"Sky Fronds" photo by Eric Platt, © 2007
"Sky Fronds" photo by Eric Platt, © 2007

Western Philosophy of Mind and the Problem of Life

Turning Western Philosophy of Mind on It’s Head

Is life a problem to be solved? The philosophers and scientists who are trying to figure out how the mind works are basing their models on an orientation towards problems solving.
They look for example, at animals in the world surviving, and see them solving problems: how to hunt for prey, how to build a nest, how to navigate through space and so forth. Then they try and build machines to do tasks. And this is all very interesting and useful. But does it tell us anything if applied more broadly?

When I was towards the end of the years of studying philosophy in academia, I was listening to a professor’s lectures who was talking about some theory about the mind based on models of the brain. That was their schtick, their career. It was very clever. And it was very fascinating, but something was off. I couldn’t put my finger on it. For years I’d been digging. I dug and I dug and I dug, trying to figure out, trying to understand how the mind works and what the relation was between the mind and a program, or in this professor’s case (Patricia Churchland), a brain, the material and the physical. How do you get a mind from matter, from some machine or brain thing, or pieces. How do you put the pieces together, the parts. It was a fun game but oh so frustrating because it was so elusive. It was hard to even know what you were chasing, what to solution would look like, what the definition or outlines were. We were using language to try and understand what was going on and get to a solution.

They were working with what they call “representations”– which is basically a fancy term for models –  what we use to build a model of the world and use it: the thinking structures or schemas.

But the models you come up with, invent, imagine, are based on what you think the mind is, what is valuable, what the mind is for – even what reality is, what life is. If you are using problem-solving and analysis and think that’s what counts or is real, then your models will be about that.

Then one day, at the end of my rope, it hit me. I had an intuition that intuition was the way to go. The whole mind game of philosophy of mind was exposed.

I saw that this capacity to just “see” a solution was the main capacity we have, is the main power. Not problem solving, but the creative light.
Life was not a process of converging on a solution, but one of creating divergent solutions, some for no purpose at all but the pure fun, joy or energy of living. Like art.

This was a powerful revelation. But … there was no way to present it in their framework of dogmatic beliefs. I tried giving a presentation about how there are no representations in reality, but it fell on deaf stone dead cold ears, and the professor a short time later talked about how she was “embarrassed” for someone at an other seminar that had presented a philosophy without representations. I had trouble articulating my “theory” because it was so intuitive. But I knew I was onto something. However it seemed to put me beyond the pale of academia (at least as far as the philosophy department went). I was elated…in a sense, but my academic philosophy career was over. I saw the writing on the wall.

If you intuit that there’s nothing to figure out in the way they are trying to figure out, and the game is figuring out, where does it leave you? With no leg to stand on. So I focused on just playing the game, graduating, getting the degree, and getting the hell out of the university machine. I needed my freedom.

So you go off and create. And meditate.

So that’s what I did. I studied Zen Buddhism, went to a Zen school for a bit, and started taking visual art classes and making art.

You’ve heard the saying, which is perhaps a cliche, how “Life is not problem to be solved but a gift to be opened” … which is a good clue.

Have fun and enjoy life.

But that way of thinking hung with me: analyze, criticize, argue, think think think and overthink. Process, research, analyze. This habit goes beyond what they do in academia. It’s a tendency we pick up from the culture, a way of using this beautiful brain and power to create. It helps to solve problems. But then we apply it too much, in areas that just need awareness, letting the feeling be a guide to where the thinking is at, and navigate.

This is where having a guide and the support of others who have followed clues and found answers, helps. We seek spiritual solutions or insights. We go to psychologists or therapists. We read books, talk to friends.

But a lot of those solutions, those pointers, are also based on a misunderstanding. They are trying to apply a medical model, or a problem-solving model, focusing on a problem and hitting it with tools. But it’s the wrong tool. You’ve heard the “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail?” Well there’s a lot of hammering going on.

Let’s quiet down the hammering.

The other things I learned was that being smart and being happy are two different things. It’s obvious, but yet we think being smart would somehow lead to happiness. Like you could apply that smartness to the problem. Solve the problem, hammer on the nail. Or use it to get something that will make you happy. Like money or a relationship or fame. Then you will be happy, because those things will make you happy. Stuff out there. Conditions.

But that is all after the fact. Of life. Of being alive. Now.


Leave a Comment