Read this short text from The Principia Cybernetica website:
The Homunculus problem
“Cartesian materialism is an attempt to keep the mechanistic metaphysics of Descartes while getting rid of the idea on an immaterial soul (dualism). In this philosophy, the mind is seen as a (material) component of the body (e.g. the brain or some component of it) that interacts with the world via the senses and muscles. The philosopher Daniel Dennett has proposed the term “Cartesian theater” to summarize the picture that results when this idea is combined with the reflection-correspondence perspective: the mind somehow sits in a theater where the incoming perceptions are projected as images onto a screen; it looks at them, interprets them, and decides what to do; it sends its decisions as commands to the muscles for execution. In a more modern metaphor, we would describe the situation as if the mind acts as a control center for the body, the way an air traffic controller keeps track of the incoming planes on a radar screen, analyzing the situation, and issuing directions to the pilots. While this picture may seem more satisfying to a scientifically trained mind than Descartes’ ghostly soul, it merely shifts the difficulty.
The fundamental problem with the mind as control center is that it is equivalent to a homunculus (diminutive of the Latin “homo” = human being): a little person watching the theater inside our brain, and reasoning like an intelligent being in order to deal with the situation it observes. However, the point of the exercise was precisely to explain how a person reasons! We have explained the mind simply by postulating another, “smaller” mind (homunculus) within the mind.
Such reasoning leads to an infinite regress. Indeed, to explain how the homunculus functions we must assume that it has a mind, which itself implies another homunculus inside it, which must contain yet another homunculus, and so on. It is as if we are opening a series of Russian dolls the one nested into the other one, without ever coming to the last one. Another way to illustrate the circularity of such reasoning would be to consider a recipe for making cake where one of the ingredients is cake: how can you ever prepare such a cake if you don’t already know how to do it? To evade this paradox, we need to make a radical break with the way of thinking that produced it.”
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