transferThe new film Self/less is based around the transfer of consciousness. An old man buys a new body to transfer into, and then finds that contrary to what he was told, it wasn’t grown specially: there was an original tenant who moreover, isn’t really gone. I understand that this is not a film that probes the metaphysics of the issue very deeply; it’s more about fight scenes; but the interesting thing is how readily we accept the idea of transferred consciousness.
In fact, it’s not at all a new idea; if memory serves, H.G.Wells wrote a short story on a similar theme; a fit young man with no family is approached by a rich old man in poor health who apparently wants to leave him all his fortune; then he finds himself transferred unwillingly to the collapsing ancient body and the old man making off in his fresh young one. In Wells’ version the twist is that the old man gets killed in a chance traffic accident, thereby dying before his old body does anyway.
The thing is, how could a transfer possibly work? In Wells’ story it’s apparently done with drugs, which is mysterious; more normally there’s some kind of brain-transfer helmet thing. It’s pretty much as though all you needed to do was run an EEG and then reverse the polarity. That makes no sense. I mean, scanning the brain in sufficient detail is mind-boggling to begin with, but the idea that you could then use much the same equipment to change the content of the mind is in another league of bogglement. Weather satellites record the meteorology of the world, but you cannot use them to reset it. This is why uploading your mind to a computer, while highly problematic, is far easier to entertain than transferring it to another biological body.
The big problem is that part of the content of the brain is, in effect, structural. It depends on which neurons are attached to which (and for that matter, which neurons there are), and on the strength and nature of that linkage. It’s true that neural activity is important too, and we can stimulate that electrically; even with induction gear that resembles the SF cliché: but we can’t actually restructure the brain that way.
The intuition that transfers should be possible perhaps rests on an idea that the brain is, as it were, basically hardware, and consciousness is essentially software; but isn’t really like that. You can’t run one person’s mind on another’s brain.
There is in fact no reason to suppose that there’s much of a read-across between brains: they may all be intractably unique. We know that there tends to be a similar regionalisation of functions in the brain, but there’s no guarantee that your neural encoding of ‘grandmother’ resembles mine or is similarly placed. Worse, it’s entirely possible that the ‘meaning’ of neural assemblages differs according to context and which other structures are connected, so that even if I could identify my ‘grandmother’ neurons, and graft them in in place of yours, they would have a different significance, or none.
Perhaps we need a more sophisticated and bespoke approach. First we thoroughly decipher both brains, and learn their own idiosyncratic encoding works. Then we work out a translator. This is a task of unimaginable complexity and particularity, but it’s not obviously impossible in principle. I think it’s likely that for each pair of brains you would need a unique translator: a universal one seems such an heroic aspiration that I really doubt its viability: a universal mind map would be an achievement of such interest and power that merely transferring minds would seem like time-wasting games by comparison.
I imagine that even once a translator had been achieved, it would normally only achieve partial success. There would be a limit to how far you could go with nano-bot microsurgery; and there might be certain inherent limitations. Certain ideas, certain memories, might just be impossible to accommodate in the new brain because of their incompatibility with structural or conceptual issues that were too deeply embedded to change; there would be certain limitations. The task you were undertaking would be like the job of turning Pride and Prejudice into Don Quixote simply by moving the words around and perhaps in a few key cases allowing yourself one or two anagrams: the result might be recognisable, but it wouldn’t be perfect. The transfer recipient would believe themselves to be Transferee, but they would have strange memory gaps and certain cognitive deficits, perhaps not unlike Alzheimer’s, as well as artefacts: little beliefs or tendencies that existed neither in Transferee or Recipient, but were generated incidentally through the process of reconstruction.
It’s a much more shadowy and unappealing picture, and it makes rather clearer the real killer: that though Recipient might come to resemble Transferee, they wouldn’t really be them.
In the end, we’re not data, or a program; we’re real and particular biological entities, and as such our ontology is radically different. I said above that the plausibility of transfers comes from thinking of consciousness as data, which I think is partly true: but perhaps there’s something else going on here; a very old mental habit of thinking of the soul as detachable and transferable. This might be another case where optimists about the capacity of IT are unconsciously much less materialist than they think.

47 Comments

  1. 1. Jorge says:

    The movie Advantageous (2015) explores this topic more interestingly than Self/less. It reaches a similar conclusion to yours: “the real killer: that though Recipient might come to resemble Transferee, they wouldn’t really be them.”

    However, the movie is also terrifying because a company convinces people that the process does exactly that- copypasta the soul as it were.

    I always ask people the question: does the idea of consciousness transfer without memory transfer make sense to you?

    The gist is this: I strap you and Jack to a machine much like in these movies, and then flip a switch. You both step out, and I claim to have switched your consciousnesses. However, I haven’t switched you memories, so you will immediately disbelieve me, since Jack in Your Body will have all the memories associated with your personal identity. This thought experiment is an attempt at deconflating the notions of memory and consciousness, but what it really reveals is that the line demarcating the two concepts is far from clear.

    Even more intriguing is that you can get weird cognitive dissonance- let’s say I reject the above and claim that memories are integral to what consciousness is. Well, what about a though experiment where I somehow erase all your memories in your current brain? Have I killed your consciousness? Am I murderer in some sense, or merely a very unethical neuroscientist?

  2. 2. Arnold Trehub says:

    Consciousness, memory, and personality involve separate brain processes.

  3. 3. Callan S. says:

    Jorge,

    does the idea of consciousness transfer without memory transfer make sense to you?

    In context, yes, because the emotional core structures could be the thing transfered. You say you’ve done the transfer – maybe I’m a trusting galoot all the way down and despite how many memories (not mine) flash in my mind of scams, I say you seem a reasonable guy and must be tellin’ the truth!

    Granted, you could say the emotional core structures are a kind of memory themselves. At that point the context changes though.

    I think I’ve said it here before – I think the closest you get to transfer is migration. New synaptic material (likely largely artificial) and the old/original synapses program the new over time/living. Then when the original dies – well, then whatever is there is amonst its own child at that point.

    I don’t have much issue with model, myself.

