[#27] World and Mind: What Contains What?

By Piet Hut

The world appears in our mind, and it makes sense to assume that our mind is inherently connected to our body which is part of the world.  When we ask "what contains what?" a sensible answer is: "our mind is contained in the world, but we use our mind to access the world, so the experienced world, as an experience, is contained in the mind, which gives us the only access we have to the world."

While this is a sensible answer, it is not a scientific answer, in the sense of having been tested for empirical and theoretical consistency.  It rests on the prejudice that the world is real, and is the basis of everything else, including the appearance of our bodies, which are born and die, and which harbor in some way our minds, as a form of emergent property of our bodies, in particular of our brains.

Now this may well be true, but who says?  How do we know?  And what alternative interpretations might be equally reasonable to entertain?



The main tool for science to make progress with such questions is the use of a working hypothesis.  In order to obtain more clarity in any given situation, we can develop one or more working hypotheses, and then test each of those.  And in doing so, it is important to suspend judgment.  This means: neither believing nor disbelieving, but holding an idea 'in the palm of your hand', neither putting it in your pocket, nor throwing it away.

A simple but profound example is the working hypothesis that the Sun is rising in the morning, with the assumption that the Earth is steady and doesn't move.  A very sensible notion, one that confirms with the impression we have when seeing the Sun slowly climbing up out of the morning mist.  An alternative working hypothesis is that the Sun is steady, doesn't move, and that the apparent motion is caused by the Earth setting in the other direction, rotating once a day.

Aristarchus of Samos

Aristarchus of Samos

It was the introduction, and subsequent testing, of the second working hypothesis that got science going in the sixteenth century, starting with Copernicus' work, and culminating more than a century later with Newton's theory of gravity. Interestingly, the second working hypothesis was put forward much earlier already by Aristarchus of Samos, eighteen centuries before Copernicus, based on pure thought, but without any way to prove or disprove either of the two working hypotheses.

Going back to the question "what contains what?", the general opinion about scientists is that the world contains the mind. That is the working hypothesis that is most popular, and also most specific -- up to a point.  What is specific is the idea that for every thought or feeling or other phenomenon in our mind there is an objective process in our brain that corresponds precisely with that subjective experience.  And it is then easy to slide into a related, but quite different idea, that the workings of the brain cause the stirrings in the mind.

 As for the "up to a point", there is a fly in the ointment. Unlike the relative motion between Sun and Earth, which is a symmetric relationship, the containment question is not well defined.  It is a metaphoric expression, comparing and relating two very different notions.  And it is not at all clear what it would mean for a mind to be "contained" in a brain.

 Let us take the simpler case of a dream.  There a dream world appears within the mind.  So far, so good: the dream world is a mental construct, so there containment is a reasonable notion. However, when we dream we typically are not aware that we are dreaming, and we consider ourselves to be surrounded by other people and by objects outside of us.  So while the dream lasts, we may think that our (dream) body and (dream) mind are contained in the (dream) world, only to find out upon waking up and remembering our dream, that the dream world was wholly contained within our dreaming mind.

Roger Shepard

Roger Shepard

 The upshot is a Russian doll picture of the world containing our body containing our dreaming mind containing a dream world containing our dream body containing our dream mind.  And it is only when we realize, while we are dreaming, that we are dreaming, that we can see through these layers of seeming containment.

It is fascinating that our mind has the ability to switch so easily between identification with a mind felt to belong to a `real' body in the world, and a mind felt to belong to a dream body, also considered to be real, in a dream world.  Even more interesting is the fact that we can be surprised at jokes that are being told in a dream, where our dream self is surprised, even though our own mind is literally "dreaming up" both the joke and the surprise.

At the second Tucson Conference (Toward a Science of Consciousness II, held in 1996), the cognitive psychologist Roger Shepard and I gave a talk: "My Experience, Your Experience, and the World We Experience: Turning `The Hard Problem' Upside Down".  There we discussed some of the many problematic aspects of the containment idea.  And since both of us had kept dream journals for years, we included in our paper examples of jokes that each of us had experienced in our dreams.  In my next blog I will pursue the question of containment further.

Piet Hut is President of YHouse (where this blog is hosted), Professor of Astrophysics and Head of the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and a Principal Investigator and Councilor of the Earth-Life Science Institute in the Tokyo Institute of Technology.