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