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Archive for 19/01/2011

Is quantum uncertainty necessary?

I just read a post (here) called “We Seem to be Zombies” by Stuart Kauffman. It repeatedly annoyed me. I try very hard not to write angry postings but really this was just more than I could stomach. I apologize to those readers who dislike angry posts and I will still try to avoid them in future.

So here is a list of annoying bits.

  1. The introduction starts with this picture: “according to some of our finest scientific minds, you are not conscious at all. You are a mechanical zombie, a calculating-machine idiot. You have no responsible free will. You are not even an ‘I’, the subject of experiences that you naively have the illusion you have. You cannot act responsibly because machines are machines, you are a machine, and like a marble rolling down the side of a bowl, mechanisms ‘happen’ they do not act. So you cannot act. You cannot be a autonomous agent blazing with life, its anguish and joy”. I would like to see the names of a handful of ‘our finest scientific minds’ who have said such things. The impression is given that this exaggerated picture is accepted science in some quarters – why not name them? My impression is that most scientists, especially those with fine minds, believe that we are living organisms not mechanical machines and that we are aware not zombies. Why this unrealistic characterization of science?

  2. After a historical look at dualism he says: “Virtually all contemporary thinkers on the subject assume that mind and brain are identical.” You would assume that he included himself in contemporary thinkers. But, no, a couple of sentences later, he reverts to a dualist mind set, mind and brain are now not identical. “if the brain is a deterministic system, like the billiard balls, the current state of the brain is entirely sufficient to determine precisely the next state of the brain. Woefully, there is NOTHING FOR MIND TO DO! Worse, there is no way for MIND TO DO AYTHING TO BRAIN ANYWAY.” The capitals are his. This does not sound like a description of a brain and mind that are identical. It sounds dualist. There is an ‘if’ at the start so it is just as possible that he is abandoning a deterministic system because he thinks it leads to dualism. Is it identity of mind/brain or causality that he is questioning? Why is this not clear?

  3. Ah, here comes the clarification. It is a confusion of mind and consciousness. “Maybe mind really is an illusion? Maybe it is an epiphenomenon?” What is the definition he is using for this ‘mind’ that can at the same time be: identical to the brain, have nothing to do while the brain is ‘doing’, and be an illusion. Come on, is he talking about consciousness or is he talking about thought (perception, cognition and action)? He is not communicating what he means to me – is he talking down to me or is he trying to confuse me with a bait and switch?

  4. Now is a history of positivism and its ilk which he shows is as much of the dead end as dualism. Then he goes on, as if positivism was alive and well, to look at computer artificial intelligence and finally the Turing machine. All this is outlined as if it is relevant to the subject of our brain/minds and not just fit for symbolic logic or digital computers. In capital letters, we learn that a Turing machine and a very particular type of artificial ‘neural’ network are absolutely defined, algorithmic and understandable in terms of entirely classical physics. So what? He says that this has led to the belief in computer science, cognitive science and neuroscience that “the mind MUST BE algorithmic” and “IF consciousness is real, consciousness will somehow emerge when sufficiently many computer chips are coupled together.” This is a funny way to abandon the spirit of positivism. For heaven’s sake, who are these people who believe that the brain works like the most mundane (or universal) computer imaginable or works like the first try at artificial intelligent networks? I am sure there are scientists who believe that the brain is probably algorithmic but how many believe it must be? The comparison of brain/mind and computer is a metaphor not some strict specification and most scientists know that. Why am I being led down the garden path to think the brain is algorithmic?

  5. So now we have the key statement: “In the world of classic physics, the only hope its proponents hold out for consciousness so that we are not zombies is that a sufficiently complex network of calculating gadgets will ‘emerge’ into consciousness.” So now I am asked to accept two ideas without the help of either logic or evidence: (a) what has just been described in the terms of brain-being-computer is the sum total of what classic physics has to offer. Does biochemistry, biophysics, physiology etc. now require something more than the physics it has always used to underpin chemistry? What is it? I have to assume it is the uncertainty principle in quantum physics the only part of quantum physics that does not usually figure in chamistry; (b) mind has now become consciousness. Where did the other mind go, the one that was identical to the brain - the one that is perception, cognition and action? I insist that I will not be dealt some slight of hand that confuses thought with awareness of thought. That is like confusing the actual tree with my awareness of the tree. It will not do. And how did non-algorithmic brain/mind come to be impossible by classic physics?

  6. Next is the promise that future postings will explain synapses in terms of coupled Trans-Turing Systems. I will probably read these postings but I am not hopeful that they will be very enlightening and I fear that they will continue the unconvincing paths of this posting.

To set the record straight I will state clearly what I think is likely so. The brain is physical (as in matter and energy with no supernatural, non-physical or magical bits). The brain has biological function and its function is perception, cognition, learning, memory, action (muscular and glandular), conscious awareness and perhaps other associated processes. We have a word for this biological function, it is ‘mind’. Brain does mind in the same way as heart does circulation or stomach does digestion or lung does gas exchange. Brain is a living organ and mind is the function of that organ. Mind does not exist in the sense that the brain exists, it exists like circulation exists. Mind is not res cogitans; it is not ‘Res’ anything because it is not a thing, not an object. There is no shred of evidence that the brain does its mind function using algorithmic calculations and at least some evidence against it. Why the assumption that thought must be a fixed, stepwise procedure. There is no reason to think that the functions of the brain give predicable results in the sense of actually being able to predict them. It does not matter whether the attempt to predict uses classical physics or not – it is not in practice possible and therefore it doesn’t really matter if prediction is theoretically possible. Who cares? We can assume that consciousness is an important part of the function of the brain because it is biologically expensive. We can assume that it interacts with other aspects of the function of the brain (ie consicousness is part of mind but not a large part of it and is integrated with other parts of mind – mind being what brain does). There is nothing in this that makes us non-autonomous, machine-like things or zombies. There is nothing here that gives us freewill either, if by free we mean free from physical/material constraints. Our brain/minds make real decisions, and act on them and are then responsible for those decisions – the decisions are neither free or un-free, they are not determined or un-determined. Freewill and determinism is a dichotomy that is fictitious – neither term is true or false – but instead they are meaningless – they are not possible. They are silly answers to a silly question. It does not seem useful to bring the uncertainty of very, very small things into the discussion of processes that scan of few inches, produce electrical fields that can be measured through the skull bone, weighs many grams, and use the energy of a fifth of what we eat. It may turn out that we need quantum uncertainty in order to explain the brain/mind and if we do than so be it. If it turns out that an explanation of the brain/mind needs the uncertainty principle, that still will not give meaning to either freewill or determinism. Why?

Because if we start with the ridiculous assumption that the mind makes decision which it then imposes on the brain, we still have the problem of exactly how the mind makes decisions. Does the mind have a process? Does the mind have a mind in an endless regression, or is it random, or is there a magical way?

Postscript: Still feeling that I should not be so annoyed by Kauffman’s blog, I have set this aside and waited for his next two posts on the subject. The first read almost identically to the ‘Zombie’ blog. The next blog dealt more with the physics. I am still annoyed after a suitable wait and so I am posting this.

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