Chapter 4

Gods and Daemons

Gods and Daemons

Agents and The Society of Mind1

Society of Mind (SoM) is a concept developed by the prominent MIT scientist Marvin Minsky, with the aid of Seymour Papert, over several years of work in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). It was developed as an analysis of the Human mind in terms that might make it amenable to modeling on computer systems. As such it owes less to modern psychology than it does to engineering, since attempting to build something so complex often provides deep and non-trivial insights into the ways that it must be done and certainly into ways it cannot. Many aspects of SoM anticipated modern advances in cognitive psychology, and in this work it provides a basic theoretical underpinning for later concepts such as dynamic archetypes. Only a brief overview will be presented, with most of the technical descriptions omitted. However, we will retain the notion of Agents for later use.
The mind is a community of semi-autonomous Agents, each with limited power and communication abilities. What we think of as
Mind emerges from their interactions since Agents by themselves have no significant intelligence. By way of illustration Minsky provides the example of talking with oneself, and how the participants of these imaginary conversations really exist in the forms of Agents or higher level collections of such which in general are referred to as Agencies. There are, in fact, many sub-personalities interacting with one another. Solving even simple problems may involve many Agents, perhaps vast numbers of them. Some may contain knowledge, strategies, warnings and encouragement, while others are concerned with discipline, prohibitions and censoring forbidden thoughts. These are organized into local, quasi-political hierarchies. Each agent can be based on a different type of process with its own distinct kinds of purposes, languages for describing things, ways of representing knowledge, and methods for producing inferences. Overall coherency of personality ultimately emerges not from any clear and simple principle, but from the interactions, under elaborate genetic control, of communities of doers, critics, filters and censors, culminating in agencies for self-discipline that compare one's behavior with fragments of self-images acquired at earlier stages of development.
The notion that Mind is a single unitary thing is clearly false. Having recognized this, the notion of “mental states” then becomes not the state of a Mind, but a description of which Agents, Agencies and hierarchies are active at any particular time. Minsky explicitly uses an analogy that will be expanded upon in far more detail later, namely that of Mind being very similar to a Human administrative organization. On the largest scale are divisions that specialize in such areas as sensory processing, language, long-range planning, and so forth. Within each division are multitudes of sub-specialists, Agents, which embody smaller elements of an individual's knowledge, skills, and methods. No single one of these little Agents knows very much by itself, but each recognizes certain configurations of a few associates and responds by altering its state. This idea is perhaps best summarized by the following quote from Minsky's book:

What magical trick makes us intelligent? The trick is that there is no trick. The power of intelligence stems from our vast diversity, not from any single, perfect principle. Our species has evolved many effective although imperfect methods, and each of us individually develops more on our own. Eventually, very few of our actions and decisions come to depend on any single mechanism. Instead, they emerge from conflicts and negotiations among societies of processes that constantly challenge one another.

That is, the Human mind is a gestalt, another crucial concept that will be expanded upon in a magickal context later. A gestalt is defined as

...a physical, biological, psychological, or symbolic configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that its properties cannot be derived from a simple summation of its parts.”

The “Self” is then merely another Agent, one that monitors some of the other Agencies, most notably those involved with sensory inputs and outputs. Even so, the vast majority escape its view and these omissions are collectively known as the unconscious. Even simple introspection reveals that what we habitually think of as our conscious self is at best a composite of competing Agents. For example, close your eyes and think of nothing at all. Unless you have trained long and hard in this particular discipline you will find that an internal dialog develops whereby you hear yourself saying things like: “…I've just done ten seconds without thinking!” or alternatively totally unrelated thoughts will bubble up and spoil the effort. So who is doing the talking and who wants to stop the talking? Clearly someone inside is not obeying orders, yet, the “chatterer” is superficially the one who keeps insisting it stop!
However, there is no proposed model for Consciousness, unlike Self, which can be modeled as a kind of monitoring Agent. The SoM and other theories do not explain Consciousness but instead assume that it somehow emerges from all this complexity. This is, in general, the view of the majority of scientists although there is a notable dissenting minority who hold interesting ideas concerning a possible connection between Consciousness and Quantum Mechanics.
The notion of Agents and Agencies are of critical importance in much of what follows. Part of this is due to the fact that the lines of communication between them do not follow straight lines to or from some hypothetical control center one might consider to be Self. Nor do they line up directly with sensory input and motor outputs, but in fact many chains of Agents can be activated by single inputs, and many Agents can compete for outputs. Additionally, most Agents do not or cannot communicate with each other except indirectly.
This is a piece of crucial information that explains why, for example, spells should be spoken aloud. We automatically assume that if we visualize words in our head, that is we speak them internally without actually saying them aloud, that all aspects of our mind perceive them. This is not true at all. The Agencies responsible for imagining those words have only limited communication abilities. It is a fact that some Agents triggered by hearing are not triggered by visualized words, and that the best way to engage more Agents is to actually speak the words aloud. It turns out that the best way of linking some Agents within the mind is to send the communication outside the body. In the case of words the linking occurs from mouth to ears. Similar bypasses exist for all sensory inputs, most notably the visual but also for touch, smell and taste in decreasing order of importance. Imagining a picture, or Sigil, has less of an effect than seeing one. However, auditory information is the most interesting since it is the channel of language and from a magickal point of view links to more useful Agents than the other senses. That is why hearing is the primary channel for hypnotic techniques (although not the only one). Hearing, and language in particular, is specialized for receiving data that is already encoded with meaning, unlike the other senses. There is also another reason for using externalized communications with ones own mind. It is that different modes of perception have different Censor or Filter Agents monitoring that data input. What may be censored via one input channel may bypass those censors or filters by using another.
Once the censors and filters are by passed many Agents are highly suggestible. They believe what they are told and act upon the data uncritically. One should also not forget that there are Agents that have direct effects on bodily health, and this will be elaborated upon later. From a magickal point of view this model illuminates numerous phenomena, from hypnotism to psychic
healing and the placebo effect to the fragility of Psi phenomena and onwards to an explanatory underpinning of transpersonal entities described later.

