The Mental as Rule of Thumb

by rsbakker

What are mental functions? According to Blind Brain Theory, they are quasimechanical posits explaining the transformations between regimented inputs and observed outputs in ways that seem to admit generalization. We know the evidence is correlative, but we utilize mechanical cognition nonetheless, producing a form of correlatively anchored ‘quasi-causal explanation.’ There often seems to be some gain in understanding, and thus are ‘mental functions’ born.

Mental functions famously don’t map across our growing understanding of neural mechanisms because the systematicity tracked is correlative, rather than causal. Far from ‘mechanism sketches,’ mental functions are ‘black box conceits,’ low dimensional constructs that need only solve some experimental ecology (that may or may not generalize). The explanatory apparatus of the ‘mental’ indirectly tracks the kinds of practical demands made on human cognition as much as the hidden systematicities of the brain. It possesses no high-dimensional reality—real reality—otherwise. How could it? What sense does it make to suppose that our understanding of the mental, despite being correlatively anchored, nevertheless tracks something causal within subjects? Very little. Correlations abound, to the point of obscuring causes outright. Though correlative cognition turns on actual differential relations to the actual mechanisms involved, it nevertheless neglects those relations, and therefore neglects the mechanisms as well.  To suggest that correlative posits possess some kind of inexplicable intrinsic efficacy is to simply not understand the nature of correlative cognition, which is to make due in the absence of behavioural sensitivities to the high-dimensional mechanics of our environments.

Why bother arguing for something spooky when ‘mental functions’ are so obviously heuristic conceits, ways to understand otherwise opaque systems, nothing more or less?

Of course there’s nothing wrong with heuristics, so long as they’re recognized as such, ways for other brains to cognize neural capacities short of cognizing neural mechanisms. To the extent that experimental findings generalize to real world contexts, there’s a great deal to be learned from ‘black box psychology.’ But we should not expect to find any systematic, coherent account of ‘mind’ or the ‘mental,’ simply because the correlative possibilities are potentially limitless. So long as new experimental paradigms can be improvised, new capacities/incapacities can be isolated. Each ‘discovery,’ in other words, is at once an artifact, an understanding specific (as all correlative understandings are) to some practical ecology, one which is useful to the degree it can be applied in various other practical ecologies.

And there you have it: a concise eliminativist explanation of why mental functions seem to have no extension and yet seem to provide a great deal of knowledge anyway. ‘Mental functions’ are essentially a way to utilize our mechanical problem-solving capacity in black box ecologies. The time has come to start calling them for what they are: heuristic conceits.  The ‘mind’ is a way to manage a causal system absent any behavioural sensitivity to the mechanics of that system, a way to avoid causal cognition. To suggest that it is somehow fundamentally causal nonetheless is to simply misunderstand it, to confuse, albeit in an exotic manner, correlation for causation.