Mind/Brain and Mathematical Intelligence

Several interesting links today to articles I’ve not yet had a chance to read, but I’ll defer those to note this review in Entertainment Weekly of a book called Struck by Genius by Jason Padgett (and Maureen Seaberg… probably the actual author); subtitled, “How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel”.

There are numerous cases in medical history of how brain injuries – via concussions, or objects thrust into the skull – change a person’s personality utterly, sometimes causing them to lose critical skills. This book, about which I’ve only read this review, is about an opposite case: a man who, assaulted in a bar fight and suffering a concussion, became a mathematical prodigy.

This strikes a chord as yet another example of how the mind is inextricably bound with the brain, or more correctly, to acknowledge that they are one and the same. There is no numinous ‘mind’ or ‘soul’ that is distinct from the functioning of the brain, as far as decades of neuroscience have been able to determine. (I have an unread book on my shelf called We Are Our Brains.) If traumatic examples like this one aren’t sufficient evidence of this equivalence, you’d think everyday experiences in which alcohol, caffeine, or other drugs change brain chemistry and thus influence the personality and the way one’s ‘mind’ interacts with the world would be obvious evidence as well.

(The example in this book also implicates the philosophical question of whether mathematics is an inherent truth about the world, or a creation of the human brain. The subject of this book “describes hours spent eagerly conversing with customers about the way he understands pi or how fractals work.” A change in the functioning of his brain changed the way he understood these ideas.)

Despite which, the mind/brain distinction, ever since clarified by Descartes, persists in common culture, and religious doctrine. In science fiction, a common theme for decades (through the 1960s, at least) was about telepathy, premonitions, and other forms of ESP (‘extra-sensory perception’) – a theme I have the impression has much faded since then, except perhaps in media SF, as the evidence for the reality of such phenomena has conspicuously failed to materialize and their existence has become more a matter of wish-fulfillment.

I’ve long had a notion – which I may have picked up from reading somewhere, or which may be an original thought – that a sign of a truly advanced intelligence (e.g. some non-human, independently evolved, intelligence) would be the extent to which mathematical truths were obvious. Humans, even the mathematicians, need to construct proofs of the Pythagorean theorem, for example; would a relatively superior intelligence see this as trivially true, the way we realize that two non-parallel lines in the same plane can intersect at only a single point? Not to mention the vast realms of higher mathematics, number theory, group theory, analytical analysis, and so many other fields for which humans need to carefully construct elaborate, logically rigorous proofs, an ultimate example of which might be the enormously detailed proof by Andrew Wiles of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Would all of that be obvious to a vaster intelligence than ours?

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