Saturday, June 18, 2016

The purpose and goal of the mind

This is a follow-up to the earlier post Why I'd like my Christian friends to consider that rational thought is a natural phenomenon. , and a continuation of the conversation posted by Stan in An Analysis of the Purely Physical Mind and Rational Thought. My thanks to Stan for his interest in the topic. Since this post is in part a response to his, "you" in this post means Stan.

There are many people who are used to this topic being discussed between theists and atheists. So I'd like to start by clearing up my position on a few assumptions or questions that people may bring to the discussion: 
  • My view of a natural mind does not take sides in whether the preconditions for the mind are naturalistic. I'm a Christian myself and believe that there is a Creator; that doesn't mean that rational thought doesn't work through natural means. 
  • To the best of my knowledge, life comes from life in all known cases
  • I have no objection to the view that the First Cause is a non-material entity
  • I have no interest in steering people into a dichotomy between the mind being either deterministically controlled or due to quantum randomness
  • I'm not arguing whether or not we came by our goals ourselves or were given them from outside. For the present, the scope is whether the mind operates wholly on natural processes. 
Stan interacted with my post at some length, including the analogy of digestion. When I read peoples' responses to my earlier post, this seems to be a main area where I didn't succeed in getting my point across, based on reading what people thought I was saying and comparing that to what I actually wanted to communicate. So I'll make my point more explicit here.

The point of the original "digestion" analogy is that digestion acts with complexity and purpose that it could not manage in isolation. It manages to fulfill a purpose or goal beyond itself as part of a larger system, though I think everyone would grant that digestion works naturally.

Applying that to the mind, let's talk about the 'purpose or goal' of the mind. The short version (indented for emphasis, so it doesn't get lost in the shuffle): 
I believe the 'purpose or goal of the mind' is to provide us with a map or model of the world in which we live, and that the mind has an innate disposition to explore and understand its surroundings. 
So if we give a rational system (a mind) enough time, it will in fact turn to everything it can find, including paradox, dilemmas, self-evidence, and the nature of comprehension. I'd say that the mind is the natural function of the brain (and associated nervous system e.g. input from the eyes), and that the mind uses natural processes for operation.

How do we get to a point where I'd say that? I'd like to start with the simplest examples and step forward through a few layers of complexity.

Example 1: A simple creature may have the ability to sense heat, or may have an eye spot (not even quite an eye). Through their senses -- and probably without anything we'd recognize as thought -- they gain a simple awareness of heat and light, and can react in self-preservation.

Example 2: A dog or cat has fairly well-developed senses for perceiving its surroundings. It has a basic working model of its home that allows it to recognize people, tell when it's time for dinner, and try to avoid trips to the vet (good luck with that). It's got a more complete set of senses and a more developed mental model of the world. They have a grasp of how to be an actor rather than just a passive reactor; they try to cue us when it's time for dinner, or when they want to play. We're inching closer to something we might recognize as a 'mind', though we're nothing like what humans can manage.

Example 3: Humans have a mind with a drive to understand the world. We go looking for information. We look for new and better ways of storing information, communicating information, and exploring for information. We look for ways to model information, organize information, and put all that understanding to good use. If we find a limit, we look for a way past it. (There's more to our minds than information, but we'll start there, since 'understanding' does involve information.)

I know there's more to be said but for the sake of brevity we'll start there. And now we're far enough along that I can interact with something Stan brought up:
"Because comprehension, thoughts, and concepts are not physical lumps amenable to be analyzed empirically ..."
Actually, just because comprehension, thoughts, and concepts are not physical lumps, that doesn't stop us from analyzing them empirically. (If we find a limit, we look for a way past it.) Here are some ways we humans have come up with to empirically analyze our own comprehension, thoughts, and concepts, and we have come up with a good variety of ways. Some tools focus on the 'understanding' part of it, and some focus on the 'brain' electrical / biomechanics of it:
  • We turn our understanding into a hypothesis. We use that hypothesis to design an experiment, and then test our understanding with that experiment
  • We turn our concepts into a syllogism to test each thought's compatibility with other thoughts in the same system
  • We turn our comprehension into images -- maps, drawings, charts, graphs
  • We turn our understanding into words, and work to grasp the world by defining each thing or idea in words
  • We turn thoughts into mechanical models like little world-map globes or solar-system models
  • We turn concepts of events and people into stories. We also use stories to evaluate "what-if?" with different scenarios, or when we want to see how or why our struggles matter and grasp how our lives have meaning
  • We try to peek inside our own minds with tools like Rorschach blots, dream analysis, word association, and other tools for analyzing our own psychology
  • We have developed brain scans to give us a more direct view on the electrical impulses and brain functions involved in our thoughts and emotions
  • We're making progress towards being able to turn visual images in the brain into computer-output, e.g. take a mental image and turn it into a photo. Based on existing early work, I expect the day will come when we can take a daydream and download it as a movie. (Imagine the job listing for that: Help wanted. Daydreamer. Detail-oriented a must. Familiarity with Synapse-Interface Software required ...) (May Google Minds never develop a Mental StreetView camera ...)

