The Sentient Mind

This post is being expanded. Last edit: 10/25/18

“The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.”
– Bertrand Russell    

The apoptosome is a large protein complex formed during apoptosis, or programmed cell death. In your body, about 60 billion cells die every day by this process. Image source.

Whether it be a cell or a civilization, the existence of every living system¹ depends on the coordination of its components. As the survival of the body depends on trillions of cells, the survival of the human system will require the cooperation of several billion minds.² In the words of Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Even with the smartest technology and the most innovative thinkers, our civilization will fall if it fails to realize this truth. But how on Earth do we get seven billion people to work together?

From visions of heaven to concepts of utopia, we have long dreamed of lasting harmony. And in almost all these fantasies, human nature³ seems to have been “fixed” in some way. For millennia, scholars and theologians alike have generally presumed that our nature is somehow flawed, thus rendering world peace an unattainable ideal or some supernatural prophecy. And today, this couldn’t seem more true. Whether it be neo-Nazis or anti-vaxxers or climate change deniers, humanity seems fated to self-destruction. We are a species persuaded by meaning rather than by evidence. We are short-sighted, too worried about our comfort to care about our survival. It seems that we are innately selfish, and cooperation is impossible. But though we may despair, there is a solution that many have overlooked: human nature, as hopeless as it seems, is our only hope.

¹I define “system” as an assembly of components (in physical terms, an arrangement of matter and energy in space and time) that forms one or more causal relationships between its inputs and outputs. “Inputs” describe the matter and energy that is transferred into a physical system, and “outputs” are the matter and energy transferred out. To give a simple example, consider the system of a coffee maker. Its inputs consist of the matter (water, fresh grounds) and energy (electricity) that go in, and the outputs are the matter (coffee, used grounds) and energy (heat) that come out. The “causal relationships” of a system describe the internal processes by which inputs become outputs (the flow and exchange of matter and energy within the coffee maker).

I define “living system” as a system whose perpetuation is necessarily dependent on the perpetuation of biological systems, whether it be a virus in a cell, a tissue in a body, or the ecological cycling of matter and energy throughout our biosphere. Please note that I don’t use the word “living” as a synonym for “biological.” Rather, living systems must involve, but are not limited to, biological life. Most scientists don’t consider a virus to be biologically alive, and none of them consider a whole species to be an organism. But just because a civilization or its biosphere are not necessarily “alive” or “self-perpetuating” in a biological sense does not preclude such an analogy from being useful for the preservation of our species. Should we persist as living beings, then perhaps we should behave as one. Throughout my philosophy, I will justify my use of this analogy and my belief that it may be more than just a useful analogy—it may define a necessary reality. 

“A new consciousness is developing which sees the earth as a single organism and recognizes that an organism at war with itself is doomed. We are one planet.” – Carl Sagan

As an engineering student in college, I realized that pretty much everything in the Universe, from galaxies to atoms to cells, could be seen as a system, a relationship between inputs and outputs—causes and effects—that can be described by some mathematical function. Science seems to suggest that any event, be it a collision of stars or a firing of neurons, involves an exchange of matter and energy within or between systems. And throughout my philosophy, I apply this sort of systems thinking in many different physical contexts, from biology to cosmology. But in this post, I will focus on the not-so-physical system of the sentient mind.

Without going into the mind-body problem, which I discuss in a later post, I will continue with the vague assumption that mental features somehow manifest from physical systems like the brain. And when addressing such features, I will assume the widely held stance of predicate dualism. The main idea is that, when discussing the mental properties of a physical system, the language we use to describe the physical categories of matter and energy are no longer sufficient. Words like “gravity” and “electrons” cannot capture the qualities of subjective experience, such as color, joy, or hunger. While we can describe the components of the brain, a physical system, with physical terms like matter (neurons, myelin, etc.) and energy (electrochemical potentials, metabolic heat, etc.), we must describe the components and processes of the mind, a mental system, with concepts like perception, emotion, cognition, etc. Thus, the stance of predicate dualism is most sensible and practical for the psychological nature of this discussion. I will use words like “ideas” and “feelings” without explaining the physical mechanisms by which photons from this screen result in words and ideas and feelings in your head.

