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Mind Circuits

Jeffrey Wattles

For the Northeast Ohio Philosophy Consortium, October, 2002

We tend to think of persons as separate units, because we see persons embodied, discretely localized.  Someone may remind us: organic life is open interaction with the environment; we continuously receive energies from elsewhere; our bodies exert a gravitational attraction on remote bodies; but for practical reasons we tend simply to take persons as separate units.  After all, we are individuals, each with free will and our own decisions to make.

          Regarding the mind, however, theorists of language and society have challenged an atomistic notion.  The language we speak we learn from others, and it is a shared cultural possession.  True, to a significant extent we say what we choose and in our own way, but a general cultural system operates in us as we speak.  Language or mind or culture is then a field in which we participate.  And circuits of communication flow between senders and recipients.

          A striking domain opens up for those who explore the thought that in the field of mind there are one or more circuits centered in a divine source.  Is such a thought plausible?  To develop the proposal, I will comment on a neglected passage of Plato and its connections with other passages in Plato and Aristotle.  I was moved to undertake this study by a seminar last summer given by Moussa Ndiaye of the University of Dakar in Senegal, West Africa.  In this paper I mainly elaborate the proposal by commenting on some threads of classical Greek epistemology.  Then I add a sketch of Ndiaye’s teaching and a few comments.

          Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae would sometimes cite a verse of scripture to preface his response, not as a proof, just an indication.  My quotation is from the prophet Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge” (11.2).


1.  Mind circuits in Plato

In Plato’s dialogue, the Ion, as Socrates pursues the comic task of deflating a boaster, he injects some deeper teaching for the reader’s consideration.  Speaking to the rhapsode Ion, who has just won a prize for his recitation of some poetry of Homer, Socrates makes a remarkable proposal.


It’s a divine power that moves you, as a “magnetic” stone moves iron rings. . . .  This stone not only pulls those rings, if they’re iron, it also puts power in the rings, so that they in turn can do just what the stone does—pull other rings—so that there’s sometimes a very long chain of iron pieces and rings hanging from one another.  And the power in all of them depends on this stone.  In the same way, the Muse makes some people inspired herself, and then through those who are inspired a chain of other enthusiasts is suspended.  You know, none of the epic poets, if they’re good, are masters of their subject; they are inspired, possessed, and that is how they utter all those beautiful poems.” (533d2-e9)


Though the ensuing conversation shows Ion to be a clever rhetorical manipulator, not a man divinely possessed, Socrates continues the allegory:

This spectator is the last of the rings . . . .  The middle ring is you, the rhapsode or actor, and the first one is the poet himself.  The god pulls people’s souls through all these wherever he wants, looping the power down from one to another.  And just as if it hung from that stone, there’s an enormous chain of choral dancers and dance teachers and assistant teachers hanging off to the sides of the rings that are suspended from the Muse.  One poet is attached to one Muse, another to another (we say he is “possessed,” and that’s near enough, for he is held).  From these first rings, from the poets, they are attached in their turn and inspired, from one poet, some from another; some from Orpheus, some from Musaeus, and many are possessed and held from Homer.  You are one of them, Ion, and you are possessed from Homer.  And when anyone sings the work of another poet, you’re asleep and you’re lost about what to say; but when any song of that poet is sounded, you are immediately awake, your soul is dancing, and you have plenty to say . . . .  (535e7 - 536d1)

If this praise does not properly belong to Ion, it may nevertheless suggest to the alert reader something of Plato’s thoughts about circuits of mind. 

          Of course, someone may object to taking this passage seriously.  Plato is notorious for irony, and it is common to disregard such passages as mere mythical ornamentation surrounding Plato’s core dialectical philosophical concerns.  My own view is that Plato inserts such artistic passages as this one in the Ion in order to communicate insights for which he cannot offer dialectical grounding.  Plato’s purpose is to stimulate our adventure of discovery, an adventure that, while centered on the quest to know the forms, nonetheless engages all dimensions of the human soul.  It thus remains the reader’s choice whether to work heuristically with such passages.

Here are the main points that I infer from Socrates’ speech in the Ion. 

