The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why it Matters
Daniel M. Wegner and Kurt Gray (Viking, 2016)
The premise of the book is that we have two different senses for the concept, whose relationship is complex. On the one hand, there’s an interior state of experience, having to do with sensations, emotions, and 'what it’s like' to be you. Experience is not directly accessible to others, but we can imagine it much more readily in a dog than in a fruit fly. We can even picture it more easily in dead people than we can in robots.
On the other hand, the exterior aspects of mind are termed agency. By this, Wegner and Gray mean the ability to set goals and make things happen in the world, whether scratching our noses or erecting skyscrapers. Fully functioning people have both, of course, but the edge cases are instructive. Small children are high in experience and low in agency, which gives rise to the moral imperative not to harm them. If parents (and the village) do their job, children grow up to have agency, as well, acquiring the moral imperative not to harm others.
Such complementarity seems to be baked in to these concepts, which often appear as two sides of a coin. "Thinking doers are active minds with moral responsibility that do actions, minds like corporations and God. Vulnerable feelers are passive minds with moral rights that have actions done to them, minds like puppies, medical patients, and babies. This division of doer and feeler should feel intuitive because it is as ancient as human thought."
Indeed, Aristotle divided the moral world along the same lines, naming the active party the agent, and the victim or recipient of an action the patient. "Linking mind perception to morality not only explains the enduring hilarity of kids injuring unsuspecting adults but also allows you to predict your moral outrage about almost any infraction. Tough man (high agency) punches kitten (high experience)? Immoral. Kitten (low agency) scratches tough man (low experience)? Not immoral."
The implications of this framework run throughout the book, as they do throughout family life, our systems of charitable giving, and the justice system. "When someone is cast as a victimized moral patient–a vulnerable feeler–it is difficult to simultaneously see him or her as an agent responsible for wrongdoing. This explains why defendants on trial often testify to the suffering or abuse they experienced in their lives, such as in the case of Lorena Bobbitt."
The Mind Club is dense with research: each chapter cites fifty or more articles or books; but the writing is witty, and moves right along. In the end, it crosses from psychology back to philosophy: "We are forever a point of view: even if we lose our memories, meditate away our desires, and quiet our constant quest for mental control, we are still a source of perception. But recognizing this fact provides the secret to transcending ourselves as much as we possibly can. By understanding that we perceive the world instead of understanding it directly, we can realize not only that the self is fragile and that free will is an illusion but also that other minds can be both more and less than they appear."
Any Good Books,