Monday, 23 September 2013

Mental Complexity and why Everything Seems so Seamless

In Chapter 3 (The Kind of Mind it Takes) of Pascal Boyer's book, Religion Explained, he provides what I personally consider to be one of the best analogies for the complexity, specialization, and efficiency of the human mind.

"About halfway through Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the heroine Elizabeth and her relatives are given a tour of the house and grounds at Pemberley, the vast estate of her proud acquaintance and spurned suitor Mr. Darcy. The place is grand (“The rooms were lofty and handsome, and their furniture suitable to the fortune of their proprietor”) and promises pleasures thus far unfamiliar to Elizabeth (“To be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”). Being no social historian, Elizabeth is more interested in the many delights of owning these commodious apartments and lush gardens than in the hard work involved in maintaining this kind of household. She lives Upstairs and does not talk much about (or even consider) what happens Downstairs.

But a lot happened downstairs. The efficient running of large households like Pemberley, with stables and fields, gardens and kitchens, guest rooms and dependents’ quarters, required the execution of precisely defined tasks distributed among dozens of specialists—house steward, housekeeper, groom of the chambers, butler, valet, lady’s maid, chef, footman, underbufler, young ladies’ maid, housemaid, stillroom maid, scullery maid, kitchen maid, laundry maid, dairymaid, coachman, groom, postilion, candleman, oddman, steward’s room man and servants’ hail boy, to name but a few. These specialists all had a precisely defined position in a hierarchy (there were several castes of servants, such as the Upper Ten or the Lower Five, which dined separately) and specific duties. The chef cooked but had no control over wine. The butler decanted wine but the stiilroom maid handled the china. With this complex division of labor came a complex chain of command. The housekeeper hired and directed all the female servants but not the lady’s maids and nurses; the steward, not the butler, could give orders to the chef; the chef controlled the preparation of food but not its serving, which was the butler’s domain.’

What is truly impressive about this system is how invisible it remained to the denizens of upstairs rooms, especially to house guests. Food and drink would appear magically at the appointed time, freshly shined boots would be brought to bedrooms in the morning. Even the owners of such places had but a vague notion of the complicated hierarchy and distribution of tasks, which was the steward’s full-time occupation. As a guest, you would not even perceive any of this but only marvel at how efficiently it all seemed to work. However, another feeling (commonly evinced by visitors to such places) was that getting everything you could possibly need is not quite the same as getting what you want. For the complex hierarchy came with a certain measure of independence and rigidity. Footmen were not supposed to do a valet’s work and vice versa. Kitchen maids who cleaned floors would not make breakfast for you. Your boots would be shined, but only in the morning—the relevant people were busy at other times. So master and guest could certainly nudge this organizational juggernaut in certain directions but they could neither really direct it nor in fact clearly understand how it worked.


It is unfortunate, and almost inevitable, that when we talk about religion we quite literally do not know what we are talking about. We may think we know our own thoughts (“I know what I believe; I believe that ghosts can walk through walls”), but a good part of religious concepts is hidden from conscious inspection: for instance the expectation that ghosts see what is in front of them, that they remember what happened after it happened, that they believe what they remember and remember what they perceived (not the other way around) and so on. This is so because a good part of what makes all concepts remains beyond conscious access.

Another misconception is that we can explain people’s having particular thoughts if we can understand their reasons for holding them. (“They believe in ghosts because they cannot bear the grief of losing people”; “they believe in God because otherwise human existence does not make sense,” etc.) But the mind is a complex set of biological machines that produce all sorts of thoughts. For many thoughts there is no reasonable reason, as it were, except that they are the inevitable result of the way the machines work. Do we have a good reason for having a precise memory of people’s faces and forgetting their names? No, but that is the way human memory works. The same applies to religious concepts, whose persistence and effects are explained by the way various mental systems work.

Now having a complex brain is like being a guest at Pemberley. We enjoy the many advantages of that efficient organization, but we have no real knowledge of what happens downstairs, of how many different systems are involved in making mental life possible. The organization of mental systems is in fact far more complex than anything you would find in the most extravagant household.

At Pemberley, different servants poured wine and tea; in a more modest household, the same person would have carried out both tasks. Because our mental basement usually works very well, we tend to think that it must be simple in organization. We often have a suburban view of the mind, assuming that a few servants may be enough; but that is only an illusion, and the brain is much more like a grand estate. What makes the system work smoothly is the exquisite coordination of many specialized systems, each of which handles only a fragment of the information with which we are constantly bombarded."

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

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