The Temporal Ecology of Mind

29 March 2011


Recently I’ve listened through a couple sets of nicely complementary lectures, both from the Modern Scholars series published by Recorded Books: The Basics of Genetics by Professor Betsey Dexter Dyer of Wheaton College and Evolutionary Psychology I: The Science of Human Nature by Allen D. MacNeill of Cornell University. The former gave the detailed mechanisms of biological inheritance, while the latter gave the extrapolation of biological inheritance from its origins to what it has come to be in our own time.

Both of these excellent (and very listenable) series of lectures had important ramifications for understanding the world beyond a narrowly conceived biological perspective. Professor Dyer, for example, explicitly broached some philosophical issues in her last two lectures. Professor MacNeill’s lectures were gripping, irresistibly amusing even while posing difficult and uncomfortable questions for human self-understanding.

Senior Lecturer Allen D. MacNeill, Cornell University

Senior Lecturer Allen D. MacNeill, Cornell University

Professor MacNeill’s lectures on evolutionary psychology quite directly took on some traditional issues in philosophy of mind, and I want to say a few things about his treatment of these issues. MacNeill gives a brusque presentation of Freud and his ideas in the first lecture. Thereafter he drops Freud and does not return to him. It is clear that, for MacNeill, Freud now belongs to the prehistory of the scientific study of the mind, and much of his work has been superseded by recent scientific discoveries.

Sigmund Freud: Old Hat? Not worth bothering with any more?

MacNeill spends much more time on what he calls the “blank slate” model of the mind, to which he devotes Lecture Five. He obviously considers this still a live option among contemporary scholars, and thus takes some time in demonstrating the inadequacy of the idea of the mind as a blank slate. I agreed with much of this critique, but I was a little uncomfortable with his implied alternative.

A Freudian diagram of the structure of the human mind. Freud allows from some degree of compartmentalization, but not at the level of the modularity of mind thesis.

MacNeill doesn’t devote nearly as much time to the exposition of his alternative to the blank slate as he gives to the refutation of the blank slate, but he does mention in passing a theory of mind called the modularity of mind. This he scarcely pauses to develop, but he seems to consider the modularity of mind the “correct” model and uncritically advocates for it. Of course, MacNeill is welcome to whatever theory of mind he wishes to develop, but in an educational context it is remiss not to mention the criticism that have been leveled at the modularity of mind thesis.

A neurological expression of the modularity of mind thesis, locating particular cognitive capacities in particular regions of the brain. While this has gone far beyond early behaviorism, it shares with behaviorism an analysis in terms of mechanisms of the mind that can be studied in isolation.

However, although I reject the modularity of mind as sufficient unto itself (though it may have a role to play in a more comprehensive theory of mind), I won’t here attempt to give any kind of detailed criticism or to suggest an alternative (others have done this at great length). What I would like to point out is how competing models of the mind offer a wonderful opportunity to discuss the clarification that what I have called ecological temporality can bring to an exposition of mind.

The point of view of evolutionary psychology is obviously going to focus on ontogeny (the development of the individual organism) and phylogeny (the development of a taxonomic group of organisms), though the emphasis here is going to definitely fall upon the phylogenetic. The time scale of ontogeny is that of micro-temporality; the evolutionary time scale of phylogeny is that of macro-temporality.

Evolution works at time scales that cannot be perceived by the individual, and there is therefore a disconnect between the micro-temporality of the individual and the macro-temporality of evolution. A theory of mind based upon the evolutionary formation of mind is going to be a theory of mind that is based on macro-temporality. This is as it should be. However, there is not only a disconnect between the macro-temporality of evolution and the micro-temporality of the individual; there is also a disconnect between macro-temporality and meso-temporality (social time) or exo-temporality (institutionalized time; historical time short of the natural history of scientific time).

Freud’s implicit theory of mind, like that of the modularity of mind, cannot avoid being involved with the micro-temporality of ontogeny, but Freud’s emphasis definitely falls on meso-temporality and exo-temporality. Freud’s central concern is not the evolutionary formation of the mind, but the formation of social institutions specific to some social group (meso-temporality) or cultural or civilizational division (exo-temporality).

For a Freudian to criticize evolutionary psychology, or for an evolutionary psychologist to view Freudian psychology as hopelessly dated is for these theorists of mind to talk at cross purposes, and thus to talk right past each other. Each of these theories deals with the mind at a distinct level of ecological temporality. We can, in pursuit of the method of isolation, pursue these two models of mind entirely separately. Thus there can be an ecological modularity of mind, as well as a structural modularity of mind. But, ultimately, we want a comprehensive theory of mind, and for this we will not make much progress through the finger-pointing that results from those considering macro-temporality pointing out the inadequacy of meso- and exo-temporality, and vice versa.

And Adequate theory of mind will place the macro-temporality of evolutionary psychology, the meso-temporality of social psychology, and the exo-temporality of psychology that embraces the whole tradition of a civilization (which is what Freud attempts in The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and its Discontents) within the common context of metaphysical history, and will show the interactions between the distinct levels of ecological temporality. (I would call this an integral theory of mind, except for the lessons I have learned and which I related in Metaphysical Ecology.)

. . . . .

Micro-temporality: The temporal setting in which the individual lives.

Meso-temporality: Relations between micro-temporalities or connections between temporal contexts.

Exo-temporality: Links between a temporal setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual’s immediate temporal context.

Macro-temporality: The historical era in which individuals live.

Metaphysical temporality: The whole of metaphysical history in which the individual and other lesser temporalities (Meso-temporality, Exo-temporality, and Macro-temporality) are embedded.

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