How the Human Got Its Mind: Debunking the Last Great Myth in Psychology

By Schlinger, Henry D. | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

How the Human Got Its Mind: Debunking the Last Great Myth in Psychology


Schlinger, Henry D., Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


DESPITE THE FACT THAT "MIND" is a pre-scientific concept that dates back at least to the ancient Greek philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, it still occupies a central place as the subject matter of modern psychology and philosophy. Consider the titles of several recent books: How The Mind Works (by Steven Pinker), The Mind's I and Kinds of Minds (by Daniel Dennett), The Maladapted Mind and Mindblindness (by Simon Baron-Cohen), Wild Minds (by Marc Hauser), and The Mating Mind (by Geoffrey Miller). While the other sciences have moved well beyond their pre-scientific philosophical origins, psychology has made much less progress. Continuing to focus on mind as a primary subject matter keeps psychology mired in its philosophical roots and is a major obstacle to psychology becoming a true natural science.

Minds, Brains and Metaphors

In 1996, I wrote a critique of evolutionary psychology in SKEPTIC (Vol. 4, No. 1) entitled "How the Human Got Its Spots," a play on the title of one of the Just So Stories in which Rudyard Kipling offers a fanciful tale to explain how the leopard got its spots. The term "just so stories" has become a cliche for similarly fanciful explanations of natural phenomena. In the present essay, I argue that the concept of mind is the most egregious just so story ever invented to explain human behavior.

This is a tale about origins. As such, it is necessarily somewhat speculative; but as we shall see, the main issue is not the accuracy of the facts but the central premise, which is that humans do not have minds.

For most of us, it seems self-evident that we have minds. And probably most of us believe that humans have always had minds and that each of us is born with one. Nowadays, the term "mind" is sometimes used synonymously with the term "brain," which causes confusion by having two words for the same thing. Most people who use "mind" and "brain" interchangeably think that the brain is the physical basis of the mind. In my view, if one believes that mind and brain are synonyms, then the term "brain" should be used because it avoids all the metaphysical pitfalls associated with discussions about nonphysical entities.

This story is not about how humans got their brains, however (although that is a much more scientific and, in many ways, more interesting question to answer). It is about how humans got the concept of "mind." We have brains, but there is no mind to be found among the physical structures of the brain. Some may protest that mind is not a physical structure in the body, but rather something else. But what? One answer is that if the mind is not a physical structure of the body that can be observed and measured with the methods of science, then we must describe it in other, usually metaphorical, terms. For example, nowadays the mind is described in computer terms even though, as many scientists have noted, the brain, which is said to be where the mind operates, is neither structurally nor functionally like a computer. (1) In fact, the entire field of modern cognitive science is based on a metaphor, called "information processing," of the mind as a computer. Nowadays, everyone, it seems, talks about cognitive processing. For example, people diagnosed with dyslexia are said to have trouble processing words, as if that explains their behavior.

Over the centuries, many other metaphors have been used to describe the mind in general, as well as more specific functions, such as language. For example, a famous metaphor is Noam Chomsky's Language Acquisition Device (LAD). Of course, there is no real device in the brain that accounts for language acquisition, but the metaphor of one makes the inexplicable seem to be explained. Because the mind and its presumed properties (e.g., memories, representations, schemas, consciousness, etc.) are always unobserved, we are free to describe them using whatever terms we want, which is convenient because it means we never have to be scientifically accountable. …

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