Sociology Mind
2012. Vol.2, No.3, 251-254
Published Online July 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 251
The Mind’s Irreducible Structure
Mark Simes
University Professors Program, Boston University, Bo ston, USA
Received February 6th, 201 2; revised April 2nd, 2012; accepted May 5th, 2012
The human mind is one of our most compelling subjects of scientific inquiry—and perhaps our most elu-
sive. Despite impressive biological advances, neuroscience has yet to produce a logical and empirical
analysis of the mind that exhibits universal, objective explanatory power of human mental phenomena on
both an individual and species level. This article first explores the limitations of the current neuroscien-
tific approach to the human mind and then argues for a reconceptualization of the relationship between
human mental phenomena and the brain. Here I introduce a new interpretation of neuroscientific data and
argue that this framework has the capacity to causally explain the link between social, psychological and
biological levels of analysis.
Keywords: Mind; Social Reality; Symbolic Process; Biological Sociology; Social Psychology
One hundred and thirty years ago Nature published Thomas
Huxley’s article “The Coming of age of The Origin of Spe-
cies” in which Huxley celebrated the triumph of Darwin’s the-
ory of evolution over the epistemological opposition it once
faced. Huxley’s epilogue to Darwin’s intellectual drama praised
the spirit of theoretical advancement despite conflict in the
reigning scientific paradigm and concurrently warned us that,
“…it is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies
and to end as superstitions”. Furthermore, Huxley admonished,
“it is hardly rash to anticipate that, in another twenty years, the
new generation, educated under the influences of the present
day, will be in danger of accepting the main doctrines of the
Origin of Species’, with as little reflection, and it may be with
as little justification, as so many of our contemporaries, twenty
years ago, rejected them.” (Huxley, 1880). Huxley was afraid
that biology, the discipline which assumed its place in the sci-
entific institution only after the introduction of Darwin’s
framework, would one day become dogma and leave the true
spirit of science, logical criticism, by the wayside. This article
reflects both Huxley’s praises and fears; on the one hand it
confirms that dogma has captivated, and thus arrested, one of
our most precious frontiers of scientific inquiry, and on the
other hand it suggests that the progressive, intellectual spirit of
science has the capacity to resolve our impasse as we strive to
understand the res cogitans of our biological brains.
It goes without saying that the sophistication of our modern
technology has brought researchers closer to the active, think-
ing brain than Huxley or Darwin could have ever imagined. We
are able to parcel and analyze the structure and function of the
human brain down to a molecular level of detail; we understand
many neurological pathologies as never before; we observe the
seats of memory and language in action; we even regulate emo-
tion—the list of productive enterprises rooted in the biological
understanding of the brain is impressive. Science does not un-
derstand, however, our brain’s most amazing, and arguably its
defining, feature: the mind.
In March 2010 at The College of the Holy Cross, a group of
neuroscientists and philosophers gathered for a conference
focused on the biological foundations of morality. During the
discussion, keynote speaker Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscien-
tist, was asked to account for a distinction between the brain
and the human mind. Gazzaniga responded, “You can stop any
neuroscientist in his track… by asking the question, ‘what is the
mind?’. We all start to babble. That just says how hard the
problem is. I like the answer ‘the mind is an inference’. That’s
what it is.”1 I’m sure the author of this statement would agree
that his answer is not a scientifically viable one. After all, Gaz-
zaniga admits that neuroscience does not have a definition for
the mind. This is because neuroscience hasn’t needed to ac-
count for the phenomena of the mind in order to progress in the
structural and functional understanding of the brain. The luxury
of ignoring the concept of mind is temporary however, and
serious neuroscientists know that for a comprehensive science
they must account for or explain the mind in a scientific way.
The status quo is such that, when forced to take the mind into
account, responses adopt the uncomfortable, unscientific quali-
ties of being personal, subjective and irrational—they take us
beyond the limits of scientific discourse. Depending on one’s
persuasion, argument takes the form of either philosophizing
about the mind on one side or reducing it to matter on the other.
