Why Minds in Pieces? — Four Reflections


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 🙂


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24 responses to “Why Minds in Pieces? — Four Reflections

  1. Issues:

    (1) I think calling the modules “thinkers” is a mistake. I call them modules because in my model, they don’t have intentionality (as thinkers do in normal parlance), they don’t have personality and all that other personhood stuff which is clustered around that word. My modules are nonintentional, no personality, unreflective etc…

    (2) You said,
    “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 this could be reworded as:
    “If one person is replace, then the behavior of the company might change somewhat, but the overall ability of the company to function the same does not alter much if the individual agrees to company rules and fulfills their job description and responds well to corrections. ”
    So, there is only a “company” as long as there are individuals and there is some sort of cohesion via payment methods and products which fee that payment. Company information is carried in contracts, employee rules and heirarchy commands.
    No mystery there so far.

    I think calling it the “mental process” of a company is a fun analogy, but one must keep in mind all the constraints that make it a company besides individuals — it is those constraints that make it more than a group of people. The group’s goal is a product that can be measured.

    I still don’t buy it. Call me stubborn, it just seems too contrived. But then if you read my bit about “culture” and especially my debate in the comments with Zero1Ghost, you will see my allergy to these contrivances because of their abuse. But most people in my comments seem to disagree with me. They’d probably join your church in a minute. Smile

  2. As a spokesman for the global mind, I would like to voice that we want to hear more from this blog ( or “thinker”) on its reflections. I am reminded of the Process Theology god in this model.

  3. Ian

    @sabio – (1) Some modules/thinkers do absolutely have intentionality and personality and are highly reflective. (2) The company example is more than you’re alluding to. There is something qualitatively different about different companies. It isn’t reducible to company policies, nor even to the products they create. Different media agencies, for example, produce different personalities of work. If you know them, you can tell who made an ad just as sure as you can tell which writer wrote a piece of prose. That doesn’t reduce to “Company information is carried in contracts, employee rules” but may be partly contained in “heirarchy commands” as long as you understand that the commands arise from some people, and cause other people to act, so are basically the interconnects between thinkers/modules. As for “it just seems too contrived.” I see you as being unwilling to take seriously your own theory 🙂 If what you say is true, I can’t see how you can’t ask the question about the interaction of modules in different people. It seems highly arbitrary to say that you’ll only consider modules if they share the same set of neurons. When you discover that atoms are made up of protons, neutrons and electrons, the next question, it seems to me, is to ask what happens if those are combined in different ways, other than in classical atomic form: neutronium, delocalised electron clouds, alpha particles, plasma, etc, etc.

    @bob 😀 Thanks. Yes, I think process theology is quite a good analogue.

  4. Experimental Sabio

    (1) Terms

    I use “selves” in some of my analogies that correspond to your “thinkers” — again, “selves” allows also for automaticity rather than intentionality. But like your “thinkers”, I sometimes imagine those “selves” as having different personalities. But then those selves are made of many, many more basic modules — which have not intentionality or reflection.

    (2) Companies

    Well it seems, as previously, we may just have to agree to disagree and laying out the disagreement is cool. But it is hard for me since this discussion is packed full of abstractions on abstractions. Nature of the beast, I guess.

    I am not trying to be a reductionist in terms of parts because, as you know, I think the interactions matter. But the interactions happen because of the relationship of the parts — the “relationship field” (read: personality) does not exist without parts. Change a part and the whole thing changes unless the machine (company) has mechanism to conform the part to desired output — which they all have to some degree. The rebels win and the company shifts when product and market reward appropriately and management nods “OK”.

    (3) My Inconsistency
    This part gets technical and beyond my skill level. But I think my emphasis is this:

    The idea of “person” to me is already largely contrived though useful. This is a very counter-intuitive notion. But trying to make a person out of a company must be understood and as higher level of contrivance and artificiality — though I understand its usefulness is speeding up conversation and such. But the higher the level of abstraction, the easier it is to fool ourselves (I think) and sneak in concepts and implications that don’t exist. Thus my radar is beeping.

    But my alarms could be false. And maybe, someday, after you stop sending up all the philosophical test balloons, you will tell us why this is important to you — how you plan to USE your model (your elaborate abstraction). Maybe I will love the use, maybe my hesitancies will evaporate. (not that it is important what I think).

    In the meanwhile, I thought you’d like to hear one skeptic’s view. But as I said before, I am pretty sure I am in a vast majority among skeptics themselves. I hope to be illuminated someday — I am not sure why I doubt this stuff so strongly myself.

    PS – I still don’t get notified when a comment is added to this thread. So if I don’t return, it is because I forgot to check. So drop me a note if you want a reply. I wonder if other readers have this problem. Or, as above, it may just be yet another of my idiosyncrasies. 🙂
    I will experiment with a different e-mail and name to see if I get feedback this time.

