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The qualities of a beautiful mind

June 21, 2008|By ALLAN POWELL

Several years ago, a movie bearing the title "A Beautiful Mind" and directed by the former child star Ron Howard from the Andy Griffith Show, achieved considerable popularity. This was deservedly so because the film touched upon a deeply human and personal problem: How one might be fortunate enough to "recover" from a debilitating mental disturbance and resume a "normal" life style.

Since the professional mathematician, the subject of the film, was eventually able to manage his delusional fixations and resume his professional career, it is fair to assume that the director defined "a beautiful mind" as one which was in charge of life's demands. While the capacity to "take charge" is laudable, it surely is too narrow and pragmatic to serve as an inspiration for youthful visionaries who are open to a more inclusive weltanschauung or world view.

First and foremost, a beautiful mind requires balance. This ancient Greek ideal suggests that in the dynamic interplay of various mental faculties we seek a balance so that all of our mental faculties serve us well. The three main "actors" on our internal stage are thinking (cognitive), feeling (affective responses) and acting (conative) or willing faculties which variously influence our behavior.

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The first of these more or less separable capabilities - the cognitive - refers to the raw ability to reason logically or to draw inferences from the facts at one's disposal. The mind can be trained to function in very orderly and sophisticated ways, such as symbolic logic or theoretical physics, if one so desires and also has the talent. But the mastery of these skills gives no assurance that the possessor will then apply any of these skills to being a good parent or a responsible citizen.

It is probable that most citizens have little exposure to either formal logic or logical fallacies and, therefore, rely on common sense to detect irregular thought processes. This in no way reduces the value of these intellectual skills as assets in living a full life.

The second faculty of the mind is the affective or feeling capacity, which permits us to have sympathy or empathy for the plight of others even if there is no logical reason to do so. Sentiments are subtle and pervasive as we filter our experience. Even the purest abstract reasoning is colored by how we feel. We flatter ourselves when we suppose that our opinions are grounded on undiluted facts while the opinions of others are only wishful thinking.

The great American philosopher, William James, is quite persuasive in claiming that sentiments influence which ideas we accept or reject, regardless of the logical or empirical supports presented. If this is the case, we will never reach a high degree of maturity until we cultivate the willingness to step back and look critically within to honestly recognize when passion has bullied reason into submission.

Finally, the will must be apportioned into this psychic mixing bowl. It would seem obvious that reasoning would be of small consequence if we do not act upon the best options presented by the power of reason. Will is that surge of energy which says, "Well - get going - time is wasting away."

Yet, how many times have we been witness to bright people, who have correctly figured out what the next move should be, yet still do nothing? Without the will, our ideas have no traction.

We must return to concept of balance. To have a beautiful mind, all three of the faculties considered must function. The Greeks again, with the analogy of the charioteer, provide the insight about the proper balance. Imagine a charioteer (reason) racing wildly down a dusty road near Athens pulled by two unruly horses (appetite and desire). Unchecked by reason, these two horses are in grave danger of ending up in a ditch.

Recently I have had the good fortune to become more acquainted with a beautiful mind. As a Christmas gift, I was the beneficiary of a most fabulous book, "The Universe In A Nutshell" by the astrophysicist-mathematician, Stephen Hawking.

This brilliantly illustrated update of modern physical science is must reading. One comes to admire Hawking as the story of how his frail body was tortured and twisted by Lou Gehrig's disease. At age 21, just as he was about to enter a doctoral program, Hawking became aware of his misfortune. Undeterred, he struggled against all obstacles to win the most prestigious chair at Cambridge University. This chair was at one time (1669) occupied by Isaac Newton, later knighted as Sir Isaac Newton.

A beautiful mind need not be the property of the great and the famous. We all can, with effort and care, achieve some personal satisfaction in looking back on a lifetime of studied effort to improve our own minds.

Our goals are, or should be, our own. We are not required to match wits with the world's elites. We strive only to reach our full potential as a means to realize a full life. This is a beautiful mind.

Allan Powell is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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