“Trying to understand perception by understanding neurons is like trying to understand a bird’s flight by understanding only feathers.” – Davic Marr, a computational neuroscientist

²I define “[human] mind” as a system of conscious and unconscious mental processes that we associate with the human nervous system, especially its brain. First, I will address the distinction between “conscious” and “unconscious”—the subject of much debate. Scientific evidence seems to suggest that “conscious” systems evolve from the “unconscious” systems that preceded them, and the boundary between the two is rather ambiguous; they are not two sides of a sharp line, but two extremes of a spectrum that might include everything from humans to birds to single-celled organisms—and perhaps to atoms, as in the case of Guilio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of consciousness. Subjective awareness seems to arise from the networks of your nervous system, especially your brain, but so far we cannot prove or disprove that there is a primal mental component in a neuron’s firing or the biochemical reactions on which it depends. Thus, it may be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to define precisely when “unconscious” entities become “conscious.” But if this delineation is so unclear, then what’s to keep us from saying that nothing is conscious (i.e. eliminative materialism), or that everything is conscious (i.e. panpsychism)?

“Even if I happen to be a brain in a vat at this moment—and all my memories are false, and all my perceptions are of a world that does not exist—the fact that I am having an experience is indisputable (to me, at least). This is all that is required for me (or any other sentient being) to fully establish the reality of consciousness. Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion.” – Waking Up by Sam Harris

Most theories of consciousness are susceptible to the problem of solipsism, an obstacle well-described by science journalist John Horgan: “As far as I know, I am the only conscious entity in the cosmos. I confidently infer that things like me—such as other humans—are also conscious, but my confidence wanes when I consider things less like me, such as compact discs and dark energy.” Because of the subjective nature of awareness, theories of consciousness remain unverifiable. Hence, Scott Aaronson, a theoretical computer scientist at MIT, argues that the only test for such a theory is “whether it can produce results agreeing with common sense—for example, whether it can affirm that humans are conscious, that dogs are also conscious but less so, and that rocks are not conscious. The reason it’s so important that the theory uphold common sense on these test cases is that, given the experimental inaccessibility of consciousness, this is the only test available to us.” In other words, any working theory of consciousness should make predictions that agree with what we hold to be “intuitively conscious.”

So, I will continue with an assumption that seems intuitive enough. The human mind—with its high degree of awareness and advanced theory of mind, its intellectual and emotional sophistication, and its ability to communicate through complex language systems—is the most conscious entity on our planet. That is, supposing all earthly entities were placed on a spectrum from unconscious to minimally conscious to fully conscious, then the human mind lies at the highest end for every plausible variation of this spectrum. And, at least in our region of the Universe, such forms of “higher” consciousness involve mental processes arising from the complex neural networks that evolve in living beings. As far as we can tell, consciousness seems to emerge from the neural activity of biological organisms, and perhaps from the artificial networks of technological systems.

Therefore, how I use the words “conscious” or “unconscious” depends on the context. In the case of the human mind, I use the word “conscious” to mean subjectively aware. The brain’s unconscious mental processes are not non-conscious per se, but rather less conscious or subconscious. While these processes are not consciously experienced by your subjective awareness, they may indirectly influence the qualities of your conscious experience (see priming, for example), and they may have a degree of awareness in and of themselves.

My discussion will build upon the two-system model of the mind as detailed in the best-selling book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (2011), by Nobel Prize in Economics laureate Daniel Kahneman.

Examples of System 1 & System 2. Mclntyre, Peter. “52 Concepts To Add To Your Cognitive Toolkit.” Peter Mclntyre. N.p., 30 Dec. 2015. Web. 23 Sept. 2016.

