Invention of the Modern Mind — Recommended Reading

Makari, George. Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind. 2015, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

What am I as a human being?  What is it to be human?  I find that most of us ask those questions all of the time, thinking that we never ask them.  We often say that these are philosophical questions, of little interest to pragmatic people in the real world.  And, I find that we each carry a picture, often implicitly accepted from someone else, of what we are as humans.  This picture of the human being underpins everything in all of our agreements, whether we have consciously chosen these agreements or unconsciously accepted them.

I have been exploring many different perspectives on this question over the past few years.  These perspectives are fascinating and I find many of them to be very seductive, pulling me into their orbits and convincing me of their perspective; until I dive into the next one.  The realization of this exploratory confusion in me led me to begin to look for people who have mapped the topography of these explorations.

One of the most helpful mappings I have found of this huge space is George Makari‘s Soul Machine, “an attempt to untangle [the apparent] contradictions [amongst these perspectives] by returning to their origins…The emergence of the mind as a formative, if always embattled, belief, cannot be understood outside this historical context…this book recovers a lost lineage, parts of which have been long discarded as embarrassing, wrongheaded, or irrelevant” (pp. xi-xii).  In the question of what is it to be human, Makari explores the evolution of our understanding of the mind (from PIE root *men- (1) “to think”), what is it that we experience that thinks?

“While our own psyches seem abundantly clear to us, attempts to objectively establish their existence have been mired in seemingly insoluble problems.  And so, while the mind remains central to 21-century Western thought, a number of prominent neuroscientists and philosophers inform us that it surely does not exist” (p x).

“The invention of the mind was not the result of sedate academic debate.  The mind was a radically destabilizing, heretical idea that grew out of intense, often violent conflict.  Far from being a story of scholarship alone, this history begins and ends in bloodshed.  Characters in this account include thinkers writing at their desks, but also wild-eyed prophets, doctors whose space rooms were littered with carcasses, political spies, bitter refugees, witches, quacks, and pornographers.  This story takes place in universities, courts, hospitals, London coffeehouses and Paris salons, but also on battlefields, in lunatic asylums, poorhouses, and prisons.  For better or worse, advocates and enemies of the mind were not sequestered in their studies.  Often they could be found at the barricades” (p xi).

“Once modernity gave birth to the theory of an embodied mind, the implications were grave.  If it wasn’t the soul but rather a fallible mind that made men and women think, choose, and act as thy did, then long-standing beliefs were erroneous.  Convictions regarding truth and illusion, innocence and guilt, health and illness, the rulers and the ruled, and the roles of the individual in society would need to change.  Not surprisingly, therefore, from its inception this concept was considered scandalous.  Early advocates surrounded themselves in clouds of ambiguity; they published anonymously and when discovered, quickly fled from red-faced censors and mobs.  Monarchs and theologians decried these heretics and roused their forces against them” (p xii).

This big book of over 600 pages chronicles this human exploration in the Western world over centuries, diving deep into the context of many of these explorers.  Wading through it over the past month has given me much greater context for the Western explorers I have been reading, such as Thomas Hobbes, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, John Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume, Charles-Louis Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant.  It is very interesting to see how they all fit into overlapping contexts with each other.  I highly recommend this deep dive, for those of you who like to dive deep.  It could also serve you if you want to take a quick dive into the context of specific developers of our existing understanding of the mind.


Is the State of Nature LOCKEd In or enLUMENSed?

Are we locked in to or liberated by our natural state?  This is an old question.  With a hat tip to Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, perhaps I provide a new twist here.

If Nature is the essence of the reality we experience as living beings, what is real to us?  How do we define reality?  People seem to know that the tangible things we can touch are real.  We can touch them.  They are part of Nature.  People also seem to acknowledge that people, animals, plants, the planet, and the universe all change over time, they develop, they evolve.  We can see this.  This changing over time is also real, it is also a part of Nature.  And, people direct much of their creative efforts towards things they envision, designs for a home, for work together, for a meal to be prepared, for a journey on the road ahead, for what the day looks like.  We invest lots of energy towards this vision, this possibility, this potential.  We can see this.  This potential is real, and is a part of Nature.  So Nature is composed of what we can touch right here right now, in this space-time, and of what we can see changing over time, and of the potential to which we can see how to give our future resources.

