In subsequent posts I’ll focus on The Unexplained Intellect’s main claims. In this one I’ll identify the cause that those claims serve. I’m grateful to the blog’s editor for the opportunity to do this (and to you for reading).
We do not currently have a satisfactory account of how minds could be had by material creatures. If such an account is to be given then every mental phenomenon will need to find a place within it. Many will be accounted for by relating them to other things that are mental, but there must come a point at which we break out of the mental domain, and account for some things that are mental by reference to some that are not. It is unclear where this break out point will be. In that sense it is unclear which mental entities are, metaphysically speaking, the most fundamental.
At some point in the twentieth century, philosophers fell into the habit of writing as if the most fundamental things in the mental domain are mental states (where these are thought of as states having objective features of the world as their truth-evaluable contents). This led to a picture in which the mind was regarded as something like a hoard of sentences. The philosophers and cognitive scientists who have operated with this picture have taken their job to be telling us what sort of content these mental sentences have, how that content is structured, how the sentences come to have it, how they get put into and taken out of storage, how they interact with one another, how they influence behaviour, and so on.
This emphasis on states has caused us to underestimate the importance of non-static mental entities, such as inferences, actions, and encounters with the world. If we take these dynamic entities to be among the most fundamental of the items in the mental domain, then — I argue — we can avoid a number of philosophical problems. Most importantly, we can avoid a picture in which intelligent thought would be beyond the capacities of any physically implementable system.
Changing our conception of the foundations on which our account of the mind is to be built does not relieve us of the obligation to build it. Nor does it make the building work easy. But it can increase the comforts of labouring in this always half-built edifice. If dynamic mental entities are foundational then the most crucial fact about the mind is not that creatures with minds know things, but that they are able to conduct themselves with understanding. In giving our philosophical account of the mind, we shall need to be familiar with the several forms that this conduct can take: In addition to our usual scrutiny of the person who knows that P, the philosophy of mind should require its practitioners to engage with the full range of human accomplishment. The Unexplained Intellect is much concerned with the mathematics of computational complexity, but it is also a book in which comedy, poetry, and parenting make an appearance. These are pertinent examples of intelligent conduct, and I wanted to avoid writing the kind of philosophy that achieves its clarity only by leaving things out.