Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Faculty Psychology: The Triple Soul

Theory of Mind 101: the triple soul

The ancient Greeks believed that humans had three souls, a rational soul, a sensitive soul, and a vegetative soul. Freud believed in Superego, Ego, and Id, also a trinity. We’ve got the Christian Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And, as I point out in an excerpt (below) from “Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics”, other peoples have had similar triple conceptions of the mind.

Most recently Paul MacLean has given us a theory of the triune brain, in which a complex of neuro-functional structures of reptilian grade is embedded within one of paleomammalian grade which is in turn embedded within one of neomammalian grade [1]. MacLean’s account is about neurobiology while the others rest on somewhat different foundations. If MacLean is more or less correct – and this is by no means obvious, though I’m sympathetic to the idea – then one must ask: Are these other conceptions of mind rationalizations of the underlying neurobiology?

I don’t know.

A cognitive model of faculty psychology

It’s an issue I had to think about when, years ago, I developed a cognitive model for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. One of the things I had to do was develop a cognitive model of the Elizabethan account of the mind, which is derived from the ancient Greek version. Here’s that discussion, on pages 966 – 969 of “Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics” [2]. It’ll be a bit obscure without the prior discussion, including some diagrams, but you should be able to get a feel for the argument. The complete discussion is online at [2].

* * * * *

The notion that man consists of three souls (or a single soul which is tripartite) and a body is deeply embedded in our own intellectual tradition. In Primitive Man the Philosopher (New York: Dover, 1957), Paul Radin has shown that the Oglala Sioux, the Masai, and the Batak of Sumatra also believe that man consists of three souls and a body (pp. 257-74). He goes on to suggest that such a belief may well be a cultural universal. It may or it may not be, but the fact that similar theories appear on four continents (North America, Europe, Africa, Asia) suggests that the task those theories perform, an account of human nature, is highly constrained.

I am presently entertaining the hypothesis that such a theory is an attempt by the cognitive network to explain the relationship between the SELF node and the rest of the nervous system. If one believes (and that is all it is, a matter of what one believes) the soul to be tripartite, then the SELF has two components, a body and a soul which is tripartite, with rational, sensitive, and vegetative sub- divisions. If one prefers to believe that one has three souls, then the SELF has three soul components and one body component, four components in sum.

The peripheral nervous system has two divisions, the somatic and the autonomic. The somatic system mediates voluntary control of the skeletal muscles and the activities of vision, hearing, touch, etc. The autonomic system regulates breathing, heart beat, digestion, the control of temperature, etc. Any episode which represents a transaction between the cognitive network and a sensorimotor schema whose intensities (first order input functions) are of soma- tic (perhaps just somatic motor) origin is cognized as being done by the body. The vegetative soul is cognized as the agent responsible for transactions between the network and sensorimotor schemas whose intensities are of autonomic origin. Episodes (which, you will recall, are conscious) in which one runs, jumps, spears hunks of meat, etc. are executed by the body. Episodes in which one feels hunger, lust, cold, thirst, etc. are cognized as being felt by the vegetative soul.

Responsibility for episodes of on-blocks is assigned to the sensitive soul. An on-block in which the condition is autonomic and the act to be executed is somatic (such as Figure 4) is a motivational on-block. Lust is the motivation behind seeking out another person, hunger is the motivation behind seeking out food. If the condition is somatic and the act is autonomic and perhaps somatic as well, then the on-block is emotive. One sees a bear (autonomic) and adrenaline is pumped into the bloodstream (autonomic) and one runs away (somatic).

commonsense think
Figure 5: Commonsense “Think”

Episodes of (commonsense) thinking are attributed to the rational soul. Since the actual process of thinking (the commonsense notion) is carried out by the abstraction system (Figure 5, reproduced above), the rational soul is simply a first order copy of the second order network's regulation of the interaction between the semantic and the syntactic networks.

The entire activity of the network is thinking, where "thought" is a technical term in a theory about the functioning of the brain. Since the souls are defined over the channel structure of cognitive episodes (autonomic, somatic, semantic, and syntactic are the channels), it follows that any cognitive use of these concepts is thinking about thought (technical sense). In The Growth of Logical Thinking (Basic Books, 1958) Bärbel Inhelder and Jean Piaget assert that the child isn't able to think about thinking until adolescence. Consequently the child can't really acquire the structures of those souls until adolescence. In fact, since all abstract concepts involve thinking about thought (pattern matching over episodes), it follows that abstractions aren't really learned until adolescence.