  4. 4. Sci says:

    Good post Peter. Mind uploading is just a new dualism, though it seems to me the old dualists may have had a more coherent argument than the adherents of the Singularity religion.

  5. 5. Jorge says:

    Arnold, I tend to agree, but it’s bizarre to think someone might switch my consciousness with yours and I would never know it. I would believe I’ve always been Arnold Trehub and you would believe you’d always been me. If personality and memory are not getting transferred, then it immediately leads us to ask: what the heck is consciousness doing? Why is it even there? After doing the consciousness switch, would I make different decisions or change in some manner? Would Arnold Trehub eventually develop a completely unexplainable fixation with Magic: the Gathering and the works of HP Lovecraft?

    In your view, (with the caveat that your view probably doesn’t allow for transferring the autaptic cells of the retinoic system across individulas like a Windows plug and play device) it wouldn’t have much functional effect- it’s essentially just acting as the “center” (0,0,0) correct?

  6. 6. Peter says:

    When we talk about memory, don’t we normally mean a conscious recollection – a presentation to consciousness of some content related to the past?

  7. 7. Arnold Trehub says:

    Peter, don’t you think that we must have a vast store of pre-conscious memories to which we have access in order for them to be experienced as current conscious recollections?

  8. 8. Arnold Trehub says:

    Jorge, what would be transferred, according to the retinoid model, is the total current activation pattern of retinoid space. If the donor was experiencing the delusion “I am Napoleon”, the recipient would have a fleeting experience of the same delusion.

  9. 9. Jorge says:

    Peter, I’m with Arnold here: there are two separate things, the memory itself (presumably stored as synaptic connections of specified strengths) and the phenomenal experience of remembering a given memory. So, right now somewhere in my brain is a list of the structures of all 20 amino acids, but since I’m not actively trying to remember them, they’re not in my conscious workspace. The interesting thing about Arnold’s view is that despite seeming dualistic, it’s not necessarily: the phenomenal frame is specifically tied to a population of cells that can be torn from their memory context and place in a new one. It also shows the inherent problem with any kind of mind uploading fantasy: transferring memories into an emulated brain isn’t the same as transferring consciousness.

  10. 10. Peter says:

    Yes, I agree that in a reasonable sense we must have unconscious memories. But wouldn’t you say that the normal test of whether we can remember something is whether we can bring it into consciousness? So I hesitate to say that consciousness is not part of the process of memory.

  11. 11. Jorge says:

    Well, intuitively, yes. But there’s two components to memory: the actual content and the “pointer” to borrow a Comp Sci term. I have many times “known” that I have a piece of information in my head, but can’t immediately recall it. I have to let my brain struggle for a while to find it. So, in a sense, I “have” the memory even though I may not be able to recall it to conscious experience because of a missing neural pointer. Of course, it’s impossible to tell with certainty whether I only feel as though I still have the memory or whether I actually have it. The most I can say is that when I have that experience, it’s a really powerful and strong intuition that it’s “in there somewhere”!

    Another weird thing- often there’s no volition-linked act that results in the memory returning. Sometimes there is (like I will actively go through the alphabet to try and remember the first letter of the target word or try free association with related concepts), but sometimes it just suddenly comes back out of the blue.

    I really wish I knew more about the cellular and molecular processes that are responsible for these kinds of conscious and unconscious recalls.

  12. 12. SASSEE says:

    Jorge says, “I really wish I knew more about the cellular and molecular processes that are responsible for these kinds of conscious and unconscious recalls”

    don’t we all? I am new here, and as best I can figure from reading books as fast as I can, nobody really knows how neurons,etc actually hold information. Until that is understood, it may as well be magic with ghosts inside the machines.

    In my opinion, just to comment on the film and other comments, it would have to be a transfer of memory content only. In my opinion, the actual “me” sensation must be hard-wired to the actual sensory input of a specific body. I base this on something from “I am a strange loop” by Hofstatler, about what happens when a star-trek transporter beam malfunctions and there are two identical beings with the same memories in two locations. The original person is still himself, but there is another person exactly like him with a separate consciousness. A legal nightmare, if this magical fantasy could ever happen, which in my opinion, is not possible, except by imagination. Predicting the long term weather would have seemed possbile a few years ago, but now chaos-theory says it isn’t possible either. Even if we understood the chemistry of memories, we’d never be able to duplicate the millions of billions of molecules in a timely fashion.

    I loved the analogy of changing one book into another!

  13. 13. Hunt says:

    Jorge @11 To me that is one of the oddest aspects of memory, the “pointer” mechanism. Usually, when you can’t recall something, it’s not a question of whether it’s actually there but rather that the “pointer” to memory content is temporarily unresolved or unavailable, forgotten as it were; but it may come back after, say, a good sleep. Very strange that the lookup system itself almost always seems to available with near 100% fidelity. It’s very rare that you “don’t know if you know”, far more common that you “know this but can’t recall”. These two aspects of memory seem so distinct qualitatively that I think it’s a safe bet to consider them distinct neural processes.

  14. 14. SASSEE says:

    Peter Hankins said,
    “The intuition that transfers should be possible perhaps rests on an idea that the brain is, as it were, basically hardware, and consciousness is essentially software; but isn’t really like that. You can’t run one person’s mind on another’s brain.”

    My comment/question concerns the phrase, “but isn’t really like that.” What do you mean? The word “like” doesn’t mean exact, and the fact that you mention “intuition” indicates that even your own understanding thinks it is “like” the hardware/software analogy. I have ordered your book and hope to hear a more coherent opinion about why you say it isn’t like that, and perhaps point me to others who may make this case with more force… because that is exactly how I understand the so-called mind body problem. To say, “you can’t run one person’s mind on another’s brain” is misleading, to say the least. We do in fact, copy code from each other all the time, and like how DNA may not replicate perfectly, we copy the code imperfectly and invent new and better or worse ways of thinking or acting (monkey see, monkey do).