Filters and Censors

Filter Agents exist to defend the integrity of Mind against both internal and external influences that have been determined to be detrimental to the gestalt, and most have probably been in place since early childhood. Some can be removed or suppressed voluntarily but most cannot. When we walk around we do not see most of what exists about us. Instead our conscious mind is fed a summary of what is there. We do not see every blade of grass on the ground, every leaf on every tree, every link in every fence or the minute surface detail of the ground we walk upon. We get the filtered version that says: “There is a whole lot of green grass, plus some trees and the ground is a bit rough. To illustrate this, and without looking, name all the objects behind you, their colors and their relative positions. Most of what we perceive as we go about our daily lives is an illusion. How little we actually consciously perceive was recently illustrated in a psychology experiment that was set up as follows.
People who were walking across a college campus were asked by a stranger for directions. During the resulting chat, two men carrying a wooden door passed between the stranger and the subjects. After the door went by, the subjects were asked if they had noticed anything strange. Half of those tested failed to notice that, as the door passed by, the stranger had been substituted with a man who was of different height, of different build and who sounded different. He was also wearing different clothes. Despite the fact that the subjects had talked to the stranger for 10-15 seconds before the swap, half of them did not detect that, after the passing of the door, they had ended up speaking to a different person. Some did still not notice the change even when the gender, race or color of the person changed. This phenomenon, called change blindness, highlights how we see much less than we think we do, and more importantly how we continue to see what we expect to see.
No method of problem solving or reasoning will always work so Minsky proposes that in addition to knowledge about problem solving methods themselves, we also have much knowledge about how to avoid the most common problems with those methods. He calls this type of knowledge negative expertise and describes this knowledge as embodied in the form of censor and suppressor agents. Censors suppress the mental activity that precedes unproductive or dangerous actions, and suppressors suppress those unproductive or dangerous actions themselves. What this means is that many ideas, notions, solutions to problems and so forth are never allowed to bubble up to the point where they become conscious and can be acted upon. In other words, “we” even censor our own thoughts.
This is one reason why psychedelic drugs such as
LSD are said to expand consciousness. They create conditions where many of the Censor and Filter Agents are rendered ineffective, unedited reality floods in and previously unthinkable thoughts see the light of day. When tripping you actually do see every blade of grass and every leaf on every tree, to the extent that the detail overwhelms the mind. This, of course, is the reason the filters exist, because we do not need to apprehend every blade of grass, while we do need to see and concentrate upon important features of our environment. Evolution endowed us with a set of tools that enable us to filter out grass while emphasizing what we have learned to be vital for our well-being, such as recognizing saber-tooth tigers. Yet it is important to realize that some things are filtered out because the filters established in childhood were educated to perform that function, and what the child did not need to see then may be extremely important for the adult now. The result is a blindness so complete that most people do not even see that they are blind in certain areas of reality and may indeed be extremely resistant even to the notion that this might be so. Nobody likes to think they are mentally crippled, which is of course the reaction of a censor agent. When some of the censors are removed or bypassed all kinds of strange, bizarre and fascinated insights are presented to the consciousness. That is the reason why in the early days of the exploration of the effects of LSD and other psychedelics they were considered to be “creativity drugs”1 (and still are for many).
The world is awash with messages and meanings, some are real and meant for you, some are real and meant for some part of you, some are parts of your mind talking to itself, some are fabrications, some are only potentially meaningful. Reality itself is conditional upon what, where and who, you are. And vice versa. This is the situation that schizophrenics, or the users of psychedelics, can find themselves in. It is a world of vast complexity and meaning with very few rules or signposts.


1Minsky, M.: The Society of Mind. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1986.

 2 Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, Jay Stevens, ISBN-13: 978-0802135872