Mind, ecology, society

Gregory Bateson, in his book “Mind and Nature” defines the “mind” as an entity that meets the following criteria (the parts in italics are my comments):

  1. It is an aggregate of interacting parts or components.
  2. The interaction between the parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in space or time (i.e. information); these consist of intangible phenomena that cannot be placed in space or time; difference is related to negentropy and entropy rather than energy. In fact, the greater the entropy of a context, the more numerous are the information needed to describe it.
  3. Mental process requires collateral energy.
  4. Mental process requires circular (or more complex) chains of determination. This means that a mind takes into account the effects of its behavior to determine its subsequent behavior.
  5. In mental process, the effects of difference are to be regarded as transforms (i.e. coded versions) of events, must be considered as transformed (i.e. coded versions) of events which preceded them. The rules of such transformation must be comparatively stable (i.e. more stable than the content) but are themselves subject to transformation. The differences (i.e. information) that a mind perceives (and on the basis of which it acts) do not coincide with the facts that caused them but are the result of transformation and coding automatically done by the organs involved in perception.
  6. The description and classification of these processes of transformation disclose a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena. Logical types are metainformation, i.e. information that serves to decode, interpret, classify, contextualize other information, or to allow its comprehension.

From such criteria the following considerations are deduced:

  • a mind does not necessarily belong to a living being (in fact also computers have a mind);
  • a mind does not need consciousness;
  • a mind does not necessarily reside in a single organism or organ , but can be distributed over several organisms or organs;
  • a mind can be constituted by the organization and cooperation of several minds;

For these reasons, we can assume, among other things, that each cell of an organism possesses a mind, and that the human mind (understood as conscious mind) emerges from the interaction of various unconscious minds distributed in the brain and the rest of the body.

Bateson also states that what we call thought, evolution, ecology, life, learning, and similar phenomena, occur only in systems that meet the above criteria, i.e. within or by the effect of “minds”.

In the previous chapter, we stated that a living being is a cybernetic system. We can therefore consider the mind the “software” of such a system.

Moreover, considering that every living being to live needs to interact with other living beings, we can consider the biosphere an “ecology of minds” (a term coined by Gregory Bateson) and suppose that the essential function of a mind is precisely that of “managing” the interactions between the body that hosts it and external bodies, as well as the interactions between its internal organs.

One could logically divide the human mind into two sections: a “social” and a “non-social” one. The first one is “concerned” with managing social relationships and interactions, that is to say, providing the logics (conscious and unconscious) of social behavior on the basis of which we know and decide what to do and not do, say and not say, believe and not believe with respect to our fellow human beings. The second one deals with managing relationships and interactions in which other human beings are not involved. It is obvious that the social mind is by far the most interesting and problematic, especially since Homo Sapiens invented (or discovered) language and culture. Not that the “non-social” mind is simple, but it is almost completely automatic and instinctive, and does not cause concern, at least until it becomes the subject of social prescriptions, diseases or dysfunctions.

For this reason, when we talk about mind and psychology, we normally refer to the social part of the mind, i.e. the one that directly or indirectly involves other people.

According to George Herbert Mead, the mind is a social device, which develops through social interactions and serves to manage them. For this purpose, the entity called by Mead “Generalized Other” has a fundamental role because it represents the set of possible social roles learned by a subject through interactions with others. It could therefore be said that the Generalized Other represents the entire society.

Given the interdependence of human beings, i.e. the fact that everyone needs others to survive and meet his/her own needs, we can say that the main purpose of  mind is to manage the relationships between the subject and others in order to meet their own needs and those of others.

It is good to reflect on the relationship between the individual and society seeing it as the relationship between the mind of an individual and the idea of a society that has been built in his mind as a result of his/her social experiences.

What we call “society” is in fact a mental construct to which we tend to attribute characteristics as if it were a homogeneous organism with its own autonomy and personality. I doubt that society in general, or any particular society, can be considered a homogeneous and integrated organism, and I see it rather as a set of human beings bound by more or less stable and codified relationships.

In this regard, it is important to consider the circularity of the relationship between individual and society, that is, the fact that a society is “formed” by its members, whose minds are “formed” by the society in which they grow up and live. In other words, society “forms” its members, but they can (at least in theory) “reform” the society that formed them (assuming they are capable of reforming themselves first).

Summing up, we can consider society an ecology of human minds whose function, as for any ecology, should be to satisfy the needs of the interacting parties.

Next chapter: Logical structure of mind.