    I want to write my own book, but don’t want to re-invent the wheel if somebody has already explained these things properly. So far, every time I hear someone use “the brain as a computer” analogy, they always end up making statements that it isn’t a valid analogy, which seems a bit retarded to me, since so far, I haven’t heard any real arguments why this frame of understanding isn’t used as a solid basis to explain what consciousness really is. Call me a neo-dualist, perhaps. I am an atheist who does in fact, believe in spirits within our monistic reality. I look forward to reading your book and hope you can help me decide whether to bother writing my own.

    I’d like to add a footnote/correction to my previous note. I said, “Even if we understood the chemistry of memories, we’d never be able to duplicate the millions of billions of molecules in a timely fashion.” I should have included the additional complication that the millions of billions of molecules would have to be arranged in a three dimensional matrix and reconnected with trillions of hard-wired connections that would dwarf the problem of converting “Pride and Prejudice” into “Don Quixote” by a simple cut&paste of words and letters.

  15. 15. Arnold Trehub says:

    Sassee: ” We do in fact, copy code from each other all the time”

    Do you think that what you have just written is a code that I am now copying? Is perceiving and understanding printed English an act of copying?

  16. 16. SASSEE says:

    Yes, very much so. We are spirits living inside a material body. We generate and consume spiritual data. Music is spirit. Words are spirit. How is this not obvious? In my opinion, the reason dualism is rejected so strongly is a dogmatic prejudice against anything that smells like religious dogma. Dualism as explained by Descartes is clearly wrong, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are spirits, ghosts inside our physical machine-like bodies. We are in, but not of, our bodies. In my opinion, this is WHY people of all tribes tend to believe in some variant of divine beings. We know that our bodies are born of physical parents. Since we recognize ourselves as spirits in a material world, it is natural to assume that this spirit must have originated from some type of spiritual father who exists in another realm. That opinion is just as natural to believe as the opinion that the earth is stationary and the sun moves about the sky.

  17. 17. SASSEE says:

    I wouldn’t say that you were copying my code, but only that in reading it, you were consuming it. If it should resonate inside your mind as possibly being the “truth” about something, then you might copy it inside your own understanding and perception of reality. And likely you will modify it according to your existing opinions, since you only heard a fragment of my opinions, and may not understand exactly the content I intended to convey. We understand vastly more than we can put into words, but words are the best we have to transmit our thoughts.

  18. 18. SASSEE says:

    Jorge said, “what about a though experiment where I somehow erase all your memories in your current brain? Have I killed your consciousness? Am I murderer in some sense”

    Well, how would you judge if someone did this to your best friend or mother? Their body may remain, but their person is gone…

    I just found out that the man who invented lobotomy got a nobel prize for doing something approaching this. Supposedly, this was only done to mentally ill folks, but in the case of Frances Farmer, mental illness was a matter of disputed opinion.

  19. 19. Sci says:

    @Sassee: I think it would be a mistake to say that it’s obvious we have souls, or that there is a God from which souls originate. In fact we could have souls but there could be no God, or there could be a God and yet we die and cease to exist (the position Anthony Flew took after his conversion to theism).

    That said, I do think it is obvious that there are aspects of the mental that do, at minimum, present a problem for the hardline materialist – but even then it’s not clear why dualism would be correct over say panpsychism, idealism, or neutral monism.

    Recently I came across a philosopher, Arvan, who studied under Dennet but ended up becoming a dualist regardless. It was pointed out by a friend that this shift was due to a book – “A Place for Consciousness: Probing the Deep Structure of the Natural World” by Gregg Rosenberg.

    He goes into a bit of detail here:

    http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/over-underapprec_philos/2013/07/gregg-rosenberg-on-consciousness-and-causation-underrated-philosophy.html

    On Jorge’s question, you say the person is gone – but would you say the person who suffers from memory loss is no longer a person? Or in the cases where there isn’t total memory loss, does partial memory loss potentially make the person a different person?

    Even in more mundane life we do, after all, forget many things that happen to us yet these still shape who we are. I guess the question of how memory impacts personhood cannot be answered without a better understanding of how much of our personality+character is sustained having some remembrance of the past.

    Last I heard biologists were trying to figure out how worms with their heads chopped off keep their memories, not to mention moths apparently remembering caterpillar days when said caterpillar is dissolved when inside the cocoon.

    Actually, the whole melting of caterpillars in cocoons might be a good way to look at the memory removal process. Is a caterpillar always the same being as the butterfly even if the memories are preserved?

  20. 20. SASSEE says:

    @sci, I realize I did not express my thoughts very carefully, but I don’t think you read them so carefully either. I am not a theist, and didn’t use the word “soul”. And dualism is just another big word, a buzz word with too many opinions that muddy the waters of clarity. I regret using that term,.. but no matter

    Thanks for the mention of the worms, very interesting. I think that’s the key to understanding brain chemistry, to work from the bottom, the simplest brains. I’ll re-read the rest of your comments later.

    FYI, you are constantly becoming a different person(physical and mental), every day, every hour. The changes are so slight, you don’t notice, but if you compare to 10 years ago, this is more obvious.

  21. 21. Sci says:

    @Sassee: Apologies, did not mean to distort what you were saying. Perhaps you could elaborate what you meant by:

    ” Dualism as explained by Descartes is clearly wrong, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are spirits, ghosts inside our physical machine-like bodies. We are in, but not of, our bodies. In my opinion, this is WHY people of all tribes tend to believe in some variant of divine beings. We know that our bodies are born of physical parents. Since we recognize ourselves as spirits in a material world, it is natural to assume that this spirit must have originated from some type of spiritual father who exists in another realm. That opinion is just as natural to believe as the opinion that the earth is stationary and the sun moves about the sky.”

    I guess I’m not sure what distinction you’re making here between souls, spirits, and ghosts-in-the-machine? It seems “dualistic” in the sense that you seem to be separating the mental from the physical but I concede I may be misunderstanding what you meant here.

  22. 22. Cognicious says:

    Sci wrote: “Last I heard biologists were trying to figure out how worms with their heads chopped off keep their memories, not to mention moths apparently remembering caterpillar days when said caterpillar is dissolved when inside the cocoon.

