Developmental Philosophy of Mind

Developmental Philosophy of Mind

Developmental philosophy of mind is an undeveloped field. There are two questions: phylogenetic and ontogenetic. How did the mind as it now exists develop over evolutionary time, and how does it develop in the individual? Like developmental psychology, it is natural to adopt a stage conception of these processes: what stages does the mind go through to reach its mature state (as currently conceived)? There are successive discrete stages, characterized by distinctive principles, that predictably occur and which prepare the organism for subsequent stages. Each stage enriches the previous stage, possibly subtracting certain features, and which is required for the more sophisticated stages to emerge (think Piaget). There are continuities and discontinuities, smooth ascents and abrupt leaps; there is no reduction of the later stages to the earlier stages. What we find are modifications of earlier traits to serve new functions, neither complete novelties nor mere re-applications. Thus, we may speak of an X-type stage giving rise to a Y-type stage. Given that ontogeny often recapitulates phylogeny, we might expect some parallelism in these two sequences. Of course, the brain of the organism in question will contain the necessary equipment for each stage once the phylogenetic process has done its work, but it may be that it manifests its evolutionary history in particular cases. I will be focusing here on the phylogenetic question, while keeping an eye on the ontogenetic question; I want to know the likely evolutionary history of the mind. What progressive sequence led to the mind as it now exists in human beings (and perhaps other animals with a relatively sophisticated psychological set-up)? What intelligible process of modification might have led to the mind as it now is? What is the natural history of human psychology? How did it start and what transformations did it undergo over evolutionary time?

The story I will outline should not be unfamiliar, though the ordering might seem eccentric. It runs as follows: sensation—perception—memory—imagination—thought–language. I am going to be brutally brief; the field is enormous, though well-trodden. We begin with sensation conceived as information-bearing but not fully representational, rather like the sensation of pain.[1] The sensation is correlated with worldly magnitudes and this correlation is relevant to the survival prospects of the creature in question—as it might be, subjective intensity and chemical gradients indicating a food source, coupled with suitable motor capacities. Yet there is nothing corresponding to the predicative attribution of a feature to objects in the environment—nothing that can be evaluated as veridical or inaccurate. This is sensation without perception proper. The next stage, then, will be the development of genuine perception, which does involve a kind of primitive semantics. This is a large step forward (it might have taken millions of years to establish itself in some sea-dwelling creature, say an octopus). The sensation is preserved but modified into a new psychological category: seeing x as F—a particular thing in the immediate environment represented as being a certain way. Next, we find memory: the perception is retained in some sort of storage facility, available for later use. This also is a major step forward, however inevitable it seems to us today—animals might never have remembered anything, or very little. However, it does exploit pre-existing psychological features in the form of perceptions: it is these that are remembered, stored for later use. We might conjecture that sensations per se were not remembered; only representational perceptions were deemed fit to be preserved. So, now we have remnants of perceptions stored in memory in some form, cut loose from their originating causal connections to the external world. What follows is predictable: the emergence of the imagination. Mental images are formed from the materials of memory: the organism becomes capable of conjuring up such images (say, of its regular prey). Stimulus-freedom has entered the mental world of Earth-bound creatures. Soon the isolated image was subjected to manipulations and emendations, so that imagination begins to get a grip—the boundless capacity for invention, novelty, free expression.[2] At this point we might postulate a hiatus: the mind gets stuck at the imaginative stage; millions of years go by without any major developments to report. Then, slowly and tentatively, something new and different begins to stir: concepts, the building blocks of thought. Some enterprising species (probably that innovative octopus) develops thought, along with reasoning. This is certainly a giant step forward, though its biological function might be obscure; it takes a considerable architectural re-configuration. There is still sensation, perception, memory, and imagination in the organism’s repertoire, folded into the new cognitive capacity, but something original has come into the world—the thing we call thinking. In due course, this would be capped by the upsurge of language, a vehicle for thinking and communicating thoughts. We thus reach the level of words. There was no straight path from sensations to language; that was not a suitable pre-adaptation that might intelligibly lead to words and sentences. But the intermediate stages provide an adequate jumping-off point, when suitably supplemented, for language to get a grip on the mind. Thought and language are the culmination of the series of developmental changes that resulted from sensation in its primitive form. As nebulous cosmic clouds lead eventually to star formation, with associated solar systems etc., so inarticulate clouds of sensation lead to the formation of more differentiated psychological characteristics, one step at a time. There is a natural developmental sequence, a predictable history. Of course, we don’t know much (if anything) about the mechanisms of such psychological ascent—we know much more about star formation—but we can suppose that natural processes account for the sequence we observe or postulate. History can be a mystery, but it happened somehow. The point is that we have a plausible story to tell about how it might have happened in the case of the phylogeny of mind. It’s rather like the emergence of feathers and flight in birds: initially feathers functioned as thermal regulators in dinosaurs, but in the fullness of time they were coopted to serve as means of flight. Evolution makes use of what it finds lying about; it can’t just magically conjure complex organs from nowhere. According to the developmental story I have sketched, just this kind of opportunistic tinkering is what drove the evolutionary development of mind. It is what made the modern mind possible. There is a natural ordering of mental faculties. Perhaps the child’s mind goes through a similar sequence: from sensation to perception, then memory, followed by imagination, leading to thought and language. Much of this is no doubt shrouded in mystery and occurs early on in the child’s mental life, but it doesn’t sound too farfetched or thrown together. The child achieves in about three years what it took life on Earth to achieve in billions of years (but then the child has a brain that is the upshot of those billions of years).

