SCIENCE NEWS

Does a mind need a brain?

2015-06-24 12:58:32

What is a mind? In order to engage in a meaningful discussion of the applicability of the concept of mind to the brainless sea urchin, a consensus must be reached as a general-definition of two non-synonymous terms, brain and mind.

 


 For purposes of this writing I define ‘brain’ as a nerve ganglia consisting of a soft, convoluted mass of gray and white matter that serves to control and coordinate mental and physical actions. And further, for this writing, I define ‘mind’ as the res cogitans of Descartes, a mental process, presumably generated by the brain, rather than a physical substance, i.e., the mind is a mental state of thinking. We might wonder if there is some way to explain the business-like workaday life of that little beast, the sea urchin, that without even a semblance of the nerve ganglia that we call a brain; lives an existence that requires cogent decisions (without a brain) to meet its perilous sea-floor environment. To explain this paradox we might ask if there is an explanation other than in terms of grey and white physical substance. Further, how might these two approaches, given their entirely differing ontological nature, possibly relate to the mind-body problem of that little beast, the sea urchin, having thoughts?


I wonder, is attributing thoughts to a sea urchin being anthropomorphic? Anthropomorphism! What a word! Only a few years ago it was a sin to attribute human characteristics to nonhuman things. Certainly, it was condemnation aplenty to even utter the words “animal mind.” Nowadays, however, people even title books with those words. What has been happing? To answer the question, only a few years ago to ask, “What do you imagine happens inside the brains of animals?” would divide scientists into two groups. The comparative psychologists, behaviorists, and (to a large extent) ethnologists would enthusiastically describe rigid, inflexible mechanistic goings-on -- like the automatons of 1950s movies. The other group of scientists -- and really everybody else, scientist or not -- would reply: “Simple thoughts, I suppose, but I don’t see how we’ll ever know.”

How were these professionals so sure of their answers? They weren’t sure, of course, but they were carefully following the rule that science is supposed to abide by: accepting the simplest hypothesis until there is strong evidence of something more complex. Since evidence was minimal, the automaton theory won out, thus committing the fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam, arguing that something is true because no one has proved it to be false.

Donald Griffin set the ball rolling, leading to today’s interest in animal minds. In 1976 he wrote a book, “Animal Minds - Beyond Cognition to Consciousness,” cataloging animal behaviors that are not rigid and inflexible, actions that look suspiciously like our own, challenging readers to consider the possibility that not all animal behavior is mindless. Sometime later James and Carol Gould wrote, “The Animal mind,” showing cases that look as if they would be hard for an automaton to cope with -- animals acting in ways that look conscious.

In this writing I propose to take the reader a step further, suggesting that there are certain animals that can act in ways that seem to imply some aspect of mind without the benefit of a brain. The brain being defined as physical, a part of a nerve system where the mind functions.

Consider the sea urchin as a case in point; each one is formed from a hard shell. The shell has five narrow sections, laid out like a star, pierced with what appears to be an infinity of channels through which pass moving organs, called “ambulacra,” which act as extensions in a system of suckers. The creature stretches them out and retracts them at will quite nimbly in order to move and roll along the sea floor.
This nectarine shaped shell is enveloped and bristly with moving spines -- fine mauve-green daggers -- that give it protection against the formidable and menacing jaws and pincers that wander around in the currents, hidden among the underwater shadows.

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