Howardism Musings from my Awakening Dementia
My collected thoughts flamed by hubris
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Great Howardism. I'm glad to see that you have gotten back on track lately with blogging. Hopefully your train of thoughts won't derail and be delayed for another month!

As I was reading this post I was trying my best to criticize your argument as I am mostly a materialist at heart… or in my mind… whatever. As the issue of immortality came up I immediately was like, AH HA! but what state would our brain be uploaded from. And then in the last paragraph you regurgitated my very thoughts. Truly amazing. But perhaps the answer is that we upgrade upon death to bigger and better hardware, with software that is more user friendly. A "Deep Thought" sort of supercomputer that is all-knowing.


The Mystery of the Mind

I just finished last week's Philosophy Talk debate with Dr. John Searle on The Mystery of the Mind, and am puzzled by the issue. I can say with a certain amount of smugness, that we computer scientists have figured it out. Well, we haven't completely got it figured out, but we have a really good model… software.

I believe that most people can see the logic in this model of the brain. Software can not run without hardware, and hardware, without software, doesn't do anything. The mind infuses itself into the brain to complete the individual. Pull the plug or stop the heart, and the software fades from existence. You can't see the mind just like you can't see a software program, it exists and operates in the states of the hardware hosting it… well, I guess you can see it, but it just doesn't look the same way as we experience it.

When I am writing a program, I see it in two ways… first as code and second as experiences of the results of the running the program. Often the only experience of a program is seeing a single green bar that means it is running properly.

I guess the materialists feel that the brain is the program, but I'm not so sure.

One upon a time, the "program" for a computer was hard-wired into the hardware of the computer. The "data" (state), obviously, was not, but was stored in "memory" to be recalled or used. The big break came when we realized that the program was nothing more than data and could be stored in memory as well. In fact, we can write programs that alter our programs.

As an example, start up a spreadsheet program. You can enter data into any of those square cells, but you can also enter formulas and more advanced little programs in there as well. I used to write programs in some cells that could alter the program in other cells. We don't do this too often because it is a bitch to debug and get running properly. Besides, with all of the bugs running in your system, do you want to start something that smacks of being indeterministic?

I have read enough science fiction to believe that we can program consciousness or self-awareness, and that when we do, the world will flip upside-down. The skeptics believe that it isn't possible… ever. I guess time and the effort of a lot of sweaty geeks will tell, but our initial "mind models" show promise.

Back in school we were programming neural nets which renders a collection of brain neurons in software. Usually a decision has a binary outcome… true or false, but a neuron can have many connections and each connection can associate weights for each connection… wait a minute, I'm explaining irrelevant details. Let me just say that typical programs do exactly as they are programmed, but these neural nets can come to conclusions that weren't pre-programmed. They can learn.

Here's the rub with this model that Searle touched on… intentionality. I can choose to think about the ideas that David Hume thought about over a hundred years ago… how is that possible in what appears to be nothing more than a sophisticated response engine. Actually, there are lots of philosophers and Calvin religionists who don't believe that intentionality is real. They believe that we have no will or choice, but are just responding to stimulus. Granted, that stimulus may due a previous thought that was due to a previous thought… but that ultimately all actions we make are due to the stimulus on our brain (and this would include chemical reactions in the body as well as sense stimulus).

I know, I hate that concept of determinism, so I'm just going to ignore it for more happy thoughts.

Let's get back to the state which is often confused (sometimes rightly and sometimes not) with the data. Close down your spreadsheet program and start up your word processing program. The program was "stored" on your hardware in a "clean state" that appears every time your run it. You then have to start giving some operations in order for that program to hold the "state" of your novel you've been writing.

We have a concept of serializing the entire state of a program to disk, and then bringing it back to that same state. Think of the "hibernate" aspect of your operating system… you hit a key and the entire state of the system is serialized to the hard disk. Next time you start your computer, instead of displaying an empty desktop, all of the programs you were running, and all of their states are show exactly as when you left it.

