As I sit here pondering what to write, what is it exactly that is doing the pondering? Where do the thoughts come from? How does the 3 lb mass of grey matter that is my brain give rise to the felt experience of sensations and thoughts? It sometimes seems essentially inconceivable that the water of material processes could give rise to the wine of consciousness. Indeed, it is so famous a conundrum that it has a name…the (in)famous mind-brain (or mind-body) problem. Failure to have consensual resolution to the mind-brain-body (MBB) problem remains at the heart of psychology and its difficulties as a fragmented discipline. My goal here is to briefly explain how the unified theory (TUT) resolves the MBB problem.
TUT resolves the MBB problem by doing the following: First, it provides a clear taxonomy for the various phenomena that relate to the term mind. Prior to TUT, there has been massive definitional confusions. Second, via the ToK System, we get clear on the nature of the universe as the flow of Energy-Information (E-I), which in turn can be divided into four ontologically distinct categories. Third, the ToK System points to the human mind as consisting of two fundamentally different flows of E-I (or two fundamentally different kinds of behavioral processes). Behavioral Investment Theory (BIT) and the Justification Hypothesis (JH) frame the FUNCTIONAL nature of these two systems. Finally, I said that TUT resolves the MBB problem…that is different than solving it. At the end of this post, I note that an important part of the problem, what I call the engineering problem, remains.
We need to first get clear about what most folks mean when they use the term the mind. What, exactly, are they referring to? In common parlance, ‘the mind’ most often refers to the seat of human consciousness, the thinking-feeling ‘I’ that seems to be an agentic causal force that is somehow related but is also seemingly separable from the body. The idea of life after death is so intuitively plausible to so many because our mental life seems so different from our bodies that we could imagine our souls existing long after our bodies decompose. This leads to a common sense dualism that is part and parcel to many religious worldviews.
TUT suggests there are some semantic problems referring to the human self-consciousness system as ‘the mind’. One reason why has to do with what Freud ‘discovered’ over a century ago and is now well-known by modern day psychologists (see, e.g., Tim Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves)–consciousness is only a small portion of mental processes. Consciousness and mind are thus not synonymous. So, we need to realize then that the MBB problem needs to either be the Consciousness-Brain-Body problem or the Consciousness-Mind-Brain-Body problem.
Recognizing the need to separate the mind from consciousness is one of the keys to resolving the CMBB problem. What, then, is the relationship between mind and consciousness? TUT tells us we can turn to the cognitive revolution in psychology to ground our answer. The cognitive revolution was birthed as a mixture of work on information theory, artificial intelligence, and cybernetics. It gave rise to the computational theory of the mind (Pinker, 1997), which does indeed offer a solution to a big piece of the puzzle. The computational theory of mind posits that the nervous system is an information processing system. It works by translating changes in the body and the environment into a language of neural impulses that represent the animal-environment relationship. The computational theory of the mind was a huge breakthrough because it allows us, for the first time, to conceptually separate the mind from the brain-body. How? Because we can now conceive of ‘the mind’ as the flow of information through the nervous system and this flow of information can be conceptually separated from the biophysical matter that makes up the nervous system. To see how can we consider the separation of the information from the actual nervous system itself, think of a book. The book’s mass, its temperature, and other physical dimensions can now be considered as roughly akin to the brain. Then think about the information content (i.e., the story the book tells or claims it makes). In the computational theory, that is akin to the mind. The mind, then is the information instantiated in and processed by the nervous system.
Although the cognitive revolution was a great move forward, problems emerged. This was in part due to the fact that now that mind could be separated from brain with relative ease, researchers became fascinated with models of disembodied or artificial algorithmic processors that had little connection with the other elements of mental phenomena, such as conscious experience, culture, overt behavior, or the brain. The problem was that these models were very far removed from the human mindbrain system. With its macro-level view and its capacity to assimilate and integrate key perspectives, TUT allows us to build off of the central insight of the cognitive revolution and simultaneously connect it back to the brain, evolution, human action, and culture.
The depiction of four different dimensions of informational complexity offered by the ToK System (i.e., Matter, Life, Mind, and Culture) should immediately give us pause when we consider the problem of human cognition. Is human cognition a level three (Mind/neuronal) or level four (Cultural/linguistic) phenomena? The answer of course is that human cognition is a function of dual modes of information processing. It is both neuronal and linguistic. Or, more technically, linguistic information processing develops/emerges out of and loops back upon neuronal information processing. After many years of research, this view of human cognition has finally ascended to a dominant position in mainstream human cognitive science. It is useful to note that the ToK points us immediately in that direction.
But what is the relationship between neuro or linguistic information processing (the human mind) and consciousness? Consciousness is ‘experienced’ information flow. I will return to why experienced is in quotes. But for now, let me note how congruent the dual processing models of cognition (one fast automatic, associative, reflexive and the other slower, verbal, analytic) are with our conscious experience. For although our conscious experience feels unitary, there nonetheless is an easy dichotomy to make. One aspect of our consciousness is our experience of first order awareness. Seeing red, being hungry, feeling scared. These nonverbal perceptual, motivational, emotionally experienced gestalts are the sentient elements of consciousness that some call qualia. They are different in kind than the other seat of conscious awareness found only in humans, which is the second order level of conscious awareness. This is the position of a reflective narrator, the human self that explains one’s actions and decides what is and is not legitimate.
It is, of course, Behavioral Investment Theory, that, from a unified theory perspective, provides the conceptual frame for neuro-information processing and the sentient level of consciousness. BIT tells us the nervous system is a computational control system that guides actions on an investment value, cost-benefit ratio. Pleasure and pain are nature’s functional solution to network perceptions, motives, and action procedures together to foster behavioral guidance toward or away from benefits and costs.
The Justification Hypothesis tells us that linguistic information processing is functionally organized into systems of justification. Moreover, TUT tells us that there will be dynamic tensions and filtering between the domains of experience, private narration and public action–a dynamic tension clinicians are (or should be) well aware of.
Mind (with a capital M) on the ToK System is the set of mental behavior, which is the behavior of animals mediated by the nervous system. The mind is the information instantiated and processed by the nervous system. Consciousness is an emergent phenomena, a first person experience that arises out of neuro-information processing. In humans, a language based, second order consciousness emerges out of and feeds back onto sentience.
Finally, the famous physicist Richard Feynman once said if you really want to show you understand how something works, build it. And it is here that we can clearly identify the limits of our knowledge regarding consciousness. I put experienced in quotes earlier because no one knows how to engineer the flow of information into emergent states of consciousness. The engineering problem of consciousness remains a great mystery.