What seems obvious about reality might also be supported by the physical sciences.  Physics uses similar definitions of what is real in Nature.  Particles that attract each other in particular structures to form matter.  The kinetic energy of the particles in motion over time and in relationship to other particles over space.  The potential energy of the particles in relation to a field or system of particles.

If that is Nature, who is experiencing Nature?  I have suggested in previous blogposts that we can conceive of human beings as Homo lumens, beings of light.  There is plenty of data from our research to support this suggestion, as well as thousands of years of wisdom teachings.

If we are Homo lumens living in Nature, what do we experience?  What would our experience be like without human agreements, before we put in place of all the agreements we consciously and unconsciously accept?  Philosophers have called this the “state of nature.”

I have asked this question of people in hundreds of groups in over a dozen countries in the past two decades.  In what people share, I see a pattern.  People describe their experiences, awful to great, through the vibrancy they experience in five primary relationships: to the self, another human, a group, to the creative process of nature, and to the spirit of the source of creativity.  I experience greater or lesser vibrancy for me, with you, in what we each contribute to the group, through the process of nature, out of the spirit of the creative force.  So Homo lumens feels more engaged in reality when it experiences greater vibrancy, as experienced through the five primary relationships.  This is our experience of the state of nature, a state prior to the rules of society.

When trying to understand how we humans think about reality and how we engage with it, I have found four basic lenses that we use, over and over again, throughout human history, to define our human duties and privileges.  These lenses ask the questions of how much is there, who decides and enforces how to allocate what there is, with what criteria, and what are the rules of the game?  We also think of these as economic, political, cultural, and social questions, respectively.

With each lens, Homo lumens seems to naturally seek to maximize a different dimension of the human experience.  Through the economic lens, asking how much is there, Homo lumens seeks greater abundance of resources.  Through the political lens, asking who decides and enforces, Homo lumens looks to maximize power, the control of how people are related (to self, other, group, nature, spirit), or relatedness.  Through the cultural lens, asking what criteria are used to decide and enforce, Homo lumens wants to maximize what it most values, the wellbeing experienced in its primary relationships, the vibrancy it experiences.  Finally, through the social lens, asking what the rules of interaction are, Homo lumens works to maximize the harmonic experienced in the synthesis of the contributions of each unique voice.  Abundance, relatedness, vibrancy, harmonic.  This seems to be what Homo lumens naturally seeks to maximize in the experience as a living being in Nature.

We do not have to be told to do this, we naturally do.  And, many times we forget.  For those times, as Homo lumens, we create agreements–ways of thinking that guide how we engage in Nature.  We agree with each other, through unwritten codes of natural law and through written codes of social law, that each individual Homo lumens has the liberty to decide for its own potential, development, and use of existing capacities, with others who equally have the liberty to decide for their own potential, development, and use of existing capacities, in the contribution of the unique gifts each Homo lumens brings to any given group, manifested through their own access to the creative source and process.  These are the rights or privileges of Homo lumens.  We desire to maximize these rights, until they infringe on the rights of another.  For these cases, as Homo lumens, we have created agreements in the form of laws to remind and protect ourselves.  Laws, derived from the word that means “to lay down,” are where the individual lays down the right to something, where the individual is deprived of the freedom to choose one’s own response.  These agreements can be guideposts to remind us of the experiences we want to have as we individually and collectively attempt to maximize the abundance, relatedness, vibrancy, and harmonic we experience.  These agreements can act as guideposts, when it all works well, and as penalties or constraints when it does not work well.

My colleagues and I have spent the past decade actively searching across the globe, for examples where people are learning to maximize the individual and collective experience of abundance, relatedness, vibrancy, and harmonic, through their agreements and their experience of the natural state of Homo lumens.  We are mapping the global social topology of human agreements, at their best, at their worst, and at their most common, in a diverse set of cultures.