The centuries old schism between idealists and materialists
persists and one is obligated to choose a side.
Proposals for Resolving the Dualist Paradox
But what if one chooses neither side? University Professor at
Boston University Liah Greenfeld, a sociologist who has spent
the past 10 years analyzing this epistemological quagmire, is
now providing neuroscience with a solution by mandating such
non-partisanship. She first stated her position in 2001 in corre-
spondence with Eric Kandel in response to the book that details
his Nobel Prize winning research with Larry Squire. Green-
1Quoted from keynote address “Brains, Beliefs and Beyond”March 18,
2010, CREC—Biological Foundations of Morality? College of the Holy
Cross, Worcester MA.
feld’s criticism simply points out the logical fault in reducing
the phenomenon of human thought to the molecules that sup-
port it as professed by Squire and Kandel in Memory: From
Mind to Molecules. The phenomena of our mind, according to
Greenfeld, cannot be explained by the existence of our brains
because, she asserts, the two processes seem to consist of dif-
ferent types of facts which are not translatable into one another
from the bottom up (Greenfeld, 2006). The laws of biology of
course, govern the structure and function of the brain, but the
biological characteristics of the brain are not positively deter-
minant in any instance of the mind. That is to say, it is not my
American brain that determines my English speaking thoughts
contemporary with the paradigms and trends of the 21st century,
but rather the activities of a mental process underdetermined by
all biological accounts.
This mental process could not occur without the human brain;
the brain serves as what Polanyi calls “boundary conditions”
for the activities of the mind (Polanyi, 1968). Remembering
that a condition is not a cause, however, the problem arises that
no quantity of data about the human brain itself explains the
qualities of the human mind. It is the inattention to this logical
confusion between condition and cause that has prevented the
subject of mind from being incorporated into the purview of
neuroscience. Greenfeld’s new approach, however, comes not
from negating the reductionist perspective, but rather from
reorienting the focus of inquiry toward the nature of the mind
and its connection to the biological brain.
The characteristic feature of the human mind is its symbolic
nature. To understand the novelty of this hypothesis, and to
make its formulation logical, one must recognize a symbol as
an arbitrary referent whose meaning is derived from the context
in which the symbol appears. Imagining symbols in this way
implies that any particular symbol’s meaning is always a matter
of interpretation—as context changes over time, so too may the
meaning of the symbol. This definition also implies that sym-
bols stand in qualitative contrast to signs, which always appear
in a one to one correspondence with their referent in the envi-
ronment and are timeless in their meaning.2 The biological
world consists of a dynamic material environment and organ-
isms to which the environment signifies. We know this from
Darwin’s framework which illustrates that the complexity of
signs increases with the complexity of the environment and
thus requires a proportionate level of adaptation for the survival
of a species. What Greenfeld reminds us in the case of the hu-
man mind is that an increase in complexity never explains a
break in continuity, and symbols constitute a reality of their
own kind in juxtaposition to the reality of signs. The human,
mental world is made up of symbols, facts that have only an
arbitrary connection to their referent in the material environ-
ment and have no necessary consequence for our biological
The primacy of symbols in human experience becomes im-
mediately apparent when one ponders the example of language,
our chief symbolic system. Words are symbols, that is, their
meaning is never absolute. They are the facts of a creative,
mental process and in every employment, our words must be
continually reinterpreted based on an ever-changing context.
Though this process is individual (i.e. language is always ma-
nipulated/symbols are always interpreted by one mind), words
most often are acquired from or given to other minds. No indi-
vidual is thought to be responsible for creating de novo all of
the words that they employ. Instead we use words and ideas
that are made available to us by our society and give them spe-
cific meaning by embedding them in the contexts of sentences
and scenes. It then follows through the example of language
that one can see Greenfeld’s second pivotal hypothesis about
the nature of human mind—it is a process made of up symbols
that are simultaneously individual and collective.
