A correspondent has asked me what triggered my original interest in how the mind and brain works. I thought back to 1986, when I first read Robert Ornstein’s Multimind.  Ornstein, a professor of human biology at Stanford, and at that time President of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge, seemed well qualified to tell me.

I rely largely on memory when I recall his theme. He set out to explain why it was that we were often inconsistent in our judgments. The answer he suggested is that we hold in our brain a number of different minds. Faced by a situation calling for our judgment we wheel out what seems to be the most appropriate mind, and that leads to our conclusion. There is some degree of insulation between our different minds, which can lead us to form different and inconsistent conclusions – without observing that we are doing so.

The concept of multimind is metaphorical. An example or two will help us to understand how it works.

Imagine that you are in a queue waiting to use a photocopying machine. At that point, you are feeling impatient and perhaps put out that only one machine is available. However, just as you reach the head of the queue someone appears out of the blue and says: “I need to take a copy quickly because it’s Thursday.” And you find yourself standing aside. This happens because we react to the word “because”; it signals to us that there is a reason for us accepting the request. In fact the actual reason “because it’s Thursday” tells us nothing. But we scarcely listen to that: “because” is enough to trigger one of our minds – in this case the “I am a helpful person mind.”

You need an electrical job to be done in your house. You expect it to cost around £500. So you go for quotes. The first quote you receive is for £2000. You are really shocked. The next quote comes in at £1750. Then a third quote comes in at £1000. Not only do you grab it, you feel that it’s really quite cheap. Why have you forgotten that this quote is twice your original estimate? Because of course your comparison mind is with the expensive quote, and no longer with your original estimate.

A dramatic example occurs when someone who would go to enormous lengths to save the life of a week old baby, would happily grant its mother the right to have it dismembered and evacuated only a week before birth. Challenged, that person, quite sincerely, might see no inconsistency

Following King David’s seduction of Bathsheba, Nathan asked him how a man should be punished if he had stolen a poor man’s only ewe lamb.  David said: “the man who hath done this deserves to die.”  Nathan replied: “You are the man.”  And David saw the truth and said: “I have sinned against the Lord.”

But perhaps the most common and certainly not least important is the contrast between how we judge others and how we judge ourselves. The example of David is significant here: Nathan has to present him with a new frame of reference which obliges David to judge in objective rather than subjective terms.

Here is an example – trivial but true. I live in a quiet road and on a summer’s afternoon I deplore loud noises made by neighbours, especially if they are protracted. Yet somehow this does not apply to me when I mow the lawn. Were I challenged I would claim that it was a comforting noise of an English summer. As it happens, sensitivity to the noise of others and insensitivity to our own noise is, the psychologists tell us, particularly contrasted.

There is a collective version of this. It is only too easy to condemn atrocities  emanating from the Muslim religion, while not noticing  similar or greater atrocities in the history of Christendom.

Have we always maintained the high sexual standards we expect of others? Are we as scrupulous in truth-telling as we expect of others? That list could be a long one. Where does it end? For us, perhaps, with “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Do we?


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Moral judgment, Philosophy, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to Multimind

  1. claret says:

    Professor Ornstein has ‘discovered’ that humans are a mass of contradictions. Is this really science ? Jesus himself is recorded as saying contradictory statements when faced with some situations.

    • tim says:

      Claret, I may wish to argue that Our Lord’s statements were only apparently contradictory. Would you like to give an example of statements you had in mind?

  2. mike Horsnall says:

    “..Have we always maintained the high sexual standards we expect of others? Are we as scrupulous in truth-telling as we expect of others?…”

    Probably not, ….well,.. maybe …hmmm, not too sure….can’t seem to make up my minds..

  3. Chris Sands says:

    It’s incredible how noisy and unruly your own children seem at Mass whereas other people’s never seem as bad and that baby crying sounds so sweet

  4. Iona says:

    “Remember not the sins of my youth”

    On the other hand, sometimes we are more scrupulous in relation to our own behaviour than we expect other people to be.

  5. claret says:

    Please allow for the absence of chapter and verse as I am replying to your question without the detailed research as to where to find the contradicitons but a general review of some that come to mind: I paraphrase,
    ” I don’t come to bring peace to the world but a sword.” ( My peace be with you etc. in a multitude of verses.)
    Then there is the ‘unforgiveable sin.’ ( Several references to forgiveness being absolute.)
    Plus the parable of the dishonest steward ( which I accept probably made sense 2000 years ago but to todays’ listeners seems to be regarding theft as a virtue!) but yet Jesus urges his listeners to keep the commandments.
    Divorce : Condemned outright, no exceptions, in the gospels by Jesus except for ……….sexual deviancy ( not really identified as to what sexual conduct this applies to,) in one of the gospels, John i think.

