Is the Mind a Sixth Sense?
As everybody knows, the five conventional senses are sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Their associated organs–eyes, ears, nose, tongue and the neuronal receptors located in the skin and other parts of the body–provide sensory signals, both from outside and within the body, that are transmitted to the brain where they are perceived and processed, or ignored.
Seeing is what our eyes do, hearing is what our ears do, smelling is what our nose does… And so on. "The mind is what our brain does," says Canadian-American evolutionary scientist Steven Pinker. This sentence needs further qualification: The mind is what our brain does–more precisely, what our prefrontal cortex does–and the brains of other animals do not. Mind is the complex of elements in our brain that feels, perceives, wills, remembers, reasons and is conscious of the self that owns that brain.
Is the mind a sixth sense? The Buddha thinks so. The answer to this question invites controversy since there is no agreement on the number of 'senses' we possess. However, the statement that the mind is indeed a sense implies that, as the other five, it is also a biological phenomenon and a product of evolution by natural selection.
Regarding its biological nature, says the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle, "minds are not ghosts harnessed to bodily machines". There are no separate workings of the mind and workings of the body. Without metaphysical interventions, mind 'occurs' in the brain, which is a part of the body.
With respect to evolution, the five traditional senses preceded the hypothetical sixth one by eons. Likely smell was first. Millions of years ago, one of the things that rudimentary live entities did, besides copying themselves, was learning to perceive the odors of the molecules they would seize for their organisms; current plants, which lack sensory organs, do smell one another.
In an extremely slow sequence, living beings were able to taste, touch, hear and see. Then, a few moments ago in the 3,500-million-year timeline of life, our hominid ancestors, able to ponder and recognize their existence, made their unexpected appearance. How could this happen?
At some point, as a result of genetic mutations, some distant ancestors developed a rudimentary consciousness the progress of which became an evolutionary reward to a number of qualities that favored survival.
In a thought experiment, Portuguese-American neurobiologist Antonio Damasio compares the potential for survival of two remote anthropoid apes, one with some elementary hints of a mental function, a bit of personal history or a very simple grasp of individuality, and a second one with no trace of mind, memory or sense of identity.
The first ape, when facing a certain threat, not only experienced fear and made instinctive fight-or-flight decisions, as would any mammal, but also he or she could recall previous similar circumstances and reproduce actions that had already proved helpful. The odds of survival of that first anthropoid were certainly higher than those of the second primate; every success of the latter, the 'oblivious' one, was exclusively random.
Whether or not a sense, it is clear that mental faculties, including the recognition of the self, are the result of evolution by natural selection; alternatives to this line of thought require metaphysical assumptions.
With no notion of the evolution of species, the Buddha is very specific about the material nature of the sense of identity. The Sage declares that "there is no supernatural expression in the body, the sensory signals, the perceptions, the mental formations (conditionings) or the consciousness of a human being". Twenty four centuries later, naturalist Charles Darwin, the first person ever to speak about evolution and evolutionary psychology, shows how species transformed to reach modern man, the top bough of the hierarchy of life.
All our mental faculties, including the construction of our identity, are biological phenomena improved through time by natural selection. The acceptance of this fact puts our feet on the ground; this is what is important. The acceptance or rejection of the mind as a sixth sense is a secondary issue.
Atlanta, September 18, 2014
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