New Old-fashioned Ways of Thinking about Thinking

•A brief history of the emergent mind•

The human mind is one of the universe’s great mysteries. It’s also possible that the mind, like the universe itself, is an emergent phenomenon. We know that the mind is a function of the brain, but it somehow transcends the brain as well. The unknown “how” of emergence seems to be where our mystery begins.

In 1922, the Journal of Philosophy published G. T. W. Patrick’s article, The Emergent Theory of Mind. Patrick’s writing serves as an example of earlier thinking about the mind, the body, and the nature of emergence. His description of how the mind emerges from the body is still relevant as an introduction to and historical context for newer ideas about the emergent nature of mind.

The brain is not the instrument of the mind. Rather the brain is the instrument by means of which nature achieves the mind. Mind and body do not interact … The mind is not a form of the mechanical interplay of atoms … The body is not a phenomenon or appearance or externalization of mind … Mind and body are not parallel … Neither are they two sides or aspects of the same reality … Mind is something which the body achieves, or which nature achieves by means of the body … When nature achieves the molecule, the atom ceases to be the thing of primary importance, worth, or even of reality. When nature achieves the cell, the molecule is eclipsed. When the organism is achieved, the cell is eclipsed. When mind is achieved, the body is eclipsed. Mind is a new reality[.]

Some of these new ideas incorporate levels of emergence within the mind. While Patrick did not specifically write about these kinds of levels, he did allude to similar constructs in his review of Ralph Barton Perry’s characterization of the three core aspects of the mind. Like emergent phenomena, these aspects have a hierarchical organization and suggest an evolutionary trajectory from a biological (perceptual) capacity to an adaptive (associative) capacity to a reflective (conceptual) capacity.

Recognizing the complex character of the mind, [Professor Perry] says that it embraces three parts. First, a complex acting desideratively or interestedly, characterized by certain biological interests. Second, a nervous system acting as instrument of the above interests. Third, certain contents or parts of the environment, called the mental contents.
I believe it is helpful to keep in view that the 
word “mind” (in its wider meaning) includes three things: first, the primary biological interests: second, adaptive behavior (mind in its narrower meaning): third, consciousness.

In defining spiritual in the context of his emergent theory of mind, Patrick also hints at another aspect. From its particular point of view (or level?), this fourth aspect would involve an evaluative (interpretive) capacity.

We are up on a new level, among new realities, in a new atmosphere, dealing with new things, having their own laws and peculiarities. Mind has emerged from matter. The spiritual has emerged from the physical. After long centuries of misuse the word spirit gains a definite and profitable meaning. It means the level of the psychical as viewed from the standpoint of value.

As our thinking about emergence becomes more complex, so can our thinking about emergence and the mind. Like copies of the same image at different resolutions, what we can see changes when we are able to make increasingly subtle distinctions. There’s a little less magic and a lot more complexity, but we get a clearer sense of the bigger picture.

Although his article did not include a framework for defining emergence or its application to the mind, Patrick did write about key elements of what such a framework might involve. In doing so, he described another variation upon the theme at the heart of an emergent systems perspective of cognition: that the body is the generative source of the mind’s perceptual, associative, conceptual, and interpretative capacities.

The Emergent Theory of Mind | Journal of Philosophy: G. T. W. Patrick

Present Philosophical Tendencies: A Critical Survey of Naturalism, Idealism, Pragmatism, and Realism Together with a Synopsis of the Philosophy of William James | Ralph Barton Perry
Emergentism | Wikipedia









Many emergentist theories of cognition are based on the idea that mind (cognition / consciousness) emerges from matter (neural activity).

Emergent cognition is a framework for imagining cognition as a function of multi-level emergent systems of representation. If or how this corresponds to neural activity would be a separate issue.

Perception, association, conception, and interpretation as correlates of biological, adaptive, reflective, and evaluative impulses (e.g., development of biological interests, adaptation to bodily and environmental factors affecting biological interests, reflection on content in the environment relevant to biological interests, and evaluation of content relevant to biological interests).

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