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Thursday, October 6, 2016

The locus of Mind

I recently finished this excellent book. Is biological consciousness wholly neural, "brainbound?"

Patricia Churchland is touted as a "neurophilosopher." Lots of good neuroscience here, along with great philosophical musings, as well as bioevolution and social/cultural anthropology stuff.
I should again note that the word "philosophy" properly denotes "filo" (love of) "sophia" (knowledge), notwithstanding its rep as 50-dollar-word laden obtuse intellectual snobbery. i.e., properly the "science" of cognition and moral reasoning.
From the Amazon blurb.
A trailblazing philosopher’s exploration of the latest brain science—and its ethical and practical implications.

What happens when we accept that everything we feel and think stems not from an immaterial spirit but from electrical and chemical activity in our brains? In this thought-provoking narrative—drawn from professional expertise as well as personal life experiences—trailblazing neurophilosopher Patricia S. Churchland grounds the philosophy of mind in the essential ingredients of biology. She reflects with humor on how she came to harmonize science and philosophy, the mind and the brain, abstract ideals and daily life.

Offering lucid explanations of the neural workings that underlie identity, she reveals how the latest research into consciousness, memory, and free will can help us reexamine enduring philosophical, ethical, and spiritual questions: What shapes our personalities? How do we account for near-death experiences? How do we make decisions? And why do we feel empathy for others? Recent scientific discoveries also provide insights into a fascinating range of real-world dilemmas—for example, whether an adolescent can be held responsible for his actions and whether a patient in a coma can be considered a self.

Churchland appreciates that the brain-based understanding of the mind can unnerve even our greatest thinkers. At a conference she attended, a prominent philosopher cried out, “I hate the brain; I hate the brain!” But as Churchland shows, he need not feel this way. Accepting that our brains are the basis of who we are liberates us from the shackles of superstition. It allows us to take ourselves seriously as a product of evolved mechanisms, past experiences, and social influences. And it gives us hope that we can fix some grievous conditions, and when we cannot, we can at least understand them with compassion.
apropos, along comes an interesting article on the topic.

Where is your mind? 
Where does your thinking occur? Where are your beliefs? René Descartes thought that the mind was an immaterial soul, housed in the pineal gland near the centre of the brain. Nowadays, by contrast, we tend to identify the mind with the brain. We know that mental processes depend on brain processes, and that different brain regions are responsible for different functions. However, we still agree with Descartes on one thing: we still think of the mind as (in a phrase coined by the philosopher of mind Andy Clark) brainbound, locked away in the head, communicating with the body and wider world but separate from them. And this might be quite wrong. I’m not suggesting that the mind is non-physical or doubting that the brain is central to it; but it could be that (as Clark and others argue) the mind extends beyond the brain.

To begin with, there is a strong case for thinking that many mental processes are essentially embodied. The brainbound view pictures the brain as a powerful executive, planning every aspect of behaviour and sending detailed instructions to the muscles. But, as work in robotics has illustrated, there are more efficient ways of doing things, which nature almost certainly employs. The more biologically realistic robots perform basic patterns of movement naturally, in virtue of their passive dynamics, without the use of motors and controllers. Intelligent, powered control is then achieved by continuously monitoring and tweaking these bodily processes, sharing the control task between brain and body. Similarly, rather than passively gathering information to construct a detailed internal model of the external world, it is more efficient for the control system to keep actively probing the world (to ‘use the world as its own model’, as the roboticist Rodney Brooks puts it), gathering just enough information at each step to advance the task at hand. Such a strategy relies essentially on body activity. 

As well as being embodied, mental processes can also be extended to incorporate external artefacts. Clark and fellow philosopher of mind David Chalmers propose what’s since been called the Parity Principle, which says that if an external artefact performs a function that we would regard as mental if it occurred within the head, then the artefact is (for the time being) genuinely part of the user’s mind. To illustrate this, Clark and Chalmers describe two people each trying to work out where various shapes fit in a puzzle. One does it in his head, forming and rotating mental images of the shapes, the other by pressing a button to rotate shapes on a screen. Since the first process counts as mental, the second should too, Clark and Chalmers argue. What matters is what the object does, not where it is located. (Compare how a portable dialysis machine can be part of a person’s excretory system.) The rationale is the same as that for identifying the mind with the brain rather than the soul; the mind is whatever performs mental functions.  

The Parity Principle doesn’t apply only to processes we can in fact perform in our heads. Think about doing a long division with pen and paper. Few of us can do this in our heads, holding all the stages in memory, but if we could, we would certainly regard it as a mental process, so – applying the Parity Principle – we should regard the pen-and-paper process as a mental one, too. An extension can also be an enhancement.

