The position of materialistic science is that mind is in the brain. The simplest form of this belief is that mind and consciousness are a trick or illusion of the brain and that, in fact, we are much like zombies. We are just sensory apparatus and neurons firing. A slightly more complicated view is the mind has a physical basis in the brain but manifests emergent properties that cannot be explained by the component parts. Mind is still dependent upon brain and does not exist outside it. Both approaches lead directly to the idea that we could create an artificial mind if we could assemble parts that could simulate the component parts of the brain.
I think, however, the relationship between mind and brain is more complicated. It may turn out that mind, while closely related to the brain, might operate on an informational network that spans individual brains and perhaps even different forms of life.
We can find all sorts of experiments that point to correspondence of physical activity in the brain with thoughts and memory. Wilder Penfield in the 1950’s discovered electrical stimulation of various points in the brain elicited specific memories in the subject on a repeatable basis. Penfield also mapped the parts of the brain associated with our perception of our body. Researchers have found they can predict decisions by subjects several seconds before they happened by measuring brain signals. (1) Brain patterns can be associated with lying, addictive behavior, mental deterioration, and behavioral disorders.
At one time, it was thought that almost every thought, memory, or action might be reduced to some group of neurons in the brain. Mind would be effectively reduced to the underlying neurons.
That effort has been largely abandoned. Even the most die-hard materialists and reductionists acknowledge that the way the brain works is more complicated than that. Even Daniel Dennett, one of the more prominent of former reductionists, now says:
“I’m trying to undo a mistake I made some years ago, and rethink the idea that the way to understand the mind is to take it apart into simpler minds and then take those apart into still simpler minds until you get down to minds that can be replaced by a machine. This is called homuncular functionalism, because you take the whole person. You break the whole person down into two or three or four or seven sub persons that are basically agents. They’re homunculi, and this looks like a regress, but it’s only a finite regress, because you take each of those in turn and you break it down into a group of stupider, more specialized homunculi, and you keep going until you arrive at parts that you can replace with a machine, and that’s a great way of thinking about cognitive science. It’s what good old-fashioned AI tried to do and still trying to do.” (2)
The emerging view even among the materialists is that the brain and presumably mind is much more like a network. Dennett again:
“It’s going to be a connectionist network. Although we know many of the talents of connectionist networks, how do you knit them together into one big fabric that can do all the things minds do? Who’s in charge? What kind of control system? Control is the real key, and you begin to realize that control in brains is very different from control in computers. Control in your commercial computer is very much a carefully designed top-down thing.”(3)
So, according to materialism revised, the brain is a lot more complicated than we realized. It is not quite like a desktop computer but more like some sort of digital neural network. Still the mind is in the brain, right?
There remains still an odd duality in the views of the materialists. On the one hand, they want to argue that mind is an epiphenomenon of brain. On the other hand, they want to say that mind could be lifted out of brain and realized in a computer program, albeit a program not quite like the ones that run our computers.
Douglas Hofstadter, in I Am a Strange Loop, argues that consciousness actually is something like a computer programmatic loop. He writes: “Some philosophers see our inner light, out “I”’s, our humanity, our souls as emanating from the organic chemistry of carbon….By focusing on the medium rather than the message, the pottery rather than the pattern, the typeface rather than the tale, philosophers who claim that something ineffable about carbon’s chemistry is indispensable for consciousness miss the boat.” He goes on quote Daniel Dennett’s rebuff to John Searle: “It ain’t the meat, it’s the motion.” (4)
The argument seems to be that even if though mind might come from carbon it is not dependent on it, that it could exist in some way apart from it. Organization and pattern is everything and there is no reason that consciousness could not exist on other substrates as long as the right pattern is made.
But what other substrates?
Let’s suppose I had an enormously large beach available to me and a team of workers to assist me. Over several days of relatively low tides, my team and I work drawing an elaborate pattern in the sand. Assuming we drew the right pattern, at the moment of completing the last line would we suddenly create a sort of sand consciousness?
Could the water and sewer system of New York City be conscious? Why not if the substrate doesn’t matter? Water flows and is controlled. Pressure goes up and down. Pipes join and split. Could the NYC water and sewer system be one giant Superbowl halftime flush away from consciousness?
What about the East Coast power grid? Are we one optical cable short of a conscious grid? Or perhaps the Internet is a better example? Is the Internet already conscious?
These examples seem absurd but let’s take the “any substrate” argument one step further. Could patterns exist across multiple carbon organisms and create a sort of supra-consciousness? Could there be a Spirit of the Forest, for example? Might Gaia really exist not just in metaphor? If pattern is everything, then I would see no reason to reject it out of hand. I doubt Hofstadter and Dennett would have any of it.
But what should we make of this Michael Persinger experiment?
Persinger took two groups of people and put them in two different rooms and exposed their brains to a rotating magnetic field. The purpose of the magnetic field was to create a “dynamic similarity” between the subjects. He then exposed one of the groups to flashing lights but found it also affected the brain patterns of the other group that was not exposed to the flashing lights. Persinger says: “The development of this experimental procedure could facilitate rational understanding of this class of ‘coincidence’ phenomena…If our inferences and theoretical assumptions are valid then this may be an experimental procedure to manipulate the stimulus–response coincidence between two brains separated by distance.”(5) The “coincidence phenomena” Persinger is referring to are the wide range of anecdotal and experimental evidence relating to ESP and other paranormal events.