The symbolic mental process that is the mind is only active
in individuals but never exists in isolation from the common-
wealth of symbols that is shared across distances and genera-
tions. No mind is an island. The infant brain does not build a
mind from scratch relying solely on biological programming,
but instead develops with input from its particular symbolic
environment. We acquire our local language, are taught cus-
toms and slowly begin to participate in our uniquely human
ways of life whose variation across our species cannot be enu-
merated. The uniqueness of this process lies in the fact that,
unlike in any other species, it is indirect learning that occurs
when the younger members of our species individualize know-
ledge from the symbolic commonwealth. The symbolic nature
of the transmission of the human way of life therefore creates a
reality that is not possible in the world of signs; one in which
facts do not have to be experienced materially in order consti-
tute a reality for us.
Greenfeld insists that one must merely recognize the verity of
the mind’s existence (after all, she reminds us, it is the only certain
knowledge one can have) and then it can be operationalized as a
mental process governe d by the laws of symbol s. Greenfe ld states
that our mental reality is a uniquely human process made up of
symbols that, once externalized, become objective fact—i.e. they
exist. These facts are definable by the complex matrix of context
in which the symbol was e mployed. Like any dynamic biologi cal
process, the symbolic process is never static; despite this
dynamism, t he meaning of any symbol is di scoverable so long a s
there exists sufficient contextual evidence relevant to the subject
in question. This method of analysis can be imagined as analogous
to biological analysis on the cellular and molecular level. The
presence and effect of any particular cell or group of cells in a
biological system can only be detected and subsequently ex-
plained when sufficient contextual evidence about the subject is
empirically accessible in the system. Similar t o organic rea lity, the
number of forces that may be causal or effectual in the symbolic
environment is enormous and the discovery of new evidence
contributing to t he retroacti ve expl anation of a symbol i s alway s a
possibility. Therefore, in a manner parallel to that of the hard
sciences, authoritative explanations of facts in the symbolic
environment are the products of only the most logically consistent
and empirically supported chain of causality. One can consider the
analogy of Darwin’s finches as an even simpler example; the
distinct characteristics of a species’ beak become logically sig-
nificant only when analyzed in relationship to the finches’ en-
vironment, i.e. when analyzed in the framework of Darwin’s law.
When one accepts the reality of the mind as a symbolic process
and treats its phenomena as such, the facts of the mind (or, facts in
the symbolic reality) become subject to logical and empirical
analysis through the accumulation of circumstantia l evidence that
allows one to make hypotheses and refutations according to the
laws that govern the system. Symbols, as facts, can be explained
by discovering and analyzing the context that contributes to their
2For a detailed discussion on the distinction between symbols and signs, see
Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The co-evolution of language and the hu-
man brain. W. W. Norton & Co. (1997).
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
particular nature just as Darwin could explain the characteristics of
a particular finch’s beak i n the context of the envi ronment. Gree n-
feld, therefore, makes possible logical, scientific inquiry into the
human mind.
The Mind as an Emergent Phenomenon
Thus far, one might begin to think that Greenfeld has ne-
glected the brain and chosen only a part of the dichotomy in the
mind versus brain debate. This, however, is not the case. In
addition to her revolutionary conceptualization of the mind as a
symbolic process, Greenfeld has a logical solution for the con-
nection between mind and biology—to treat the mind as an
emergent phenomenon. To appreciate the nuance of this solu-
tion, it is helpful to consider the only other emergent pheno-
menon that we subject to logical and empirical analysis: Life as
defined by Charles Darwin.
Huxley, in his “Coming of Age” address, noted the intellec-
tual opposition that Darwin’s Origin of Species faced after its
publication. This opposition was a result of the scientific cli-
mate of the time which could not incorporate the phenomenon of
Life into to a logical and empirical analysis. The problem that
Life posed to Darwin ’s contemporaries in many way s res embl es
the problem of mind for modern neuroscience; its explanation
was hindered by the dichotomy between the materialists and the
vitalists (i.e. matter vs spirit). The physicists, chemists and
naturalists of the time could not agree on the origins and the
nature of life itself. Debate took the position of either reducing
life to its material (physical-chemical) constituents or believing
in the intervention of a divine creative force. As such, Life
could not be defined and its nature and functional laws could
not be investigated and explained; that is, until Darwin’s Origin
of Species operationalized the scientific study of life by treating
it as an emergent phenomenon.