    • tim says:

      Thanks, Claret, strong examples, let me think about them…

      • tim says:

        Claret, I fear I may have bitten off more than I can chew. But I will have a go at some of them at least. What I say is speculative and ill-informed , but I can hope to be corrected.

        Words don’t have absolute meanings. Context is vital. So, when Our Lord talks about ‘peace’, maybe He is thinking of a variety of situations. His ideas are clearly inflammatory in the eyes of many – his followers will have to fight for them, even if it means a breach with those they love best. But peace is to be sought wherever possible. And many references to ‘peace’ (perhaps) are to interior peace, which is offered to those who follow Him.

        The Unjust Steward is interesting. Usually the ‘master’ in such parables is (I suppose) to be taken to represent God. Clearly God is not in favour of falsifying accounts. I think we must simply accept that the moral of the story is that you should use all your ingenuity in promoting the Gospel – and that hearers would take for granted that they weren’t being told to use immoral means to do so.

        On divorce, I’m not quite sure what text you have in mind (I don’t remember one in John but my memory is rapidly deteriorating – it’s interesting that we Catholics don’t quote the bible much, if this was a Baptist blog, I’m sure ‘chapter and verse’ would be given on every possible occasion). In at least one of the gospels Jesus forbids divorce, but makes some qualification concerning adultery, along the lines of “I’m not talking about adultery here”. (we had this passage in Mass a day or two back, and I was struck by a translation different from what I remembered). The Church teaches that He wasn’t saying that divorce was permissible for adultery.

        Vincent’s contribution may be more helpful generally. His example is interesting. I confess it was the one I had in mind when I first wrote – not for a particularly good reason, but because I had a snappy back answer to it. “He who is not for us is against us” looks as if it contradicts “He who is not against us is for us”, but it doesn’t. Both are true, if there is no middle ground. And it is true that there is no middle ground.

      • John L says:

        Tim, Apropos your note about Divorce not being permitted for adultery – I have no axe to grind. However, you do make a point which I have noticed myself, that today’s translation, “I am not speaking about adultery” is different to the “except it be for fornication” which we used to hear. I do wish that someone competent in theology would try to give us some insight into just what Christ DID mean in this passage.

  6. Vincent says:

    We need an expert on Semitic languages here. But my understanding is that, unlike the Greek, they cannot easily be used directly to convey sophisticated thought. Thus a paradox may be used in the form of a simple statement both affirmed and contradicted. The truth can only be grasped through the two arms of the paradox. So “Whoever is not against us in for us” (Mark 9/40) and “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Mat 12/30). And Mat continues: “Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” Another method, seen in the Psalms, is to make a series of slightly differentiated statements — all of which must be taken into account to grasp the truth being expressed. If I am right, and I speak subject to correction, we must be wary of applying a Greek mindset to a Semitic expression.

  7. John Nolan says:

    “It is only too easy to condemn atrocities emanating from the Muslim religion while not noticing similar or greater atrocities in the history of Christendom”.

    Is there a single Christian country which persecutes Muslims? Yet there are plenty of Muslim states which oppress their Christian subjects, Pakistan (a member of the Commonwealth, which goes to show how meaningless that institution is) being a flagrant example. The so-called Arab spring has made things worse. I don’t hear a chorus of condemnation from the Western liberal establishment (not that I expect to) but I would have thought the Vatican might have been more forthright.

    As for history, a study of the Crusades shows that both sides were much of a muchness when it came to atrocities; the rules governing warfare were rough and ready in the Middle Ages, and the slaughter of prisoners was not out of the ordinary.

    • Quentin says:

      We could of course swap atrocities until kingdom come without reaching any conclusion. But we would not be able to deny that Christianity betrayed its principle of love bloodily and cruelly over and over again. Let the Muslims answer for themselves, as we must do for ourselves. I just hold in my mind the picture of slaves about to leave for the Americas being baptised en masse on board the slave ships. And all done with the best intentions…

      • Mike Horsnall says:

        I don’t think ‘Christianity’ betrayed anything….what is ‘christianity’ anyway?
        I imagine you mean parts of a church operating in a specific historical/cultural context?

      • Quentin says:

        What constitutes an act of the Church? We always have the escape clause that it is this or that part of the Church which is responsible. I simply say “By their fruits”.