    Actually, the whole melting of caterpillars in cocoons might be a good way to look at the memory removal process. Is a caterpillar always the same being as the butterfly even if the memories are preserved?” [Did you want “are not preserved” here?]

    Not all a caterpillar’s tissues dissolve during metamorphosis. Notably, the nervous system remains intact. At least, that’s what I read somewhere.

    I’ve reared moths and butterflies, and I understand the adult lepidopteran to be “the same one as” the caterpillar from which it came. Of course, my opinion on its identity carries no scientific weight.

  23. 23. Sci says:

    @Cognicious: Ah, I found the study on moth memories:

    http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0001736

    I don’t doubt there must be memories preserved somehow, what I meant to imply by referencing this along with those decapitated worms is how even the memory retention of such lower organisms is not completely understood.

    I feel like it might be decades before we even begin to have a good picture of invertebrate minds let alone our own, though perhaps technological advances in certain fields will quicken the pace.

  24. 24. SASSEE says:

    @Sci, Thanks for the followup. When I said I regret using the word dualism, what I really meant was I regret opening my mouth at all. I only meant to ask Peter why the brain was not like a computer, with the mind like software. That seems to best capture the issue of dualism, and yet there is so much controversy and clamor of pre-existing opinions, I was foolish to begin to express my own in such a forum. I need to continue to study the matter, but keep my personal viewpoint to myself until I can express it fully in a book. I could certainly use some feedback, help and encouragement, but not in an open forum like this.

    I am curious, but dubious about the claims from the worm study, and wonder if they are mistaking something when they claim the memory is restored to the new brain. I need to read more details before I would believe them. That said, let me violate my own words above, and offer another personal opinion. I never learned to type, even as I was employed as a programmer. But a few years ago I tried to write a different book, and decided it was time to learn proper typing skills. It took a while to break the old habits, but in a matter of weeks, I started to be able to type without looking at the keyboard. In the process, I noticed something odd. It was as if the knowledge was within my hands and fingers, and not in my brain. I would think a word and my fingers could just rattle it out without any thought. It felt like magic, somehow. The book was a failure, and my typing skills have since degraded back to an improved version of hunt/peck. I still wonder about that feeling. However neurons work, there are neurons in my fingers as well as in my brain, so maybe some memories are held in the fingers… just an odd impression, that maybe the flatworm only regrew a head and brain, but the memory was never cut off… assuming these researchers have some type of valid memory measuring technique.

  25. 25. Cognicious says:

    Sci wrote: “I don’t doubt there must be memories preserved somehow, what I meant to imply by referencing this along with those decapitated worms is how even the memory retention of such lower organisms is not completely understood.”

    I haven’t seen the worm study, but possibly it’s relevant that the “brain” in some simple animals is decentralized, with some aggregations of important nervous tissue outside the head.

    SASSEE wrote: “I only meant to ask Peter why the brain was not like a computer, with the mind like software.” Although I’m not Peter, I’d like to respond. (1) Why is it always programmers who say the brain is like a computer, hmm? (2) To call the mind a parallel to software is to leave out consciousness entirely. Software doesn’t feel anything. Software is just a carrier of information, a set of instructions like the perforated paper roll that makes a player piano play. (In fact, early computers took punchcards.)

    SASSEE also wrote: “I started to be able to type without looking at the keyboard. In the process, I noticed something odd. It was as if the knowledge was within my hands and fingers, and not in my brain.” That’s how it feels, but the knowledge was still in your brain. Here’s another interesting disconnect between the subjective experience of using one’s hands and what happens anatomically: There are no muscles in fingers. Muscles would make fingers too bulky to be practical. Instead, fingers contain tendons that are worked by muscles in the hand and forearm. But when you move a finger, it feels as if you’re aiming your act of will at that finger or even at the fingertip, not at the actual contractible muscle, which is higher up.

  26. 26. SASSEE says:

    Hi Cognicious, Thanks for the feedback. I had directed my question to Peter, who may or may not choose to respond, but I did it openly, expecting I might get many points of view. As I said to Sci, I had not explained my viewpoint so well, but had merely blurted out some points without much explanation. I don’t disagree that software doesn’t feel anything. This message I am typing doesn’t feel anything either. It’s just a stream of data. But I said a bit more than what you quoted above, if it should interest you.

    Do you say the brain is not somewhat like a computer? hmm? 😉

  27. 27. Cognicious says:

    SASSEE responded: “But I said a bit more than what you quoted above, if it should interest you.”

    Oh, I know. I read all of it.

    “Do you say the brain is not somewhat like a computer? hmm?”

    Hmm. Well, the brain is somewhat like a computer because computers were invented to do some of what the brain does. In the same way, copying a drawing by using a pencil and a sheet of tracing paper is somewhat like copying the drawing by running it through a copy machine. That is, brains and computers are similar by virtue of having functions in common, but it’d be more accurate to say a computer is somewhat like a brain. The computer imitates the brain, not the other way round.

  28. 28. Arnold Trehub says:

    Some designers of computers try to imitate what the brain does. They have not succeeded.

  29. 29. SASSEE says:

    I agree with both of you. Even the brain of an ant makes our best computers look like simplistic toys. Yes, the computer is a poor imitation of the brain, but it does provide a primitive model that can help frame an understanding of consciousness.

  30. 30. Sci says:

    There’ve been some interesting discussions about computationalism in the last few posts. See Sergio’s posts on this blog as I believe he cataloged those discussions rather well, along with elucidating his own position.

    Additionally Peter has some good stuff in his book, which I think is one of the clearest and yet still succinct presentations of the philosophy of mind. Definitely worth a read IMO.

    I would agree with Sergio’s position (or at the least my understanding of it), that while programs are not conscious entities the computational model can be used to help understand how the mind works.

  31. 31. SASSEE says:

    Hi Sci,
    Not sure if your comment was directed to me, but I took a look at “Sergio Resurgent” posted in June. Very thick and long, I saved it as a pdf to maybe read later. My bookshelf is overwhelmed already. I did order Peter’s book.

