What is "Mind?"


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Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
May 18, 2014 - 06:25pm PT
I'm not sure it's so easy to transform everything into a "thing"

in fact the western classical dialectic would be "things" and "ideas" so ideas would be outside of the domain of the physical, not being things and not needing to be placed under that domain.

I believe that is why Kant is relevant, even if old, it is essentially what he was getting at.

Now you might scoff at the that and say that ideas are things, but not so fast. First off, you have to describe how an idea is something physical.

This is not just a criticism of the panpsychists (jgill missed my footnote, I put all those things in quotes to avoid going into details about what they are) but it is a deep mystery of physics, too.

You can read Wigner's musing on this The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences

the domain of mathematics is symbolic, and the congruence of those symbols with actual physical quantities is approximate and empirical (there is no a priori requirement that they be so). The logical manipulation of those symbols allows us to predict physical observation.

How does that work? the idea or concept represented by the symbols (as Largo has gone on ad nauseum) is not the thing we are using them to describe, at best they are an approximation to the thing.

Now the ideas act a particular way under some logical system, and to the extent that we have correctly constructed that system, may correspond to some physical system, and that extent of correctness is determined empirically.

Are the symbols of mathematics, "things"? and how do these things become things when they are so obviously not, at least initially.

Let's presume you have some answer for this (besides just making an assertion based on "reasonableness" and "unreasonableness", my guess is that you'll just dismiss it as nonsense). One of the programs of Hilbert was to rid mathematics of proof by physical demonstration. Say you have some differential equation that you 'd like to prove has a solution, if you find a physical system that corresponds to that differential equation you can see that it does have a solution. This was disallowed as a "proof," because it fails to apply rigorous logic to the mathematical question.

It is a recognition that the symbols are not the things.

Feynman also talks about the breadth of physical problems that can be solved by similar mathematics, electrodynamics, hydrodynamics, etc... all have many aspects that are described by the exact same mathematical equations. This does not imply that the physical systems are the same.

We use mathematics because it works, sort of a utilitarian approach, but we don't understand how this happens, we can't demonstrate with rigor that it must happen.

So if we allow the dialectic to be things/ideas, then we admit the possibility that ideas are not physical, and fall out of the domain of the physicalist, they are not "things" and so are not a part of "everything."

This may seem semantical, but it is legitimate challenge to the physicalists to explain how ideas are physical.

Now the "mind" is an engine for producing "ideas" which begs the question regarding whether or not "mind" is also physical. But maybe that is too far for you to stretch.

Instead, lets think of what we know of "minds." We can get an idea of Newton's mind from reading him. Lots of great things to read, descriptions of experiments we can perform in our offices on all sorts of things demonstrating, empirically, the physics of Newton. Opticks is a great work because we get to do a lot of great demonstrations, but in the end we find out that Newton gets the nature of light wrong.

He had great reasons for getting it wrong, but he was wrong. And we know that, we can read him and see his arguments, and understand those arguments.

We can give him a pass... but what is also interesting about the Queries in Opticks is that Newton's religious beliefs are also written out there in the context of his thinking in physics, and those beliefs probably make most modern day physicists very uncomfortable.

But those ideas: white light is composed of separate colors, that light is a particle, that the universe is the result of a creator, all come from the same mind. Obviously our definition of an "idea" as a "thing" has to encompass the possibility that while the "idea" is a thing, the thing the idea describes may not be a thing. This is not just an exercise in "use and mention" but it gets at the deeper questions of reality and mind and things and ideas.

Finally, if we have some operational definition of mind, why wouldn't we be able to create it without the biological superstructure? The mind may not operate the same way as a biological mind, but it would be a mind. In some ways, this will be a necessary step for a physicalist explanation, that is, to generalize "mind" beyond its biological setting.

Arguing that it is an "intrinsic property" of biology doesn't help, the "drive" to live seems a very silly and naive argument to make, and probably one that an uneducated physicist might make regarding what is known about modern biology. What is the physical origin of that "drive"? I think you shot your feet off with that one.


4 Corners Area
May 18, 2014 - 06:40pm PT

I agree with Tvash. Nonetheless, there are those who place great faith in this development.

Among some futurists and within the transhumanist movement mind uploading is treated as an important proposed life extension technology. A considerable portion of transhumanists and singularitarians place great hope into the belief that they may become immortal by the year 2045, by creating one or many non-biological functional copies of their brains, thereby leaving their "biological shell".
Ward Trotter

Trad climber
May 18, 2014 - 07:04pm PT
Very thought- provoking post . I'd like to tackle some of the contentions contained therein when I have more time.

May 18, 2014 - 07:12pm PT
It's purely semantical, Ed.