  8. Brendan O'Leary says:

    All of the very good examples of ” multimind ” responses are very helpful – I’m not sure if my mind could conjure up similar examples with such alactity. It seems to me that what Robert Ornstein is getting at could be the consequences of, and a direct ” weakness “, in humans as a result of The Fall, allowing for our supposed evolutionary make-up. If indeed we could remain Christlike 24/7, this compartmentalisation of seemingly kneejerk cotradictory reactions which we are prone/ condemned to in life might then be eradicated in us. Can’t this be said of people we call ” the saints ” on earth? Of course our observation of each other will always remain highly subjective, because we are not all Christlike permanently and at the same time.
    I’m not sure if some of the examples of contradictory replies given by the commentators on this piece by Quentin, attributed to Christ, are making the point. Although I may be missing something. Can we in fact rely on our free will to make the correct response all the time ? i have observed in myself ( infrequently I freely admit ) in times of taking up Christs call to earnest prayer, that moved by the Spirit I always seem to make the right response which precludes such compartmentalisation. I say the fullness of Gods grace under free will trumps neurosciece everytime, no matter how idiosyncratic. Indeed it harnesses and reflects a positive and singular response of the brain into one action – the right one. Before the Fall, this is how it may well have been.

    • mike Horsnall says:

      “… i have observed in myself ( infrequently I freely admit ) in times of taking up Christs call to earnest prayer, that moved by the Spirit I always seem to make the right response which precludes such compartmentalisation….”

      Could you elaborate on this? an example perhaps, even a description ?

      • Brendan O' Leary says:

        I’m not sure I can give adequate examples here. I’m just trying to explore our physical seemingly programmed nature to the possibilities of change when encountering God. The best inspiration/example I get for this is to reflect on the nature of Christs’ healing in the Gospels and in Acts when the promised Advocate settled on the Church. From then on the pre-programming of the mind of man was no longer a forgone conclusion. Gods Kingdom had arrived !

    • John L says:

      On a light note…
      My father was a keen coarse fisherman, using the canal – I don’t mean HE was coarse.
      He also shared my interest in canals and narrowboats, and enjoyed a boat trip..
      It is (or should be) customary for boaters to slow down when passing fishermen so as to not destroy ground bait nor drive the fish far away. If there was a fishing contest, this required grim determination, as such contests were spread over a mile or more of the canal, and each contestant had to draw in a roach pole which could reach the full width of the canal.
      If this happened while Dad was travelling with me by boat, he would mutter darkly about “all these *** rods getting in the way for ages”.
      If Dad was fishing, he would be heard to complain about “all these **** boats – there’s one every two minutes; I just get my tackle out and I have to get it in again!”.
      This was something of a family joke, and probably improves with the telling, but it does beautifully illustrate a mindset we all share.
      Do very small personal selfishnesses prejudice our view of much more serious matters?

  9. John Candido says:

    As humans have a genetic predisposition to hypocrisy, it is worth holding such a thought in one’s mind whenever we all criticise others. I can unhappily admit my own proclivities towards hypocrisy. As a general rule of thumb, what I have caught myself doing in quiet moments, is the unfortunate realisation that what I have accused others of doing; I have done it as well.

    ‘Why, then, do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the log in your own eye? Matthew 7: 3, ‘Today’s English Version’; Catholic Edition.

    • Mike Horsnall says:

      John,” ….As humans have a genetic predisposition to hypocrisy…”
      Is it just me or does this sound bonkers?
      At any rate its the strangest/funniest phrase I’ve heard in a long time, what does it mean?

      • John Candido says:

        I am not using the word ‘genetic’ in its literal sense but in its metaphoric sense. I am trying to emphasise the fact that hypocrisy is an inbuilt factor of human beings. If it is any easier, you can simply ignore the word ‘genetic’.

  10. claret says:

    The ‘exception’ to Divorce appears twice in Matthew ( not in any other gospel where prohibition of divorce is absolute.) It is recorded at 19. 9 and 5.32 but it seems different interpretations are put upon the exception. In the Catholic study bible it refers to it as: ‘where the marriage is unlawful,’ but to my sceptical mind this is too comfortable an explanation ( if unlawful, we have no marriage to divorce from !)
    Other explanations speak of adultery as being the exception to divorce, which again seems an ‘easy fit’. I read somewhere that it is really serious sexual sin such as bestiality but it would seem that any clear defining explanation is absent. The contradiction thus remains.

