miércoles, 28 de febrero de 2018

Reflecting on the Mind

A passage from William Godwin's Thoughts on Man, in which he expatiates on the notion that we are first and foremost creatures of spirit, of the will, of attention and volitional action. Whether men of action or men of intellect, we act insofar as we can as disembodied spirits (animals do so too) and only turn back to our body when there is something wrong with it. Only then is our attention drawn to it:

It was an important remark, suggested to me many years ago by an eminent physiologer and anatomist, that, when I find my attention called to any particular part or member of my body, I may be morally sure that there is something amiss in the processes of that part or member. As long as the whole economy of the frame goes on well and without interruption, our attention is not called to it. The intellectual man is like a disembodied spirit.
    He is almost in the state of the dervise in the Arabian Nights, who had the power of darting his soul into the unanimated body of another, human or brute, while he left his own body in the condition of an insensible carcase, till it should be revivified by the same or some other spirit. When I am, as it is vulgarly understood, in a state of motion, I use my limbs as the implements of my will. When, in a quiescent state of the body, I continue to think, to reflect and to reason, I use, it may be, the substance of the brain as the implement of my thinking, reflecting and reasoning, though of this in fact we know nothing. (Collection Novels 143)

The mind is for Godwin the 'stranger at home', and from this he goes on to speculate on the origin of beliefs in the immortality and transcendence of the soul (sentiments which he seems to regard as both illusory and inevitable). But what I want to draw attention to is his account in the foregoing passage of the contrast between action and meditation—what Derek Bickerton has called in another context (speculating on the origin of language in Adam's Tongue) the two basic modes of thought and attention: online thinking and offline thinking. See here: Mentalizándonos.  One might go back to Locke's psychology here as well.

Online thinking is 'connected' to the surrounding physical world: it involves the management of bodily action, communicative interaction, perceptual attention, etc.—together with the mind's own background associative activity. It is perception and action that are most prominent, and, in social life, interaction with others and the management of our dramaturgical roles.

Offline thinking occurs partly in the background of online thinking, because the mind is always interacting with itself, whether consciously and unconsciously—but conscious attention to mental processes is most prominent in repose, in meditation, "recollection in tranquillity"—and in another sense in daydreaming, even in dreams. It can engage the attention most strenuously when in active problem-solving, in writing, or in the speculative engagement of the mind's attention on its own processes.

I noted somewhere that the labels "online" and "offline" might be confusing, and that they lent themselves to be interchangeable: when we are "offline" in the sense of off our senses, we are most intensely connected to the virtual mental world of cultural productions—while they may be absent, they are more readily accessible to memory and reflection than in the midst of action or interaction. (See further reflections on this, and a lecture by neurologist Carmen Cavada on the importance of self-interaction in the brain, here: "Circuitos neurales de la consciencia: Modo offline").

What I find  interesting in Godwin's account of our mental existence as disembodied spirits is this intuition of the online and offline modes of thinking, and furthermore the notion that even in the offline mode, by which I mean here the meditative, self-interactional mode of mental activity, we are using "the substance of the brain" as an implement of the will—using the mind as bodily action as it were—but in both instances consciousness is elsewhere, using the body, or the mind's body, but transcending it, as it were—even in meditation, or in speculative thinking, we are "keeping one step ahead / of the persecutor within". That's from Dylan's Jokerman, a song which vividly theatricalizes the 'stranger at home'. And there's another philosophical song bearing more directly on thought, Luis Eduardo Aute's 'De paso':

Que no, que no:
Que el pensamiento
no puede tomar asiento
Que el pensamiento es estar
siempre de paso
de paso, de paso.

Even in its own interactions with itself, we might add. How like a god we are, bending our attention on our own thoughts, Hamlet says in the What a piece of Work is Man monologue. But pay heed to Godwin's physician friend. If we keep turning back on the mind's body, it may well be the case that there is something amiss with its joints and muscles.


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