R.I.P. A Real Brainiac!

May 23, 2014


Gerald M. Edelman, Nobel Laureate and ‘Neural Darwinist,’ Dies at 84

“There isn’t going to be any kind of theory of the brain that doesn’t involve elements of his ideas. The brain is never — never has been or ever will be — in the same state twice, and will never encounter the same environmental cues twice. What’s attractive about his model is that it tries to address that reality.”

From earlier posts:

I’m not going to go into a detailed account of Zen ideas or Edelman’s here, but one remark is cogent: He suggests that consciousness has no causal consequences – it does nothing!

 Edelman makes the important and emphatic point that the brain is not a computer. He is dismissive of artificial intelligence as it is practiced today, although he expects, eventually, that an artificial mind will be created…it just won’t be a machine!



October 9, 2010

Weather of the Mind

September 17, 2010

I work right next door to Century 21, a fabulously popular discount department store, famous all over the world.  At one time or another, I have gone through various levels of involvement with the store.  For periods of weeks or months, I have visited it daily on my lunch hour, usually buying a few shirts, a belt, socks, or during some stretches, a different pair of shoes each week.  Now, I never go there.  The thought of walking in there bores me stiff.

What changed?  Why did it change?  Oh, you can say I just “got bored,” but why?  Is there some time-dependent mechanism involved?  Can we quantify it, at least for me?  Is it an accumulation of small things adding up to a big, final, ho hum?

Consider all the similar changes that happen over shorter time scales – a month, a week, a day…an hour?  We seem to have no control over them, we just react to them.  Or are simply aware of them.

This seems to wreak havoc with our normal ideas on the nature of the self.  Is our personal mentality simply a mental landscape over which storm fronts and high/low pressure areas shift endlessly, on their own power?  Reason seems to have a small part to play, and is present only because we have abstract language to talk about all this.

I come back to my bedrock conviction that people are more like plants than they like to think.  Free will exists, but there’s less of it than we pretend.  We are just organisms in an environment, responding and surviving.  Even our mental life, about which we are so proud, is hardly of our “own” creation.

Anyone in there?

June 21, 2010

*Is is possible to be wrong about whether or not you are in pain?
*Can a colorblind person know what the rest of humanity experiences when it sees things?
*Can we ever know what it is like to be a bat?

People generally fall into one of two camps on questions of this sort: 

  1. These questions are idiotic, a waste of time, and only really strange and intellectually eccentric people care about them.
  2. These questions are fascinating, albeit strange, and by thinking about them we can start to understand the phenomenon of mentality.

The vast majority of people is in the first camp.  For better or worse, I have always been in the second.  This is the province of the Philosophy of Mind, the discipline that seeks, or pretends to seek clarity regarding our notions of what it means to be conscious, have a mind, be a sentient, perceiving being, and not to be a machine, a robot, or a zombie.   (The latter category of being is much in vogue today, among philsophers of mind.)

I know of no better guide through this morass than Professor Daniel C. Dennett of Tufts University.  His 1991 book, Consciousness Explained is the best thing I have ever read on the topic.  His recent short book of lectures that revisits that earlier work, Sweet Dreams:  Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness is a great refresher on his ideas.  The word science is key:  Dennett is trying to use philosophy to clear away intellectual deadwood so that science may advance more rapidly.  He rejects the notion that philosophy has a primary role in formulating an explanation of consciousness, and for this he is labeled as reductionist, materialist, physicalist, mechanist, and several other more or less pejorative terms, some of which he is happy to accept, albeit with qualifications.

As a student of philosophy in college, I became disgusted with the narrowminded and dogmatic point of view that dominated the department, and I left to take a degree in art history.  One  intellectual luminary, who was my personal bête noir, Thomas Nagel, is the subject of frequent, sustained, and devastating criticism by Dennett.  Of course, I love that.  (Nagel’s essay, What is it like to be a bat? , is a “classic” in the field.)

I have seen Dennett on TV, and read opinion pieces of his in the NYTimes, and he has a tendency towards pugnacious and aggressive humor, but he has a right to it.  The people with whom he’s arguing need shaking up.  And he’s right!  At times, as when he discusses atheism, he seems a bit of a crank, but that too is probably a result of arguing with mystics who think they are scientists.  If the arguments of his critics seem, as he presents them, to be utterly ridiculous, that’s because they are.  The bigger question is why they continue to be revered as sophisticated philosophical investigators.

These books are not for those seeking an introduction to the topic, and if you are not familiar with the arcane and involved history of these questions in the philosophical literature, you will find them tough going.  Sorry, but I don’t know any books that do fit that bill.

The Mind is Not a Computer

February 25, 2008


I have just begun reading a fascinating book, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge by the Nobel Laureate, Gerald Edelman. I wish that this book had been around thirty years ago when I was stuck in the philosophical quagmire known as “analytic philosophy of mind.” This would have been my Bible! As it was, I could only struggle on my own, a single undergraduate, towards a point of view that was pretty much rejected as irrelevant by the philosophic “giants” by whom I was being taught.

Edelman makes the important and emphatic point that the brain is not a computer. He is dismissive of artificial intelligence as it is practiced today, although he expects, eventually, that an artificial mind will be created…it just won’t be a machine! The mechanistic metaphor is so deeply embedded in our intellectual culture that this notion seems far fetched, wacky, at first if you are the type of person who has been seriously contemplating the riddles of consciousness. For many, the computer has seemed to be the best, if not the perfect model on which to draw for explanations of mentality.

