Chapter 6: The Mind

Here’s the chapter in Wilson that corresponds to Pinker’s entire book. There are ideas here that reflect some of Nagel‘s topics, as well, and some of the thoughts I had while reading his book.

Key points in this chapter:

  • The mind is the brain; Cartesian dualism has long been abandoned;
  • The brain evolved for survival, not to perceive the world accurately;
  • Emotions are not something extraneous; they evolved to enable humans to focus mental activity;
  • We can understand concepts like meaning, decision making, and creativity as effects of neural networks;
  • Wilson dismisses the supposedly fundamental philosophical problem about whether other people perceive as we do;
  • Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive; thus in a useful sense, we do have free will;
  • Wilson is skeptical about our ability to create artificial minds.

Summary and quotes:

The unity of knowledge entails the hypothesis that every mental process has a physical grounding and is consistent with the natural sciences. Much of the history of philosophy consists of failed models of the brain, 96. [[ I’ve cited this claim before without remembering exactly where I read it. Here it is. ]]

Pages 96-97:

All that has been learned empirically about evolution in general and mental process in particular suggests that the brain is a machine assembled not to understand itself, but to survive. Because these two ends are basically different, the mind unaided by factual knowledge from science sees the world only in little pieces. It throws a spotlight on those portions of the world it must know in order to live to the next day, and surrenders the rest to darkness. For thousands of generations people lived and reproduced with no need to know how the machinery of the brain works. Myth and self-deception, tribal identity and ritual, more than objective truth, gave them the adaptive edge.

[[ This too is a core theme, and a key point in my essay about why people are biased away from honest science fiction ]]

Then some lines of vivid, down-to-earth prose:

The brain is a helmet-shaped mass of gray and white tissue about the size of a grapefruit, one to two quarts in volume, and on average weighing three pounds… Its surface is wrinkled like that of a cleaning sponge, and its consistency is custardlike, firm enough to keep from puddling on the floor of the brain case, soft enough to be scooped out with a spoon.

This most complex object arose over 3 million years…details, with numbers p97. Wilson addresses the controversial idea of evolutionary ‘progress’ – many writers on evolution stress how there is no teleological element to the process of natural selection, how humanity is not at some ‘pinnacle’ of evolution – and points out some obvious ways in which ‘progress’ can be aligned with increasing complexity, throughout the history of life. That history had four steps, at roughly one-billion-year intervals: the beginning of life; complex eukaryotic cells; large multicellular animals; and the humanity. (p98)

The dualism of Descartes has long been rejected. (Note long list of references in the endnotes.) But study of the mind was thought left to philosophers up until about 1970. Since then we are in a heroic period of discovery. Important questions are being answered. This ‘heroic period’ follows similar such periods (over the past century) in molecular biology, plate tectonics, and the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology.

This period began in the 19th century with the study of brain injuries, e.g. Phineas P. Gage in Vermont, 1848; Karen Ann Quinlan in New Jersey, 1975, who suffered brain death. There’s also been experimental brain surgery, since the 1920s.

The complexity of the brain is an engineering problem; author outlines its physical description, 102ff. Consider the geometry, its size, the various parts of the brain. Neurons, synapses, etc. Surface area increased by scrunching it up. What more can be said? Page 106t:

If a Divine Engineer designed it, unconstrained by humanity’s biological history, He might have chosen mortal but angelic beings cast in His own image. They would presumably be rational, far-seeing, wise, benevolent, unrebellious, selfless, and guilt-free, and, as such, ready-made stewards of the beautiful planet bequeathed them. But we are nothing like that. We have original sin, which makes us better than angels. …

It bears evidence of 400 million years of evolution, with newer parts “jury-rigged in steps within and around the old brain” 106.6.

The result was human nature: genius animated with animal craftiness and emotion, combining the passion of politics and art with rationality, to create a new instrument of survival.

Brain scientists have vindicated the evolutionary view of the mind. Passion is linked to reason; emotion is not a perturbation of reason but a vital part of it. Recent discoveries include its structure: hindbrain, midbrain, forebrain; their components; the limbic system; the cerebral cortex; what functions they control. There is no single part that is the site of conscious experience. How disturbances of particular areas of the brain cause bizarre results. Examples. (Including one about temporal lobe epilepsy and hyperreligiosity, 108.7.)