And it is this concept that may give you some hope in immortality. Perhaps there is a USB port that can serialize the entire state of your brain to some storage device that can then be used to de-serialize it. Oh sure, unlike computer hardware, our brains are similar, but not exact, and for serialization to work, the hardware structure needs to be exactly the same.

But there is the issue of brain degeneration. If the brain degenerates, the software running on it starts to degenerate as well. So if God is serializing our brain state and calling it a soul, I hope he backs me up regularly. Then She could decide which of my backups were the best one to reinstall. I wonder, would She choose the same me that I would?

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So … if the grey matter is the hardware, and our (sub)conscious is software, it makes sense that when the hardware degrades, the software can't keep up. Buffer overruns, null pointers-- I've had those experiences.

Two questions, to push the edges of the metaphor:

  • Can the software harm the hardware? For example, I can write code that would fry my monitor by changing modes too quickly; can I have thoughts or knowledge that break me?

  • From a dualistic perspective, would this mean there's something akin to read-only, and random access memory? Like, a CD (the soul) verses a hard drive (everything else). For example, if my hard drive dies a terrible death, I can still take the data on my CDs to another computer. Reincarnation, of sorts?

I suppose the monist would argue that there is no CD; the Christian would say the CD will outlive the hard drive and spend eternity in the trash can or hobknobbing with The Great Mainframe depending on it's performance while on the computer; and the Buddhist would simply say "Hey, this CD is great. It can be installed anywhere."

Hmm. Maybe it isn't so strange that a lot of Linux proponents are Buddhists. Just thoughts!


I'm glad you brought the division between the firmware/PROM and the RAM. When you write up a neural net, the neurons have weights/values automatically assigned… the default values. Granted, they are often random and useless, but what if some of the weights were actually preprogrammed in because those organisms, upon birth, that could immediately run away from the marauding wolves and would be better able to procreate. In other words, instinct.

The Neanderthal brain was larger than ours, but if it was mostly predefined instinct that couldn't be upgraded, and ours was mainly RAM that could be used to better adapt to changing environments, that may be the reason for eventual extinction of our Neanderthal brothers.

—Howard the Author


On determinism-- I subscribe to the notion that choice is an illusion. I think I might be able to start with this, and get back to a comment on the hardware/software model of the mind.

I believe my belief of choice is an illusion comes from my (fading) memory of research I've read about. In one, the research was using individuals where the corpus callosum has been partially or completely severed: the individual, or at least, their left hemisphere, insisted it was their whim and choice as to why they performed specific tasks. For example, the question would be asked "Why did you get up and get a cup of tea." The real answer was that the right hemisphere had been informed that they were to get up and go get a cup of tea, and then return to their seat. The answer given in this case was "Because I was thirsty, and just felt I wanted a cup of tea." From all observations, the individual (or at least, the speaking half of their mind) insisted it was a choice they had made.

In another, measurements of exactly when the perceived time of a choice, for example, to raise one's hand, was actually after neural activity had already started to initiate muscle activity. How could it be that "Mind" chose, when the brain was already well on it's way to making sure it happened?

The way this has shaped my belief is this: as our minds follow the strange attractor of chemical and electrical mathematical space, our consciousness and awareness-- Mind-- bubble up and out. Take a state snapshot (the CD), and it is no longer mind, because the time aspect is such an important part of this. Even further, it's not so much the software that is mind, but rather, the process of running the software. I guess what I'm trying to say, as an analogy, (One that comes to mind-- sic) is that Mind is the heat coming from the back of the computer, and not the software, and not the hardware.

I'm also not sure it's as simple as a computer, and hard drive. Using the CD analogy, I suspect the the CD and hard drive of the mind consist of the bass line and drums (E.G, it sets the beat of the mind), but lack the melody lines, the lead, and the lyrics (E.G, the mood of the mind). I also imagine there would be compatibility issues; I think I might be running the 68000 model, and my program probably would be pretty useless on my wife's IA64 architecture (Unless someone writes a nice emulator.)

—Trent Tobler