'Our minds did not evolve to serve as instruments for observing themselves, but for solving such practical problems as nutrition, defense, and reproduction' (Marvin Minsky 2006).
Marvin Minsky is a pioneer in the field of machine intelligence. Efforts at developing machine intelligence have resulted in deep insights into how the human brain functions. In 1986 Minsky published the book The Society of Mind, in which he formulated his ideas about human cognition. His next book, The Emotion Machine, published in 2006, reflected the progress made at that time in gaining insights into the workings of the human mind via the machine-intelligence approach.
Minsky’s ‘society’ of mind comprises of ‘agents’ or ‘resources', which are the simplest individuals that populate the brain. Each agent or resource can be visualized as a typical component of a computer program, like a simple subroutine or data structure. The agents can get connected and composed into larger systems called agencies or societies of agents. The agencies self-organize into still larger conglomerates that can perform still more complex functions, and so on into still higher and higher levels of self-organization and complexity, ultimately leading to the emergence of abilities we attribute to minds. There is a hierarchical structure and organization, like in any complex adaptive system.
The idea of hierarchical levels of organization was well documented in an earlier publication of Minsky (1980):
'One could say but little about "mental states" if one imagined the Mind to be a single, unitary thing. But if we envision a mind (or brain) as composed of many partially autonomous "agents" — a "Society" of smaller minds — then we can interpret "mental state" and "partial mental state" in terms of subsets of the states of the parts of the mind. To develop this idea, we will imagine first that this Mental Society works much like any human administrative organization. On the largest scale are gross "Divisions" that specialize in such areas as sensory processing, language, long-range planning, and so forth. Within each Division are multitudes of subspecialists — call them "agents" — that embody smaller elements of an individual's knowledge, skills, and methods. No single one of these little agents knows very much by itself, but each recognizes certain configurations of a few associates and responds by altering its state'.
As is the case with any complex adaptive system, we cannot predict with certainty the properties of the mind-system in terms of the laws of physics applied to the constituent agents, nor can we start from the observed complexity of the brain and work our way downwards all the way to understand why the increasing complexity took a particular route in phase space [please note that 'deterministic' and 'unpredictable' are not mutually exclusive propositions in physics]. To quote Minsky (1990):
‘The functions performed by the brain are the products of the work of thousands of different, specialized sub-systems, the intricate product of hundreds of millions of years of biological evolution. We cannot hope to understand such an organization by emulating the techniques of those particle physicists who search for the simplest possible unifying conceptions. Constructing a mind is simply a different kind of problem — of how to synthesize organizational systems that can support a large enough diversity of different schemes, yet enable them to work together to exploit one another's abilities’.
Here is Minsky’s (1986) take on consciousness:
‘In this book, the word (consciousness) is used mainly for the myth that human minds are "self aware" in the sense of perceiving what happens inside themselves. I maintain that human consciousness can never represent what is occurring at the present moment, but only a little of the recent past -- partly because each agency has a limited capacity to represent what happened recently and partly because it takes time for agencies to communicate with one another. Consciousness is peculiarly hard to describe because each attempt to examine temporary memories distorts the very records it is trying to inspect’.
Minsky also described ‘free will’ as a myth, the myth that human volition is based upon some third alternative to either causality or chance.
The ‘Single-Self’ concept
Some people still subscribe to the concept that there is creature (or a set of creatures) inside us that does all the feeling or thinking for us, and makes all the important decisions for us. It is our ‘identity’ or ‘self’. Even our legal system distinguishes between deliberate wilful murder, and murder that was not pre-planned. This Single-Self concept may possibly be useful as a meme, but has no scientific basis.
Why do humans entertain such fiction? It may be partly because it makes life look pleasant ‘by hiding from us how much we're controlled by all sorts of conflicting, unconscious goals’. According to Minsky:
‘That image makes us efficient, whereas better ideas might slow us down. It would take too long for our hardworking minds to understand everything all the time. However, although the Single-Self concept has practical uses, it does not help us to understand ourselves — because it does not provide us with smaller parts we could use to build theories of what we are. When you think of yourself as a single thing, this gives you no clues about issues like these: What determines the subjects I think about? How do I choose what next to do? How can I solve this difficult problem? Instead, the Single-Self concept offers only useless answers like these: My Self selects what to think about. My Self decides what I should do next. I should try to make my Self get to work’.
He goes on to say that: ‘Whenever you think about your "Self" you are switching among a huge network of models, each of which tries to represent some particular aspects of your mind—to answer some questions about yourself’.