“Recent advances in experimental psychology and neuroimaging have allowed us to study the boundary between conscious and unconscious mental processes with increasing precision. We now know that at least two systems in the brain—often referred to as “dual processes”—govern human cognition, emotion, and behavior. One is evolutionarily older, unconscious, and automatic; the other evolved more recently and is both conscious and deliberative. When you find another person annoying, sexually attractive, or inadvertently funny, you are experiencing the percolations of System 1. The heroic efforts you make to conceal these feelings out of politeness are the work of System 2.” – Sam Harris, Waking Up

³I define “human nature” as the general patterns of perception (p), cognition (c), emotion (e), intuition (i), motivation (m), and behavior (b) that characterize the system of the human mind (“human mind” refers to the neurotypical mind unless otherwise specified).

  1. Perception describes the unconscious and conscious manner in which inputs are received and experienced by the system of the mind. Inputs can be internal (perceived mental states) or external (perceived sensory stimuli) to the mind. External inputs can be further classified as internal (visceral) or external (environmental) to the body.
  2. Cognition describes the conscious and unconscious manner in which information conclusions by logical reasoning and 
  3. Emotion describes
  4. Intuition decribes
  5. Motivation describes
  6. Behavior describes the outputs

Human nature encompasses both the components (p, c, e, i, m) and outputs (b) that describe the system of the human mind.

There are certainly other components besides the five I named above, and there are many ways of mapping out the mental phenomena of the brain. For example, one could argue that inhibition* is also a component of human nature. Or, depending on how these terms are defined, one could say that “desire” is both an emotion and a motivation, or that “intuition” (effortless, automatic mental processing) is both a part of cognition (1+1=2) and of emotion (sadness feels bad). No matter how you wish to define the compartments of the mind, they are likely to overlap because of their interconnected nature. Nonetheless, any framework for understanding the mind should conform to both our intuition (what seems true) and our evidence (what is true). And both suggest that at least these five components are fundamental to the mind as a functional whole.

*I use the word “inhibition” to describe the suppressive effect of one neural network—one set of p, c, e, i, and m—on another network, especially when the active cognition (System 2) of the former checks the automatic impulses (System 1) of the latter.


Again, I define “human nature” as encompassing the components (p, c, e, i, m) and outputs (b) that describe the system of the human mind. These components and outputs involve both unconscious and conscious mental processes, though some components tend to be unconscious and automatic (e.g. intuition), and others tend to be conscious and deliberative (e.g. cognition). Regarding my use of “intuition” and “cognition,” intuition (i) is involved in the automatic perceiving (p), feeling (e), wanting (m), remembering (c) and reasoning (c) of System 1. If this unconscious remembering and reasoning (e.g. the sky is blue, 1+1=2) can be called “cognition,” then intuition and cognition seem to overlap. However, because intuition is more generally associated with the automatic emotions and motivations of System 1, I generally use “intuition” to mean the unconscious, instinctive mental processes associated with System 1 and its affective tendencies (e, m). Likewise, I usually reserve my use of “cognition” for the volitional and conscious reasoning associated with System 2 and its intellectual tendencies. When necessary, I will distinguish automatic cognition with c’ and active cognition with c”, as shown in the diagram above.

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Dallas. Photo by Laura Buckman.

Premise: Human nature is a given. If it’s not something we can change, then it’s something we must use—and this is how we should use it.¹ The axioms in this argument are assumed based on both their logical plausibility and their practical utility for the survival and flourishing of our species.

Unfortunately, we all have distorted perceptions of reality, and some more than others. The human mind (namely System 1) is patterned to think in ways that produce inaccurate judgments and irrational behavior. In the last six decades, nearly 200 cognitive biases have been identified from research on human judgment and decision-making. And among these cognitive errors is a major theme: for the mass majority, meaning defines reasoning—not the other way around.²

¹Changing the outputs of any system requires the manipulation of either its inputs and/or its components and their relationships. For the system of the human mind, I will assume that its parts and their processes (i.e. the general patterns of p, c, e, i, and m) are rather fixed. While the conscious patterns of perception, cognition, and emotion can be altered to a degree (e.g. by meditation, self-control, psychotherapy, or drugs), there are certain unconscious patterns of intuition and motivation that are fundamental to the nature of the mind, and these are unalterable givens. Of particular 


Throughout my philosophy, I will describe these intuitions and motivations, and explain how certain inputs—in this case, a set of ideas—that appeal to these instinctual aspects of human nature might achieve the desired output—a set of behavioral changes that permit “the survival and flourishing of our species.”

