Horning Fellow pursues 'natural history of the mind'

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Liz Stillwaggon Swan

Consciousness is a biological phenomenon. How does the brain do it? --John Serle, UC-Berkeley

John Serle’s philosophical question is a good one, says Liz Stillwaggon Swan. “It correctly assumes that human consciousness, and the human mind, is a biological phenomenon brought about by natural, evolutionary processes. And it suggests that the appropriate way to understand the human mind will necessarily include looking to the brain. Non-philosophers might be surprised to learn that this is a significant step forward for philosophy.”

For much of the twentieth century, philosophers of the mind assumed its subject to be an abstract, disembodied, and atemporal entity “that must submit to one or another abstract system of analytical description. Refreshingly, many researchers in philosophy are now moving in the direction of articulating philosophical questions about the human mind that invite insight from neuroscience, semiotics, anthropology, and other disciplines formally considered to be wholly disconnected from philosophy.”

Swan is one such philosopher. As the Center’s first Horning Fellow in the History and Philosophy of Science, she is devoting her year to furthering research and writing on The Natural History of Mind: From Biological Origins to 21st Century Technology.

While Swan welcomes the new attention to the biological aspects of the brain, it is as insufficient to argue that the mind is “just the brain” as it is to ignore the embodied aspects of mind.

“Brains are necessarily embodied, so we cannot overlook the critical insights we can learn about human mindedness from the biological sciences. And human bodies are necessarily embedded in worlds. These interrelated philosophical observations mark the necessary intersection between the natural sciences and the humanities in the endeavor to understand the human mind.”

Swan is probing fundamental questions about human consciousness. Where did the mind come from? Which natural processes encouraged its beginning and which sustained its development? In what ways will our deepening integration with technology influence the nature of the human mind in the future?

Because humans are both biological and social creatures, we need to take stock of our emergence from the natural world as well as our effects on that same world through culture and technology,” she wrote in describing her research. “If we endeavor to understand the human mind through biology alone, we emphasize our continuity with other animals at the risk of overlooking our uniqueness. But endeavoring to understand the human mind through the humanities alone runs the inverse risk of emphasizing our uniqueness while overlooking our continuity with non-human animals and the larger natural world.”

Neither context alone can tell the whole story. “An integrated account that strikes a balance between conceptualizing the human mind as unique in the natural world and yet as an emergent phenomenon of the natural world has cross-disciplinary explanatory value.”

Swan describes her approach as “inherently interdisciplinary,” a claim that is underscored by the title of her forthcoming book, co-edited with R.L. Gordon: Origin(s) of Design in Nature: A Fresh, Interdisciplinary Look at How Design Emerges in Complex Systems, Especially Life (Dordrecht, Springer: 2011).

“Often assumed to be the crowning achievement of evolution, and its accomplishments the pinnacle of human civilization, the human mind is more commonly explored as the entity it has become, rather than as a natural process of becoming. But if we take evolutionary theory seriously, then the human mind, like all natural phenomena, has a biological history.”