    I hesitate to express more opinions here, but perhaps one more. Your comment, “programs are not conscious entities” is related to what started the evolution of my thinking about what consciousness really is… I listen to an mp3 player when doing yard work, and one of the songs in my playlist is an old Moody Blues tune that begins with, “I think, therefore, I am… I think.” My memory says this idea came to me in a dream, but maybe it was just an early morning thought that caused me to get out of bed and start writing. The thought was that this statement of Descartes was flawed. It claims that thinking is proof of existence, but that is only true while the entity is actually thinking. A computer can “think” at least by some definition of thinking and can recite these same words, at least as long as it is turned on. This is a fact: all computers must have an operating system. I have heard some experts say otherwise, but they are not speaking precisely. An operating system can be very simple, in the case of microwave oven or an adding machine. In the case of a personal computer, it is large and complex with many layers. It is the high level portion of the operating system that I corrolate to the consciousness, the spirit, the ghost in the machine. The recent film “Her” was based on the same concept, and even referred to its “OS1” as “more than an operating system, it is a consciousness.” (I wrote my ideas in 2010, and thus wasn’t getting my idea from the film, not that it matters, but fyi.)

    Anyhow, the whole purpose of a high level operating system is to provide a user-friendly way to communicate with the computer. I have built small computers with microprocessors and programmed simple operating systems in assembly language, also called machine code, so I can well appreciate the motivation behind creating friendly ways of “talking” to a computer and getting it to do work for you.

    So that is the basis behind my opinion that consciousness is the high level interface that allows our computer-like brains to communicate with each other. It is not a reincarnated spirit, or a separate creation from God, but is self-generated by copying behaviors and understandings from our parents, etc. Thus, consciousness is not something “real” but something generated, a running process not so different from a computer, but vastly greater in complexity, as the representative of a living physical animal with a will to survive and consume. We are not that different from C3PO in Star Wars, a protocol droid.

    But consciousness only exists while you are conscious, period. Just as Windows is only “alive” while the computer is running. When you turn off the computer, and go to sleep, both cease to exist. The human brain never stops running until death, and it likewise has an operating system, but a more low level primitive one. It has total control and can start or stop the “software” that activates consciousness. Of course, it’s whole purpose is to keep us conscious, because without consciousness, we are pretty worthless. But we require sleep, as consciousness is very resource intensive.

    All that stuff about spirits is related, but more complicated to explain, or perhaps just more difficult to understand unless you have an open mind towards the concept. Consciousness itself, is probably little more than some type of hard-wired loop process that is tied to sensory and other forms of input. The whole of personality is more correlated to an ever evolving bundle of software. I said words are spirit, music is spirit, software is also spirit. I refer to consciousness as a living spirit, so maybe that helps differentiate my use of the word spirit.

    So there. That should be enough to confuse everybody. I’m sure everyone understands perfectly and agrees! So be nice, but go ahead and tear it apart! 😀

  32. 32. Sergio Graziosi says:

    @SASSEE
    I think I’m more or less able to connect with your way of using the word “spirit”, and yes of course, you are directly pointing towards the reasons why dualistic thinking comes so natural to us.

    Across your comments, what strikes me is that you seem to be pretty confident that Chalmers’ Hard Problem isn’t that hard, or not even a problem, and if that’s the case I can’t avoid speculating on whether it’s because you are relatively new to the subject.
    In a nutshell, my preferred way to rephrase the hard problem in a way that is almost friendly to my fellow programmers is:
    We have to explain why should some mechanisms (let’s say, physical interactions between stuff) produce an inner feeling. Some lumps of matter contain stuff that interacts is particular ways; these ways, we assume, make the same lumps of matter experience sensations (pain, pleasure, the redness of red, and so on). Mechanisms and inner feelings, how do you link the two, where is the causal connection?

    Some people vaguely gesture towards “information processing”, and because “information” is usually understood as immaterial, this strategy is simultaneously attractive and weak, as it is still dualistic but camouflaged as monist. Some of the people that take this general approach will then reach the point of saying “brains are like computers”, some others will proceed in different directions.

    For now, I’ll address your questions: “why is the brain not like a computer?”(1) and “why the analogies hardware~=brain and software~=mind don’t really hold?”(2).

    (1) there are two aspects here, and a good amount of ambiguity/confusion. Confusion and ambiguity come from two things at least: one could consider the word “computer” to stand for the actual artefacts we use to type text, browse the internet and so forth. You could also consider “computers” in more theoretical ways, and stay firmly in the computer science (CS) domain, as a branch of mathematics. If the latter, everything can be interpreted as a computer and from there things really do get confusing. Thus the first thing we need to clarify is: what do you mean with “the brain is the hardware and mind is the software”?
    Without waiting for your answer, the two aspects of (1) for me are:
    +: Brains are somewhat like computers in that they can be seen as what stands between input and output. You send signals in and get some other signals out. The analogy roughly holds, although in interpreting biological systems you have to arbitrarily decide where the brain begins.
    -: Brains are not at all like computers precisely because within brains, hardware and software aren’t separable. So, it doesn’t really matter if you think in CS terms or you understand computers in a more “ordinary man in the street” way, there is a huge difference between computers and brains, even if some similarities do exist.

    This leads nicely to (2):
    As a biologist, I know a lot of stuff about how neurons are supposed to work; as a programmer, I know plenty of how computers do work, and, despite my efforts here, I see nothing even comparable to software within brains. I can, if pressed, produce hypothetical rules to produce a one-to-one conversion between software and stuff in the brain, but it has to be so mindbogglingly complicated that I see no reason to: the exercise comes with no added explanatory power at all.
    For example, we have some reasons to believe that synapses store information, they are hardware of course (as in: they are physical structures that you can see and touch), but you can start this route by saying, “OK, lets interpret synapses as somewhat similar to the bits stored in the memory of a computer, in one case we have a physical structure that releases chemicals, etc, in the other we have electrical voltages/charges, magnetic fields, etc. It’s still physical stuff, so why not?”. The problem is that you learn nothing in this way: for starters, we know exactly how memory registries influence what’s going to happen in a CPU, but we don’t have anything analogous to the CPU in brains, we have to consider the whole brain as the CPU. Then you get to realise that synapses have different functions, the effects of a synaptic event vary depending on a vast number of variables, and we know that we are not even close to knowing all of these variables. Synapses can be excitatory, inhibitory, can modulate how much neurotransmitter they release, can be potentiated on both pre- and post-synaptic sides, can change the mix of released neurotransmitters and/or receptors, can change how quickly the neurotransmitter is removed from the synaptic cleft and so forth. The list just goes on, and on, and on. So, does the analogy with one or more bits stored in working memory help us out? No, not at all, if you ask me.

