Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Cogito, ergo sum.

Tony and I are in an ongoing carpool discussion about the duality of the mind and the physical universe, as it relates to information theory, and the logical conclusions thereof. I thought it might be helpful to write down my thoughts on the the subject of this duality.

The physical universe is, by the standards of physical law, self sustaining. (This standard is not, of course, what I believe to be a complete world-view, which includes an active and present God sustaining creation at all points, but by this I mean that these physical laws, as far as they go, are probably enough to account for a complete closed system.) The universe obeys physical law. The subject of the origin of these laws does not need to enter this argument, only that they are observed to be a thorough and complete description of "what the universe does."

The human mind, however, is a complete oddity in this scheme. If the universe were truly such a closed system then we would have no basis to believe that consciousness (and with it morality) were any more than an illusion. What we observe introspectively is an absolute reality of the mind. No person can live as though they were an unconscious machine. Without delving deeply into a philosophic quagmire, the practical absurdity of man as a physical law abiding machine should be, if we are at all honest with ourselves, totally apparent. Likewise, even in our age of moral and intellectual relativism, not even the most die-hard naturalist (in this case, someone who believes that the physical universe is in fact a closed system) cannot live as if they had no absolute moral foundation.

So it seems that we cannot get rid of this oddity in the universe: the mind. If we accept this, it is helpful to examine how the mind differs from the physical universe. The mind, of course, differs from the material world in its immateriality. Thought does not have weight nor does it occupy space. The mind is rational, whereas the universe is a network of cause and effect chains. The mind is moral. It has laws and imperatives that do not and cannot apply to the physical world.

The real question is how these two exclusive entities interact. My thoughts are that the human mind invades the closed physical system of the universe through the human brain. The brain is a conduit, so to speak, or a transducer. When our brains are damaged or not functioning at their peaks (e.g. when we're tired, hungry, fatigued, intoxicated, etc.) it is not the mind that is disabled, but the brains transitive functions. The only way that the brain affects the mind is in our ability to analyze the physical universe through our senses. Our brains respond physically to physical stimuli, and the mind captures these stimuli and translates them into information.

Information is, in my system, totally mental. No information exists apart from the mind. The physical universe is real. It is an absolute. It exists. Information concerning it, though, is not woven into its independent and closed existence, but rather is woven into this separate and adjacent reality of the mind.

Through this understanding, and only by these conclusions, I find ideas such as PCs that will one day become sentient, and the universe containing proto-conscious tendencies that are substantiated in the human brain to be incomplete and incompatible with reality. There are wonderful and coherent conclusions to which my system will lead (not the least of which is the relation of our mind-over-matter duality to Biblical miracles,) but these ideas are certainly excluded.


Dan said...

My posts are getting longer and longer, like each successive Harry Potter book. I, like Rowling did with the Half-Blood Prince, will have to reverse the trend sooner or later, or my lunch break will get longer and longer, and this blog isn't about to pay the bills...

John said...

I don't know if I understand what you said about information. To me, information is something that you can learn from and others can learn from. It can be communicated and stored in a variety of ways. In your brain, on a computer, in a book. When stored, it becomes concrete, and no longer requires its originator.
So if we have the capacity to completely learn and understand how our minds work and record it in a way that others can benefit from. Then presumably, we could reproduce it as we have with other technologies.

Dan said...

I agree that information becomes something concrete and separate from its originator. But we have to be careful about the nature of its concreteness. When "information" is stored on a computer or in a brain, what meaning does it have until it once again passes the barrier of the physical, back into the immaterial realm of the mind, as I described in the article? My point is that information does not exist in a meaningful way without the mind.

Since my posting I've had some time to consider my thoughts about this potential for reproducing brain functions with technology. Tony challenged me to examine the line between human and animal intelligence as a benchmark for examination (where would the line be draw with a human/animal hybrid, for instance.) Reflecting on this, I would say that the fundamental distinction between humanity and animals (or technologically cognizant entities) is determinism. These things exist wholly in the physical universe, whereas we have free will.

Another point to clarify: the human brain and the configuration thereof does not have some sort of special potential, some preconscious potential. The mind utilizes the brain in a special way, but the brain has no fundamental difference from the rest of material creation.

John said...

In the book I'm reading, the author is challenged to identify what exactly will remain "human" if our biological and technological evolution become one in the same. He says it is the desire (and capacity) to continuously improve. That can be effectively passed on to a something we create.

That last point you made (in your response) is probably what requires the most discussion. I think a lot of people would argue that our brains do have a special potential because they give us the capacity (along with being able to manipulate things with our hands) to really understand and reproduce what we see. An animal may not fully be able to comprehend what it sees.