originally written in 2017
By something possessing a mind I mean not only is it conscious, but its consciousness is complex enough to have such features as thought, intent, understanding and self-awareness.
The other weekend, at the end of a long night following a party, I was trying to sleep but failing to do so because my mind was still quite racy. I lay on the floor with my eyes closed, while persistent, vivid visuals kept me up. A vision came to mind of a purple bust of Medusa, swaying from side to side as if she were dancing and smiling at me. I think my mind conjured up this image because earlier I had been talking with a girl about a tattoo of Medusa that she had inked onto her leg.
Entrapped by the scene of the swaying, snake haired lady, I couldn’t help but for a moment think of her as an independent agent with a mind of her own that has the will to dance and is aware of my existence as she looks directly at me and smiles. But then the vision shifts and now I am viewing Medusa from the side, yet she continues to smile and sway in the same direction as before. This contrast of perspective took me out of the spell, to see that she was not in fact a free, independent being who was aware of my observing presence. Her non-reaction to my change in spatial relation to her made it known that her making was more mechanical and cold in nature, than one of sapient personality. Instead of seeing what I warranted a second ago as a conscious individual, I was now watching a mindless puppet rotate on its axles. I then snapped to even more so and realised the scenario was all just a figment of my imagination. This quick shift in judgement towards this sight struck me as quite shocking, not only how quickly had my perception changed, but how helplessly I was convinced of the realness of this image.
This vision only lasted a few seconds before my brain clocked-on to its elusiveness and then it vanished; but afterwards I was left with the proceeding insight: that mind is attributed to a being after their behaviour has been assessed to be sufficient of a cause that would deem it mind originating. In other words, we believe things to have a mind not because they necessarily do, but because they convince us through their behaviour that they do.
For the past couple weeks I had become aware that my brain involuntarily assigns a mind to persons upon insufficient evidence, that my attributing of mind to others was merely deductive conjecture. I realised this as I practised vipassana meditation whilst talking to others. It became clear that I never have a direct experience of the other person’s mind. I never feel what they feel for example. On face value, all that takes place while talking to others is more of your own sense impressions (feeling, hearing, seeing ect…). The mind of another is inferred only after the impressions they leave on you meet a minimum standard the brain has devised for deeming that object a thing that is conscious and has its own thoughts and desires. When you become adept enough in meditation you can witness in real time this stream of events, that indeed first you will see/hear/feel the other person and then only afterwords the accolade of ‘mind’ is awarded to them.
The believing of mind in another individual does not come about via direct interaction with said mind, but rather is a construction built upon persuading cues that leads us to think that we are in the presence of something with a mind.
To be clear I am not arguing for Solipsism; I think we have good reason to assume other minds do exist (and treat others with such recognition), but I am pointing out that the process the brain uses for inferring that other minds exist is only speculative (not conclusive) reason, and that this mechanism for determining the existence of other minds is fallible. In conjunction with the image of Medusa, and the practice of meditating on my immediate experience while interacting with others, there were other instances that helped me realise the insight of ‘mind’ being just a projection of the brain onto outer objects. Though all constructs are inherently empty in the Buddhist sense, they do act as pointers and provide certain signals. This is not to say that every concept the brain constructs is false, but it does have the potential to be so. So just as the brain can wrongly presume something in your experience to have a mind (when it actually does not), it can also fail to recognise the existence of another mind when there actually is one.
An example being a time earlier during that same party mentioned before, I was next to a very drunk man who was trying to talk to me, except he wasn’t actually making a point of any kind on any subject. He had been blabbering on for 5 minutes without any indication that he was actually talking about anything — it was all just nonsense. I tried to make it known to him that he wasn’t actually saying anything, but he was convinced that he was really getting at something and just needed a minute more to explain, and then would continue to incoherently ramble again. I tried a couple of times to point it out to him that he hasn’t said anything meaningful for the past 10 minutes now and that there was no end in sight to his sentences — but still he couldn’t see what I meant. It was much like talking to a chatbot.
And then my perception of him changed, it was that I was no longer interacting with a sane mind anymore, that he was more like a malfunctioning robot than a sentient human being. In his drunkenness, he managed to fail my brain’s test for determining whether something had a mind of its own or not. Intellectually, I still believed that he had a mind and that he was just drunk, but on another level of my experience the perception of there being a mind in that man had vanished.
The 3 scenarios:
1) There is a mind in our presence and we correctly identify the existence of said mind.
2) We mistakenly believe something with no mind to have a mind.
3) We fail to perceive a mind where there is one.
This insight leads into interesting territory when considering that we have the potential to misappropriate and fail to attribute mind to another being. How will this influence our perception of convincingly human-like A.I.? Another uncanny extension of this insight is how it applies to our self, and whether the brain can falsely assign itself as being a thing with a mind, and perhaps how this could explain the emergence of consciousness. After all, what evidence is there that you have a mind? Sure, you perceive thoughts and intentions and it is directly obvious to you that you are conscious, that is you are seemingly experientially aware; but the sense that a mind is a thing or feature of an organism is much trickier to pin down. As the Koan of the Pixies goes: “Where is my mind?”. Could it not be that the brain feeds itself an illusion of mind, one that it (you) can’t help but buy into? Certainly, when one travels down the rabbit hole of insight practice a lot of these presumptions of self get unpicked and seen through. They were simply a-model perception all along, meaning never directly experienced, but rather fiercely inferred to be the case. Again, “Where is my mind?”
I also believe this insight has something to say about God (or the idea of a fundamental, personal force in the universe) and can work as an argument in favour of atheism. Many religious people believe the universe to have a mind, that the universe in its whole is sentient, has intention and is self-aware and that this is “God”. In fact, many people believe this because they have had an experience of coming into contact with a force that was all pervasive and appeared to have a mind and personality; and indeed I have had such an experience myself. I believed I was in the presence of a mind that was in everything. But if I can wrongly think of something small having a mind when it doesn’t (the closed-eye image of Medusa), why can’t that faculty of my brain make the same mistake but on a larger scale and wrongly attribute mind to the totality of the cosmos? By acutely investigating your experience, and seeing how the process of ‘mind assigning’ is instilled onto others, you can see that it is an emergent concept and not a fundamental feature of their being, and so if the universe has a mind and that is God, then God is not really the sole cause and arbiter of the universe — just another thing that springs out of it.