Review: The Analysis of Mind

Review: The Analysis of Mind

The Analysis of MindThe Analysis of Mind by Bertrand Russell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When you drop a weight on your toe, and you say what you do say, the habit has been caused by imitation of your undesirable associates, whereas it is brought into play by the dropping of the weight.

It is a puzzle of our modern scientific worldview that we have been extremely successful in explaining things remote from our experience, and yet have made comparatively little headway in explaining our experience itself.

We begin with physics, the king of the sciences. Here we are dealing with things like force, time, mass, charge—abstract qualities which we can define precisely and measure accurately. Using these variables we can, and have, constructed theoretical edifices which continue to astound me and the rest of the world with their surpassing precision and elegance. Yet it is in physics that we have found that our everyday notions are most flawed. Seemingly solid objects like tables and people are, it turns out, mostly empty space. Under certain circumstances, time slows down, objects become foreshortened. Space itself is not wholly distinct from time, but forms a four-dimensional fabric that bends in response to matter. And even our basic logical notions, like that of identity, fail miserably when confronted with the probabilistic world of quantum mechanics.

Things get a bit more orderly when we move up the scale of complexity from physics to chemistry. No longer are we dealing with matter in the abstract, but specific types of matter, with their own specific, recognizable qualities—smell, hardness, color. Here we can at least picture specks of matter, arranged into three-dimensional structures, changing and rearranging like grains of sand on a storm-tossed shore. Our ability to predict and explain the universe on this scale is less precise, and perhaps less elegant, than in physics, but it is nonetheless impressive. Yet as we climb the rungs of complexity from hydrogen to organic chemistry, up through biochemistry, we somewhere reach the frontier that separates life from inanimate matter.

Where we draw the line is, in part, merely a question of semantics; but it is also a scientific question, since we are interested in explaining the origins of life—and we can’t decide when life arose without deciding what life is. Viruses seem to sit right on this troubling boundary; but let’s put them to the side. We arrive, then, at bacteria, organisms too small to sense, but which still form the majority of life on earth, both in mass and variety. These little bitty dots of life float to and fro, performing their limited array of behaviors; and yet, simple as they are, do we have equations that could tell us exactly when a specific bacteria will divide, or exactly what direction it will turn next? And is not our knowledge of what life is even now so limited that we are still surprised, year after year, at the strange and inhospitable places we find bacteria happily residing?

Once we arrive at things like trees, mushrooms, bison, and baboons, all bets are off as far as predictive precision is concerned. It is true, we do have Darwinian evolution, which admirably and elegantly unites all of these phenomena into an orderly framework. Nonetheless, our knowledge here is qualitative, not quantitative; and when dealing with something like, say, animal behavior, biology sometimes approaches what can be called “natural history”—the mere collection of facts. Unlike in physics and in chemistry, where nearly every new particle or element is predicted beforehand—not only its mere existence, but its precise qualities, too—in biology, every new species discovered is a surprise. And even when we have good evolutionary grounds for predicting an ancestral species, the exact qualities of said species cannot be simply deduced from a theory; they must be inferred from remains and analogs.

Finally, we get to our own behavior—and here things get really messy. Because we humans exhibit such behavioral flexibility, we can’t quite decide where genetic influence ends and environmental influence begins. Nor can we even make definitive statements about the limits of our behavioral flexibility, as shown by the Westerners who were continually flabbergasted at the discoveries of cultural anthropologists. Moreover, our dominant theories of human behavior in the social sciences contradict one another. The premises of economics run counter to those of anthropologists; evolutionary psychologists and sociologists make different assumptions and operate within incompatible paradigms. Thus we are left with the ironic result that we can predict the behavior of an electron, which nobody has ever seen, with enormous precision, and yet cannot predict the behavior of our spouses, who we see every day, despite our most valiant efforts.