    • tim says:

      Matthew 5.32. The New Jerusalem Bible (author the Holy Spirit, ed Fr Henry Wansborough) has “.. I say this to you, everyone who divorces his wife, except for the case of an illicit marriage, makes her an adulteress; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Taking this by itself, it seems to me much more reasonable to read this in the sense you regard as ‘too comfortable’ , Of course, an illicit marriage is not a marriage at all, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be referred to as one informally (as here!). This text, taken by itself, doesn’t seem to me to require your interpretation – and one rule of interpretation is to avoid contradictions if possible.

      What about Matthew 19.9? New Jerusalem again: “Now I say this to you, anyone who divorces his wife – I am not speaking of an illicit marriage – and marries another, is guilty of adultery.“. Fr Henry here has an extensive note, which I feel unable to reproduce for copyright reasons, and it’s not easy to summarise (or indeed for me to understand). He hints that the exception might have added by a late editor of the original Greek, since it doesn’t appear in Mark, Luke or Corinthians. I’m not sure if Fr Henry agrees or not, but I remain happy to read this text in the sense that we are talking solely about ‘legal marriages’. I can see that one might regard this as a fudge, like most Protestants, who tend to regard nullity proceedings as pitiful evasions of reality – but it does for me.

  11. Horace says:

    I had the privilege of attending Stanford as a visiting scholar for the fall term of 1979. I was attached to the Artificial Intelligence section of the Dept of Computer Science and was able to attend lectures given by many of the leading figures in the field (but not unfortunately Robert Ormstein!).

    At that time AI focussed on logic – deducing answers based on ‘rules’.

    Nowadays programming is preferentially ‘object oriented’ – objects are blocks of code which are more or less self contained. Each object is capable of receiving messages, processing data, and sending messages to other objects. Such code objects may be programmed to run in parallel for increased speed of computation.

    This kind of programming is remarkably analogous to the concept of ‘multimind’ where the different ‘minds’ are complex ‘objects’ (of code). There are, rather simple, examples in the EEG display programming on my website – where,for example, the appearance of the displayed section can be drastically altered while scanning through the record.

    It is, of course, essential that the different objects cooperate one with another and in the case of the brain this may be reflected in the way in which the electrical activity is ‘phase locked’. This is referred to as Global Field Synchronization and has been shown by Thomas Koenig to provide a useful indication of brain function in diseases like Alzheimers.

  12. claret says:

    Regrettably different translations of Matthew have different explantions of the meaning where divorce would be allowed. I don’t think it is anywhere near as simplistic an explanation as ‘illicit marriage’ as portrayed in the modern traslations. I doubt there was such a concept. I will check as best I can on what the orginal Greek has to say but even this may not have a modern parallel translation to the exception. I’ll get back to you but the most likely description I have heard is: ‘serious sexual sin,’ but even this is not clarified as to what is being referred to.

    • tim says:

      I had a look at Wikipedia, which has a specific entry on Matthew 5.32. This helped me to understand Fr Henry’s footnote! If Wikipedia has it right (always a necessary caveat) the normal specific term for ‘adultery’ is μοιχεύσεις/moicheia, which Matthew uses earlier in the chapter. Here the word used is the vaguer πορνείας/porneia – and what it means in this context is part of what the debate is about. ‘Serious sexual sin’ is one possibility, no doubt, but it could be less specific than that – hence ‘illicit marriage’. You doubt whether the concept existed at that time, which is reasonable – as we see in our own time, if divorce is easy, as it was for the Jews, who bothers about nullity? That doesn’t mean it can’t exist. I see that there is an argument for a contradiction here, but do not feel it is irresistible. If Our Lord is saying “‘πορνείας/porneia’ is not what I’m talking about” (which I still feel is a possible way of understanding the text), then it is harder to deduce a clear exception to the rule against divorce.

      • Quentin says:

        The Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture — a learned tome indeed — puts weight on the fact that Matthew’s gospel was aimed at a Jewish readership. Matthew, it tells us, is very precise and, in some issues, such as 5/32, corrects or clarifies Mark’s account. The reference to “except of the grounds of unchastity (NRSV)”, both by its meaning and its placing in the sentence, is a reminder that the Jewish right to divorce a wife on the grounds of unchastity relieves the husband of any guilt from causing her to become an adulteress as a result. The outcome is not so clear in 19/9. But once again “except for unchastity” is related to the right to divorce, but does not thereby excuse “marrying another”. The passage discusses other interpretation which have been used but finds them unsatisfactory. Hope that helps.