Language is a particularly powerful means of extension and enhancement, serving, in Clark’s phrase, as scaffolding that allows the biological brain to achieve things it could not do on its own. Linguistic symbols provide new focuses of attention, enabling us to track features of the world we would otherwise have missed, and structured sentences highlight logical and semantic relations, allowing us to develop new, more abstract reasoning procedures (as in long division). With pen or laptop, we can construct extended patterns of thought and reasoning that we could never formulate with our bare brains. In writing, we are not simply recording our thinking but doing the thinking. (As the physicist Richard Feynman once observed: ‘I actually did the work on the paper.’)

Clark and Chalmers propose that mental states, such as beliefs, can also be located externally. They imagine a character, Otto, who has Alzheimer’s disease and uses a notebook to store the information he needs to guide his daily activities. When he needs to recall an address, Otto consults his notebook instead of his biological memory, and Clark and Chalmers suggest that the notebook literally contains his belief about the address. It functions as an external memory (like a flash drive) linked to the rest of Otto’s mind via a perceptual interface. Clark and Chalmers stress that the link must be tight in order for the notebook to have this status: Otto must have it constantly with him, must be able to access its contents easily, and must trust what is written there. (Thus, the contents of the reference books stored on the shelves in his house are not counted as his beliefs.) Of course, the belief in Otto’s notebook is not a conscious one (until Otto consults the book), but neither are the beliefs stored in our brains until we call them to mind.

As the philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett notes, many elderly people are in Otto’s position, relying on a host of cues around the home to guide them through their daily routines, reminding them of what to do, and when, and how. As their memories fail, they have offloaded work onto the external environment, and taking them from their homes is, as Dennett puts it in Kinds of Minds (1996): ‘literally separating them from large parts of their minds – potentially just as devastating a development as undergoing brain surgery’.

You might want to ask why we should think of minds extending into bodies and artefacts, rather than merely interacting with them. Does it make any difference? One answer is that, in the cases described, brain, body and world are not acting as separate interacting systems, but as a coupled system, tightly meshed by complex feedback relations, and that we need to look at the whole in order to understand how the process unfolds. (It’s worth noting, too, that the brain itself is a collection of coupled subsystems.)

Of course, we think of ourselves as being situated in our heads. But that is because of how our perceptual systems model the world and our location in it (reflecting the location of our eyes and ears), not because our brains happen to be in there. Imagine (if it isn’t too gruesome) having your living brain temporarily removed from your skull, nerve connections intact, so that you could hold it and look at it. You would still seem to be in your head, even though your brain was in your hand.

If the mind is not bounded by the brain or the skin, where does it stop? What is the boundary line? The short answer is that there isn’t one – not a stable one, at any rate. The mind expands and shrinks. Sometimes (in silent thought, for example) mental activity is confined to the brain, but often it loops out into the body and external world. It’s a slippery thing, which can’t be contained.

Aeon counter – do not remove
Keith Frankish

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
"If the mind is not bounded by the brain or the skin, where does it stop? What is the boundary line? The short answer is that there isn’t one..."

Yeah, paraphrasing Zukav: "Everything is part of that which is. Even that which is not is part of that which is. Even if that which is is an "illusion," even that illusion is." - The Dancing Wu Li Masters

See also my post "A speculation on the afterlife."


Really? We going all  techno "GAIA" now? From Jeff Stibel's interesting book.

Throughout this book, the internet has been used as an analog to the brain because both are complex networks. But there are even more fundamental similarities, which I would argue are evidence that the internet is not merely like a brain but is a brain. While not central to the concept of breakpoint, these ideas are significant in developing a full understanding of the potential of the internet, especially as it relates to artificial intelligence. 

The important question is this: Could the internet itself be made to perform more like a brain or even perform the functions of a brain— just as a hearing aid performs the function of the inner ear, or a contact lens performs the function of the cornea, or an artificial heart performs the function of that biological muscle? 

A computer is generally a poor analogy to a brain. It’s true that semiconductors switch on and off like neurons, and that fibers of glass can transmit messages like synapses and axons, but that’s where the analogy ends. Our computers are not nearly as analogous to the brain as, for example, an artificial heart is to a real heart. 

