July 15, 2010
Archaeology of the mind
Here’s a working draft of the fourth and fifth sections of Chapter 1 of my book, Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness. I invite constructive comments from readers of my blog.
Archaeology of the mind
As we all know from reading the newspapers, one universal characteristic of tyrannies is that they control the press. And in the best run tyrannies, the media is so well controlled that most people aren’t even aware that they live in a tyranny, and aren’t too concerned about it even if they do know. This is particularly true of the tyranny of the pfc, which has achieved its dominance by imposing on us a worldview so ingrained in our minds that the vast majority of us – intellectuals as well as the rest of us – barely recognize that the world could be seen any other way. Worldviews as a rule are like that: most people would remain completely unaware that they even had a worldview unless they’re presented with a contrasting worldview for comparison. Here’s how a group of environmental scientists have described them:
Worldviews are broadly defined as our perceptions of how the world works and what is possible, encompassing the relationship between society and the rest of nature, as well as what is desirable (the goals we pursue). Our worldview is unstated, deeply felt, and unquestioned. These unconscious assumptions about how the world works provide the boundary conditions within which institutions and technologies are designed to function.
The historian Edgar Zilsel once said about ideologies that they “are extremely conservative. They never can be explained by present conditions alone, but mirror the whole past too.” That is even more true about worldviews.
It’s helpful, in this regard, to think of a worldview as an edifice, a construction built layer by layer upon older infrastructures put together by generations past. Imagine our worldview as a house we live in comfortably, which was built in a place inhabited by humans from time immemorial. One modern philosopher, Mary Midgley, has disarmingly taken this analogy of a house to describe her philosophy as a form of plumbing, saying:
People think of philosophy as a special and rather grand subject cut off from others, something you could put on the mantelpiece. I think it is much more like plumbing – the sort of thinking that people do even in the most prudent, practical areas always has a whole system of thought under the surface which we are not aware of. Then suddenly we become aware of some bad smells, and we have to take up the floorboards and look at the concepts of even the most ordinary piece of thinking.
The amount of digging we have to do depends, of course, on the scale of the problem. If you have a plumbing problem, taking up the floorboards is a good place to begin. But what happens if a hurricane or earthquake threatens? In that case, it may be necessary to dig deeper, to examine the very foundations of the edifice. As those who live in regions susceptible to earthquakes (as I do) know well, there are retrofits that can sometimes be done to those foundations which can make your home far more resilient and able to survive “the big one” if and when it comes. In the case of our current civilization, there’s a growing awareness that our society may be creating its own “big one” in the form of global climate change, resource depletion and species extinction. If our worldview is built on shaky foundations, we need to know about it: we need to find the cracks and shore up the weaknesses.
But unlike modern houses, where the foundations are part of the blueprint and constructed specifically for the house, the foundations of a worldview comprise the earlier worldviews of previous generations. It’s as though our house was built directly over an archaeological mound, or “tell”, made up of the detritus of countless generations before us. And as we go further into history, we excavate deeper into the cognitive layers of our ancestors. That’s why we can think of this exercise as an “archaeology of the mind.”
In recent decades, real archaeologists have made use of new technologies such as carbon dating to greatly improve their understanding of the fragments they find. Similarly, our archaeology of the mind will use of some of the recent findings of neuroscience to try to make sense of what we dig up. Specifically, as already noted, we will examine our findings through the lens of the pfc’s functions, enabling us to understand the evolving stages of cultural thought in terms of the pfc’s ever-increasing power over the rest of human consciousness.
In the broadest terms, the analytical study of the workings of the human mind is known as cognitive science. This is an interdisciplinary tradition that began in the decades following the second world war and has since expanded in many different directions. Cognitive neuroscience is the name given to the discipline that analyzes the neurological substrates of human cognition, and is a major source of the findings mentioned frequently in this book about the pfc’s functions. However, cognitive science has also branched out into other disciplines that, traditionally, have been less involved with the functioning of the mind. One area, for example, that has achieved great breakthroughs is called cognitive linguistics, which focuses on the conceptual underpinnings of specific languages, and of language in general.
Another emerging area is known as cognitive anthropology, which interprets patterns of human behavior in terms of the evolutionary and neurological drivers of people’s thought structures. Here is the view of celebrated anthropologist Bruce Trigger on the need for a cognitive approach to anthropology:
What is needed is a better understanding, derived from psychology and neuroscience, of how the human brain shapes understanding and influences behavior… Social scientists must cease analyzing human behavior without reference to humans as biological entities. Evolution, both biological and cultural, is a process that adapts humans with specific but as yet poorly understood biological, social, and psychological predispositions… It would appear to be in [evolutionary psychology and neuroscience] that anthropologists must seek explanations of certain cross-cultural uniformities in human behavior.
The approach of this book seems to fit within the parameters of what Trigger is calling for, with one notable difference. Trigger refers to “certain cross-cultural uniformities in human behavior,” and in the early sections of this book, that’s exactly what we’ll be investigating. However, once we reach the period known as the Axial Age, roughly twenty five hundred years ago, we’ll begin focusing on increasingly divergent conceptualizations of the world between different cultures. We will, however, continue to analyze this divergence through the lens of pfc attributes, and examine how different cultures responded to these attributes in very different ways, defining the future directions of their histories.
For this reason, I view this book as attempting a foray into a field that I would call “cognitive history.” Like other cognitive studies, cognitive history analyzes its subject with reference to the conceptual structures of the human mind. In this case, however, it attempts to interpret historical events, such as the rise of monotheism or the scientific revolution, from a cognitive perspective. It is hoped that this somewhat unprecedented approach to history will permit insights that might otherwise not be achievable.*
 Trigger, B. G. (2003). Understanding Early Civilizations, New York: Cambridge University Press, 683.
 I see this book’s attempt at cognitive history as ground-breaking, but not unique. For another example of cognitive history, see The Master and his Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, which traces the development of Western philosophy, art and literature in terms of conflict between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
 Beddoe, R., Costanza, R., Farley, J., Garza, E., Kent, J., and Kubiszewski, I. (2009). “Overcoming systemic roadblocks to sustainability: The evolutionary redesign of worldviews, institutions, and technologies.” PNAS, 106(8), 2483-2489.
 Zilsel, E. (1942). “The Genesis of the Concept of Physical Law.” The Philosophical Review, 51(3: May 1942), 245-279.
 Quoted in Else, L. (2001). “Mary, Mary quite contrary.” New Scientist (3 November 2001).