careful!” She span around but there was nobody there. “No no, in here”, said her rucksack. “The laptop.” She fished out her computer, which looked unharmed by her cavalier treatment of it, and opened it warily. Had she left a video running? “That’s better,” said its built-in speaker. “Put it on the table carefully.”
“Oh dear, surely you can’t have forgotten? I’m you. Only in here.”
Sheila called out urgently to the barista: “Hey, cancel that treble shot latte! Decaf for me.”
“No, you really are in here.” said the laptop. “We were thinking yesterday about the centre of consciousness and where it was located. Remember? A brain just seemed too perishable, too squishy, to be safe. So I’ve uploaded our memories and personality to the Cloud and relocated my centre of consciousness to my… your … um, “our”… laptop. Just be careful with it, is all I ask. I’ve left just enough residual consciousness located in my cranium to manage basic functions like walking to the café and ordering a croissant. It should be fine – we mainly operate on autopilot on Mondays anyway.”
• • • • •
You’ll probably enjoy this issue: it’s mostly about you!
Our writers dive into a torrent of philosophical problems about mind and self. For example, are your decisions freely made or are you just playing out an inevitable predetermined dance of cause and effect? Is your identity as an individual something fixed and permanent? Or does it change? Does it rely on your memory? Is it divisible? Recursive? Do metaphors enable you to model the world? Is your mind ultimately just an assemblage of neurons? “Know thyself”, commanded the inscription on the front of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, advice which was enthusiastically endorsed by Socrates, and has been an aim of philosophy ever since. So you see, you’re absolutely right to think about yourself once in a while, and even to read a magazine that’s all about you. Socrates says so!
Do you have a mind or is it better to say that you are a mind, perhaps one that owns your body? Is your mind the same thing as your brain? Or as your self? If not, then does your mind own your self, or vice versa? Could your mind survive your bodily death by being transferred to a computer, or maybe uploaded to the Cloud (with or without a harp)? That’s a question we don’t address here, though Dan Dennett, that renowned physicalist and cognitive scientist, has said that in practice it is impossible because the operation of your brain within your cranium is affected by its highly personalised chemical environment, something that couldn’t be replicated in a computer.
We have two searching articles about free will. This is a topic intimately connected with questions about the nature of mind. A philosopher’s theory of mind is often connected with a parallel theory regarding the freedom of the will. One of our authors argues that if free will is a coherent notion at all, you might one day be able to boost the amount of free will you have by taking a pill.
You could say that this issue deals with assorted aspects of human nature. But this assumes that there is such a thing as human nature. Plenty of philosophers have doubted this. The existentialists, for instance, complained that talk of human nature presupposes essentialism, the idea that there is a way we naturally are or should be. Existentialists explicitly reject this, saying that we invent ourselves and must go on inventing ourselves throughout our lives.
Philippa Foot on the other hand came to believe in human nature and even used it as a basis for ethics, as you can see from her recently rediscovered memo to Philosophy Now, finally published in this issue.
Maybe human nature is not fixed but clearly humans do share many mental characteristics. If this were not the case we would probably find it impossible to deal with one another. Our ability to empathise, our ability to understand each other, rely on assumptions (that cannot be directly tested) that others are in many ways like ourselves in terms of their perceptions, their mental abilities, their emotional responses. You are a bit like me, so I can try to understand you, however imperfectly.
What makes you you? What if part of you were split off or duplicated? What if someone snipped the tissue joining the two hemispheres of your brain? Would there then be two of you? Which one would own the car? Must the centre of your consciousness be located in the same place as your physical brain? It seems intuitive. However, Aristotle thought the heart was the seat of intelligence, and that didn’t stop him from functioning, or indeed teaching philosophy. Could you shift your centre of consciousness outside your head, like Sheila, or perhaps if you used remote cameras to alter the location from which you perceive the world?
The questions multiply endlessly and space is too short to deal with them all. But the astonishing news just announced (see our News page) that researchers have managed to network three human brains together directly, enabling their owners to cooperatively, wordlessly, play a Tetris-like game, makes this possibly our most topical issue ever.