The internet, however, is unlike anything humankind has built before. All of our previous inventions— steam locomotives, television sets, cars— are inert. Chessboards and baseball stadiums may flicker to life momentarily, but go dark when the game is done. The internet is different. It’s unbounded, self-perpetuating, and capable of collective consciousness. It’s more like the crowd watching the baseball game than the stadium itself. 

Of course, every innovation that delivers something greater than the sum of its parts is miraculous. Alexander Graham Bell attached two small drums to two wire coils and out of those bits created something beyond the sum of the parts: sound. But the telephone did not go on to replicate and improve itself. The internet can and does. And beyond that, the internet learns. It processes information, shapes it, transmits it. It remembers some things, forgets others, and constantly loops whatever it has again and again, spinning it in as many ways and in as many directions as one could imagine. 

Without a strong understanding of what a brain actually is, it may seem preposterous to say that the internet is a brain. The internet is not the three-pound wrinkled gray glob that most of us conjure up as an image of the brain. Actually, that’s not even what the brain is. The brain is nearly 60 percent white matter— the tissue that connects neurons— with only the remainder being the gray stuff we typically think of. The gray matter contains the all-important neurons, but the connections are equally important. 

Outside of the deep ridges and two hemispheres, most people wouldn’t recognize a brain if presented with one. The brain is very soft, almost jellylike, and ivory in color with deep burgundy-colored veins. The brain doesn’t take on a firm gray appearance until it’s dead, bloodless, and preserved. This visual distinction is important because it tells us that a living brain is consuming massive amounts of energy in the form of blood flow. 

But even that description is somewhat misleading. In the way the brain actually functions, it is far more similar to a piece of paper. The paper represents the outermost area of the brain, the cerebral cortex. It is here that most of the magic of thought takes place. Imagine this piece of paper: thin, rectangular, and mostly blank to start. On the paper are bits of information that grow as the brain is formed, like braille embossed on the page. Those are the neurons, and they help to store and process information. 

The ingenuity of the brain comes not from the informational elements but from how that information is physically connected. Imagine crumpling the piece of paper into a ball. Two dots at either end of the page are far away from each other initially. But as you crumple the paper, the dots get closer. Crumple it enough times, and every point will be in striking distance of every other point. Our brains are folded and crumpled into our skulls in just this manner, and their unique power comes from the ability to connect disparate pieces of information for quick communication and interdisciplinary learning. 

In terms of the computer industry, the human brain is a sophisticated “parallel processing” machine. That means that it does a number of things at the same time, unlike “serial computing” in which one thing happens, then another, and then another. Neuroscientists call this “distributed computing,” meaning that since the functions of the brain are distributed all over the place, things can happen simultaneously. (“ Distributed” is a more accurate term than “parallel” because parallel computing conjures up the idea of two unbending parallel lines, like railroad tracks, whereas “distributed” is a freewheeling image that describes more accurately how the brain actually works.)
A neuron consists of the soma, an axon, and dendrites. Think of the soma as the center of the neuron or the information clearinghouse. The axon acts as a transmitter, sending information from one neuron to another. The dendrites receive information from other neurons. Neurons communicate with one another through electrical and chemical transmitters. These tightly packed neurons work together in a distributed network, forming patterns that allow us to perform tasks such as walking, speaking, remembering someone’s name, and even reading this book.
Stibel, Jeff (2013-07-23). Breakpoint: Why the Web will Implode, Search will be Obsolete, and Everything Else you Need to Know about Technology is in Your Brain (Kindle Locations 2338-2378). St. Martin's Press. Kindle Edition.
'eh? Yet another intriguing read. Implications for "AI" at every turn.

Sam Harris: Can we build AI without losing control over it?

@~5:30: "We will continue to improve our intelligent machines. And given the value of intelligence -- I mean, intelligence is either the source of everything we value or we need it to safeguard everything we value. It is our most valuable resource. So we want to do this. We have problems that we desperately need to solve. We want to cure diseases like Alzheimer's and cancer. We want to understand economic systems. We want to improve our climate science. So we will do this, if we can. The train is already out of the station, and there's no brake to pull..."
Recall Gerd Leonhard's "Digital Ethics," anyone?


apropos of "neural" stuff, some news from Jeff and April's startup.

April is my sister's elder daughter. I am way close with my sis and her kids. April's husband Jeff Nyquist is this brainiac dude with a PhD in neuropsychology from Vanderbilt. A core focus of their VR-assisted technology is concussion prevention, mitigation, and remediation in the "collision sports."

They reportedly recently scored their first major sports league client contract, with the NHL Nashville Predators.

Their tagline is "Train From the Neck UP."

Bears watching.

More to come...

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