  5. Ian

    1) Agreed, although I think ‘module’ isn’t an actual thing. It is a model. You can think of modules at varying levels of detail. Or as being composed of smaller modules, however is useful.

    2) I certainly don’t think that a company has some mystical self or personality that is beyond its modules and their interaction. Just like you or me, if we could (somehow) start swapping out modules, we’d be ‘us’ for a while, but ultimately would change dramatically. My intuition is that if we did that process slowly enough, then we’d and those around us would never be aware of not being ‘us’ any more.

    Similarly there are moments where certain modules get promoted and get to call the shots (the rebels getting the OK from the CEO). My ‘atheist’ module gets to sculpt my identity now, at least in most contexts, and my ‘Christian’ module gets to take a back seat. My internal CEO (what Ian Wright calls the ‘meta-management system’ in a cognitive model) made that choice: “right ‘atheist’, good proposal, we’ll run with your idea for a while”. Seems to me exactly the kinds of things that happen in a company.

    3) My thesis is that ‘trying to make a person out of a company’ is no higher a level of abstraction than the notion of ‘person’ generally. They are both just groups of modules. I’m not, actually, trying to make a person out of a company. I’m saying that: if a combination of modules together forms some kind of structure that has important dynamics, then we shouldn’t blinker ourselves to focus on how they are physically arranged. As if skin is somehow an absolute boundary.

  6. Ian said, “2) I certainly don’t think that a company has some mystical self or personality that is beyond its modules and their interaction.”

    The company is beyond the modules in the sense that it is more powerful than any single module; a personality trait. That’s the nature of the beast, right?

  7. Ian

    Yes, I think so Bob.

    In the same way that a car isn’t just its engine.

    But it isn’t something mystical beyond the components it is made up of, and the way they work together.

    There are three things: the individual bits, the way those bits are arranged, and the way those bits behave when they are arranged in that way.

    This is why traditional reductionism isn’t that useful. Because you can’t understand the way a car works just from the behaviour of its components. Much less can you understand a mind from the behaviour of its component neurons. The complex behaviours at higher levels are irreducible.

    There are even good mathematical ways to describe this. It is the basic building block of complexity science.

  8. John Clavin

    People in recovery often refer to the committee in their mind. Religious people in recovery will say that they have to turn to “god” because the committee becomes overwhelming. I take this as a way to get a majority vote on the many voices. Personally I enjoy the creativity of the committee, but sometimes the conflicts hold me back.

    I have often enjoyed the phrase collective consciousness of the human race or subgroups of the human race. I agree with what I think Ian is saying here, that different “thinkers” (modules in the mind) are connecting with particular “thinkers” in other minds. To me, this is spirituality in the purest form. The connection between similar “thinkers” in groups of people is “of the spirits” or “things unseen.”

    Good book title: “Managing the Many Thinkers in Your Mind.”

  9. Sabio

    Hmm, I wonder if this is it ! You said,

    My internal CEO (what Ian Wright calls the ‘meta-management system’ in a cognitive model) made that choice: “right ‘atheist’, good proposal, we’ll run with your idea for a while”. Seems to me exactly the kinds of things that happen in a company.

    I don’t think there is a CEO, but I could be wrong.

  10. Ian

    Meh, sorry. I don’t think there is a CEO either. More like a board of directors. And my experience of small companies (including being the “CEO” – although its silly to call it that for a 20 person operation) is that the CEO isn’t really in control in that sense. There are certainly modules that exert more control than others, and modules that are more concerned with coordination.

    A meta-management system (another module) in cognitive science is one that tries to reflect on and alter process: it is the level above reactive and deliberative systems.

  11. Ian

    @John – I do like that title, yes. And it is interesting that the sharing of thinkers is a spiritual sense for you. Those folks who instantly seem to like this way of thinking do seem to feel as if it somehow spiritualizes relationships. I find it harder to think that way, because spirituality for me is an individual pursuit. I love the different inputs it gets though.

  12. But, Ian, a company is self organizing in a way that car parts, becoming a car, are not. So, is it still possible that a company is greater than the sum of its parts, in a different way than a car is greater than the sum of its parts?

  13. Ian

    Bob – yes. I used a car an an example of systems thinking (that something can be only made up of its components, yet not be reducible to them), not as a metaphor for mental processes.

    Although it is a really good point that I don’t have a good model on how these things come together. My gut is to treat them as self-organizing. But there may be some crucial biases in the way our brains are wired too.

  14. John Clavin

    “And it is interesting that the sharing of thinkers is a spiritual sense for you.”

    Yes. I see the flocking of birds or a computer flocking algorithm as an example of spirituality.

  15. Sabio Lantz

    I know I frustrate you will my objections because they must seem to totally miss the point, but at risk of really getting on your nerves, I thought of more today while reading a cool book called “The Ego Tunnel” by Thomas Metzinger.