Superimposed on the developmental story I have told is a grand dichotomy: that between the propositional and the pre-propositional. We might think of this as the analogue of the dichotomy between the cold-blooded and the warm-blooded. Up to time t animals got by without anything propositional running through their heads; after t propositions found their way in. Minds began to grasp propositions and think real thoughts. I doubt this happened at the early stages of mental history—not even including the time of the imagination. It arrived late in the game—before language, I would say, but not before thought proper. Even today the human imagination is not essentially propositional, though propositions have infiltrated it (imagining-that); it is still largely perceptual in nature, though not a form of perception. Natural language is heavily propositional, though not exclusively so. The proposition now enjoys a kind of psychological hegemony, but it isn’t an absolute tyrant; it coexists with other psychological ingredients and remnants, with which it has obscure historical connections. It may be regarded as a watershed adaptation, requiring a new and challenging kind of mental athletics (logical reasoning etc.). Did it have any precursor in the evolution of animal brains? How much of a saltation is it? What is it a modification of? Whatever the answers to these questions may be, there is clearly a big distinction between two types of animal mind: those that can engage with propositions and those that cannot.

Animal bodies evolved in an orderly sequence, each body plan building on earlier ones. This was a long, drawn-out process, subject to all the pressures of natural selection. What we see now is the end product of this complicated history. Likewise, the mind evolved over billions of years, subject to the same pressures, each adaptation building on previous adaptations, with deletions and additions. It went through specific eras and phases. This sequence is not random or shapeless; it has a certain “logic”. Developmental philosophy of mind tries to discern the patterns and interrelations, the innovations and consolidations. It doesn’t just happen any old way. Broadly speaking, it is a story of increasingly refined intentionality, culminating in the phenomenon of linguistic meaning, but with useful remnants of the past still in play.[3]

[1] See Tyler Burge, Origins of Objectivity (2010), chapter 9, for a discussion of this distinction.

[2] See my Mindsight (2004) for a discussion of imagination.

[3] If we want to understand the human body, we do well to consider its evolutionary origins. Similarly, if we want to understand the human mind, we do well to consider its evolutionary origins. I am campaigning for a Darwinian perspective in the philosophy of mind, as there is already a Darwinian perspective in psychology. Of course, this is perfectly consistent with a more synchronic investigation alongside the diachronic one. (None of this means that I sign on to all so-called Darwinian approaches to the mind, and I don’t.)

5 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    When or where in evolution would you speculate was a “gestation” period for mind, when it was still “in the womb” so to speak, just prior to the birth of a self for which there was an inner and outer world? What physical development would such a gestation period have been correlated with (during which time some form of proto-mental development must have occurred)? The early development of digestion – mouth and rudimentary stomach (an inner that also contains a space for the not-yet-but-soon-to-become-part-of-self) together with nervous system? Could developmental philosophy of mind cast any light on the co-evolution of mouth, stomach and nervous system?

      • Giulio Katis
        Giulio Katis says:

        The mapping of the organism in the external world (especially to take into account the impact of its own bodily movements on the immediate environment) was my first thought. But it somehow didn’t ring true for me, too mechanical. Maybe because we know mindless algorithms can do this: the environment can just be modelled as an extended self, with body and environment comprising a bigger multi-part distributed system with no need for a real inner vs outer distinction. As coarse or Rabelaisian as it may sound, I was speculating the mapping and management of the eating and digesting process may have the appropriate structure.

  2. Dr Aiden P Gregg
    Dr Aiden P Gregg says:

    I was chatting to a friend about the mind-body problem, its notorious insolubility, and our consequent not having the faintest idea about how to turn something made of dumb matter into something exhibiting self-conscious mind.

    And then I realised and remarked that, nonetheless, people manage to blindly achieve this miraculous feat all the time, simply by sexually reproducing, and letting the developmental magic spontaneously unfold.


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