  13. st.joseph says:

    I look on the blog at times out of interest.

    I will make one comment and one comment only and make of it what you will. I will not be replying to anyone, lead me to the slaughter if one likes.
    The subject on marriage and divorce there seems to be a lot of nibbling at the edges and thinking on the human aspect instead of the Spiritual.
    There i one marriage which God made when He made Adam and Eve in the perfect likeness to Himself.( Whether one thinks it a myth or not it is accurate in the way Gods mind works)
    True marriage is a Sacrament a union between male and female and Trinity.
    Listen to Jesus’s Words about the law of Moses’ etMarriages are made in Heaven The Marriage of the Lamb. ‘Eucharist Marriage.’
    Think of the Parable of the woman whose husband died, and remarried many times,’who will she be with in the end?
    A perfect marriage has to try and be perfect before the Sacrament is received on each other.
    Otherwise it is difficult to be in True Unity with the Trinity.
    Perfect reception of the Sacraments Confession Communion before hand-free from all stain of sin-not Divorced from God not only from the Church.Is the answer.
    .In that state and that state only can we move towards our Creator and our homeland with Him in Heaven
    Heaven through the Sacred state of Matrimony-or call it what ever name one likes -it is a state we behold.

    • Vincent says:

      Yes indeed. For us married folk our relationship is the most immediate school of love – in which I fear we learn as much from our mistakes as we learn from our successes. Indeed for many of us the number of times that we need and receive forgiveness from our spouses gives us a shadow of God’s readiness to forgive us.

      • Brendan O' Leary says:

        I’ll second that – all solid existential evidence for retaining the ” gold standard ” of traditional marriage – my wife and I ? 35yrs. and still going by the grace of God!

  14. Mike Horsnall says:

    We are still wading through the shallows at 20 years tomorrow…Only platinum standard as yet!

  15. tim says:

    Thank you, Quentin (August 21, 2012 at 9:29 am). It does help, though I am still befogged. If the emphasis is on not making divorced wives guilty of adultery, the exception makes considerable sense – a wife divorced for adultery is an adulteress already. I confess to approaching the topic with a bias towards finding a meaning that makes sense to me in the context of the Church’s teaching (is there a name for this figure of speech, self-congratulation masquerading as self-denigration?). A slightly better argument could be that an important exception like this should not be deduced from a mere parenthesis.

  16. claret says:

    I seem to have set a horse running which is proving impossible to stop although I have always been intrigued by the ‘exception’ to divorce. I think we have to admit that there is no clear definitive answer.
    The English nearest to the Greek is the word ( as above desribed by Tim,) is ‘porneia’ – from which the word pornography is derived, (hence a possibility of it being ‘serious sexual sin,’) but a precise definiton / parallel word in todays vocabulary is not, it would seem, available.
    Adding to the problems of translation is that the original would be said in Aramaic and the Church then translated the Greek into Latin.
    It gets worse because the non-catholic Christian Protestant denominations have latched onto the exception to allow divorce when adultery is committed and hence claim to be still true to scripture; whereas the Catholic Church treats divorce, as we know, as a complete prohibition ( but adultery would be grounds for an annulment ! Therefore an illicit marriage of sorts if one of the partners was an adulterer? ) This means that the word ‘adultery’ as a precise translation of Porneia is accepted by protestants, whereas we seem to opt for ‘illict marriage.’ We cannot both be right. Is convenience the motivating factor rather than accuracy ? I do wonder.
    In terms of a contradiction I would maintain that the verses in Matthew contradict those in other parts of scripture as uttered by Christ. ( Unless it gets even worse and the offending word was implanted into the gospel at some later time as come commentators have suggested!)

    • tim says:

      Yes, I think we can agree that there is no definitive answer, at least from textual analysis. I do see the force of your view more strongly than I did. One thing I did get right was the forecast that I might wish to argue about it!

    • milliganp says:

      Just some clarification on Catholic nullity; adultery is not per-se a grounds for nullity unless it indicates that the exclusivity of the marriage vow was not understood or intended by one party. Thus adultery early in a marriage or returning to an old flame might indicate defect of intent when vows were exchanged.

  17. Geordie says:

    The Church has become more rigid on the subject of divorce since the Henry VIII. Prior to that there are historical occasions when the Church granted divorce; if not Henry would not have asked for a divorce. The Orthodox Church, which gives an insight into what was believed in the first 1000 years of Christianity, allows divorce for adultery. I believe Eleanor of Aquitaine was married to the king of France before she married Henry II. It ‘s all very confusing.

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