    I would guess that not all organism has the notion of a “self” (which I say is delusional but a useful delusion). Thus perhaps somewhere on the mammal evolutionary chain that adaptive illusion developed. All to say, other conscious animals have many modules but no illusion of “self”. So it is not merely the interaction of many modules (thinkers) that create the illusion of a “self”.

    So my objections are now two:
    (1) There is no self
    (2) It is not the mere interactions of lots of modules that can create the “self” illusion

    Probably still off track.
    Write me if you want to pursue conversation because your website does not notify me when comments are made.

  16. Ian

    It is mostly frustrating because I can’t seem to communicate what I mean.

    Both your objections seem to be irrelevant to me. Since I’m claiming neither. Although I’d suspect that (2) is the case. Your view on (2) seems to be essentialist. What else is there if not modules and their interactions? Just because another different system doesn’t show a behavior doesn’t mean that the behavior isn’t caused by the components of a system. But as I said, rather irrelevant, since I don’t know what ‘self’ has to do with it.

    My perception of self is highly tied to the boundaries of the physical system that contains me. In that way there clearly is a self, and it is highly predictable what I would consider to be ‘self’.

    The biggest frustration is that on one hand you seem to get that words are just labels for behaviours or dynamics. So ‘self’ is just some label for a set of system dynamics. On the other hand at the root of your reasoning seems to be a desire to treat them Platonically: to debate whether they are really present or not, as if ‘self’ were something independent, something of which you could say ‘there is no self’.

  17. Sabio Lantz

    Your view on (2) seems to be essentialist.

    Calling names, now, huh ! OK, gloves are off. 🙂

    Nah, an essentialist thinks there is a self. I don’t. But there is a illusion of a self to the organism. I don’t think I am saying it clearly. It is not just a bunch of modules that can give this illusion. But certain types of modules in certain relationships. Thus a company or group of believers may not replicate the “personhood” or “Godhead” you seem to be shooting for.

    You physical notion of self, btw, is highly artificial but I get the practical side of it.

    But reading your last paragraph, I think we are talking past each other. Perhaps another means than typing would do better — not sure what.

    As I said, probably many folks will be excited by your agenda, I just can’t always feeling there is a deep mistake. But then, I am usually wrong, over the long run.

  18. Ian

    Nah, an essentialist thinks there is a self.

    Nah. You don’t have to accept the existence of it, to believe the word has a single specific meaning.

    The fact that you think the boundaries of a physical person is a “highly artifical” definition of what is themself and what is not, suggests that you’re wedded to some specific definition here. Which is unusual for you, because you normally are quite good at understanding that words are labels we place on related phenomenon, not essential signifiers of platonic reality.

    Thus a company or group of believers may not replicate the “personhood” or “Godhead” you seem to be shooting for.

    Yes! Yes! Yes! I couldn’t agree more. They may not, or else they may. And, crucially whether they do or do not depends on exactly what you point out: are the right types of modules present, in the correct relationships to one another?

    There are some dynamics that arise as the result of “certain types of modules in certain relationships” (the “illusion of self” being one). The question is – is there some fixed, necessary reason why that absolutely must be in one human being’s head? Can the “certain relationships” be maintained between separate human beings?

    I don’t see why not. So then for me it becomes an empirical question: do groups of people display cognitive phenomena (of which “illusion of self” could be one, but is one I’m not particularly interested in) that are normally associated with single human beings? If so which ones?

    And there I think they do. Distinct authorial personality, the example I gave above, is one. Group emotions another. Now, of course, you can argue those individual examples, but the important breakthrough you seem to have already made: that it is the modules and their relationships that are important, not the boundaries where one lump of flesh stops and another starts.

  19. Sabio Lantz

    Ah, you are talking about language.
    Man, you and I have lost communication skills it seems — or I have at least.

    I am not wedded to definitions, we can start making up a language for all I care. I just have to know how you want to use the words and why.

    And, crucially whether they do or do not depends on exactly what you point out: are the right types of modules present, in the correct relationships to one another?

    Yes, but they would only create the illusion of a self or of a god — even in the right relations and right types and right numbers.

    I wager those illusory-spinning entities don’t happen in companies or big groups of people in any way that resembles the way “self” is spun in humans. You may great a word called “Personhood(sub-company)” and “Personhood(sub-human)” but they would not be the same. So that is my suspicion.

    Could AI make it === yes, more probable.

    All speculation, of course.

    My speculation is that when those connections grow up in a head, with evolutionary advantages toward the illusion for that organism, the illusion got created. And even then, it did not happen in all sorts of animals.