In his book, right up front, Edelman makes the point that the brain, which is the primary seat of mind, is nothing like any machine. It is not like any machine humans have ever have, or would ever think of designing. To call it a machine, however poetically, is to do violence to the facts of biology and neuroscience. Why?

A computing machine runs on a clock – tick – tock – tick…each click of the microprocessor (that’s what all those GHtz specifications in the sales sheets are about, the clock speed of the central processor) sets up the machine to do another teeny part of the programmed algorithm…in order…in sequence. The brain has no such clock. It is massively parallel and massively redundant. The same result can be reached through an infinitude of computing paths. Not only that, the results of the previous activity-state, change the current state and future results. (When we train, we force a groove as it were, into our brain so that something, mental activity, physical motion of a certain sort, becomes easier, unconscious…) No machine behaves this way or is even conceived of to behave this way.

So, the machine metaphor is inadequate, and unecessary, for explanations of mind and consciousness. What a relief!

Philosophy of Dots

February 19, 2008


What is the difference between a photograph and a painting, from the point of view of the observer? If the observer is a machine, no difference at all, just pixels, impulses on rods and cones on our retinas (mine don’t work so well, being colorblind), eventually rendered on paper as printers dots (cf. Roy Lichtenstein) or as more pixels somewhere else. From woman, to photograph, to pixel, to painting, to man… A continuum of energy, of phenomena, of perception by consciousness. So, the world is really just energy, just one darn phenomenon after another, when you get down to it.

When you get down into it, the material world is mostly empty space, as is the universe, when you get out into it.. Difficult to find a hard surface on which to lay one’s head, or pound one’s fist. So, relax. No need to define everything, when this or that began, where those things are (i.e. have their being). Everything just is, as we perceive it, and as we create it with consciousness. The funny thing is, consciousness is itself created, so, as Lewis Thomas once remarked, we humans (and whatever else is out there scratching its head and thinking on some other planet) are actually the material world’s reflection on itself. Well, he said it better, and for someone who said it at MUCH greater length, go to Hegel.

Man his own nature never yet could sound,
He knows not whence he is, nor whither bound.
Atoms tormented on this earthly ball,
The sport of fate, by death soon swallowed all.
But thinking atoms, who with piercing eyes
Have measured the whole circuit of the skies…

from Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake by Voltaire

Into the Void…

November 24, 2004

The old mind-body problem, favorite of Trekkies and obsessive epistemologists. The question, “Can a machine be conscious?” is just a different way of attacking the problem of “what is the mind, and what is the body?” If we knew, we would know what will happen with machines. But, of course, machines can have mentality, though they do not yet, but they will. And then we will have movements for protection of vulnerable machines, machine welfare organizations, advocates for better protection of machines from abuse, jihads against machines in our midst, etc. When they start talking to us in a way that we worry about what they say, we will know we have arrived.

There is no clear line between mind and body, and we put far too much emphasis on mind as we like to think of it – the intellectual philosopher/inquirer introspecting in his study. Most of what we do requires no consciousness of this sort, and even very little thinking! Ask yourself this: If Bob loves Mary, and Mary loves Joe, does Bob love Joe? I bet you come up with the answer in a flash: are you conscious of how you did it? Can you discover through introspection how you “figured” it out. Our language convinces us we have consciousness that saturates our being, but it’s a very little piece of what we are. That “mental space” we conjure up in our skulls is just as it appears in the image of Dave and Hal, a void. And hundreds of years ago, people thought the intellect was in the liver, or someplace down there!

In our image above, we see Dave, Mr. Everyman, venturing into the nexus between mind and body in HAL. But as Leibnitz observed hundreds of years ago:

Supposing that there were a machine whose
structure produced thought, sensation, and
perception, we could conceive of it as
increased in size with the same proportions
until one was able to enter into its interior,
as he would into a mill. Now, on going into
it he would find only pieces working upon one
one another, but never would he find anything;
to explain Perception.

Now we can get to the body, the mysteries of the organism. Here we have an electron micrograph of a walking microphage,” a white blood cell probing an air sac while cleaning a human lung with pneumonia – magnified 5000 times. So, this little…thing…is moving around inside a lung, phaging away, i.e. eating. Our bodies seem to be collections pulsing systems and quite a few fellow travelers, that is, organisms or living things on a very small scale. Our bodies are NOT our own. They are as illusory as “the self.” Just a collection of “cooperating” parts, as the “self” is simply a sort-of coherent collection of ideas that has a lot of continuity from day to day. Everything dissolves into a grand ecology of togetherness, and “we” have “thoughts” about it that we say are from our “minds” that are housed in our bodies. But remove these prejudicial notions from your thinking, and you see something very different.And while we are on the topic of the mysteries…

Here is an image from the film, “WR: Mysteries of the Organism“, c. 1971. This bizarre film, partly a biography of the sainted-damned figure of Wilhem Reich, keeps popping up in my mind. Here is the heroine, who is later killed by a Soviet Olympic skating star (with his skate’s blade, of course.) Notice the frame in the image – get it, movie frame, frame? One of the strangest film experiences you can have, a weird, hilarious satire, and a biting critique of (Stalinist) government oppression.