Hektoen International

Meaning and the cognitive default

Volume 3, Issue 1 - January 2011

Basil Brooke, PhD
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

Being human invariably involves a strong tendency to search for meaning in life. This search takes many forms; it can be a quest for psychological immortality/conscious afterlife, an intelligent, supernatural design of oneself, a symbolic meaning to life and natural events, a causal link between mortal behavior and the quality of one’s afterlife, the possibility of interaction between the living and the dead, or a life purpose.1,2 Belief in reincarnation thus becomes a causal link between the manifestations of successive lives.

When viewed as purely psychological phenomena, this list forms the basis for existential psychology, which is rooted in Darwinian natural selection. Existential psychology describes how idealistic and metaphysical beliefs evolved within the unique circumstances of the human social environment. According to this theory, the evolving neurological system has dedicated itself to the production of illusory beliefs that provide understanding and create meaning. The need for meaning is thus a neurologically-generated product borne out of a coincidental, mechanistic, and evolutionary process. This process provides a potential source for the philosophies that encompass science, religious belief systems, and metaphysics in general.

Understanding the essence of the mind should offer insight as to how and why the human mind searches for meaning at all. On an epistemological level, the mind operates using several distinct functional aspects which, collectively, represent the subtle realm. In this sense, the subtle realm is a bridge that allows for interaction between something immaterial (variously interpreted as an expanded consciousness, a transcendent soul or a spirit realm) and the physical body, including the brain.

In the Vedic tradition, the functional aspects of this bridge of the mind are the discursive mind (manas), the intelligent mind (buddhi), the heart mind (chitta), and the ego (ahankara). The Vedic tradition coincidentally shares features with the modern analysis of mind as brain function. For instance, brain maps show how distinct regions of the brain are associated with various mental functions, which must theoretically interact in a coordinated way to produce coherent mental activity, giving rise to mind. Similarly, the four-part Vedic mind system is based on interaction between the different subtle realm aspects that constitute the mind as a whole. The similarity between these two definitions of mind rests only in the idea of a mind composed of distinctive interacting parts.

Briefly, the discursive mind gathers and interprets information through the senses. It is the most immediate experience of mind—the busy, thinking aspect of mind that is also responsible for creativity, imagination, fantasy and dream states. The intelligent mind is concerned primarily with reason and rationality, discriminating between pieces of information. Here, reason is the process of producing one or more arguments to logically explain something observed; its rationality either accepts or rejects these arguments by testing them against a broader base of information and experience.

The heart mind, or the emotional mind, is chiefly concerned with memory and knowledge, creating the contexts and parameters within which the intelligent mind operates. Within the heart mind, knowledge is the ultimate union of information, reason, and discrimination or, more philosophically, the unification of the knower, the knowing, and the known. The ego mind, lastly, uses personal knowledge to form an individual’s perception of a unique and independent identity—a self with will.

The four-part subtle mind demonstrates how the mind is shaped from experience and helps contribute to an understanding of the search for meaning, but it explains neither the origin of consciousness, nor the nature of the intelligent mind, nor the process of the heart mind. However, this understanding of the subtle mind provides two distinct approaches to the search for meaning. First, life has meaning when it “makes sense,” in other words, when the bases for meaning are derived in epistemological and empirical knowledge. Second, life has meaning when it “feels right,” when meaning is found through idealistic and metaphysical systems.

A rational and scientific search for meaning requires an understanding of natural selection within a psychological framework. Fisher’s theorem illustrates how natural selection promotes an increase in the proportion of individuals carrying a specific characteristic while, contrary to popular notions, the overall fitness of these individuals does not change over time.3 To illustrate this process, consider a population of predators that has evolved an enhanced ability to successfully hunt their preferred prey. The enhanced survival advantage accruing from an increased amount of resources available to the predator population would inevitably lead to a larger predator population size, which, in turn, would place a strain on the amount of prey available to individual predators. Thus, the average fitness of the predator population would initially increase with time and then decrease as the predators’ environment becomes degraded due to the depletion of resources. The overall change in fitness resulting from enhanced hunting ability over time is then theoretically zero, although the frequency of those genes leading to enhanced hunting ability would have increased within the predator gene pool.