This isn’t a pretty picture; but the next step in our journey is even uglier. When we arrive at the threshold between body and mind, we are stumped completely. How does consciousness arise from a blob of neural tissue? How do chemical signals and electric jolts, when arranged in a sufficiently complicated network, give rise to awareness? How on earth do we explain choice, will, fear, hope? We reach for science, but here our typical scientific approach encounters an obstacle. Science, which is a method for achieving objective results, is being asked to explain subjectivity; a technique for paring away our biases and partialities, leaving only the truth, is being applied to the very center of our biases and partialities. In short, the only indubitable evidence we have of our awareness is purely personal, and yet such evidence—namely, eyewitness testimony—is inadmissible in the scientific enterprise.

In these paradoxical territories, where we cannot yet achieve satisfactory results using empirical research, philosophy makes its home. And here is where Bertrand Russell enters. Published in 1921, The Analysis of Mind is Russell’s attempts to muster the greatest science and philosophy of his day to explain the human mind. Relying not only on his own techniques of logical analysis, Russell draws on David Hume’s empiricism, William James’s psychology, Freud’s psychoanalysis, and the recently-developed behaviorism, quoting scientific papers more often than other philosophers. It is a valiant effort, and I’m not sure how much better Russell could have done given the knowledge available at the time.

Nevertheless, from the perspective of our own day, this book is quite clearly outdated. The most general flaw is that Russell doesn’t posit nearly enough complexity in the mind to account for the richness of mental activity. Again, this is as much the fault of Russell’s influences as Russell himself. Hume thought the mind was merely a succession of sensations and images; William James mainly relied on habit to explain human behavior; Freud divided the mind into the conscious, the unconscious, and the censor, reducing all motivation to the sex drive; and behaviorism, of course, attempts to circumvent the mind completely, explaining everything through observable actions.

Russell more or less attempts to put these theories together, fiddling with one here, another there, trying to find the right combination to account for the human mind. The result is, I’m sorry to say, supremely unconvincing. For example, a ubiquitous feature of human behavior is language, which certainly cannot be accounted for by mere stimulus-and-response, as Russell attempts to do here. Language is not a mere habit, the way that biting your nails is. This has been evinced by the extraordinary difficulty in constructing translating programs—something which, of course, was far in the future when Russell wrote this. Also flat-footed was Russell’s attempt to built up all the contents of the mind with mere sensations and images (imagined sensations). For example, how could you build up something like happiness from sights, sounds, and tactile sensations? Could you construct despair out of moonlight, a minor chord, and the smell of mould?

Most troubling, though, was Russell’s attempt at monism. Now, to backtrack a little, in philosophy two approaches have been offered to supplant the mind-body problem. The first is materialism, which considers everything supposedly mental to be, at most, the mere byproduct of something physical; and the second is idealism, which takes the opposite approach—namely, considering everything in the universe to be really mental. Spinoza famously tried to steer a middle course, and proposed that matter and mind were two forms of the same thing, a doctrine which has been called “neutral monism.” This idea was much later taken up by William James, and is put forward here by Russell, under James’s influence. The problem, however, is that in positing something intermediary and more fundamental than matter and mind, Russell does violence to both.

Russell’s solutions is essentially to reduce everything to sensations. Physics deals with the behavior of sensations from every possible perspective, whereas psychology deals with the behavior of sensations from only one perspective. Thus, a table in physics is just a table seen from every possible angle, under every possible light, and so on; and a single person’s experience is a successions of sensations—a table, a chair, a pizza—seen from one vantage point. Note the advantage: if mind and matter are just two aspects of the same thing, the mind-body problem is solved. In keeping with this view, Russell suggests that matter is, in his words, a “logical fiction,” which physicists merely posit as the glue to hold the data of sensations together. In his words:

Instead of supposing that there is some unknown cause, the “real” table, behind the different sensations of those who are said to be looking at the table, we may take the whole set of these sensations (together possibly with certain other particulars) as actually being the table. That is to say, the table which is neutral as between different observers (actual and possible) is the set of all those particulars which would naturally be called “aspects” of the table from different point of view.

I have very little sympathy for this view, as perhaps do most other people nowadays. Making sensations fundamental puts humans at the very center of reality. The world was around a long time before life arose, and thus cannot be explained as a collection of sensations. Moreover, our current understanding of physics requires that certain things, far outside of our experience, be treated as fundamental; and even though these entities are merely deduced, never directly observed through our senses, by using them we can formulate predictions of extreme precision and accuracy, which is the goal of science.