    Furthermore, you can certainly map algorithms to certain connectivity patterns in neural networks. As a result, if you change the connections (synapses) and keep the interpretation fixed, you change the algorithm, so you get a hardware change in brains that corresponds to a software change in computers. Of course we know that neural connections change all the time, so we could change our levels of abstraction to follow suit and say: “OK, we consider single connections as ‘software’ and the hardware role is taken by the underlying molecular mechanisms that govern how synapses evolve in time: certain changes can happen if X or Y, while other changes are just not possible because of ‘hardware’ restrictions”. Once again, I’d have to ask: why? What explanatory power did you get out of this? Are we sure we shouldn’t say that “the mechanisms that regulate what synaptic changes are possible is the ‘operative system'” instead?

    I could go on for days, but you get the gist: the hardware/software analogy just doesn’t work for brains. Why would it? We generated the two concepts because they make it “easy” to produce computers that work, they nicely separate our conceptual work of designing hardware and software, making both cognitively manageable. Natural selection doesn’t think, so nothing it produces is designed to be easily cognizable: it would be *very surprising* if hardware and software could be easily separated in biological systems, not the other way round!

    For me, a more promising approach is the mainstream belief across neuroscientists and cognitive neuroscientists, perhaps even psychologists: the mind is what(/one of the things) the brain does. Thus, the mind and all that come with it (including consciousness, phenomenal experience, and so forth) are to be understood as actions, not things. This quickly brings us to a different problem: namely that we don’t really understand what “action” means, ultimately because the essence of time eludes us in a big way. The approach still looks promising to me because we know for sure that thoughts correlate with activity, not static structure, thus, it rings more “true” to me. If you want to be picky, you can still see in this a form of dualism, but at least it is all solidly inside a naturalistic framework, so perhaps a little “less wrong” than more radical dualisms.

    You also are taking a few slippery shortcuts when you say things like

    But consciousness only exists while you are conscious, period. Just as Windows is only “alive” while the computer is running. When you turn off the computer, and go to sleep, both cease to exist.

    In the case of sleeping, you are most likely mistaken, at least for the phases of sleep where we demonstrably dream: we are conscious, but differently so. Importantly: most of the times we simply do not remember our dreams at all, so when awake we all have good reasons to quickly jump to the wrong conclusion and believe that sleeping is a form of non-consciousness. I’m pointing this out because it highlights the need of staying close to the biological facts that we actually do know, speculating about operative systems rings a lot of my alarm bells. Having said this, Hoffman’s Interface theory of perception (mentioned here many times, but I can’t remember where), is both genuinely interesting and quite close to what I understand of your approach. A good place to start is here:
    http://egtheory.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/interface-theory-of-perception/
    with a healthy amount of bibliography at the bottom. Just to add something to your reading list (sorry!).

    I’m not writing any of this to challenge your position, if anything, I’m trying to encourage you to keep digging: the amount of stuff worth reading is overwhelming and of course there is no a-priori way to discern it from pompous and futile mental exercises. So much so that I can’t even be sure that my own thinking doesn’t count as the latter :-/.

    Finally, as Sci pointed out, Peter was so kind to publish two intimidatingly long posts of mine, if you are interested, I guess that the first one ‘Sergio’s Computational Functionalism‘ is easier to digest. Do read the discussion(s), though: it is all strictly work in progress!

    @Sci #30: thanks! That indeed is one of my main take home messages.

  33. 33. Sci says:

    Ah, I see Sergio has come in – great stuff, will be saving that comment.

    On the subject of the decapitated worm memories, here’s an article from Tufts:

    http://now.tufts.edu/articles/total-recall

    Also, another interesting case of human memory loss – akin to the one from the film Memento – has come out:

    http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/press-releases/2015/july/memory-loss-man-case-like-nothing-we-have-ever-seen-before

  34. 34. SASSEE says:

    Greetings Sergio,
    I haven’t read your full message yet, as I’m kinda busy with other things at the moment, but wanted to make a quick response to your first question/concern regarding the so-called hard problem:
    “Mechanisms and inner feelings, how do you link the two, where is the causal connection?”

    The body is all that is real, the spirit, or consciousness, is just a fascade the body generates to act as the interface. You think you move something, but the body is doing everything. Another analogy to the dualism problem is electricity, which is not something real in itself, not something material, but only the movement of things that are real. You aren’t real, is the point, you are but a ghost in the real living incredible brain inside your body. Computers can never be living spirits, but can emulate them. Windows is just an interface as well. You click a button to print something, but Windows knows nothing about printers, and yet, it looks as if Windows does the printing. Same thing going on with consciousness, the high level operating system interface of the brain. Both Windows and the brain have lower level operating systems that do all the real work. I can’t prove that, but am convinced this is how it works.

    Let me know how that doesn’t address the issue.

    I’ll read and comment/reply more later tonight. Thanks for taking me seriously. I suppose I am new to all the theories with big words and confusing opinions. I am not new to life and I have always had a philosophical mind, but for most of my adult life, I was blinded by believing science&evolution was compatible with christianity. Lucky for me, one night in 2008 while reading Romans certain neurons made some unexpected connections and suddenly it was blazing obvious that Paul was a Creationist, which made me realize Jesus was too, and unless I were willing to abandon common sense and become a Creationist, I had to abandon christianity immediately. I was, and still am, quite angry about that, and started a book, “Bible Appreciation For Atheists!” but everybody, especially atheists hated my ideas without even hearing them out. Just as prejudiced and bigoted as Christians, imho. This business about spirits was a half chapter of that book. I’m planning to re-write, re-configure the whole thing, maybe soon, with a different approach and title, something like “The Origin Of Spirits (and other essays)”

  35. 35. Cognicious says:

    SASSEE, I don’t understand why having a lot of thoughts about a philosophical subject impels you to write a book. I too have a lot of thoughts about the mind/body problem, but that doesn’t move me even to make notes on an index card. You know, I hope, that each new book on this subject, and each short article, competes with the writings of scholars who’ve devoted decades to studying it. They don’t just sit and think. They get the needed background by taking courses, doing much reading in the history of the subject, and discussing it with colleagues. What do you hope to accomplish by writing a book? What will it make happen?