²This is my attempt to explain the nature of human belief in a way that is generally agreed upon: the human mind is drawn to two forms of reality—concepts that we consider to be “true.” The first is teleological truth, assumptions about reality that we draw from meaning and intuition (System 1); and the second is logical truth, conclusions about reality that we draw from evidence and cognition (System 2). What we believe to be correct is determined both by what we feel to be correct and by what we reason to be correct. This dichotomy reflects the apparent divide between the affective (i, e, m) and cognitive (c”) networks of the human mind: feeling vs. thinking, empathy vs. sociopathy, religion vs. science. The former drives our search for significance, and the latter our search for certainty; the reconciliation of this divide guides the conception and evolution of every worldview, be it a political ideology, a minister’s theology, or this philosophy. But more often than not, how we feel changes the way we think. For the most part, the meaning formed by System 1 affects the conscious reasoning of System 2.

*Teleological: exhibiting or relating to design or purpose especially in nature. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

 Image source: Courtesy of Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari Hietanen.

Despite differences in culture and language, research indicates that both the neural encoding and physical experience of our emotions are remarkably consistent across different populations. Shown above, feelings increase (yellow) or decrease (blue) sensation in different areas of the body.

Nonetheless, neurotypical human personalities exhibit a wide range in the extent to which these emotions are generated, processed and expressed.¹ On the low end of the emotional spectrum are individuals with antisocial traits (about 1-4% of the human population). Those with this predisposition have a higher threshold for autonomic arousal, and diminished feelings of fear, anxiety, guilt, and compassion. They are often described as “cold” and “calculated,” but many are nonviolent and high-functioning in society as efficient, rational decision-makers. However, they are more likely to engage in criminal behavior if exposed to violence, isolation, or other disturbances during their childhood. And in general, those with low emotional empathy are more prone to actions that are considered selfish or corrupt.

“Sometimes the truth is not just that it hurts, but that it’s just so disappointing. You want to believe in romance and have romance in your life—even the most hardcore, cold intellectual wants the romantic notion. It kind of makes life worth living. But with these kinds of things, you really start thinking about what a machine it means we are—what it means that some of us don’t need those feelings, while some of us need them so much. It destroys the romantic fabric of society in a way.” – James Fallon, a neuroscientist and self-identified psychopath.

At the high end of the emotional spectrum are individuals with sensory-processing sensitivity (about 15-20% of the human population). Highly sensitive persons (HSPs) have a lower threshold for both physical and emotional arousal. They tend to experience their feelings more strongly and are more easily overwhelmed by social stimuli. Thus, HSPs are often described as “quiet” or “awkward,” but many successfully adjust to and tolerate their environments. They tend to be intuitive thinkers with a higher capacity for emotional empathy. However, HSPs have a higher propensity for developing mood and anxiety disorders if exposed to significant stress. And when over-aroused, they are more prone to behaviors that are considered neurotic or irrational.

¹Please note that my descriptions regarding antisocial personalities (psychopathy, sociopathy, etc.) and highly sensitive personalities are generalizations that characterize the extremes of a spectrum. Recognizing the full spectrum of emotional arousal and processing, and knowing where you fall on this spectrum, is important not only for understanding yourself and your social interactions, but also for knowing how certain cultural and psychosocial factors might affect the various members of your community. And because this philosophy attempts to target both of these extremes, where you fall on this spectrum (i.e. the extent to which emotion and intuition influence your cognition) may affect your response to different parts of this discussion.

Parade of the SS Guard, the Nazi elite, at a Party rally in Nurmberg in the late 1930s.

“Human beings have a demonstrated talent for self-deception when their emotions are stirred.” – Carl Sagan

Emotion (e) is how the mind assigns meaning and value to every conscious experience. Emotion drives our most pronounced behaviors and sustains our most powerful beliefs. Emotion alters our perception (p) of reality and the scope of our morality. Human nature suggests that human harmony (b) must involve a shared emotional state (e). In this case, a global unity would require a love that eliminates hate, a pride and happiness that includes everyone on Earth. But these states of affect are, in nearly every circumstance, bound to a sense of purpose (m). And the greater the purpose, the more compelling the emotion (e), and the more powerful the unity (b). This principle of human nature is perhaps best demonstrated by the religious mind and its craving for relevance.


