Thursday, December 2, 2010


The universe, at least on the scales at which we observe it, is continually running down to ever less-ordered states—i.e., entropy is increasing. However, this running down is not distributed evenly; some parts of the universe run down faster than other parts, like how a large star burns itself up quicker than a small star. Some parts are even running up, such as the creation of a star from the accretion of enormous quantities of diffuse hydrogen atoms. On the whole, there's nothing unusual about the uneven distributions of entropy. It's much like how even within the mightiest of rivers you'll find eddies whereby water flows upstream and how even during an economic recession some people become wealthier. So it is with our universe, at least on the scales at which we observe it. On average the universe is becoming more disordered but some isolated pockets are becoming more ordered and more complex.

Earth's biosphere is an example of such an isolated pocket of increasing order. Observing it a few billion years in action, we see a wide range of complexity within it, from the relatively low-ordered state of inorganic matter such as rocks and streams to the high-ordered states of living things.

Part of life's upward climb in complexity, rare though non-unusual that upward climb is, has entailed the ongoing creation of ever more adaptive capacities in organisms. Ever since the first primitive organisms ran into conflict over limited resources, living things here on Earth have been locked in an arms race for adapting ever fitter forms and functions. Eventually, after eons of such change, some organisms crossed a threshold whereby they had evolved a central nervous system, which allows some adaptations to the environment to be made in real-time. Not that these first central nervous systems contained sentience. At first, even a primitive central nervous system provided a huge survival advantage over organisms that did not possess one, but arms races being what they are, soon the central nervous system itself became subject to the upward climb in complexity, and the result was ever bigger, ever more powerful brains.

Life's main adversary is life itself, and eventually some organisms came to benefit by possessing a brain capable of predicting the outcomes of brains of other organisms. Such predictive power enables one organism to anticipate another organism's actions and respond accordingly, like when a predator figures out the likeliest flight pattern for its chosen prey and cuts off that escape before flight even begins. This predictive power is the epitome of on-the-fly adaptiveness.

The way a brain predicts the outcomes of another brain is by “simulating” that other brain. The simulating brain generalizes and models the other brain and then “runs” the model to figure out what that other brain is likely to do. The simulating brain does not and cannot contain an actual copy of the other brain; it has no notion of the other brain's low-level neural activities. Rather, the simulating brain works through the high-level process of approximating the end result of all that low-level activity in the other brain.

There's great power in improved prediction of other organisms' brains, and the ideal such predicting brain is one that can universally model any other brain, not just some specific brains, like with a predator whose brain models only a few prey organisms' brains. Rather, such a “universal modeler” brain is able to peer in on any other brain and anticipate any type of outcome, even purely hypothetical ones. The human brain is the closest manifestation of a universal modeler.

Indeed, the adult human brain is not merely the closest manifestation to the ideal; it has surpassed a critical threshold in universality in that it can model even itself. An adult human brain can predict its own futures outcomes. This self-reflexivity is not unlike a camera taking a photograph of itself or a dictionary containing an entry for “dictionary”.

The human brain is not only capable of modeling itself, it does so much of the time. This is consciousness, the turned-on-most-of-the-time inward peering of a brain contemplating itself. But just as a camera cannot photograph itself without some trickery (e.g., a mirror or a preexisting photograph taken using another camera) and limitations (i.e., loss of fidelity), the self-modeled brain is grainy and distorted; the abstraction leaks. There is no end to the psychological havoc that this causes to the simulating mind (and to the simulated mind! (and to the simulated mind's simulated mind! (and to the simulated mind's simulated mind's simulated mind! (...!)))). The mind cannot even “see” the simulation process itself, for the simulation process is the mind. Even as I write these words, my own mind is only thinking about the simulation process and without any innate understanding of the process. The result is that the mind is continually stumped by the questions: “What am I?” and “Where am I?” We cannot answer these questions other than to say that the mind is a low-fidelity, feeding back onto itself, a kind of grainy infinity, like a hall-of-mirrors effect caused by looking at two mirrors aimed at each other. The mind is not separate from, not without, and not within the brain; it is the whole of the brain and the whole of being. Consciousness is not a core lurking somewhere within (and certainly not without!); it is everything tangled up in itself. Though there is no end to how special and rare the conscious mind is, there's nothing unusual about it.

Indeed, it is exactly that there is nothing unusual about the mind that makes it so special.


Laura said...

Edit: seventh paragraph: "not unlike like"

I approve of your December blogs. This one was the most difficult to get through, but I still liked it. It probably helped that you had talked about this idea with me already so I had some preparation.

cmbrandenburg said...

Laura— Thanks for the correction.

Philosophy of mind is possibly for me the most interesting bit of musing I do here from time to time, and I must keep in mind that with readers bringing their own premises to the table, I cannot be too clear in expressing my own ideas.