Contrary to popular conceptions, the overall mean fitness of an extant population or species does not continually increase under selection pressure. The phrase “survival of the fittest” does not indicate that some species are more evolved than others. Conversely, Fisher stated that “intense selective activity is shown to be compatible with an entire absence of change in the survival value (fitness) of [a] population.”4 Therefore, super characteristics, and consequently, super-beings and super-species, are unlikely to evolve. Instead, the characteristics of any given species at any given point in time are, at best, adequate for survival and reproduction, but are not perfect for all environments. Thus, a bird’s wing is well adapted for flight, but inadequate for terrestrial or marine locomotion. An ability to perceive only a limited segment of the electromagnetic spectrum means that human sight is adequate for the performance of tasks during daytime but inadequate during the darkness of night.

We can then start by saying that the quality of perception within the human mind is currently adequate for survival and reproduction, but is not perfect for all environments. This means that we cannot rationally think our way through all problems presented to us. Thus reason invents mechanisms to explain what rationality cannot, such as the belief in metaphysical entities as reasonable explanations for otherwise inexplicable phenomena. The belief in metaphysics can also lead to social systems in which the reputation of individuals, and thereby their reproductive potential, depends on their adherence to the metaphysical/religious norms of their group. So, it can be said that selection acts on a cultural level, favoring those whose genotypes generate neural architecture best suited to the embedding and enhancement of metaphysical illusions. By this mechanism a self-deceptive mind is an adaptation with reproductive fitness, implying that although human cultures and ideas change over time, these changes are unlikely to offer improvements in the perception of reality.

This entire system raises a fundamental question: How can an innately deceptive mind know that it is innately deceptive? Surely it must have an alternative mechanism of truth discrimination in order to extract reality from illusion. In a sense, it does have such a system via the empirical route of science. The mind can use rationality to test hypotheses by gathering data, but it must trust its own ability to make coherent decisions about that data, as well as to generate new hypotheses. The trust invested is based on an all-important principle: replicability. For the most part, the empirical system works. To cite a popular example, an aerodynamic engineer trusts that a moving aircraft will stay aloft because of the differential in air pressure between the lower and upper surfaces of the wings. The hypothesis is backed by substantial evidence. Repeat experiments and experience make it true.

Science, with the mind as its subject, becomes trickier. When the conscious mind is viewed as a selectable biological character, it is found to be self-deceptive, self-discriminating, and also self-reliant on its ability to recognize truth about itself. But because each experience of self is unique, the empirical route of replicability can make no predictions about a future sense of self or about an alternative sense of self. Thus, when a “truth” as discriminated by the intelligent mind becomes embedded in the heart mind, then the second statement of meaning, which says the world has meaning when it feels right, comes into play.

For example, as one gazes at the sky, the earth does indeed appear to be the centre of the cosmos, with all other heavenly bodies revolving around it. If this view were also culturally and religiously held, giving one no need to discriminate further, then an earth-centered cosmos would become embedded as a truth in the heart mind, feeling right and therefore making sense. However, if new information were to enter the heart mind, breaking the reasoning for an earth-centered cosmos, then it would be rational to give the cosmos a new structure, perhaps sun-centered, which would make sense and therefore feel right. (It might also mean challenging one’s cultural and religious norms, which could lead to a dramatic loss in fitness).

The coincidental process of evolution feels right to the evolutionist and the deliberate god-creator feels right to the religious. Both cite repeat experience to infer this judgment—one on logical deduction about physical evidence (it makes sense and therefore feels right), the other on feeling about the same evidence (it feels right and therefore makes sense). Similarly, the mind process that compels the idealist to know disembodied consciousness is the same process that compels the mechanist to know that there is none. These processes make up the cognitive default—by far the most compelling and enigmatic resource a human being has. The cognitive default gives life meaning. It also implies that the mind ultimately has no real truth discriminator with which to reflect on itself; the mind, at best, forms its “truth” through a cognitive perception based on observable information.

The philosophical view of mind starts with what is observable—what is there. By logical deduction, it leads to certain necessary outcomes. For example, the immediate epistemological answer to the question, “Is it possible to consciously generate an original thought?” is no. For originality, one is compelled to allow creative thoughts to arise from somewhere. In philosophical terms this “somewhere” is the subtle realm. In neurological terms it could be unconscious neurological processing. There is no definitive answer as yet, especially in view of the experiments of B. Libet5 and colleagues. Centered on the question of whether consciousness causes behavior, their data shows evidence that behavior precedes conscious awareness of it. Assuming that behavior is initiated by neurological processes in the brain, this data may suggest that consciousness operates separately from those processes that initiate behavior and enable one to think.