    That said, your mention of Christianity raises a concern in my mind. In developing a perspective on dualism, it can be hard to shake one’s early training. Christianity is so big on dualism, with its split between body and soul (and correspondingly between Earth and Heaven, the worldly and the holy), and the devout start indoctrinating their children so young, that adults who absorbed this form of religion can too easily continue to construe reality in dualistic terms. Western secular culture encourages it, too (Plato had something to do with that). So please take care that analyzing a human being into “hardware plus software” doesn’t seem natural and right just because people around you had a world view that divided a person into matter and spirit.

  36. 36. SASSEE says:

    I would like to apologize for my harsh words in my previous message. Obviously, I still have some anger management issues to learn to better control. Probably why nobody wanted to read my previous attempt at writing a book. I do hope to figure out how to write my ideas into a readable book, not for money or glory, but to bring enlightenment into what I regard as an uncivilized world, that seems to be heading into self-destruction. It’s much more than just trying to explain consciousness, which is a small precept.

    Thanks for your feedback, Cognicius. I will respond later, I am still reading Sergio’s message now.

  37. 37. SASSEE says:

    @SERGIO

    Wow… thanks for spending the time to explain all that. I wish I had read the whole thing before responding. You are right, I am new to this whole business, and you well answered my questions about why the brain is not much like a computer, and why my ideas add nothing of use to figuring out consciousness. I hope it can be figured out someday.

    I do want to respond to your comment about dreams. I would say that dreams can’t be considered the same as consciousness, because if so, you would wake up, which is what consciousness is, being awake. According to my theory, the brain is running the same virtual software that creates consciousness, but under the control of some virtual reality emulater for purposes unknown, but interesting. Hypnosis is another curiousity.

    THanks for mentioning the other web pages. I’ll read them soon, but probably have little more to contribute here.

    I should have held my tongue a little longer! I do appreciate the honest critique of my ideas. I haven’t exactly given up on them, but clearly they are not worthwhile as-is.

    I do appreciate this web site, with so many interesting things to read.

    @SCI, Thanks also for the links, what a horror story trip to the dentist!

    @Cognicius You are perceptive in that my years as a christian evangelist has me still wanting to save the world, in this case, from the insanity of “my god’s better than your god! your god is the devil and must be destroyed” etc etc… but writing some book isn’t likely to change anything. THink I should just go have a beer and get back to my art work. 🙂

  38. 38. SASSEE says:

    @Sergio,

    Sorry, I do have another question, you said, “we have some reasons to believe that synapses store information”

    Aren’t the synapses the gaps between neurons? The info is in the gaps? I mean it has to be somewhere, but just startled to think it might be in the spaces.

  39. 39. Peter says:

    SASSEE,
    Sorry to be slow responding.

    “but [it] isn’t really like that”

    All I meant here is the two points I tried to make in the rest of the piece. First, the brain hasn’t got the sharp distinction between software and hardware; you can’t cleanly separate the structure and the information. Second, our brains are not standardised machines. So the idea of say, reading off the states of all the neurons in your brain and then downloading into my equivalent neurons makes no sense, though it’s perfectlyreasonable to think of doing the same for a computer.

    Thanks for getting the book and I hope it helps.

  40. 40. Peter says:

    Cognicious:

    I too have a lot of thoughts about the mind/body problem, but that doesn’t move me even to make notes on an index card.

    You’re a better man than I am!

  41. 41. Cognicious says:

    Peter wrote: “You’re a better man than I am!”

    Thank you, Peter, but I’m not a man at all. This misunderstanding is common on Web forums. It seems that a neutral prose style is construed as masculine. To counter the default assumption, I hope I won’t have to cultivate overuse of words like “cute” and “charming” or end each post with “Tee-hee!”

    SASSEE: There are various ways to define consciousness, and “being awake” is good for some everyday purposes, but it won’t do for philosophical discussions. In sleep, consciousness isn’t absent. Sleep is an altered state of consciousness–rather, several states, as brain activity changes throughout a sleep period.

  42. 42. SASSEE says:

    Thanks Peter. After a good night’s sleep, I have a few more comments to add before dropping the subject, in case anyone wants to read them. Just before waking, I was dreaming I was in the ocean, some distance from shore when I saw the fin above the water near by– ah dreams! What fun they can be!

    There are lots of frameworks to an understanding the mind (e.g. Intentionality, Behavior, Spirits, etc), all of which involve a learning process.

    When I spoke of software in the brain, I never presumed it to be so simple as a digital computer since it is done with chemistry and biology. I used the term virtual software in my later message, which is more what I had in mind all along. Consider the Behaviorist model where the mind is analysed according to how the body behaves. It could just as well be analysed as if there was something equivalent to an operating system, and honestly, I think it could be more understandable. This may be useless to the biologist or neurologist, but not to the psychologist or philosopher. Cognicious seems to be refusing to consider the concept of spirits, as if it were some foreign incomprehensible concept. But I think “spiritual physics” could have great value in understanding ourselves, in truth. I think psychology ties itself in knots by trying to be so scientific that it blinds itself to simple obvious truths. I once joked that marketing is the real science of human behavior, how to manipulate people into buying things. Spiritual physics would be the study of pride, arrogance, denial, all the same stuff in psychology, but understood in the context of spirits, since we are, in fact, spiritual animals. Isn’t that what the word animal means? Animated by a spirit, as opposed to the so-called vegetative state of plants. Plants may not be so dumb either.

