May 05 2011

Emergence Of Mind

“The emergence of mind” is a devilish question;
The way that it’s phrased is a trick in itself.
We’re looking for something that’s somehow “emerging”
Not merely complex, but a difference in kind

So take a step back, is my humble suggestion,
From dualist analyses filling the shelf
The hidden assumptions could use a good purging
That lay in the phrase “the emergence of mind”

The mind in inferred from what people are doing;
(A skull’s not transparent—we don’t look at brain)
An answer depends on the question we’re asking:
The way that we look may distort what we find

Reductionist models are just misconstruing;
They merely describe, though they claim to explain
To look at our neurons may merely be masking
The real explanation of “emergence of mind”

Over on NPR’s 13.7 blog, one of my pet peeves is on display, if only as a small part of the post. The big question is one of the influence of technology on our ability to observe; clearly, technology expands our senses hugely–allowing us to see spectra far beyond what evolution allows us, for instance, or to curve that radiation and focus on objects too small or too far away for our own eyes. Technology can let us hear, smell, or taste things (rather, detect the existence of pressure waves or molecules in air or water) beyond our own senses. We may have a tough time feeling the difference between 10 pieces of paper and 11, but technology can build us a scale that can measure even the weight of the ink it took to sign one of those papers.

Some problems are easier, some more difficult–some more linear, others chaotic.

As I tell my students, most of the easy problems (those that can be solved analytically) have been dealt with. Now, we must move on to the tough, nonlinear domain. Among the many open problems in many fields, here are three: the climate, the emergence of mind, and the origin of life. Not too shabby. None will be thoroughly understood without computers or, as scientist Katy Börner of Indiana University calls them, our “macroscopes.”

And there we have my pet peeve. The emergence of mind, being written about by a theoretical physicist. Now, I don’t mean to imply that “mind” is necessarily an easy thing, but it does not help that we continually ask the wrong questions about it. The very phrase “emergence of mind” (sometimes other, similar phrases are used, like “gives rise to consciousness”) implies a qualitative difference, a difference in kind between the biological meat puppet and the controlling mind. Even when this is not intended, the language gets fuzzy, and possible answers are entertained or denied in part due to how they fit this fuzziness (quantum consciousness, anyone?).

In the discussion at 13.7 (as, it seems a law of nature, with similar discussions wherever the question is raised), the complexity of the brain is trotted out, and it is implied that mind somehow emerges (or cannot, depending on your stance) from the workings of the brain. This view is so commonplace now that to question it seems heresy. But it is wrong.

We infer mind from behavior, not from brain activity. My car has a mind of its own, as does my computer–I say this because neither acts the way I want them to, and the real explanation for what they are doing is beyond my personal knowledge. When the external causes of X’s behavior are unknown to me, I put the causes inside of X; this “theory of mind” allows me to predict what a person, an animal, a car, a computer, will do. Imperfectly, of course, from which I infer that it has a will of its own (rather than just admit my ignorance of causes).

Our observation of the behavior of others, combined with our vocabulary describing this, is what leads to an understanding of “mind”, and indeed to “mind” itself. Aaaaand, I think I’ll leave this here for now. I can unpack it more, and have done so, but I’d have to start charging you for tuition. Bottom line is, a given problem can seem more intractable than it actually is, when you pursue it by asking the wrong questions. We are complex enough when we ask the right questions.

Oh! and I almost forgot– for one of my all-time favorite discussions (for my money, it is the best comment thread in all of the history of blogging) of this topic, take a look at the comment thread on this post from a couple of years ago, in which my commenters clearly outclass me.


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  1. 1

    Is it fair to summarize your 'peeve' comments in the statement that the 'mind' is an artifact of the brain's functions, or that the human mind is an artifact of highly integrated complex data handling systems with huge capacity for storage and data manipulation?Is it possible that you also believe that AI is not impossible?

  2. 2

    Fair enough, I suppose. I view the mind as simultaneously more and less complex than that. Less complex, in that we speak of mindfulness in much simpler systems (I have seen a grandparent explain a wobbly spinning top as having "a mind of its own", which was why the granddaughter was having such a hard time controlling it); more complex, in that mind is seen in the interaction of a thing and its environment (particularly a social environment). It is the interaction, the attempts at understanding the behavior of others, that gives rise to a theory of mind, and a dispositional attribution (rather than an environmental attribution) for actions.As for the AI question, this is also both simpler and more complex. Artificial intelligence is not merely possible, but already exists in many forms, many of which we can speak of as 'mind' in a very real sense.On the other hand, a Kurzweillian singularity, an artificial human mind, is far more difficult than, say, Kurzweil imagines. As the NPR thread noted, the number of neurons, and the number of synapses, is staggering. Translating that to an artificial matrix would probably be necessary, but it would not be sufficient; one would also have to code for the rest of the person's body (anyone who thinks consciousness does not depend on the whole body has never thought about it while hungry, or while fearful, or while sick with flu), and for years or decades (depending on the human mind one wishes to emulate) of interaction with environment (including, as I say, social environment).A computer-run robot could legitimately be said to have a mind, and to have this mind develop over the course of its interaction with the world, but it would be uniquely its own form, rather than a variation on a human mind. So… depending on what you meant by "AI is not impossible", pick your answer!

  3. 3
    George Weinberg

    I have to disagree that our ideas of mind come about because of of our observations of each others' behavior. Or ideas are largely shaped by introspection; I have all sorts of thoughts that never lead to any behavior anyone else can observer, and I assume that the same is true for everyone else.I think this is why some people (not me) find the idea of "zombies" plausible: because so much of our internal mental activity does not result in any observable action it doesn't seem impossible that there could be entities that behave much like we do but without all the inner dialog that we know actually does exist for ourselves.

  4. 4

    Ah, but George, you are focusing on a current snapshot (ok, not snapshot, but brief clip) of an already-developed mind. How did you learn to put names on these introspective thoughts? They do not come pre-labeled for our convenience; we learn them from others who do not have access to them. We have to teach children that they are hungry, or sleepy, or, well, basically anything. You can introspect; an infant does not.

  5. 5

    DC, your poem here I found very helpful. I can't keep up the level of debate that follows on from it, but I have referred to it on my blog, where I try and tease out in simple(istic, no doubt) terms some mind/brain/body confusions as they relate to illness, particularly the ulcerative colitis suffered by someone I know – see, if you want,his blog post, http://theknifeyousee.blogspot.com/2011/05/mind-body-split.htmlSo thanks, and may your ink flow on to further enlighten and entertain us!

  6. 6

    Yeah, the discussion can be all over the place at times, enough to make you queasy from the motion.That is, it's a sick transit, gloriamundi.

  7. 7

    Well, it's a fine discussion, but if you can't stand the motion, I guess, don't get on the boat, so I'll read and think a bit more from onshore before I risk another sick transit.GloriaMundi Comedy Gold Award could be yours, if you keep it up…

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