Couldn’t resist, had to post this one too!
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!
The philosophic point of view that nothing can be known to exist (and perhaps nothing does exist) beyond the “sense impressions” we are having right now… Reading this page… And who are we? Are we only thought balloons of somebody else’s mentality? Am I sleeping on the operating table of the evil Doctor Galvani, dreaming you dreaming me? Am I a brain-in-a-vat?
And how do I know that you are not all robots, cleverly mimicking the patterns of human behavior. Give you a Turing Test?! After all, some people seem to be barely human. Perhaps we need to cut open some people to find out. Or peer into their heads/brains/minds.
Nothing exists, but the clear mirror of mind, reflecting…nothing.
And then there’s Philonus, of course, the one chatting with Hylas in the dialog by George Berkeley (and nattering on about drainage). You know, the philosophical conversation that proves that “to be is to be perceived.” Nothing exists when we don’t see it or hear it (trees falling in the forest and all that) but for the mind of God, who is eternally watching. As Bertrand Russell relates in his History of Western Philosophy:
There was a young man who said “God”
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.”
Your astonishment’s odd:
I am always about in the Quad,
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed byYours faithfully,GOD.
Berkeley intended his philosophic works to be a refutation of atheism and of materialist science. He was particularly annoyed at the glorious reception given to Newton’s theories, especially that of universal gravitation, which was, after all, an occult force, or a force acting at a distance. (How in heaven’s name could one object ever act upon another without any physical contact!!?) No one had ever seen it! No one knew how it worked! They just believed in it because it made so many things simpler.
Did George Berkeley have the last laugh? The university was named for him, and Hume, another man with some wonderfully subversive ideas, did say of his work that it admitted of no refutation…but, alas, carried no conviction. There’s a backhanded complement for you. As for Samuel Johnson, he kicked a dirt clod and pronounced, “I refute him thusly.” Just so do the running dog lackeys of the empiricist scourge support their simpleminded theories of the nature of the world.
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.