The unexplained intellect — does it exist?

by Neil Rickert

This is my reaction to a post that I saw today at The Brains Blog:

(that post title is really in all caps, so I had to retype to make it look reasonable).

At first glance, that title looks good.  The statement that the mind is not a hoard of sentences fits with my repeated criticism of the idea that knowledge is justified true belief.  However, as I read further into that blog post, I realize that I still have a lot of disagreement with the author.

The blog post is written by Christopher Mole and, in part, it is saying something about Mole’s book “The Unexplained Intellect”.  I have not read the book itself.  It comes in at $54.95 for the Kindle edition, which is a bit pricey for me.

On minds

Here’s the second paragraph of that blog post:

We do not currently have a satisfactory account of how minds could be had by material creatures. If such an account is to be given then every mental phenomenon will need to find a place within it. Many will be accounted for by relating them to other things that are mental, but there must come a point at which we break out of the mental domain, and account for some things that are mental by reference to some that are not. It is unclear where this break out point will be. In that sense it is unclear which mental entities are, metaphysically speaking, the most fundamental.

I have a simple response to that.  We do not need an account of how we can have minds.  And the reason that we do not need such an account, is that we do not actually have minds.

As I see it, “mind” is a metaphor.  Our talk of minds is really talk about some of our behavior.  Yes, we have perceptual experience.  Yes, we have thoughts.  But the idea that there is some actual entity to which “the mind” refers just strikes me as confused.  Similarly, talk of mental states always seems confused.  According to the literature, a belief that P is said to be a mental state.  I’ll grant that somebody might assent to P if asked.  I might sometimes describe that by saying that he believes P if asked.  But I cannot make sense of there being an actual belief as a real entity.  That does not fit with how I see the world, or how I see our place in the world.


Mole does seem to share some of my disdain for talk of mental states.  His objection to “a hoard of sentences” is an example of this.  In particular, he writes:

This emphasis on states has caused us to underestimate the importance of non-static mental entities, such as inferences, actions, and encounters with the world.

There he does appear to agree that we need to take behavior more seriously, and to think of the mental in terms of such behavior.

If we take these dynamic entities to be among the most fundamental of the items in the mental domain, then — I argue — we can avoid a number of philosophical problems.

But I think he will run into a different problem.

The problem is, that the behaviors that he wants to take as fundamental, are themselves acquired and might be different for different people.  Take his example of “inferences”.  We all make decisions.  But “inference” is a peculiarly intellectualist view of decision making.  We don’t all make decisions in the same way.  A decision that some folk make inferentially might be a decision that is made intuitively or emotionally by others.

It seems to me that most of our behavior is invented by us.  And since there might be multiple ways of reaching the same goal, we should anticipate a pluralism of behaviors.  If I’m right about that, it is hard to see how the behaviors can be fundamentals in a theory that we want to apply to all.

What is common to all?

Where should we start if we want fundamentals.  It seems to me that we should start with what is common to all.

We all share the same world.  We all face similar problems in coping with the world.  And we are all social creatures, who must learn to cooperate within our social groups.

It seems to me that the core of an account of human cognition, of what we think of as human mentality, should start with examining the kinds of problems that we face, and the methods that are available to us to invent ways of solving those problems.

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