Russell might respond that, in the interest of applying Occam’s razor, we should ideally have a science that rests on directly observable data (i.e. sensations), since every microscopic particle we posit is an extra, hypothetical entity. Nevertheless, such a thing doesn’t seem possible—which isn’t surprising, considering that, so far as we know, the way we perceive the universe is accidental, limited, and imprecise, the result of the needs of an ape species living on a small planet orbiting an ordinary star. But Francis Bacon, writing 400 years ago, might have said it best:

But by far the greatest hindrance and aberration of the human understanding proceeds from the dullness, incompetency, and deceptions of the senses; in that things which strike the sense outweigh things which do not immediately strike it, though they be more important. Hence it is that speculation commonly ceases where sight ceases; insomuch that of things invisible there is little or no observation.

In fact, the relationship of what we actually sense to modern physics is fairly tenuous. When we are, for example, running an experiment and using a detecting device, what matters is the information the device displays, not the sensations we experience. For example, the detector might display its readings in neon green lettering, in roman numerals, in Chaucerian English, in Egyptian hieroglyphics—in whatever language you want. These would all be quite different sensations, but would all signify the same thing. In short, it is what we deduce from our experience, rather than our experience itself, which is significant.

This, of course, brings us back to our initial paradox—namely, that we can deduce the origins of the universe from our experience, but we cannot explain how our experience arises from our brains. Well, at least Russell cannot; and if he can’t, what hope do I have?

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Quotes & Commentary #47: Russell

Quotes & Commentary #47: Russell

Nothing is so exhausting as indecision, and nothing is so futile.

—Bertrand Russell

A few days ago, I wrote a post about the circumstances in which I’ve found it’s wise to distrust my emotions. Now I want to examine the occasions when I’ve found its wise to trust them.

There are few things more daunting, more agonizing, and more frightening for me than making important decisions. Yet life constantly confronts us with difficult choices. Where to go to school? Who to date? Who to marry? What profession to pursue? What job to accept? Where to live? To have kids? How many?

I hate making decisions like these, because it seems as if I’m gambling with my very life. Since I can’t know the future, how can I know I’m making the “right” choice? No matter how much information I collect, I can never be sure whether I have surveyed all the relevant points, nor can I ever be sure that another factor, unforeseeable but decisive, might appear in the future.

And if I could know all the important facts, even then, how could I be sure that my choice will maximize my happiness? What if my priorities change? What if something important to me now seems silly to me in ten years? How can I be certain of my preferences—whether I prefer living in the city or the country, for example—when I haven’t had experience of all the different options?

So you can see that both the relevant factors and the criteria are, to an extent, unknowable. The paradox boils down to this: I’m supposed to make a choice in the present that will bind my future self, without knowing exactly what I’m choosing or what my future self will be like. How can I do the right thing?

Thinking along these lines, it’s easy to fall into a pit of despair. It’s a gamble any way you look at it; and yet this is not money you’re dealing with, but your own life.

One way I’ve found to reduce this despair is to try to remind myself that my happiness does not depend on my external circumstances. As I know from painful experience, my mentality is far, far more important than my surroundings in determining my levels of anxiety and contentment. And the more I cultivate this ability to find joy within me rather than in external things, the less pressure is there to make the “right” choice. I no longer feel as though I’m gambling with my happiness, which reduces the significance of the decision.

Paradoxically, the less pressure you put on yourself—the less you tell yourself that your life hangs in the balance—the more likely you are to make the “right” choice, since anxiety, frustration, and fear are not conducive to clear thinking. Indeed, I think it’s wrong to apply the categories “right” and “wrong” to any choice like this. Life is wide open, and each option carries its own positives and negatives. Besides, no choice is absolutely binding. People change jobs, switch careers, get divorced and remarried, move cities, go back to university, and make a thousand other changes that their younger selves could never have predicted. All these are reasons not to agonize.