          1.  There are mind circuits, whose proximate superhuman origins are the gods.

          2.  They are multiple (different muses inspire different poets).

          3.  We are differentially receptive to them (some interpreters are alive to one poet but not another).

          4.  They link humans to the divine.

5.  They communicate divine blessings.


          After the Ion Plato does not abandon the idea of mind circuits.  In Socrates’ speech in the Symposium he has Diotima speak of eros as a circuit carrying prayers from mortals to the gods and divine blessings from the gods to mortals (202e3-5).  In the Republic Socrates speaks of the good as a source enabling the intellect to know.  He compares the good to the sun, which illumines the field within which visual perception becomes possible (508b7-e3).  Thus, in two major dialogues Plato continues to develop his thinking about the links between human mind and divine realities.  Characteristically, Plato never sets down systematic doctrine, which would appear as just another opinion, preferring to stimulate our own quest for insight.


2.  Aristotle’s hesitant notion of participation in divine mind

          We have no evidence that Plato’s mythic and metaphorical indications about mind circuits in the Ion made an appeal to Aristotle.  Nevertheless, Aristotle links intellect, the highest level of psyche, or soul, with divine mind.  Thus Aristotle preserves a certain kinship to Plato.  Aristotle posits three levels of psyche.


1.  The most basic function of psyche is interface with the body, enabling vital functions to operate.

2.  The next function of psyche is perception.

          3.  The highest function of psyche is intellectual activity, the mind’s contemplative engagement in eternal, unchanging truth and divine reality.


          What does the human mind have to do with divinity?  The text we have of Aristotle’s De Anima preserves a hint, however controversial its interpretation, that there is a single divine mind operative in the highest thinking of all humans.  Aristotle writes that “while the faculty of sensation is dependent upon the body, mind is separable from it” (III.5 429b5).  Then he goes on to write,


Actual knowledge is identical with its object: in the individual, potential knowledge is in time prior to actual knowledge, but in the universe as a whole it is not prior even in time.  Mind is not at one time knowing and at another not.  When mind is set free from its present conditions it appears as just what it is and nothing more: this alone is immortal and eternal (we do not, however, remember its former activity, because, while mind in this sense is impassible, mind as passive is destructible, and without it nothing thinks).” (430a22-25 Random House, McKeon edition, 1941, translation by J. A. Smith).


John Rist cites Alexander of Aphrodiasias and Ockham’s razor in favor of the interpretation that “the productive intellect . . . is none other than God.  (The Mind of Aristotle, University of Toronto Press, 1989, p. 182).

What I think is reasonable to say is that Aristotle’s text is ambiguous.  Our highest thinking participates in, or approximates, the activity of the divine mind.  In two other passages, Aristotle offers alternative interpretations.  Toward the close of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle celebrates the highest capacity of the human intellect, our activity of theoria, contemplative thinking, which he calls “either the divine or the most divine within us” (1177a18).  Later he urges us to strive to live as much as possible the divine life, to enjoy the highest happiness, which is possible because of that which is divine within the human being (1177a27).  In Metaphysics Book XII, Aristotle speaks further of theoria.  “If God is always in that good state in which we sometimes are, this compels our wonder; in if in a better this compels it yet more.  And God is in a better state.” (1072b23-25; McKeon ed., trans. W. D. Ross).  Thus Aristotle at first considers as a possibility that theoria is the condition of the mind of God, and then goes on to assert that the nature of God’s thinking transcends ours.

          Aristotle’s hesitation—his ambiguity and his mention of alternative interpretations—in the De Anima, the Metaphysics, and the Nicomachean Ethics, is instructive.  He goes back and forth between considering the human intellect divine and acknowledging that God is beyond us.  Aristotle appears to want to affirm two things: phenomenologically, he finds there to be something divine about human experience at its highest.  Philosophically, he acknowledges that God transcends even the highest human activity.  This two-fold affirmation fits well with the thesis of the mind circuits.  The functions of the human, operating at their best, are wondrous indeed; they convey a feeling of continuity between the individual’s mind and the divine.  Yet there remains the reflection that Deity transcends such peak experiences.

3.  Ndiaye’s list of mind circuits

I want to offer as a resource the list of mind circuits that Ndiaye presents.  Each item on the list is proposed both as a normal and phenomenologically accessible function of the human mind and also as a mind circuit that divinely ministers to that function.

1.  The first he calls “orientation.”  This circuit embraces Aristotle’s first two functions—perception and interface with the body.  Ndaiye also mentions our self-protective reflex instincts and our orientation in space.  He describes the activity sponsored by each circuit as expanding in accord with the stages of human psychological development.


            2.  The second is understanding.  This involves the association of ideas, coordinating present experience with past learning, and coming to quick judgment.


