I have a model of mental processes that I use a lot.
It views the mental life of an individual as being made up of smaller elements: you might call them ‘modules’, or ‘agents’. I tend to refer to them as ‘thinkers’.
A thinker is some set of mental behaviours that can usefully be clumped together. There are two important things to say about that:
Firstly the clump is a clump of behaviour, not a physical clump. It may be that a certain area of the brain is more associated with certain behaviours, but that isn’t important to me. I can just as well differentiate a clump of behaviours related to being a husband, for example, which I’m sure I don’t have a brain region dedicated to!
Secondly the definition of clump is completely and intentionally vague. There are many levels to look at this: we can look at small clumps of specific behaviours (my ability to do a particular magic trick, for example), or larger clumps of general behaviour (my ‘science-side’).
The way I behave is the result of the interactions of all these thinkers. At any point, some of them might have sway over me, at other points they go quiet. Usually many thinkers are working in tandem: I’m route planning as I walk, while figuring out some problem in my head, while emoting about some lingering issue.
What we call a ‘mind’, or a ‘self’ for me is just a group of these thinkers. At one level I have one mind, because I have one physical brain and endocrine system, and I’m sure that all these thinkers are running on that hardware. At another level, as Sabio often says, I’m not ‘one’ self, I don’t have one mind, I have many of these thinkers jostling for control, and working in concert.
My behaviour rises from the interactions between thinkers. Collaboration between emoting, planning, innate goals and refined expertise. Although some kind of repressed bigoted thinker might occasionally rear up and get control of me for a while (to the chagrin of my more liberal thinkers), alone it can’t do much. It would need the collaboration of other thinkers to achieve more than a petulant phrase here and there. On the other hand, when I work, I try to give the R&D thinker every resource it needs to get the job done, suppressing the other stuff that would hamper it.
So if, a) thinkers can be seen as separate things, b) minds* are a collaboration between thinkers, I find myself drawn back constantly to an important question:
Can a mind be made up of thinkers in different people’s brains?
I think so, absolutely. And the best example I’ve thought of for this is the dynamics of a small company (larger ones too, I guess, but I don’t have experience of that personally). In a small company the company itself has some kind of mental life. That mental life depends on thinkers in the brains of its employees. If one of those employees is replaced, then the behaviours of the company might change somewhat, but the overall ability of the company to think is not damaged.
But we can go beyond that. I’ve been in companies that have seemed to have a mental life that is qualitatively different from that of their employees. I’ve seen companies that have become depressed, when the individuals within them are not depressed. I’ve seen companies that were smarter than their employees, that seemed to be working to a strategy that nobody could quite capture, but was just right. And I’ve seen the opposite: a company that had a great on-paper strategy, but just seemed to be dumb as a whole.
In those cases, I want to say two things about those companies:
a) That the mental processes of the company has as much right to be thought of as a mind as yours or mine.
b) That the mind of the company can run on the brains of its employees, yet is not just a simple concatenation of their minds.
In other words, when people get together and share their thinkers, that gives rise to a new kind of mind.
I originally stumbled across the issue of new minds when thinking about God. God, I reasoned, is a psychological phenomenon of exactly this kind: people contribute thinkers, and a new mind arises from that. Not a mystical process, just a result of shared thinkers: the way minds always arise.
It has been pointed out to me several times that this a) can’t possibly be unique to God, and b) feels like I’m trying to push some agenda about the existence of God. The first is correct, and is something that comments on this blog has taught me. The second, I’m sorry for. I hope it isn’t true, but my blogging thinker doesn’t have complete access to the motivations of my other thinkers, so I can’t be entirely sure.
* I use the terms ‘mind’ or ‘mental processes’ here deliberately vaguely. I don’t have a particular definition of either in mind. But just about any definition I can think of would do for the purposes of this argument, formal or casual. The only ones that don’t are those that treat ‘mind’ as a synonym for ‘brain’.
** Anyone get the reference in the title? Shane should, I hope :)