    But the problem with my suggestion, according to a spiritual physics reason, is human “pride and prejudice” against looking at something in a way that is “beneath their dignity.” Humans are vain creatures who look up to those who can use the most big words and complex confusing terms, and impress everybody, while people who say simple things like telling doctors to “wash your hands to prevent infections” are typically looked down upon and ignorred. Pecking order is a major factor in whom we listen to, because vanity and pride are valued above truth. If humans were rational, they should always seek the truth, regardless. I have much to say about this topic, the main purpose of my failed book. Truth is offensive to those who don’t value it.

    Extraneous political opinion: A good science of spiritual physics could help all the liberal thinkers get on the same page and expose the fundamentalist anti-liberals to the ridicule that might possibly help them realize their folly… The folly of the liberals is their own vainity and arrogance that prevents them from uniting. Humans! I think I have more in common with Marvin the paranoid android than with humans. “Gimme some truth” said John Lennon, and Nick Lowe said, “What’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding?” // end of silly rant.

    My apologies if I have offended one and all. I appreciate the opportunity to express these opinions and will not bring up this topic again (here) unless questioned.

  43. 43. SASSEE says:

    @Cognicious,

    In fairness, I did not see your message until after I posted my last one. I was still typing when you posted and my browser didn’t refresh the page until after I clicked “Submit comments.”

    I would like to add a brief response to your critique of my opinion about whether dreaming should be considered consciousness. I had already presented the basis for my reasoning, which you ignored and silently dismissed as non-philosophical thinking.

    Sad to say, but we have irreconcilable opinions about the meaning and purpose of philosophy. Sadder still, at least to me, I realize I am in the minority, even a micro minority of perhaps one. I have always had a love for truth and wisdom, and this has dominated my life, believe it or not. But I never studied philosophy as a subject. I am currently in progress on an 84 part introductory class, “Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition.” The hardest part of the class is adjusting to the different lecturers, most of whom have a way of speaking that continually puts my mind to sleep. Even so, I am slowly getting introduced to a host of different philosophical ways of thinking. Some of the lectures are quite good, but the majority are quite tedious. The ones I like, I get some of their books. Spinoza is one favorite, but even some I don’t like, I plan to read their books (John Locke). (I also enjoy hearing others do the reading, and get audiobooks from Librivox.org.) Last night I started my first lecture about Immanuel Kant. The speaker was dull, reading from his notes, and my mind was tired, and kept wandering. Something kept making me think about what you had said. So I turned off the TV and got some sleep, to wait for a fresh mind to try to comprehend Kant.

    Philosophy means love of wisdom, but obviously, wisdom is a matter of opinion, and truth is determined by how many people agree with you, and not by a perfectly objective analysis of all the available evidence, something beyond our minds, as bias is inescapable. But even this is only my opinion about the current status of wisdom and truth in the public sphere…

    And thus my response to your words, re-quoted below:
    “SASSEE: There are various ways to define consciousness, and “being awake” is good for some everyday purposes, but it won’t do for philosophical discussions. In sleep, consciousness isn’t absent. Sleep is an altered state of consciousness…”

    In my initial statement, I gave my reasons why I did not consider dreams to be considered as consciousness. Clearly and evidently, dreams are an unconscious state that only resembles consciousness. You did not argue against my logic, but simply dismissed it in favor of your own opinion, under the guise of being philosophically acceptable. How is this love for wisdom?

    I say, consciousness is the state of being conscious.
    You say, no, consciousness includes non-conscious states.

    So black is not only black, but in philosophy, it must include white, blue, green…
    In my minority opinion, I say hog-wallop! This is not what I would call wisdom, but simple obfuscation, something I’m hearing a lot of in this philosophy class.

    I don’t mean to offend anyone. My attacks are against false ways of thinking, in the hope of helping others to think more clearly. In my opinion, lovers of truth and wisdom, must always keep an open mind to conflicting opinions, because self-bias is pervasive and invisible.

    There is great wisdom in the Bible. Even if the book is based on mythology, wisdom is wisdom, regardless the source. The book of Proverbs and Ecclestiastes were always my favorite parts. Most Christians are wholly ignorant of the Bible, and most atheists only seem to know the ugly parts.

    The following are some precepts I try to keep in mind at all times:
    Proverbs 12:1 Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.
    Proverbs 18:2 A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.
    Proverbs 21:2 Every way of a (man) is right in his own eyes
    Psalms 36:2 For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.

  44. 44. Peter says:

    So far as I can see, SASSEE, you merely asserted that only waking states can be conscious. Cognicious mildly pointed out that that wasn’t necessarily so, and in fact isn’t the view generally taken in these discussions. (FWIW, it seems obvious to me that dreams are conscious, but you know, intuitions vary) I don’t really think that justified all this pompous stuff about how no-one but you is a true seeker of wisdom. If you really don’t want to offend people, I think you need to calm down and dare I say, try some humility.

  45. 45. Peter says:

    Cognicious,

    Apologies for any presumption; I was sort of quoting Kipling, though I don’t know that that helps necessarily…

  46. 46. Cognicious says:

    SASSEE wrote: “In my initial statement, I gave my reasons why I did not consider dreams to be considered as consciousness. Clearly and evidently, dreams are an unconscious state that only resembles consciousness. You did not argue against my logic, but simply dismissed it in favor of your own opinion, under the guise of being philosophically acceptable.”

    That isn’t quite right. You hadn’t presented any logic to argue against; you’d only defined “consciousness” as being awake, without supporting that definition. I was telling another way the word is used. It isn’t just my opinion. People who talk and write about consciousness are interested in how it is that we have any experiences at all, whether we’re awake or asleep, and how what goes on in the brain relates to awareness of anything. We definitely have experiences when we’re asleep.

  47. 47. SASSEE says:

    Okay, I’m sorry for speaking rudely. I still beg to differ, but will keep my apparently contrary opinions to myself.

    Again, thanks Peter for creating this forum that I might learn from all of you. I look forward to reading your book. And reading Sergio’s articles, and so much more.

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