    So you ask,

    do groups of people display cognitive phenomena

    but then we can keep it simpler. Do groups of mice display cognitive phenomena. Why humans? Do groups of birds show cognitive phenomena? Since we can analyze their behavior without some über-Bird (as an emergent group phenomena) and instead as individual interactions, why create that super-Bird?

    Further, you talk about “authorial personality” — I am a bit vague on that, but personality needs a “person” which needs a “self” so I don’t see how any of this is immaterial.

    So I am curious: If you don’t have this piece, does your whole proposed Atheist Theology fall apart? Is it essential for your project?

    PS= if I forget, ping me again. Or ask wordpress.org why your blog won’t send me e-mail. I wrote wordpress.COM and they said it is a .ORG issue. Does anyone else on your site have trouble getting notified?

  20. Ian

    but then we can keep it simpler. Do groups of mice display cognitive phenomena.

    That’s not simpler. Human beings already have the modules we’re interested in. Otherwise they wouldn’t display them. The question is whether modules in different people’s brains can be in the right relationship.

    So I am curious: If you don’t have this piece

    I’m not primarily interested in it from that perspective. And no, I don’t think it has much effect. The atheistic theology idea is simply that phenomena like “the will of God” and “God’s actions in the world” are things that arise from lots of people thinking they know him and know what he wants, in a great big feedback loop.

    So sin is that which God prohibits, and we can understand what God prohibits to be what followers of God think he prohibits. And that in turn develops over time. No individual Christian controls or determines that (i.e. there is no individual who, if they just changed their mind, would change the whole, but there are many who could push the inertia of “what God prohibits” in different directions as a result of their influence over the whole). You can think of it as kind of an average point over each person’s thinking (weighted, I guess, by their influence).

    It is pretty basic group dynamics, no meta-cognition needed.

    Meta-cognition comes in only when talking about what God is, and in some ways it is my best concession to the idea that God is some kind of independent reality (independent of individuals, in my case, not independent of the group). That there are limited ways in which I can think of God as having agency: because that conceptual bundle spread over lots of heads can impel people to act, and those actions arise from this kind of hazy cloud of shared understanding of God’s will. There is a group-think that seems to me to be analogous to what happens in the components of a person’s thoughts.

    No. Pushing meta-cognition this way is something quite different, and something I’m interested in seeing the boundaries of. It may be, as your intuition says, that you simply can’t have the modules in the right relationship between people’s minds (clearly you can have the right constituent modules) to duplicate cognitive phenomena associated with individuals (like a sense of self, or consciousness). But it does interest me to wonder if the large scale dynamics of group processes can be usefully thought of as cognitive.

  21. Ian

    Further, you talk about “authorial personality”

    Read four lines of Conrad and you can tell it is Conrad. Read a paragraph of Salman Rushdie and you can tell it is him. And so on. A personality here is a distinct way of thinking and expression we associate with a person.

    My contention is that certain creative activities done by companies show the same distinctive ways of thinking and expression that are not characteristic of a specific individual, and that none of their individual employees could replicate. You can just tell, in the example I gave, an ad made by one media agency over another, or (for certain studios) a game made by one studio over another. The creative folks could be moving jobs all the time, yet the whole is still distinctive.

    I don’t want to hang too much on that. But it strikes me as an instance where the contribution of bits of lots of minds gives rise to something distinct from any of them (a personality) that we normally associate with an individual. So a creative company can have a personality (in that sense of being a distinct way of thinking and expressing), without being one person, in a way that is not entirely metaphorical.

  22. Sabio Lantz

    Not being a literature person, I have heard that there are many authors whose styles change drastically through their years. But I think you are right, most keep the same style. Same for music. But if a theory does not account for the exceptions, we have a problem.

    Current Events: Is the “Muslim Brotherhood” the same it has always been. Is North Ireland the same it has always been. Is England the same it has always been. Would a Brit from 1000 years ago recognize England in any significant way now?

    These are all very simple objections which I know you could address easily and probably side tracking what you mean. But they still float forward for me.

    But sure, call something a “personality” if it helps. It is a fuzzy, abstract anthropomorphism which may speed up conversations between individuals who agree on its purpose/use. Again, for me, it depends on the use, I guess. Poetry is fine until it is used to motivate people to overthrown my community.

  23. Ian

    Things can change, but the point is that there is a distinctive and recognizable way of thinking and expressing.

    No, of course these things change. I’m suggesting that (as in our minds) there is a certain resilience. You can suffer a good deal of brain damage and be recognizably you. But if you change the whole wiring of your brain it would change you. If you change everyone in a company, the personality of the company changes. But that doesn’t mean that the company’s personality is wholly dependent on any individual.

    “It is a fuzzy, abstract anthropomorphism.” You do like to beg the question, don’t you.

  24. Sabio Lantz

    Reading SEP today, I came upon: 2.2 Property Dualism

    Is that something you are hinting at, or no?

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