            3.  The third is courage.


            4.  The fourth he calls “adventure.”  The striving sponsored by this circuit is expressed in the scientific quest for knowledge and in other voyages of discovery.  Let me avoid a misunderstanding here.  This circuit of knowledge is not a channel that miraculously adds information and relieves us of the need to explore; rather it is a stimulus to responsible inquiry.

            5.  The fifth is counsel.  This one is active in our socializing and in our ability to seek group wisdom.  It promotes our desire to harmonize our projects and activities with those of other people.

            6.  The sixth is worship.

            7.  The seventh is wisdom.  Wisdom coordinates all the other activites and balances them.  Each activity of mind, pursued by itself, could take us off on a tangent.  Wisdom gives integration to our lives.  The spirit, or circuit, of wisdom enhances our receptivity to divine wisdom.

          The sequence of circuits presented by Ndiaye has a certain intelligibility.  The sequence of the first two is very common.  Perception we interpret by associating ideas, and we judge how we will respond.  To undertake action, however, takes courage.  The adventure of advancing intelligence goes beyond a quick response to seek knowledge; and the quest is not solitary but social, shared.  Ultimately the quest is for God; and the mind’s final task is to integrate all these levels of mind in a coherent and progressive unity.

The resulting concept of mind circuits is roughly the following.  A mind circuit brings blessings from divine mind to the human mind of each individual.  The circuit sustains, enlivens, and guides a specific function or closely related set of functions basic to the human mind.  Taken as a whole, they provide a rich and integrating ministry to the human mind.



I close with a few comments, the first about non-religious interpretations of the mind circuits.  Someone with a science-centered philosophy may prefer to contemplate how basic functions of mind are supported by the body or by life or by evolution or by the universe.  Someone with a humanistic philosophy may prefer to say that relaxed contemplation, prompted by suggestion suggestion, taps into a deep level of social-psychological support for our mind functions.  Each of these approaches offers a reductionistic explanation of any positive experience connected with these teachings.  I want to acknowledge and make room for reductionistic explanations—as part of the story but not the heart of the story.  It is an empirical question, to some extent, how equal the benefits would be for people operating with different philosophies.

          The logical viability of religious and non-religious philosophies confirms to me that it is not possible to prove or disprove the existence of God, and any attempted proof or disproof assumes too much or proves too little.  Even if the existence of God is agreed upon, that agreement would not establish the plausibility of this proposal about circuits in the field of mind.  Take courage, for example.  If we find that we can indeed open ourselves to the spirit of courage and find that we do indeed promptly feel a luminous presence that banishes fear and destroys anxiety, and if we find that an enhanced quality of courage stays with us through our course of action, then we may infer that we are tapping into something.  That phenomenological experience, however, and the conviction that may spontaneously accompany it, of course do not prove the existence of a mind circuit.  Nor, I might add, does such an experience obviate the need for the process traditionally associated with the cultivation of virtue as a habit—the repeated exercise of good judgment in situations that may arouse fear.  In Thomistic terms, courage would be a virtue that is both acquired and infused.

I want to mention one more problem, the question of identity conditions for these circuits.  Some of the circuits are said to serve multiple distinguishable operations of mind.  Why would it not be equally plausible to posit a separate circuit for each distinguishable operation?  In reply one could simply argue that the multiple operations covered by certain circuits are closely associated. 

The same question could be taken in the opposite direction.  Someone may agree that one’s mind is a gift from the Creator and that the Creator in some way ministers to the mind, but may see no need to posit multiple circuits.  Why would it not be better simply to say that God ministers to the mind, and that prayer regarding particular functions of mind may be surprisingly fruitful?  Pragmatically, the issue may make little or no difference.  Let me refer again, however, to the quote from Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge.”  I do not want to add an exegetical burden to this proposal.  I would not argue that the Biblical context yields this concept of circuits.  Nevertheless, one can read Isaiah as giving an alternative: One can speak simply of the spirit of the Lord as a unity, or one can differentiate and speak of the spirits of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, and knowledge.

          Ndiaye’s teaching about mind circuits opened up what is for me a fresh line of thinking about ancient Greek epistemology.  Although his teaching is not a full theory of mind, I find that it continues to prove personally helpful.  My dissertation advisor William Earle used to characterize philosophy as “ontological autobiography.”  By that he meant that we should simply aim to describe our experience in the most deep and universal way, so that as many as possible of those who are like us in relevant ways may find the description illuminating.  Though my own philosophic ambitions go beyond autobiography, a paper of this sort is better wrapped in similar modesty.