One of interesting themes that emerged from a workshop that I attended recently is the problem of placing the Mind in a certain place. Up front, one must assume that it is sensible to separate the Mind from the Brain, at least for purposes of analysis if nothing else. Neuroscientists may have problems with this, but that is their problem.
The first approach to this problem was to deny that anything ever happened within the Mind – the brain was a simple input/output machine, put in stimulus and get out behavior. There is nothing called mental states and anything ‘unobservable’ had no real existence. This was the approach of the Behaviorists, and this is what gave rise to traditional psychology, with its ideas of conditioning and behavioral modification. This view is quite defunct especially after Chomsky and others at MIT and Harvard came into the picture.
The second dig at the problem was taken by the cognitive scientists from the Chomsky tribe. This still dominant view considers the brain to be a computer (note that they do not think of a computer as a good model, but rather that the brain is a computer). While the particulars of implementation may be debated (Turing Machine vs. Neural Networks), the idea is that the Mind has certain internal states, which when combined with sensory inputs gives you all the rich everyday experience that any person is familiar with. To a first approximation, and as a working hypothesis, this is extremely useful and has led to great insights about the functioning of the Mind, especially with regard to perception and language. Computer vision is the brainchild of this era, and its results are there for anyone to see.
However, biologists were probably dissatisfied by this ‘disembodied’ mind that the computer scientists had come up with. This would imply that the relation between the mind’s functioning and the environment in which it evolved is very small. No self respecting biologist can ever accept such a claim, and this led to an ’embodied’ concept of the mind, where perception (for example) was not the output of an algorithm but a combination of body states (walking, running, eating, etc.,) and mental states, and one cannot separate the two out since the mind did not evolve on its own, but rather developed as part of a whole.
Thus, we see a trajectory of thinking about the Mind, which moves from a complete denial of it, to a disembodied version to one (now popular) version which places it firmly within an organism. In some sense, the complexity which one attributed to the mind has increased over time.
The next step came from (obviously) the philosophers, some of whom claimed that the Mind does not exist within the person, but is a combination of the organism and its environment. What they say is that the environment does not simply affect cognitive processes, but is a part of them. Thus, no environment means some processess simply will not work.
Thus, the Mind is no longer a localized entity but which is distributed over space and (maybe!) time. One hopes this gradual extrapolation does not lead to Deepak Chopra like new-age mysticism and leads to claims that can actually be tested for their truth value. But again, one sees that this is a step up the complexity ladder. Slowly, the study of the Mind has gone from simple to very complicated ideas about its location, forget about function.
This is in contrast to historical developments in say physics, where complicated phenomena were ultimately explained using a small set of concepts which were considered fundamental. As with the study of the Mind, the study of the Earth system has run into difficulties. What one hoped would end at studying large scale motions of the atmosphere and ocean is nowadays studying phytoplankton and its effects on global climate!
Intuitively, there seems to be something very different about the phenomena that we are trying to study in the mind sciences or earth system science than the atoms or celestial objects that physics studied. You cannot study vision and learn things that extrapolate to the mind in general, just as you cannot study a liver and tell what the organism is likely to be. The fact that even the question of what to study is not well defined leads to very dubious research which gives the whole field a bad name. Do we, as our predecessors did, study the liver, pancreas and heart and say well, put all this together and you get a living being? Or do we try to answer the question ‘what is life’?
It does not seem very clear as to how the present range of scientific methods can help answer a question like the latter. The study of the Mind, the Earth or even Biology is at a stage similar to maybe where Mechanics was at the time of Kepler. People are looking at various ways to chip away at the same problem, some traditional, some extremely offbeat, in the hope that what one considers valid questions will be answered. Whether they will be answered or shown to be invalid, time will tell.