362. Minds in Black Boxes

November 19, 2014

Metaphorically, a black box is a kind of generic puzzle container. You try to solve a puzzle you can’t see directly, using clues you can discover by any means short of actually opening the box. In that sense, a wrapped birthday present is a puzzle you can size up, heft, shake, listen to, bend, sniff, turn upside down, and so on to gain a sense of what’s inside. A wrapped soccer ball would respond differently to manipulation than a pair of dumbbells in a package of the same size and proportions.

I first came across black-box problems during my brief stay at MIT over sixty years ago where they took the form of electrical circuits containing various arrangements of resistors, capacitors, and induction coils sealed in a box with only input and output terminals outside the box. The challenge was to determine the structure of the circuit hidden within the box by observing how it transformed a range of electrical inputs into outputs exhibiting specific characteristics.

Those were the days (early 1950s) when behaviorism with its stimulus-response paradigm reigned in the psychological world so that rats in mazes and animal behavior in general were treated much like black boxes as input-output systems observable only from the exterior. Human behavior was seen as a response to external environmental situations and manipulations, and fully understandable as a transformation of ambient stimulation.

Psychology and neuroscience have come a long way since then, yet still cannot account for minds as higher order systems emerging from molecular and cellular brains.

My approach turns the black-box problem on its head. The minds of scientists and the rest of us are not outside, pondering the box, but are themselves firmly seated within an opaque container surrounding their embodied minds, a figurative “box” allowing multiple circuits of engagement with family, community, culture, and nature through our personal input and output terminals (perception and bodily behavior). The minds we so desire to explain are the very tools we use to explain everything else as if mind were the absolute standard of understanding and judgment. Uncritically, we want it both ways.

“Objectivity” is a subjective judgment we make within our very own black box when we’ve convinced ourselves that we know what we’re doing. Which accounts for the common conceit that what I think is indeed true while what you think is a gross distortion or misconception.

Each of us looks upon her world from just such an idiosyncratic point of view from within her personal black box. Making the world (not the mind or the self) become the problem. Any reality beyond the confines of the black box we are born within (the semipermeable skin that contains our organic self) is an experiential hypothesis, not an absolute given. From our point of view, the world is the puzzle to be solved, not the mind, the seat of our situated intelligence, which determines the perspective from which we each construct our own worlds