In The Origin of Species, Darwin laboriously demonstrated
his law by which all biological reality abides: evolution by
means of natural selection. What was revolutionary about Dar-
win’s approach, however, was that his law transcended, and yet
remained perfectly consistent with, the laws governing the
physical universe (i.e. physics and chemistry). Darwin de-
scribed Life as a process of evolution through natural selection
both autonomous from and logically consistent with the bound-
ary conditions of the material environment. This postulate nei-
ther reduced Life to its material constituents nor required em-
pirical knowledge of Life’s creation but rather took the organic
reality for granted and operationalized its functional character-
istics in a logical, scientific analysis. Darwin conceptualized
and described the phenomenon of Life as a reality of its own
kind, sui generis.
The illustration of Darwin’s epistemological advancement
was implied in Michael Polanyi’s 1968 Science article, “Life’s
Irreducible Structure”. In his article, Polanyi argued that DNA
is a structure whose informational significance only exists be-
cause its ordered, code-like structure is not “due to the forces of
potential energy”. Polanyi tells us that it is the indeterminate
nature of the base sequence that creates the informational es-
sence of DNA in juxtaposition to the physical-chemcial prob-
ability that joins inorganic molecules in complex and regular
arrangements throughout the physical universe. Thus, while the
DNA structure occurs within the physical-chemical boundary
conditions of its material constituents, the significance (both
functionally and an alytically) of any particular instance of DNA
is extraneous to the laws of physics and chemistry; it is rather
an informational structure in the process of life, determined not
by physical laws but rather by Darwin’s law—millennia of
evolution via natural selection (Polanyi, 1968).
By stepping back from the detailed, molecular and cellular
focus of modern biology, Polanyi reminds us that the biological
reality, as conceptualized by Darwin is a reality of its own kind
whose laws are extraneous to the physical-chemical boundary
conditions in which the process of life takes place. All organ-
isms, according to Polanyi, exist as systems of dual control in
which the structure of the organism is bound by the laws of
physics and chemistry while at the same time the developmen-
tal processes, or morphogenesis, of the organism will organize
its inanimate constituents in ways that both limits and defies the
probabilities of inorganic, physical-chemical interactions (Po-
lanyi, 1968). Life abides by its own organizing principle which
is irreducible to but perfectly consistent with the laws of inani-
mate matter (life’s boundary conditions); understanding life as
this autonomous and organizing principle was Darwin’s revolu-
tionary contribution to science.
Greenfeld proposes to deliver a parallel theoretical advance-
ment to human neuroscience by treating the mind as an emer-
gent phenomenon. The reductionism of evolutionary psychobi-
ology, according to Greenfeld, cannot explain the origins of the
human mind just as Polanyi points out that the reduction of
biological structure and function cannot explain the emergence
of the organic process. This is because the constituent elements
of both phenomena only become analytically significant when
they are already engaged in their respective processes. In both
cases, (the mind and the organic reality) it is not necessary to
explain an origin in order to operationalize a logical and em-
pirical analysis. Recognizing the independent and organizing
properties of the system, however, bestows significance upon
the data within system. For Polanyi it is the reality of the or-
ganic process that organizes the physical-chemical elements of
biological systems; for Greenfeld, it is the reality of the mind
that organizes the biological processes of our brains. Once we
recognize the mind as a real process of its own kind with its
own laws—the laws of symbolic reality—that exist independ-
ent from, but consistent with, the boundary conditions of our
biological brains, we then open the possibility of mapping the
principles of the mind onto the structural and functional or-
ganization of the human brain.
Memory from the Top-Down?