“The deepest principle in human nature
is the craving to be appreciated.”
– William James    


“[Regarding religion], one is generally agreed that it deals with goals and evaluations and with the emotional foundation of human thinking and acting.” – Albert Einstein

While reflecting on my religious upbringing, I realized that the mind is a system that can be reset by ideas, especially by ideas that align our emotions (e) towards a shared purpose (m)—axiom 1.¹ Whether it be the love (e) of Jesus Christ or the pride (e) of Nazi Germany, we want to be part of something relevant (m). We want to belong, and we define ourselves by the groups we belong to. As one former neo-Nazi realized, people become extremist “because they’re searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose.” (Christian Picciolini, NPR)

¹As I mentioned above, achieving human cooperation is best accomplished with certain inputs—ideas that appeal to the unconscious, fixed aspects of our nature: the fundamental intuitions and motivations of the human mind. While we have a diversity of intuitions and motivations (for example, a feeling of being in danger, or a craving for chocolate), I will focus on one particular overlap between our intuitions and motivations, which I call our “intuitive motivation” or “shared purpose,” as it appears to draw both the affective and cognitive networks of the mind. I have already revealed an aspect of this motivation in the stated objective of my philosophy: the survival and flourishing of the human species. Most will agree that this is a worthy aim, if not the worthiest aim. And with this philosophy, I will reveal exactly why the mind holds this goal to be intuitively “good,” and how such an understanding of this goal might lead to its attainment.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [are endowed] with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” –Thomas Jefferson, the U.S. Declaration of Independence

When I describe the mind as “a system that can be reset,” I refer to my analogy of the mind as a computer’s operating system. This philosophy is not about rewriting its code, but about understanding its code—its intrinsic functions—and seeing how certain inputs (i.e. ideas and insights) might reorient its perception, cognition, emotion, and ultimately its behavior. With this philosophy, I will attempt to show how mental states like compassion and forgiveness (the willingness to forgo hate or anger towards a perceived injustice) can be inspired through certain concepts that appeal to the deepest intuitions of the human mind. As I’ve observed in my religious past, some ideas can “align our emotions towards a shared purpose.” But unlike the world’s religious beliefs, these concepts may prove to be entirely logical and experimentally verifiable.

“Presently, our world is largely run by politicians, financiers, and other figures, many of whom exhibit traits of narcissism and sociopathy” (Scientists & Sociopaths). But even the masked sociopath has a desire to belong. Like everyone else, he wants to exist, and he certainly doesn’t want to exist alone. Though his love may be limited, he is still prone to care for his closest companions. The vast majority of individuals have, in some degree, a mutual respect for our shared existence. For the less empathetic, this circle of loyalty is small, and it narrows even more with power or wealth. But if this circle can’t be widened through compassion, then perhaps it can be widened through reason.


“[Our] history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and family; next, to bands of hunter-gatherers; then to tribes, settlements, and nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. But if we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth.” – Carl Sagan

In this day an age, an idea that unifies our world must reconcile the rational and emotional aspects of our nature in a way that resonates with every perspective. This idea must be both objectively reasonable and universally meaningful—both logically sound and intuitively profound. It must be bigger than any political platform, economic incentive, or religious belief. It must define a purpose towards which all emotions can be aligned, inspiring a moral cooperation that is unparalleled in human history. This idea should satisfy, once and for all, our longing for “identity, community, and a sense of purpose.”


Our morality is limited by the extent of our emotion, and our unity by the scope of our purpose. If there is any optimism for mankind, any chance of unifying our species, then it remains in the possibility that our existence is, in fact, bound with a greater purpose. If we are to survive, then we must find an aim that is above ourselves and beyond our lifespans. Because human nature, as hopeless as it seems, is our only hope.

“If we long for our planet to be important, there is something we can do about it. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.” – Carl Sagan

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