Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Mind as a Pair of Scissors

Jonah Lehrer, author of the delightful neuroscience blog The Frontal Cortex, posted an entry today about his new book How We Decide. This entry explains that the book examines the various factors that go into producing the various kinds of decisions we make including everything from choosing which flavor of Cheerios to buy at the supermarket to whether to take out a subprime mortgage.

In a Q&A section extracted from Amazon, Lehrer likens the mind to a pair of scissors. In this metaphor borrowed from Nobel Prize winning psychologist Herbert Simon, one blade of the scissors represents the brain and the other represents the brain's environment, and, just as we can't understand the operation of the scissors without understanding the simultaneous movement of both blades, so we can't understand the choices the mind makes without understanding the interaction of brain and environment.

In the comments section, this is what I wrote:

I look forward to reading your book, and, judging from Publisher's Weekly's starred review, you have nothing to be nervous about.

No doubt you address the free will vs determinism issue in your book. Herbert Simon's delightful metaphor of the brain and environment as the two blades of a pair of scissors reinforces my view that brain and environment are what the philosopher Alan Watts called a "unified field" and that the choices issuing from this field are the inevitable products of the conditions within it.

In other words, there is no freedom to choose other than what the conditions within the field produce, and there is also no determinism of something outside the field causing it to choose as it does, because, ultimately, the field encompasses everything of which there is nothing outside.

I do look forward to reading this book and to reviewing it here someday.

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