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Society of Mind

8.3 mental states and dispositions

Many modern scientists think it quaint to talk about mental states. They feel this idea is too subjective to be scientific, and they prefer to base their theories of psychology on ideas about information pro- cessing. This has produced many good theories about problem solving, pattern recognition, and other important facets of psychology, but on the whole it hasn't led to useful ways to describe the workings of our dispositions, attitudes, and feelings.

Is this because, as many think, our feelings are inherently more complicated than the things we more easily describe in words? Not necessarily: our memories of attitudes and feelings could come from relatively simple K-line mechanisms — yet still be inexpressible. This is because K-lines can easily record relatively widespread and diffuse activities and, later, reactivate them all at once. This helps explain a familiar psychological phenomenon:

The experiences we find easiest to recollect are often just the kinds we find the hardest to describe.

For example, a novice can remember how it felt to be at a concert. A more proficient amateur can remember more of the music itself — the rhythms and the harmonies and melodies. But only skilled musicians can recall the smaller details of timbre, texture, and arrangement. Why do we find it easier to recollect our attitudes and feelings than to describe what actually took place? That's just what we should expect from memories of the K-line kind. Suppose that a certain sentiment or disposition involved the activities of many different agents. It would be easy to construct a huge K-line with which we could, later, make ourselves approximately reexperience that complicated state — simply by rearousing the same activities. But this would not automatically enable us to describe those feelings, which is another matter entirely, because it would require us to summarize that huge, dispersed activity in terms of some much more compact arrangement of verbal expressions.

We cannot always judge the complexity of our mental states by how easily we can express them in words. A certain state of mind might involve a mass of information simply too enormous and diverse to express in any small number of words, yet not be very complicated in any interesting sense. Furthermore, the things we can express in words are, to a large extent, constrained by the social process through which we learn to use those words. In order for a word to have a predictable effect on other persons, we must maintain strict, public discipline on how that word is used — whereas each individual's private, internal signals need not be so constrained. The signals that come from our nonverbal agents can have K-line connections that branch out very rapidly to arouse other agents. If each member of such a society were to arouse a mere hundred others, then in only three or four steps the activity of a single one of them could affect a million other agents.

Once we think in terms of K-line memories, it becomes easy to imagine, at least in principle, how a person could recall a general impression of a complex previous experience — but it becomes hard to understand how a person can so easily comprehend a specific statement like John has more candy than Mary. If this theory is correct, the traditional view must be upside down, which regards it as easy to understand how minds can deal with facts and propositions, but hard to see how minds could have diffuse, hard-to-express dispositions.