As a thought experiment, let us consider what we already
know about memory and cortical organization through the lens
of this framework. We know that in the instance of long term
declarative memory the hippocampus is a necessary structure in
the consolidation and recall of complex matrices of data (Ei-
chenbaum, 2000). In any given life experience there is an enu-
merable amount of stimuli that are present and only a small
fraction of all possible stimuli enter into the conscious attention
of an individual and become the sensory pieces of a complex
long term memory. During this process the hippocampus coor-
dinates a wide network of disparate sensory modalities and
facilitates their association into a consolidated memory experi-
ence. It would be illogical to think of this neurological system
as creating memories because the existence of a memory is
predicated on a stimulus (a thing remembered); this is simply a
description of the neurological system which supports the phe-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 253
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
nomenon of memory in an organism, as such, this description is
entirely based on the biological laws of complex nervous sys-
tems responding to the signs of their material environment—it
is not yet human specific.
In the instance of human long-term declarative memory,
however, we do not merely store and recall interactions with
our material environment (signs). We store and recall interac-
tions with our symbolic environment. In fact, all of our seman-
tic memory is symbolic—and thus, I would argue, the vast ma-
jority of our episodic memory is symbolic too. When we rec-
ognize the reality of the mind as a symbolic process, it then
follows logically that our long-term declarative memories are
products of symbolic reality. Paris, France, is only Paris, France,
because members of our symbolic commonwealth have deemed
it so for hundreds of years. The interaction with this fact in both
the instances of indirect learning and conscious recall is an
interaction with symbolic reality supported by, and thus physi-
cally reflected in, the biological mechanisms of our brain.
At this point, let us remember one of the primary characteris-
tics of symbols: their meaning is never static but only deter-
mined by the context in which they appear. As such, we can
logically deduce the hypothesis that though the brain physically
reflects an interaction with this symbolic fact (i.e. that is, it is
real on the biological and mental level of analysis because the
mind cannot exist without its constitutive elements) there is no
specific and constant neurological representation of Paris nor a
“Paris cell” in the brains of individuals who learn, recall and
manipulate this symbolic fact. One may remember the piece of
information that Paris is the capital of France and one may also
remember a trip, a novel, or a life in Paris. In any case, the
mental experience and precise neurological manifestation of
recalling the symbolic fact of Paris will be different for each
individual—perhaps even different each time within an indi-
vidual—who is only able to understand the symbol based upon
the collection of symbols that one associates with Paris con-
tributing to its defining context at any given time. Symbols, as I
have pointed out, are associative by nature and, as such, our
declarative memories are too.
To assert that our declarative memories are associative seems
to be nothing new in the paradigm of neuroscience. We only
understand the mechanisms of memory through the associative
connections created by neurons that fire and wire together into
networks that are then associated with other networks via the
hippocampus constituting a rich memory. What is, in fact, dif-
ferent about the present assertion is that it has the explanatory
power to account for the neurological representation of memory
as a system that is associative according to the laws of symbolic
reality. This is juxtaposed with the traditional neuroscientific
approach which is logically incapable of describing the associa-
tive characteristics of memories by studying the neurological
structure and function of the brain. Put differently, while neural
networks do not constitute human memories, human memories
(the symbolic process that is the mind), in fact, organize neural
Ruminating on the normal instance of memory in light of
Greenfeld’s complex framework is a small thought experiment,
necessarily limited by the scope of this article, but thought ex-
periments of the kind are, in fact, the only means by which we
can perform the intellectual activity of science. If she is right in
her description of the structure and function of the human mind,
even the most sceptical in neuroscientist might begin duplicat-
ing such thought experiments in his or her own work, quietly
testing the possibility of a top down explanation in which the
unique human reality, defined by its symbolic nature, organizes
the structure and function of the human brain. This is because
new ideas, Greenfeld tells us, are the most powerful force in
our reality. Once a truly revolutionary idea is born, the idea
itself becomes irresistible and an undeniable fact to all that it
touches. As Huxley reminds us, however, new ideas are only
dangerous when they are approached with little reflection and
treated as either b l asphemous heresies or absolute dogma.
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