Friday, March 12, 2010

Some Thoughts on a Potentially Immaterial Piece of Mind

      As a consequence of the apparant mechanical nature of the human mind, consciousness and its adjunct mental processes must work by the manipulation and storage of patterns. The use and effects of patterns in this manner are not unfamiliar to scientists and engineers; they've been building pattern manipulators for many years (e.g. computers). And during this time, it has always been plain that the nature of the machine's operation resides in the patterns themselves, rather than in the material used to represent them. Indeed, there were certainly theories of pattern manipulators before a material to build them with was selected; and the choice of materials has changed over the years to meet our requirements for efficiency, and it continues to change.
      This suggests that a scheme for replicating our minds in different materials is possible -- and there has been much writing related to this idea during the past two decades (perhaps especially due to Ray Kurzweil). We know that our minds function as they do because of their ability to store and modify patterns; how could this ability be altered by changing the underlying mechanism from neurons to transistors? Well, it seems that it might be made more efficient and durable; aside from that, it shouldn't make one bit of difference.
       Subsequent to my learning of them, and prior to my thinking which produced this essay, I had yet to doubt the possibility of a transfer of this sort; its plausibility seemed necessary. I still do believe them to be possible even, but with a certain important limitation now. I believe minds can be transferred, but I also believe something could be lost.
      Imagine a variation on the substrate transfer theme: imagine sitting isolated within a small cube with plain blue walls and even lighting, awaiting your complete duplication: bones, blood, viscera, memories, habits, fears, moods, moles, scars, chromosomes, bacteria -- everything -- copied from yourself to an identical form, with consummate fidelity, two meters left in a cerulean womb a lot like your cube.
      Would the creation of this duplicate have any effect on you? Would that part of you that's consistent throughout your life, which is often termed 'self' or 'soul' indiscriminately, be multiplied? If you were killed off at this point, would 'you' persist in the next blue cube over? You may not, though this is essentially what is suggested as possible in mind transfers. Something could be lost. Maybe we can make new, even enhanced, consciousnesses -- but we can't transfer ourselves without risk of losing something.
      This seems to suggest that some part of our being may be non-material. Consciousness, i.e. self-awareness, emotion, creativity -- none of these are difficult to conceive of as having a material basis; perception at the final level, however, that's difficult. Perception at this level is useless in our materiel existence, it serves no purpose. Every last detail of human, or animal, functioning makes sense without it; and if it were taken away, no one would ever know the difference. Even now, we don't know whether it's there or not; but it feels like it is, and the chance of losing it is a very high stake.
      The conundrum of the final observer arises from the following: our minds are pattern manipulators whose state at any given time is the product of internal self-modifying processes and external sensory input. It's likely that a self-monitoring system, which we call consciousness, sits atop the remaining unconscious mental hardware for the purpose of monitoring an enormous array of variables representing select aspects of the unconscious mind. The values of these variables are interpreted by consciousness and responses are fed back into the unconscious. The unconscious mind is tied into the nervous system which exerts influence on the 'physical' body (it is, of course, all physical); and through the interaction of the physical body with the environment, data is sent back to the nervous system, back to the unconscious mental components, and back to consciousness. It's an endless interactive cycle resembling: environment, body, mind, consciousness, mind, body, environment. At the level of consciousness, the pinnacle of the cycle, all of the data for the rich experiences we have do exist; the problem is, there's nothing to interpret the data at this level; indeed, you face the problem of an infinite regress and must introduce the non-material in order to have meaning.
      Data is meaningless without something to interpret it. This is made clear in computing systems: meaningless binary sequences are stored in memory and are given meaning when an interpretation for them is provided. An example: 0101 is stored in memory. A piece of software can treat this as whatever it chooses: if we want it to represent a numeric value, then it would be a decimal 5; if we want it to map to a standard set of alphanumeric characters which start with "A" at zero, then it could be the letter "F"; or if we want it to represent a simple image, then it could be a four pixel image with alternating white and black pixels.
      However, the computer has still not provided anything intrinsically meaningful: it has provided an interpretation that truly does affect the physical world, but another level of interpretation is required for the data to become more to us than an arbitrary arrangement of atoms. Take the case of the bit string interpreted as an on-screen image: when your eyes catch the photons from the screen, your mind has to organize the signals from your photon receptors into something meaningful to itself. Of course it does do this, and then consciousness picks up on it, reacts, and feeds the interpretation back to other parts of mind -- and at this point we're satisfied with calling the interaction meaningful. But that is all that we can tell happens; the mind just keeps reading data, modifying itself, and feeding data elsewhere.
      So, does the final, meaningful interpretation happen at all? The question has well disguised depths; it provokes facile and specious responses; and the glowing, recondite heart of it is that we would react as if it did in spite of the truth. A complex self-monitoring system would have the illusion of a meaningful interpretation of its own data. And, were it to exist, anything fulfilling the role of the self, soul, final interpreter/observer, or whatever you'd like to call it, would necessarily reside someplace beyond material existence, leaving it forever beyond our definite discovery.
      Maybe then there is nothing we stand to lose. Certainly we have no reason to assume there is, and it is very unclear what it could be. Still, the above duplication scenario evokes some discomfort in myself, and reminds me that there is potentially a non-material part of mind.
      Progress the scenario to a few seconds after the duplication. One of the staff of the experiment approach the cube containing the clone, open it, and issue a first question to its occupant: "How do you feel?"
      "Well I feel fine, of course; have you spoken to the clone yet?"

Monday, March 1, 2010

Cereal thoughts

I had an idea to write some sentences while eating cereal lately. However, they would sense less make. Variety in means and increasing dosages, also. Still, tangent. And syntax violates, diction misinformed, tenses having obtrude. Which, were it as, defines -- no, contradicts, thence; but continue. And, so, tyrannied, nonplussery, sequence. Garble-goble.gourmet;sprocketedrelief. CoN;we,"P).####****____