Experientially, one can conceive that at least some aspect of consciousness is not only the act of thinking or the anatomy of the neural network, but also the awareness of thinking. From here extends a seemingly infinite regression of being conscious. In this way consciousness is best described as a feeling—the feeling of awareness—a kind of field in which the mind operates. This understanding of consciousness calls to question the idea that consciousness can be ultimately understood in genetic, anatomical, and physiological terms alone.

For instance, in order to be genetically controlled, consciousness must be the product of genes that encode brain function and brain architecture, implying that consciousness is the feeling of the brains’ electrochemistry in action. This would mean that networked electrical currents and ion-driven biochemical movements are conscious; and yet the most compelling characteristic of computers, the internet, bacteria, and mosquitoes is that they possess neither conscious self-awareness nor conscious understanding of information. Their circuitry is one of pure input followed by pre-programmed output—in other words, pure processing of information, with no qualitative understanding of the content of that information. Yet these forms of consciousness are additional faculties that the human mind evidently has (notwithstanding the quality of consciousness in various other species). Information processing is fundamentally different from the qualitative understanding of that information and from the awareness of self.6

When the mind is viewed as a field, understanding the source of consciousness also becomes problematic. This is because human beings think using symbols, most notably the symbols of language, including mathematics. Through these symbols, physical reality is presented in two fundamental ways: as finite, three dimensional shapes (letters, numbers, hieroglyphs, iconography, physical structures, atoms, anatomy etc), or as infinite fields (gravity, electromagnetism, nuclear forces, quantum probabilities). It is within a “field” that individuals are able to externally observe, qualify, and describe consciousness.

The difference between the anatomy of consciousness and a field of consciousness creates a framework for understanding dynamic consciousness and dynamic unconsciousness. Dynamic unconsciousness is a process that occurs at the physical level, through neurological processes, for instance. Dynamic consciousness is this physiological process plus awareness of the process, which occurs in this undefined field of the mind. This means that the human mind is somehow aware that it can use what it cannot fully understand, such as mathematical abstractions like infinity.

There appears to be nothing within the current human lexicon of thought and concept that adequately accounts for the presence of mind, or consciousness. Genetics, neurophysiology, and chemistry are actors on the consciousness stage, but cannot, by themselves or in combination, fully describe what consciousness is or how it manifests itself. Understanding the entirety of consciousness requires a new mode of acquiring knowledge, for instance, through the exploration of a natural, non-physical field—if only to offer a better approximation within the minds’ symbolism.

Understanding consciousness is important because it is the fundamental source of meaning. Without this understanding, one simply searches for meaning through activities that make one feel good about oneself, whether that be science or metaphysics or simply the search for success in life. The search for meaning without an understanding of consciousness is not without merit; on the surface it is more practical—largely because it observes life in the here and now. It might involve cultivating fulfilling relationships with family, friends and colleagues, pursuing a particular vocation, or choosing entertainment. On a broader scale, this search for meaning is about defining what kinds of interrelationships are likely to produce harmonious and just human societies.

Yet, despite the practicality of devoting oneself to a successful life and a harmonious society, the human mind ultimately seems drawn to understanding the source of its inner workings, its consciousness. There seems to be an innate agency that leads the mind to search for the source of meaning. This is the cognitive default; it is the link to that elusive consciousness that sits at the very core of our minds and, so far, eludes our abilities to describe it adequately. Consciousness is one of the most important frontiers in the human endeavor to understand fundamental processes. Understanding it may slot the pieces of the metaphysical puzzle into a more coherent picture and help us better define the context of our lives.


1. Bering, J.M. (2006). The folk psychology of souls. The Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 29, 453-462.
2. Shaw, J.A. (2005). A pathway to spirituality. Psychiatry, 68, 350-362.
3. Frank, S.A. (1995). George Price’s contributions to evolutionary genetics. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 175, 373-388.
4. Fisher, R.A. (1941). Average excess and average effect of a gene substitution. Annals of Eugenics, 11, 53-63.
5. Libet, B. 2006. Reflections on the interaction of the mind and the brain. Progress in Neurobiology, 78, 322-326.
6. Searle, J. (1984). Minds, brains & science. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.


BASIL BROOKE, PhD is a geneticist and medical entomologist specializing in insect-borne diseases, especially malaria. He has a keen interest in prehistory, ancient and medieval history and is especially interested in the interaction between religion, culture and philosophy. He can be contacted at basilb@nicd.ac.za