P108b. So then, what is mind? We don’t know how close or far we are toward a theory of mind production by the brain. Still, Wilson sketches an outline of various ideas. There is no ‘Cartesian theater’ or monitor. Many details, 110ff. Short and long-term memory; remembrances; culture. Organs, reflexes, facial expression. The difference between honest and contrived emotions, 112m, and method acting. Emotions enable rational thought, 112b, by focusing mental activity in ways that match preprogrammed goals. [[ very similar to how Pinker described them. ]] Rational thought and emotion cannot be separated. [[ presaging Haidt much later ]] p113.6: “Consciousness satisfies emotion by the physical actions it selects in the midst of turbulent sensation. It is the specialized part of the mind that creates and sorts scenarios, the means by which the future is guessed and courses of action chosen. …” Example scenario from Damasio. He suggested two broad categories of emotion. One is inborn or instinctive, triggered by the limbic system and the amygdala. Secondary emotions arise from personalized events of life, which are expressed via the same mechanisms as the primary emotions. Elements of ‘folk psychology’ are needed to make sense of cultural history, e.g. page 115: [Here I’m bolding the words that were in italics in the original.]

What we call meaning is the linkage among the neural networks created by the spreading excitation that enlarges imagery and engages emotion. The competitive selection among scenarios is what we call decision making. The outcome, in terms of the match of the winning scenario to instinctive or learned favorable states, sets the kind and intensity of subsequent emotion. The persistent form and intensity of emotions is called mood. The ability of the brain to generate novel scenarios and settle on the most effective among them is called creativity. The persistent production of scenarios lacking reality and survival value is called insanity.

But these are just some of hypotheses of brain scientists, and some may be wrong.

The deeper problems before a physical basis of mind can be solved include the nature of subjective experience, the “hard problem” compared to the “easy problems” of general consciousness. What does “experience” even mean? Consider a future scientist who understands the brain but has lived in a room only of black and white. Does this mean who can’t deduce the conscious experiences (of, say, red), but by knowing how the brain works?

Author suggests the problem conceptually easy to solve, p116b, by considering that a human cannot, ever, understand how a bee or fish feels when it responds to magnetism or an electric field. Science explains those responses; in contrast, among humans, art transmits feelings among persons of the same capacity, 117.2, and 117.5ff

Art is the means by which people of similar cognition reach out to others in order to transmit feeling. But how can we know for sure that art communicates this way with accuracy, that people really, truly feel the same in the presence of art? We know it intuitively by the sheer weight of our cumulative responses through the many media of art. We know if by detailed verbal descriptions of emotion, by critical analyses, and in fact through the data from all the vast, nuanced, and interlocking armamentaria of the humanities. That vita role in the sharing of culture is what the humanities are all about. Nevertheless, fundamental new information will come from science by studying the dynamic patterns of the sensory and brain systems during episodes when common shared feelings are evoked and experienced through art.

(Thus Wilson brushes away the philosophical ‘problem’ about whether other minds perceive the same way we do, as trivial. [[ If the effects of certain colors are the same for everyone – e.g. hot and cold colors – then their interior representation doesn’t matter. As I said discussing Nagel. ]] )

He goes on: skeptics will say that scientific fact and art can never be translated one into the other. Author believes this is wrong. “The crucial link exists: The common property of science and art is the transmission of information, and in one sense the respective modes of transmission in science and art can be made logically equivalent.” And then goes on to imagine an experiment with an iconic language mapped to brain activity. … Resembling Chinese calligraphy.

An impasse remains: if the mind is bound by the laws of physics, what about free will? And what is the self? It is not something ineffable apart from the brain. What about those souls envisioned to live in heaven without corporeal existence? Even Christ and Mary were imagined to ascend to heaven in bodies.

Most of our decision making is unconscious. Thus, the “hidden preparation of mental activity” gives the illusion of free will 119b. We’re only vaguely aware of why we make the decisions that we do. But suppose we somehow knew all the underlying processes? 120t Only strictly in principle; observing all the details would alter them, leading to chaos. And in practice it’s all but impossible to imagine tracking all those details. So we can go on believing in free will, which is fortunate. “Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it the mind, imprisoned by fatalism, would slow and deteriorate.” 120.9 [[ Yes this is just what we concluded from Nagel ]] Thus in every sense that useful, the mind does have free will.

And so then can we create artificial minds? Author thinks yes in principle, but no in practice. Descartes believed not, for reason we recast as the Turing test. Adler thought that unless we can do this, materialism cannot be accepted, and declared such a machine impossible (he was a Christian). The field of AI has been trying since the 1950s. Winning chess. In some cases programmers insert random mutations and set programs in competition to solve problems. But there remains an immense gap. There are two approaches, one bottom-up, one top-down. It might happen, but author doubts it, for two reasons. The main obstacle is the overwhelming complexity. And artificial emotion will be needed too. The second evolutionary obstacle is that our minds are the result of our evolutionary history; a created mind without that would therefore resemble more an alien visitor—it would not be human. [[ The Adam Frank book made something like this point. ]]

My comments:

The principal SF theme relating to all of this is, perhaps, whether minds can be transferred between bodies, or to machines; and whether machines can ever said to have minds.

Worth considering two questions: why exactly do we *need* to build artificial minds? And two, does it matter if they’re not human?

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