Essays, Analyses and Meditations

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The Mind

  • I believe in the existence of a common underlying principle that governs inanimate matter (the one studied by Physical Science), living matter (the one studied by Biological Science) and consciousness (studied by Cognitive Science).
  • The world of living beings is a "Darwinian" system: mutation, competition, survival of the fittest, evolution, etc. The immune system is a Darwinian system. The brain is a Darwinian system too, in which the principles of natural selection apply to neural connections. It is intuitive that memory is a Darwinian system: we remember the notions that we use frequently, while we forget notions that we never use. I think that thinking as a whole is a Darwinian system as well: thoughts are subject to mutation, competition, survival of the fittest and evolution. The Darwinian system recurs at different levels of organization.
  • Biology and Physics offer us different theories of Nature. Physics' view is "reductionist": the universe is made of galaxies, which are made of stars, which are made of particles. By studying the forces that operate on particles, a Physicist derives the universe. Biology's view is Darwinian: systems evolve. A Biologist understands a system as a successor or a predecessor to another system, under the general guiding principle of "survival of the fittest". The two views can be reconciled if one assumes that the Darwinian approach is universal: it applies to every system in the universe, not only to biological systems. Every system in the universe evolves, including the universe as a whole.
  • "Ex nihilo nihil fit": nothing comes from nothing. Life does not arise by magic: it must come from properties of matter. Ditto for cognition. Ditto for consciousness. Many scenarios have been proposed to explain how life and consciousness may be "created" from inanimate and unconscious matter, how a completely new property can arise from other properties. I don't believe this is the case. Both life and consciousness are ultimately natural phenomena that originate from other natural phenomena, just like television programs and the motion of stars.
  • Life seems to be a consequence of a universe in which energy flows. As energy flows, it creates order. That order is capable of self-configuring so as to survive and acquire even more order from energy flows. Thus simple systems "evolve" into complex systems. Living organisms are the outcome of this process of constant non-equilibrium. On one hand, living organisms seem to be an inevitable consequence of the universe. On the other hand, living organisms cannot live in isolation: they depend on the environment. The "individual" is an oxymoron.
  • Life is about maintaining itself through a process of interacting with an environment via exchanges of energy/matter. Life is constant non-equilibrium.
  • Equilibrium means death. Equilibrium (no more flows of energy) kills.
  • I believe that the substance of the brain and the substance of consciousness are the same. Brain processes and thoughts arise from different properties of the same matter, just like a piece of matter exhibits, for example, both gravitational and electrical features. The feature that gives rise to consciousness is present in every particle of the universe, just like the features that give rise to electricity and gravity.
  • Cognition is a feature of all matter, whether living or not: degrees of remembering, learning and communicating are ubiquitous in all natural systems. If we bend a piece of paper several times, it will tend to stay bent. That is equivalent to our brain memorizing something. If we leave it alone, the piece of paper will tend to resume its flat position. That is equivalent to our brain forgetting some information that is no longer used.
  • The issue, therefore, is not of what is conscious and what is not, of what is cognitive and what is not: the issue is the "degree" to which a system is conscious or cognitive. My degree of consciousness and of cognition are (presumably) different from those of a stone, of a cat, of a plant.
  • A plausible explanation of consciousness requires the introduction of a new feature of matter, which must be present even in the most fundamental building blocks of the universe. I believe that proto-consciousness is pervasive. Every piece of matter, down to the elementary constituents, is proto-conscious. The reason we "feel" is that each atom of our body "feels" (to some extent). Consciousness was there from the beginning.
  • Each neuron, and each atom of each neuron, is "proto-conscious". And each atom of every object is proto-conscious. The reason we are conscious is similar to the reason that some bodies are electrical conductors: each single particle of the universe has an electrical charge, and in some configurations that property yields conductivity.
  • By the same token, each single particle of the universe has a proto-conscious quality, and in some configurations (for example, the human brain) that property yields consciousness.
  • Just like electricity and liquidity are macroscopic properties that are caused by microscopic properties of the constituents, so consciousness is a macroscopic property of our brain that is caused by a microscopic "mental" property of its constituents.
  • I have an idea of how the human mind evolved. If consciousness is ubiquitous in nature, then it must have been there, in some primitive form, since the very beginnings of life, and it must have evolved with life. It became more and more complex as organisms became more and more complex. Early hominids were conscious, and their consciousness, while much more sophisticated than the consciousness of bacteria, was still rather basic, probably limited to fear, pain, pleasure, etc. Early hominids had a way to express through sounds their emotions of fear and pain and pleasure.
  • Consciousness was a skill that helped in natural selection. "Minds" were always busy thinking in very basic terms about survival, e.g. about how to avoid danger and how to create opportunities for food.
  • What set hominids apart from other mammals was the ability to manufacture tools. We can walk and we can use our hands in ways that no other animal can. The use of tools (weapons, clothes, houses, fire) relieved us from a lot of the daily processing that animals use their minds for. Our minds could afford to "relax". Instead of constantly monitoring the environment for preys and predators, our minds could afford to become "lazy". Out of that laziness modern consciousness was born. As the human mind had fewer and fewer practical chores, it could afford to do its own "gymnastics", rehearsing emotions, and constructing more and more complex ones. As more complex emotions helped cope with life, individuals who could generate and deal with them were rewarded by natural selection. Emotions underwent a Darwinian evolution of their own.
  • That process is still occurring today. Most animals cannot afford to spend much time philosophizing: their minds are constantly working to help them survive in their environment. Since tools were doing most of the job for us, our minds could afford the luxury of philosophizing, which is really mental gymnastics (to keep the mind in good shape).
  • In turn, this led to more and more efficient tools, to more and more mental gymnastics. As emotions grew more complex, sounds to express them grew more complex. It is not true that other animals cannot produce complex sounds. They have sounds that express the emotions they feel. Human language developed to express more and more complex flows of emotion. The quantity and quality of sounds kept increasing. Language trailed consciousness. At the same time, it helped consciousness evolve by improving the "mental gymnastics".
  • Ideas, or "memes", created (or "discovered") by that mental gymnastics, underwent Darwinian evolution as well, spreading like viruses from mind to mind, and continuously changing in order to adapt to new degrees of consciousness.
  • The history of consciousness is the history of the parallel and interacting evolution of: tools, language, memes, emotions and the brain itself. Each evolved and fostered the evolution of the others. The co-evolution of these "components" led to our current mental life. The human mind is the product of the co-evolution of memes, language, tools, emotions and brains.
  • This process continues today, and will continue for as long as tools lend our minds more time for thinking. The more "spare time" that tools allow us, the more thinking we can do. We are more conscious than past generations in virtue of having more time to think. Consciousness is a product of having nothing better to do with our brain.
  • I also believe that a scientific theory of consciousness will be possible only when a fundamental flaw of Physics is remedied. The two great theories of the universe that we have today, Quantum Theory and Relativity Theory, are incompatible. I believe that once we replace them with one unified theory that is equally successful in explaining both the cosmological realm and the subatomic realm, consciousness will be revealed to be a somewhat trivial effect. And I believe that this unified theory will be a "Theory of the Observer", not a theory of matter (as all science has traditionally been).