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Skip to 0 minutes and 10 secondsWhat is a mind? It's an important question because, after all, what are you if not your mind? You might say, looking in the mirror, that's me, that thing, my body. But what if I were to say to you that tomorrow you're going to fall into a permanent coma, but don't worry, we'll keep your body alive. They'll keep it in a persistent, vegetative state. I think you'd be quite alarmed at the prospect because where will you be? Actually, the prospect of a lot of doctors looking after your body is not that much different from the point of view of your mind than a lot of undertakers looking after your corps. So what are you?

Skip to 1 minute and 3 secondsWhat is the mind as opposed to the body?

Skip to 1 minute and 10 secondsI often ask graduate students of psychology what a mind is. Psychology, after all, is the science of the mind, psyche logos. They're often really quite at a loss for words to tell me what it is that they've been studying all those years. I also ask residents in psychiatry what a mind is. Psychiatry, after all, is the medical speciality that treats disorders of the mind. So the mind is something very real, very practical. It exists in nature. There are even drugs that treat it. And yet psychiatrists, too, have great difficulty telling me what a mind is. They tell me that their drugs alter the chemical balance of the brain.

Skip to 1 minute and 58 secondsBut I've already said, there's a difference between the brain and the mind, between your body and you, itself. What is this difference? I think this leads us to the first defining property of a mind. A mind is not a body. A mind is the subjective aspect of the body. It's the being of a body. A body is the objective aspect of you. You are the subjective aspect of your body. The mind, then, is first and foremost a subject. But there is a subjective aspect to everything. There's the being of a monkey. There's the being of a mouse. There's the being of a snail or an ant or even a bacterium.

Skip to 2 minutes and 51 secondsCan we speak of the mind of a bacterium as its subjective aspect? What about a computer or a telephone or a carpet, they too have subjective aspects. There's the objective looking at the carpet, and there's the subjective being of the carpet. But clearly it's absurd to speak of the mind of a carpet. So this leads me to suggest that there's a second defining property of the mind. It's not just that the mind is something subjective, it's that it feels like something to be a mind. Because it doesn't feel like something to be a carpet, we're not happy with attributing a mind to a carpet.

Skip to 3 minutes and 40 secondsOn the other hand, how do we know that it doesn't feel like something to be a carpet? I think this is an important question. How do we come to determine what has feelings and what doesn't? As I said, the bacterium, the ant, the snail, the mouse, the monkey, how can we ever know which of them is sentient, which of them is conscious, which of the may be said to have a mind?

Skip to 4 minutes and 8 secondsThe problem, however, is even worse than that because if we were to come up with an objective or a reliable, valid criterion for determining whether or not something as feelings, still we would be left with the problem of what about the unconscious mind. The mind is not synonymous with consciousness, with sentience, with feeling. This, of course, was the great contribution, the great discovery, of Sigmund Freud's when he introduced, over 100 years ago, the idea of an unconscious mind. What do we mean by an unconscious mind? What is it that makes it mental, that makes it different from, say for example, a computer?

Skip to 4 minutes and 54 secondsI'm going to argue that this something else, this third defining property of a mind, is intentionality, intending towards something, aiming toward an object. This is possible to do without being aware that you're doing it. There is such a thing as having unconscious intentions, unconscious aims, unconscious volitions.

Skip to 5 minutes and 22 secondsThis leads me to the next and last of what I think are the defining properties of a mind. If you speak about unconscious intentions or forces, motivational forces, acting through you, can you really speak of yourself as being a mind as opposed to some kind of instinctual drive? I think that that distinction, that gradation from a biological motivational force through to an actual mind, admits of degrees. The thing that admits of degrees that I'm referring to, we might call agency or free will. To what extent are you the owner of your mind, the owner of your intentionality, in command of your own will? These four things, I think, are the defining properties of a mind. The mind is something subjective.

Skip to 6 minutes and 18 secondsThe mind is conscious. It feels like something. But not all of the mind is conscious. The unconscious mind, however, has the attribute of intentionality. And to the extent that you are the owner of that intentionality, to the extent that you are an agent, to that extent, you may be said to have a mind. Now, over the next four lessons, I want to unpack these four things that I've been talking about. I want to explain why I think and what I mean by the subjectivity of the mind, the capacity for consciousness of the mind, the intentionality of the mind, and its agency. And I want to address all of these questions in relation, also, to the body.

Skip to 7 minutes and 1 secondHow are these things related to the body and why?

Four defining properties of the mind

In the following six weeks we use the evidence and insights from diverse disciplines to address the question: What is a mind? This will lead to further questions such as what a mind is for and what it does.

For me it is a disturbing exercise to ask my own Psychology students what a ‘mind’ is. Psychology is of course the science of the mind, and yet they have great difficulty answering the question. I sometimes gain the impression from their answers that the more you study Psychology, the less you know about the mind. They seem to end up believing that it is just a very complicated information-processing device. They forget what it means to be a mind.

This course focuses on four defining features of the mind:

  • Subjectivity (Week 2)
  • Consciousness (Week 3)
  • Intentionality (Week 4)
  • Agency (Week 5)

In the following weeks, we will unpack each of these defining characteristics of the mind and explore how and why they relate to the body and brain.

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This video is from the free online course:

What Is a Mind?

University of Cape Town