So there are lots of ways in which we model our own thoughts and concepts so that we can examine them. At this point I'm not sure which of those were of interest to you (Stan), or if there's another direction you had in mind.

One thing that persuades me that the mind works naturally is (background: I'm a professional coder with an interest in AI) that I haven't yet heard someone propose a mental function that I couldn't imagine a way of coding into a computer. (No, I don't get to do anything near that cool for my day job, which is just the usual corporate coding to pay the bills. It keeps my mind exercised, though without a ton of creative leeway. But sometimes I mull over how I would go about designing an AI system, and there are people who have done more than mull it over.) There are perfectly natural ways to code awareness, evaluative framework, even the ability for a computer to add new abilities into its own design/framework and exceed its original instruction base.

I'm hoping that makes it somewhat clearer how I see the purpose and goal of the mind, and why that all seems like natural processing to me. I look forward to hearing other peoples' thoughts. I'm glad for the interaction and interest in the topic.


Stan said...

Hello Weekend Fisher,
I have responded to the above at my site. These issues are much too long for com boxes. It's good to have the opportunity to dive into issues like this.

Martin LaBar said...

Good thinking. Thanks.

Aron Wall said...

Hi Anne,

I used to think like you that consciousness could be explained in purely material terms, but I no longer think so. I changed my mind for philosophical reasons rather than because I think Christianity requires it (in that respect I agree with your post). Are you familiar with thought experiments such as "p-zombies", "Mary's room", the "inverted spectrum" and so on, which were designed by modern analytic philosophers (who are mostly not theists) to argue against the idea that consciousness can be explained purely in terms of the laws of physics, with no additional premises?

I wrote a bit about this issue here (part of a longer series, but this and the immediately following post hopefully mostly stand on their own):

Fundamental Reality VIII: The Hard Problem of Consciousness

I agree with your comment on Stan's blog that it's important to define the terms properly in order to avoid arguing past each other. As an example, when you say:

"There are perfectly natural ways to code awareness [into an AI system]"

you must be using the term "awareness" differently than I would. By awareness or consciousness I would mean the internal experience of a person, "what it is like to be you". Defined this way, your awareness is not directly accessible to any one outside of yourself. Other people may try to empathize by observing you externally but they can never literally share your experiences. So even if your computer AI passed the Turing test, I don't see how you could ever know for sure that it has internal conscious experiences. It may act as if it is aware but that wouldn't necessarily mean it is. (I'm not saying it wouldn't be conscious either, just that there's no way to objectively prove or disprove it from the outside. Only the AI, and God, would directly experience the AI's consciousness.) Does that make sense?

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Aron

Good to see you again.

My original goal in starting this thread was for a discussion with those Christians who believe that our own minds cannot be trusted if the mind works using natural processes. Some people have put so much weight on that one argument for God that I'm concerned for them, if their view should ever be conclusively disproven (which I consider to be likely).

Of the thought experiments you mentioned, the most valid seems to be "Mary's room". And the point that I took away from "Mary's room" is something that Christians have discussed for a long time: that there is a fundamental difference between "knowing about" something and knowing by experience. The "knowing about" has already been encoded in symbols for us. The direct experience hasn't been encoded yet (by definition). So even if everything knowable were encoded correctly and we'd had all of that information, there's still the fact that the original is in this case more than "just information"; the thing being perceived cannot be accurately reduced to that limited kind of data. Does that mean that, by definition, something is lost in the encoding? At any rate, with direct experience, we have to come to grips with understanding it ourselves.

I'm working on typing up my response to Stan as a new post. Hope to see you around / would be glad to hear your thoughts always.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Aron Wall said...

When you talk about the difference between "knowing about" and "knowing by experience" as an old Christian idea, are you thinking about the need for the Incarnation or something else?

Anyway, I actually agree with you that the "Argument from Reason" of the sort defended by Alvin Plantinga or C.S. Lewis isn't a good reason by itself to accept Theism. I think a naturally evolved brain could easily express logically valid reasoning and creativity without violating any of the usual laws for physical organisms.

So the arguments about consciousness which I endorse are definitely different from your main target here, but I just wanted to register a small protest on the issue of consciousness, since there are definitely some pretty deep issues there in Philosophy of Mind which aren't likely to be resolved any time soon, and it's not all that obvious that the "naturalist" solution to try to reduce everything to externally observable quantities is even coherent.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Aron

There's a place in the NT Book of James that says, "You say you believe in God. Even the demons believe in God, and tremble" (paraphrased). Have you ever heard anyone expound on that section without going into the difference between "knowing" God (head-knowledge) and "knowing" God (by experience / in relationship)? I've heard that association so many times it's an automatic reference for me by this point. And that strain of thought seems to underlie some of the Eastern Orthodox thinking about depth of knowledge/true knowledge, where as we progress, "knowledge becomes love" (esp when it comes to the Holy One).

I'd like to consider your arguments about consciousness. I know you went into a longish series, not too long ago ... if you had to recommend one (1) as a gateway post for me to get familiar with your take on things, which would it be? (Seems like you've recommended some before, but I'd like to focus on identifying a good entry point for an outsider to your thoughts.)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF