Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Mindfulness as a Mental Model of the World: Getting Beyond the Language of 'A Priori' Thought

For a while, since about June 13th when I published my essay "The Everyday A Priori Imagination", I have been hung up on this notion of a priori thought. This is Collingwood's term and I think that it makes sense. Generally it just means that our thought often presents itself to us as necessary, that it logically unfolds from itself, that it is produced by deeper structures in the mind than we are aware. Our thought often unfolds a priori. But as soon as I wrote that essay I told a friend that I needed a way to escape this language of a priori thought. It is inadequate. It doesn't explain it in simple enough terms. The phrase a priori is a bit too philosophical, a bit too dense, a bit too esoteric. I think I even had a dream where my sister poked fun at the inaccessibility of a phrase like a priori imagination. I need to get beyond this language of a priori thought.

Recently I have been reading about two concepts that have been of major use to me. They have helped me explore ways of describing thought that get at this same issue of the unconscious structure of our thought, but they are much more accessible I think. These two ideas are 1. the idea of mental models created by the brain, and 2. the idea of tacit psychological theory. Both of these concepts are meant to explain how our minds are able to act intuitively in a complex world. The idea of mental models I encountered originally with Guy Claxton, and I just finished a book by Chris Frith that helped me understand this stuff more. The idea of tacit theory I actually wrote an essay about on August first. This idea comes from a philosophy of mind known as theory-theory. These philosophers generally believe that people understand each others minds primarily by making unconscious theoretical inferences about one another.

Both of these things help me understand what it means to have a priori thought. It means that our mind had unconscious models or theories that structure our intuitive thought. A model is essentially a theory of sorts. Scientists build theoretical models of things and try to predict, and Frith and others think our brain does the same thing. So mental modeling and tacit theory are very similar things, and they are essentially the same thing as the a priori imagination.

The most difficult thing, however, and the issue I really want to handle here, is the notion of mindfulness. How are we to be mindful, how are we to pay attention, if our thought is dominated by models. Another friend of mine challenged me to think that we need to transcend models rather than build them. We need to get beyond this ridiculous and inadequate network of concepts that govern our daily thinking about the world. Mindfulness, he proposed, is the way to transcend models. But is it possible that mindfulness, too, is a model of the world? A model, however, in which we have an understanding of the inadequacy of concepts and thus don't rely on them and can pay attention in different ways. Could we create a model of the world that was aware of the historical construction of our concepts, of the inadequate nature of our concepts. Could mindfulness be a flexible and open mental model of reality? In short, I think that these notions of mental modeling and tacit theorizing are compatible with a mindfulness. It just means that mindfulness has to be a sort of mental model in itself. I'll try to explore these ideas more in depth now. Starting with the notion of a priori thought, then moving to tacit theory and mental models.

A Priori Thought as Tacit Theorizing and Mental Modeling
So I guess I have decided that I want this essay to be more reflective than anything else. I don't feel like going into heavy citations or really working hard. My daily life is too occupied by job hunting for me to really make this super heavy. I basically feel like I'm trying to articulate things for myself that I already am now comfortable with in my mind.

In this section I just want to rehash the idea of a priori thought and explain how it can be a form of tacit theorizing or a mental model of sorts.

Collingwood uses the term the a 'priori imagination'. He is trying to explain how historians, and people in general, are able to quickly and intuitively explain other people's behaviors. He compares it to Kant's discussion of the perceptual imagination (though I haven't read much Kant). But the idea is that we don't need to see the bottom of a table to know that it is there, and our mind always know that it is there. I don't need to see the part of the wall that is being blocked by my computer screen, I just know that it is there. My a priori imagination fills in these gaps in evidence and lets me simply know that what I cannot see is indeed there.

Collingwood's work on a priori thought got me thinking hard about how the mind does this. How does the mind create a totalized view of the world even though we are lacking so much evidence? How do I attribute complex mental states to people even though I have so little information about them? How do our minds naturally try to predict other people's behavior without having real confirmable evidence of their actions?

In short, the problem that I was grappling with while writing about a priori thought was that we have a complete and total view of the world (whether it is minds, objects, or anything else), even though we are lacking so much evidence. It is this tendency to explain and predict other people's behavior that I was trying to explore. The mind must be filling in these gaps somehow, it must be facilitating our perception so that we can create a complete picture from limited evidence. So the notion of the a priori imagination was my first foray into trying to understand this unconscious structure of thought, especially thought about other minds.

But since then my reading has led me to think that these ideas of tacit theory and mental modeling would be better ways to describe this unconscious structuring of thought. Both of them are more contemporary as well. These ideas are more grounded in contemporary literature.

So tacit theory, this is basically an idea that comes from philosophy of mind. There is a school in philosophy of mind called 'theory-theory'. The main claim being that people attribute mental states to other people by using naive/tacit psychological theories. Meaning that we have some sort of unconscious store of information about how people think, how they act, how they move, etc., and that we use this unconscious theory to understand other people. This is an interesting way of conceptualizing the unconscious structures of thought. It communicates the same idea: that we have an unconscious store of information that structures our thoughts and allows us to infer totalized perceptions despite the inadequate evidence of the world. But the notion of tacit theory is also obviously inadequate in some ways. For one thing, a theory is an articulated body of propositions, it is discursive. A theory has to be language based. The unconscious structure of our thoughts, however, is clearly not articulable. Our mind uses it ineffably, without reference to words. It structures our thoughts in a way that does not require articulation. Alvin Goldman makes this observation and I can't disagree with him. The notion of tacit theory is lacking a bit of something because of this disparity between the articulable nature of theory, and the ineffable nature of our unconscious perceptions.