Michael Persinger seemingly has demonstrated an entanglement in the brains of humans separated by distance. What could explain this except that the brain and mind are operating in a bigger network and that boundaries, such as skulls, are not boundaries to mind?
Hofstadter, Dennett, and the others are right that the pattern is important but, in the case of life and consciousness, the substrate of complex carbon based molecules is key to the pattern. Mind is not separate and apart from matter. Mind is a layer of the neural carbon-based network, not something that can be ripped out of it. What’s more mind exists apparently not just in single isolated brains but in a network of carbon based molecules that compose life.
Persinger in a lecture in 2011 goes on to argue for a unique role for the Earth’s electromagnetic field. He says that our brains in effect resonate to the frequency of the Earth’s magnetic field and that we are actually capable of sharing information with each other using it as a medium. He points to evidence that ESP experiments seem to work better during periods of low Earth electromagnetic activity.
The presence of an electromagnetic field on a planet is regarded by some as a requirement for the development of life on the planet. Without the Earth’s electromagnetic field, life would be destroyed by harmful solar and cosmic radiation. Persinger’s experiment suggests that electromagnetism may have an additional role to play as a medium for information transmission.
Is it possible that part of the network infrastructure for both life and mind is the Earth’s electromagnetism?
In 2011 two astrophysicists reported a controversial discovery that electromagnetism as a force is not constant throughout the universe. One of the researchers writes that the discovery “could help explain why it was possible for life (at least as we know it) to develop on Earth, but not in other parts of the universe.” (6) The electromagnetic force they are talking about is not the Earth’s electromagnetic field but rather the force that bind electrons to nuclei in atoms. However, an alteration in that force might actually cause atoms and molecules to behave differently in other parts of the universe than they do on Earth. Carbon, in other parts of the universe, might not be able to bind itself together into the complex molecules of life. Electromagnetism may be some essential element in the network connectivity that allows life and eventually mind to come about.
4- Hofstadter, Douglas. I Am a Strange Loop. Basic Books. New York,, 2007. p 194-195.
5- Persinger, M. A., Saroka, K. S., Lavallee, C. F., Booth, J.M., Hunter, M.D., Mulligan, B. P., Koren, S. A., Wu-H.P. and Gang, N. (2010). “Correlated cerebral events between physically and sensor isolated pairs of subjects exposed to yoked circumcerebral magnetic fields.” Neuroscience Letters, 486, 231-234.
This is an interesting topic, but I think this post has highlighted some of the areas in which we seem to disagree.
I’m not sure that you characterise Dennett or Hofstadter’s positions the same way that I would. First of all, after your quote of Dennett’s, that seems to suggest that homuncular functionalism is a mistake, at the start of the very next paragraph he says: “The idea is basically right, but when I first conceived of it, I made a big mistake… each neuron, far from being a simple logical switch, is a little agent with an agenda, and they are much more autonomous and much more interesting than any switch.”
What I remember from reading Hofstadter’s books is him saying that the pattern is the most important thing for consciousness, particularly self-referential patterns that he calls “strange loops”. If the internet, power grid, or even a sewer system somehow had the power to represent itself, and change its behaviour based on observations of itself, I think he may very well consider these things having at least some minimal consciousness. Much as I think I would.
The thing about patterns is that they aren’t dependent on the substrate. With the power of “representation” and “meaning” we can describe the patterns of molecular structures with diagrams, and we can describe the patterns of neurons and connections with diagrams. With the pattern described in a different medium, all that’s left is to get an adequately accurate mathematical description of the interactions. For me, the main question that remains is: what pattern and what interactions are actually doing the ‘work’? If I had to hazard a guess, I would say the pattern of neurons and synapses is enough. I think the harder question, which is quite possibly close to getting answered, is: what are the interactions, processes and characteristics of these neurons and connections that are important, and what at accuracy do they need to be reproduced to get close enough functional equivalence?
I think Persinger’s work is a case of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. I’m open to being shown that information can be transmitted through the Earth’s magnetic field directly between human brains. But it will take more than his experiments, even if he claims to have been rigorous, to convince me. If the trial described in this paper is anything to go on, his work might see enough attention for me to feel justified in my scepticism or change my mind.
Thanks for commenting.
Regarding Persinger, I find the claims in the talk rather extraordinary also; however, I can readily accept the experiment with magnetic fields and flashing lights. Persinger has been working for years on the effect of magnetic fields on the brain and developed what is sometimes called the God helmet. He found he could produce aspects of various religious states with magnetic fields on the temporal lob. Generally I regarded his work as representing evidence that the mind is in the brain; however, the experiment with people separated shows that something more complicated seems to be occurring and he seems to be thinking that too.
I think what we eventually will find that magnetic behavior in DNA and other organic biological substances is intimately involved with life and mind. This is the main reason I keep going back to the carbon-based substrate argument. The simulation of consciousness may only be able to be done with carbon-based, life molecules because only carbon-based, life molecules can create the pattern.
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