It turns out that the system is capable of constructing accounts of abstract concepts which can be represented entirely within the first order network. Courage, an abstract concept, might be handled like this: Courage is when someone does something which is dangerous to himself and which is important when he could easily avoid doing it at all. The child could learn such a rationalization without the aid of a fully developed abstraction system, but his understanding of the concept would be rather shallow and inflexible. Since the nodes in the abstraction system cannot be provided with names, it follows that we can only communicate directly about rationalizations. The processing of a rationalization into a real abstract definition, involving the operation of the abstraction system on episodes, is internalization, just as the processing of episodes into systemic concepts is (see above). The intuitive part of any intellectual enterprise is likely to reflect the operation of the abstraction system in using its abstract schemas. The difficult work of giving verbal form to those intuitions by constructing first order accounts of the abstract concepts is rationalization. Faculty psychology is a rationalization of the activity of the nervous system.

In the Elizabethan rationalization of the nervous system spirit was introduced as a tertium quid between the material body and the immaterial soul(s). The rational soul exerted control over the body through the intellectual spirit or spirits; the sensitive soul worked through the animal spirit; and the vegetative soul worked through the vital spirit. Madness could be rationalized as the loss of intellectual spirit which causes a situation in which the rational soul can no longer control the body. The body is consequently under control by man's lower nature, the sensitive and vegetative souls. Such a rationalization is perfectly respectable and, in its own limited way, not inaccurate. But it hardly constitutes a scientific theory of madness. A scientific theory of madness would have to be constructed in terms of conflict and contradiction within the control system; it might well be that, within such a theory, the SELF system (three souls, body and SELF node) is responsible for much of the conflict.

Getting back to the Elizabethan rationalization, the loss of control by the intellectual soul cripples the Will, one of the faculties lodged in the rational soul. A complex concept node can he aroused when a lexeme which names it has been detected in a speech signal or when the abstract schema which defines it has been aroused by some episode which is an instance of the concept. When excitation travels from the SELF node, along a component (CMP) arc to one of the souls or to the body and hence to an episode which the system proceeds to execute, that episode has been willed by the SELF. When excitation travels in the opposite direction, from episode to the body node or to one of the soul nodes and then up a CMP arc to the SELF node, the SELF is being done unto, it is not willing the episode currently in consciousness. An episode of hunger appears, the abstraction systems arouses the vegetative soul node and excitation travels from there to the SELF node, SELF is hungry, SELF is subject to hunger-for the SELF has not willed the excitation of the hunger episode. On hunger, one must find food. Excitation travels from the SELF node to the sensitive soul node and the body node and hence to an episode structure which contains a plan in which the sensitive soul controls the body in a search for food. That search is willed, for the excitation which resulted in the execution of a search episode started with the SELF node.

Notice that think, the process carried out by the rational soul, is defined in such a way that any thought (commonsense) about hunger or searching for food is registered as an episode in the rational soul. That is as it should be; for we can see, with the aid of cognitive network theory, that the souls of faculty psychology are all abstract concepts constructed in the cognitive network by the abstraction system. The concepts of the body, the vegetative soul, the sensitive soul, and the rational soul are all constructed of the same stuff-nodes and arcs realized in neural tissue. The system which operates in terms of those concepts sees them as very different things, for they have different definitions. But that system of thought was not sophisticated enough to construct rationalizations asserting that all the faculties are abstract concepts in a cognitive network. Cognitive network theory makes it possible to construct accounts of the souls in such a way that we can begin to examine the way in which the system's rationalized account of the interaction between the SELF node and the rest of the nervous system affects and effects the integrated activity of that entire nervous system.


[1] I’ve discussed this briefly in a post, Vehicularization: A Control Principle in a Complex Modal Animal (w/ new note on King Kong), New Savanna, accessed Nov. 8, 2017, URL:

[2] William Benzon, Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics, MLN 91: 1976, 952-982. URL:

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