To the Best of Our Knowledge

The Enduring Enigma of the Mind

The “mind” has become a blanket concept whose meanings range from mere phenomenal consciousness to higher-level cognition found only in humans. The authoritative Oxford Companion for the Mind, for instance, provides no definition of the word in its general introduction. The omission may lie in the fact that there are simply too many facets to the human mind, or too many aspects of our experience in which it is involved. Even the proper locus of the mind is a matter of debate, although evidence of neural correlates of consciousness keeps piling up. At the same time, the familiar mind-brain tandem is being constantly challenged by new theories describing the mind not only as embodied, but as “spread,” “peripheral,” “flat,” and so on. Our bodies can be enhanced, but so can our minds, in ways that need not be confined to the development of our individual psyches. Indeed, the evolution of human culture is based on the possibility of embracing shared beliefs and knowledge.

Such an expanded view of the human mind raises two important and related questions. First, where does the mind begin? If we equate the mind with consciousness, should we account for its emergence as a by-product of evolution, or should we accept it instead as a fundamental feature of reality, on a par with concepts such as matter and energy? Similarly, does the mind only exist in animals with brains, or does it have a deeper, possibly cosmic meaning? The question runs through the intellectual history of philosophy and science, from Plato’s Theory of Ideas to contemporary theories of panpsychism. The second question concerns precisely what sets humans apart from other animals with respect to certain cognitive capacities. In other words, what makes the human mind distinctly human? And how can we cultivate and develop the mind to help it flourish?

Marking the ten-year anniversary of the highly successful partnership between the New York Academy of Sciences, the Nour Foundation, and Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge, this timely and thought-provoking three-part series led by Steve Paulson once again brings together leading scientists and thinkers from an array of disciplines to help ponder and unravel the complexities of the human mind, from its origins and functions to its cultivation and development, with a view toward ultimately acquiring greater insight into ourselves and the nature of our existence.

 

Unraveling the Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness
Thursday, November 17, 2022 | 7:00 PM - 8:30 PM Sold Out

How does the mind relate to and differ from its seemingly inseparable companion, the brain? Where does the mind begin or emerge from? Is it merely a by-product of neural activities within the brain, or does it connect with deeper and more fundamental features of physical reality that possibly span across nature beyond the realm of living forms? Philosopher of mind Ned Block, philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and philosopher Philip Goff dissect the connections between the human mind, brain, and consciousness. Learn More

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Fathoming the Mind: A Closer Look at the Formation of Self
Tuesday, January 17, 2023 | 7:00 PM - 8:30 PM

How different is the human mind from the minds of non-human animals? The key may lie in the capacity of the mind to relate to itself as a “self” that bears desires and intentions, along with agency and purpose. But how is this compatible with the recognition that much of our mental activity occurs at an unconscious or subconscious level, below the threshold of awareness and reflection? Psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik, ecologist Carl Safina<, and biologist Kenneth R. Miller explore what separates humans from other animals in relation to the construct of “self.” Learn More

 

Cultivating the Mind: Reason and the Pursuit of Ethical Transformation
Wednesday, February 15, 2023 | 7:00 PM - 8:30 PM

If the key to fully realizing our humanity lies in the cultivation of our minds, what ethical principles and practices in modern life can help our minds to flourish? How can reason be blended with emotion to nurture a more ethical life? In this regard, experimental psychology and neuroscientific research may have much to teach us, as might the age-old wisdom traditions. Psychologist and neurobiologist Richard Davidson, classics scholar Edith Hall, and psychologist Dacher Keltner analyze how reason and the mind can facilitate ethical development. Learn More

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