Submitted as a poster for the The Thought and Sense Conference in Oslo, Norway on November 2-4, 2017.
The Disembodying Mind Oscillates Between Stepping Out and Stepping In
The ample evidence for an "embodied mind" can also be understood as evidence for a "disembodying mind". Indeed, from an evolutionary perspective, the tendency is for the central nervous system to represent the world with models that are increasingly abstract. And yet the abstraction sets us up to plunge into concreteness. Our human experience has us oscillate between two extremes: "stepping out" for a detached view and "stepping in" for an immersed view. Our consciousness is our manifest ability to switch between these two extremes.
The Evolution of the Disembodying Mind
A single celled organism interacts directly with its environment. In contrast, animals with central nervous systems increasingly interact with representations of their environment. As these nervous systems evolve, they make use of increasingly abstract signs, as distinguished by Peirce: first icons, then indices, and finally, symbols.
Thus a butterfly may be thought to live in a world of icons, that is, a pictorial world in which it ever looks for pictures (and scents) of its favorite flowers. These pictures focus its attention - its nervous system's resources - to guide it so that it can find and approach actual flowers and feed on them.
As Graziano has convincingly proposed, a mouse can not only pay attention to a cat, but also be aware that it is doing so. The mouse leverages a model of its own attention. It thus informs itself that it is paying attention to the cat. This lets the mouse better manage its attention, for example, to stay mindful of the cat even if it disappears from view. Furthermore, the mouse can likewise model the cat's attention. It can distinguish whether the cat is looking at it or not. Thus the mouse lives in a world of indices, a network of intentions and causal relations.
We further propose that the great apes, those capable of language, are not only aware but also able to choose whether or not to be aware. They leverage a model of their brain's global workspace which they variously divide into a handful perspectives. For example, issues of existence require two points of view: 1) we need to be able to ask whether or not a chair exists; 2) we need to be able to answer that, if it does, then it does, and if not, then not. Similarly, in cognitive linguistics, we speak of the domain of all that can be imagined, and we divide it into construal and content. In philosophical disputes, we distinguish free will and fate. Other such "divisions of everything" let us ponder issues of participation (we take a stand, follow through, and reflect) and knowledge (whether, what, how, why). These frameworks allow us to choose our perspective.
We have documented eight such frameworks for pondering God, everything, existence, participation, knowledge, decision making, morality and goodness. Essentially, we live in a highly abstracted "mind" where we ponder what perspective to take on a particular issue, as if selecting a gear from a gear box. We then shift from issue to issue by adding one, two or three perspectives. We live in a tiny metaphysical world of perspectives and symbols for those perspectives, by which we manage our relations with indices, icons and the world itself.
In the big picture, we may speak of the evolution of the disembodying mind. Given a cognitive metaphor such as "caring is warmth", we may note that the expression domain is always more relevant to the body. But this is to say that the content domain is always less relevant to the body. Evolution tends towards a disembodying mind.
Levels of Knowledge: What vs. How
In particular, our metaphysical "mind" allows us to manage distinctions of knowledge, including What (our sensory perceptions) and How (our intellect's blueprints for modeling attention and causal relations). We may "step out" as idealists to think of knowledge in terms of questions posed by an observer: Why? How? What? Whether? or "step in" as materialists to experience knowledge in terms of answers given by the observed: Whether! What! How! Why! For the idealist, Why? is the most profound perspective, and Whether? should be dismissed, whereas for the materialist, Whether! is the most substantial perspective, and Why! should be dismissed.
Our ability to switch back and forth between such different representations - "stepped out" and "stepped in" - is our consciousness. Consciousness of issues of knowledge shifts us to issues of a self-standing logical system, namely, questions of what is good and bad, true and false, and so on.
'"Stepped Out" Truths and "Stepped In" Truths
The two extremes - "stepped out" and "stepped in" - lead to a dialectic by which we can reassert our consciousness. We share some results from situations where we feel riled because we feel a conflict between a truth of the heart and a truth of the world. It turns out that in such cases the person who is riled is always confused.
Given a topic such as "helping the homeless", our mind tends in two directions, a "stepped out" truth of heart A) "We should help those who need help" and a "stepped in" truth of the world B) "Our help could make things worse." Four tests concur as to which truth is "stepped out" and which is "stepped in":
These philosophical distinctions govern our lives. In general, we can think of our conscious mind as riding our unconscious mind, like a flea riding an elephant. Our conscious thoughts become unconscious thoughts, and so we may consciously reassert our consciousness.