This is where I think the notion of mental modeling may be a bit more adequate than the idea of tacit theory. For one thing, there is a fair amount of similarity between the notion of a theory and that of a model. Scientists create theoretical models, there is something similar between these ideas. But the idea of a model differs from a theory in that a model does not need to be linguistic, it doesn't need to use words. A computer program could model a storm without actually using any types of words about that storm. But it accomplishes the same task, it still creates a representation that is supposed to aid in explanation and prediction.

Chris Frith writes quite a lot about how our brains model the outside world in order to function better. He believes that our brains model the outside world, our own bodies, and other minds in order to 'get ahead' as he says. It helps if we can predict ourselves and others, and the brain seems to do this. He believes that understanding in a conversation is all about making it so that two people have the same model of thought in their minds.

So I find this idea of mental models to be the most adequate way of getting beyond the language of a priori thought. It helps me understand that there is an unconscious structure to our thoughts, that our brain runs on models of the outside world and uses those to make inferences and predictions about things and people. It makes sense, the brain couldn't engage with the world unless it was actively building our perception of the world, as it does with modeling. But what if these models get in the way of accurate perception?

Mindfulness and Transcending Models of Reality?
I once expressed this idea of mental modeling to my friend and he had a real challenging question for me. He said to me that what if we get hung up on these models? What if they prevent us from perceiving reality accurately? I started reflecting and I realized this was a very good point. I started thinking about Foucault's work in relation to mental models of people. I started thinking: What if our society is saturated with ideas about how people and things supposedly are that we are held back from really paying attention? What if we are so hung up on the notions of gay and straight, black and white, right and wrong, that we can't even observe reality as it really is? In short, how are we to be mindful if we are relying on mental models? How are we to really pay attention to our experience when all of our perception is supposedly functioning on preformed models of reality?

My friend wanted to get beyond these models entirely, find a way of viewing the world that didn't rely on these inadequate preformed concepts. I'll actually quote this e-mail where he said this to me: "So to summarize, it's the cure that interests me. Would not the antidote to the social imaginary constructed by the state (to all forms of coercive power) be a form of perception or awareness that's able to see things as they really are, without all the rickety scaffolding of concepts and schemes? It would be rooted in the present moment and would be neither a prisoner of discursive thought nor afraid to engage it. If I'm not mistaken, this is what Buddhism generally refers to a 'mindfulness.'" Quite insightful. I found this very compelling at the time, and it frankly pushed me away from the notion of mental modeling for a little because I didn't know how to explain mindfulness in relation to it. I have a hunch that we will always slip into unreflective, inattentive ways of thinking and perceiving, so we have to ultimately try to modify our models of the world, and make sure that we can rely on our models.

Now I think that I can make these ideas compatible. I think I can make it so that mindfulness is compatible with the fact that our mind models reality in order to predict it.

Mindfulness as a Mental Model of the World
I think that I can reconcile mindfulness and mental modeling by claiming that mindfulness must itself be facilitated by a mental model of the world. If we were to spend enough time reflecting on our preformed concepts, on the inadequate concepts that pervade our daily perception, we might be able to reduce how much they structure our thought. By working intellectually would could attack our mental models that we have required through our pre-reflective years. Because obviously by the time we become conscious and thoughtful we have already internalized quite a number of inadequate models of the world: we may believe that gender is a rigid binary, that the races are inherently different, that class reflects something about people's intelligence, so on. Our world is just saturated with these inadequate models.

So the first step to mindfulness would be this exposure of our already internalized models. This is what Foucault can help us with quite clearly. I even wrote about this on 6/13. I wrote that Foucault was exposing the contents of our a priori imagination, but I would now say that Foucault is exposing our internalized models of reality. He is showing us that our conception of the world is not perfect, but is rather shaped by historical circumstances that have provided us with specific models of reality. This would be the first step to escaping the models that we are originally stuck with when we enter the world.

Once we have attacked those original models, are we left with no models at all? Are we left with a blank sort of mindfulness? Can we now completely transcend mental models and experience the world as it is? Unlikely

Here I am saying, rather, that this sort of Foucauldian mindfulness is in itself another mental model of the world. It is still permeating our unconscious mind and informing our pre-reflective perceptions. It is simply now our mental model of the world is no longer rigid, but is attentive to the inadequacy of the commonly circulated social conceptions. Just because we have managed to delegitimated the everyday social perceptions does not mean that we are able to transcend mental modeling of reality. It just means that our mental model of the world is now expanded enough, porous enough, loose enough, that we can pay attention to the world without relying on those everyday concepts.

Mindfulness must be a mental model in its own right. It is simply a mental model that rejects standard social conceptions and instead is open to less articulable and more creative approaches to the social world. But it is still a model, it can't not be a model. The brain has to model. It is hard for me to argue with Frith, obviously (I'm not a neuroscientist).

Our mind still has to have models, and I see no reason why mindfulness couldn't be a form of mental modeling. And as I've said, it is simply a model that is more open, more flexible, and more aware of the social construction of our forms of thought.

My aunt talked to me about 'choosing between fictions' in the social world. Unfortunately, society provides us with fictions without telling us they are fictions. These are the mental models that Foucault attacks. But I believe that mindfulness, too, must be a fiction. Albeit a less rigid, a barer, a less articulable, and more attentive fiction. It is still a fiction, still a mental model.

This is a great thing to have written. It helps me so much. It helps me get beyond the language of a priori thought, and it helps me reconcile mindfulness with the brains need to model reality. More importantly, I think this will be of huge help to me in writing the last two essays in my 'Society's Implicit War' series. Which I still plan on finishing. I just don't have the time right now. I think this will be a huge step. A huge help in talking about how Foucault intends us to apply his work to our own lives and minds. It will be a huge help in explaining how Foucault's work is meant to enable a sort of mindfulness. Over and out, son.

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