31 July 2018

Minds Are More Than You Think: Towards a General Definition of Attitude

We need a definition of attitude in order to talk sensibly about it. 

The simplest general definition I use is the orientation of one mind in the world of minds. 
But minds don't exist as a mere object amongst other objects like a billiard ball amongst other billiard balls on a pool table, there is more to it than just saying there is a mind amongst other minds.

According to Harvard Professor Howard Gardner in his book The Unschooled Mind, "According to our new and expanded understanding, mind exists equally within the skull, in the objects strewn about in the culture, and in the behaviors of other individuals with whom one interacts and from whom one learns."

Definition of Attitude Illustrated

Since each mind extends beyond the physical boundaries of the body and includes both objects in the environment and the behavior of others, then it follows that in some important sense our minds overlap with each other. 
Our minds are like the electromagnetic fields that carry signals to and from cell phones, wi-fi hot spots, radio and TV antennas, etc. 
Have you ever wondered about the miracle of cell phone conversations? 
When you are in a city here in the United States most of the time you can have a continuous, uninterrupted conversation with someone else even while one or both of you are driving around. 
That miraculous feat of engineering is achieved by putting lots of cell phone broadcast towers in an area so that the signal area of each tower overlaps with the signal area of many other towers. 
What makes a cell phone tower a valuable component in the network is the extent of its signal area and it would be silly to limit our evaluation of one of the towers to just the broadcast tower that sends out the signals without considering the extent of its signal area and how it relates to the signal areas of other towers in the vicinity.

Now consider how we are like cell phone towers.
What makes us who we are is not just our bodies, but our minds, as well. 
Our mind is the aspect of each of us that "thinks, perceives, believes, reasons, imagines and wills" according to cognitive science professor George Lakoff and philosophy professor Mark Johnson in thier book Philosophy in the Flesh.
What Gardner is talking about is the fact that we are inescapably embedded in an environment, a larger context, that mutually co-creates our thoughts, perceptions, beliefs, reasoning skills, imagination, and ability to exert our will. 
To see how this fact has influenced world affairs watch Philip Zimbardo's TED Talk about the effect that the larger context had on both the students in his famous Standford Prison Experiment and in the Abu Gharib Military Prison. 

So my definition of attitude as the orientation of one mind in the world of minds, is like saying that the attitude of a cell phone tower is only meaningful when you consider it in relation to the other cell phone towers around it.
A cell phone tower is only useful if it is oriented in a way that supports the ability of the cell phone users to have uninterrupted high audio quality conversations.
If an individual cell phone tower is oriented in a way that it does not contribute to that goal, like sending all it's signals straight up into the sky, then it is worthless to the cell phone users on the ground. 
Another important aspect to consider is the maintenance of the tower, if it is neglected or abused then it will eventually become decrepit and cease to make a positive contribution to the intended result. 

This definition of attitude includes a very sensible way of thinking about minds because you cannot evaluate a single mind independent of how it relates to other minds. 
It is how the individual mind meshes, overlaps with, and integrates into the overall goals of the whole community of other minds that defines the value of its functioning. 
The individual mind has to be maintained in good health as an individual or that individual will not only cease to be a positive contributing member of the overall network, but might become destructive (which is not possible for a cell tower.) 
The orientation of one mind in the world of minds is a workable definition of attitude as long as the world of minds is understood as a holistic network that functions only to the degree that its components are integrated.
Conversely, the attitude of a mind that is not integrated into the whole network is irrelevant. 
This definition does raise the question of what counts as "functioning" in a network of minds.
My page on positive attitude provides more insight.

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