This brings me back to the role of emotion. I have found that, in making important life decisions, it is usually wiser to trust my intuition than any conscious analysis. Whether I’m visiting a potential college, going on a first date, or interviewing for a potential job, I have found that it either feels “right,” “wrong,” or somewhere in between, and that this feeling is often (though not always) more trustworthy than any of the factors I am weighing.

Let me give a concrete example. While in college, I took a class on the sociology of relationships. One day, the professor said something that has stuck with me. When looking for a partner, usually we have certain criteria we are applying to potential mates, a mental checklist we are trying to tick off. Maybe you want someone who doesn’t smoke, who’s taller than you, who is within a certain age-range. These are the things we normally use when on dating websites, for example, when judging other people’s profiles.

And yet, there is something besides these criteria, what my professor called “chemistry.” This is the way that two people actually interact: how they behave around each other, whether they make each other laugh, if they feel comfortable or uncomfortable, if they feel energetic or bored.

Chemistry is unpredictable. Somebody may satisfy your every criteria and yet bore you to death; and someone else may be totally unacceptable on paper and yet consistently make you laugh.

I think this notion of chemistry is applicable far beyond relationships. There is always an unpredictable element in your reactions. This is why we have interviews rather than hire people just on their résumés, and why we visit college campuses rather than decide from home. We need to experience something for ourselves, to confront it in our own experience, to see how we will react.

This leads to the question: What should you do when your instinctive reaction is out of harmony with your consciously chosen criteria? What if you instinctively like something that is mediocre on paper? Or if you instinctively dislike something that is great on paper?

I can only answer for myself. With decisions, I have learned to trust my gut reaction and to distrust my consciously chosen checklist. With very few exceptions, this strategy has proven satisfactory to me.

If life has taught me anything so far, it is that I am very bad at consciously predicting what I will like. From the university I attended, to the subject I studied, to the people I’ve dated, to the jobs I’ve taken—the most pleasant experiences, and the most satisfying choices, have inevitably been the result of unexpected gut feelings. Likewise, the periods in my life I have felt the worst, the choices I have most regretted, were times when I was trying to carry out some consciously-devised plan.

This leads me to another question: What is intuition? What is this part of my brain, unconscious and inaccessible, that is more trustworthy than my conscious thoughts? This is really a question for psychologists, I suppose, and I feel presumptuous answering it.

I will only say that, judging from my own experience, we are subconsciously aware of far more things than we can consciously take note of. Small details in our environment, little social cues and ticks of personality, a thousand details too fine and too subtle to be intentionally investigated—all this is taken in by our brains, automatically and without effort.

Now, I am not believer in the mystical subconscious, and I do not follow either Freud or Jung. Nevertheless, it seems one of the basic facts of my life that my brain performs far more operations than I am consciously aware of. There is no contradiction or mystery in this. Insects scan their environments with great efficiency without the need of consciousness at all (or at least, I don’t think insects are conscious). And in any case, to effectively comport myself in a physical environment, coordinating my limbs with my senses, keeping myself out of any sudden threats, I need to process many more facts than my poor conscious mind is able to.

(I hope to write more about this in the future, but for now it’s only important that I think we do the majority of our most vital cognitive labor without being consciously aware of it.)

Considering all this, it seems eminently wise to trust my intuition. With regards dating, for example, I believe my unconscious brain is a far more reliable judge of character than my conscious self. While I am fiddling around with psychological guessing games and simplistic theories, my unconscious brain, honed by thousands of years of social evolution, is producing a sophisticated analysis on the person I’m with, and giving this information to my conscious brain in the form of intuition and feeling.

I’ve gotten this far, and yet I still haven’t delineated the situations in which our intuition should be trusted, and in which it shouldn’t. The short answer is that everyone must figure this out for themselves. Only experience has shown me when following my intuition gets me into trouble, and when it has guided me well.

More generally, however, I think that, when making decisions regarding one’s own happiness, it is necessary to consult your intuition. But when making decisions of wider consequence, it is reckless to rely on intuition alone. Your intuition may let you know what will please you, but not what will please others. In other words, your intuition provides information about what you want, which is a fact about yourself. It does not, and cannot, provide reliable information about the world. This, I think, is a vital distinction to keep in mind.