Ideas are part of the universe. Nuff said.

Regarding Wards comments - memory is important, but its only part of the story. Who we are is so much more. If 20 years of my memory were wiped - an act of mercy in some respects - i'd start over - as me.

Personality is hugely determined by emotional makeup and health - both of which are intertwined with memory, our neo cortex, and our senses.

We are not a bunch of phantom limbs - our nervous system, which reaches every part of our bodies, is directly connected and part of our brain, most particularly the emotional centers. It's a very busy two way street.

Talk with someone just after they make love. Then talk to them when they're doing a hard crux move with an opportunity to deck. Then when they have a severe case of pneumonia. You'll be talking to 3 completely different people. Same memories, though.

Consider the emotional response to fear. Heart rate, stomach contraction, blood vessel contraction, breathing rate, sweat, body temperature, speed of thought, and on and on - the physical changes are profound and total. That's the body/mind connection - no phantom limbs required.

We think of the brain as a big memory bank because that what computers are, and that's what we're familiar with. It's simple.

Way too simple, however.

Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
May 18, 2014 - 07:16pm PT
wow... I never knew doing physics was so simple...
all you have to do is say something is so and then go on.

My respect for Wigner might take a hit, though. He seems to make it complicated... and he admits to not knowing the answer...


May 18, 2014 - 09:04pm PT
I like the point made by Ed. It seems he is saying the answer to the question, "What is Mind?" must either assume that the mind emerges from physical interactions, or "goes right down to the roots of the world."

From his Panpsychism link:

Crudely put, someone who believes that amoebas have experiences, but that quarks and electrons, which ultimately constitute amoebas, do not is no panpsychist.


Because if mind is not present on all scales, then it emerges from other things.

Putting the question this way frees those of us who are mere biologists from worrying about the issue. I cannot think of any way to approach the question through study of nervous systems. However, I would not rule out the possibility that study of nervous systems could settle the issue one day. We may be in the position of the Greeks and Romans who wondered whether the Universe was finite or infinite. They could ask the question but could not answer it.

We need to be patient.


May 18, 2014 - 09:10pm PT
Now the "mind" is an engine for producing "ideas"

I like that description because .......,

The mind is the center of all the activities of the senses, and thus the mind is the reservoir of all ideas.

And yes the mind is physical .....

The Utility Muffin Research Kitchen
May 18, 2014 - 09:22pm PT
Nope. Mind is a verb.

May 18, 2014 - 10:37pm PT
If an idea is a thing (it is), then failed ideas, Newtonian or otherwise, are things.


"Arguing that it (the mind (sic)) is an "intrinsic property" of biology doesn't help, the "drive" to live seems a very silly and naive argument to make, and probably one that an uneducated physicist might make regarding what is known about modern biology. What is the physical origin of that "drive"? I think you shot your feet off with that one."

I'm really not sure what you're on about here, Ed. Not the 'drive to live' - 'life management' systems. All critters have them. If they didn't - they wouldn't survive. Optimizing (per the critter's limitations) food processing, waste management, repair, threat avoidance - these are 'life management' processes all creatures engage in.

When an evolutionary biologist examines why an organism is the way it is, such 'life management' systems are a primary consideration.

That they can and do enhance the chances of the organism's procreation doesn't seem a terribly difficult concept to me, but YMMV.

Whether the mind is an intrinsic property or not is another matter entirely - one that is unrelated to any discussion of 'life management'.

Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
May 18, 2014 - 10:42pm PT
an idea is a thing because everything is a thing... that's your story and you're sticking to it...

but you have no explanation as to how an idea can be a thing, nor do you feel you need one, it is sufficient to just assert it

if you make it so from a "construction" then you're doing exactly as any religion would, you haven't explained it, you've defined it.


May 18, 2014 - 10:47pm PT
You say potato.

I'd wager we'll both live.

You can stop, now.
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
May 18, 2014 - 10:49pm PT
you've got nothing...
too bad...

I'll post something later, we're not saying the same thing.

But when you punt you should admit it.

May 18, 2014 - 10:56pm PT
If you want the innernut win that bad Ed, you got it buddy!

I'm all about increasing human happiness.

Plus, my eyes are well glazed over already.

Social climber
humboldt nation
May 18, 2014 - 10:57pm PT
perhaps the universe began when it became conscious of self, and the mind mimics this genesis
with thoughts and ideas?

Sport climber
The Big Wide Open Face
Topic Author's Reply - May 18, 2014 - 11:34pm PT

Lest I lose my sense of humor, here is my definitive take on organized religion - almost.


Boulder climber
May 19, 2014 - 12:43am PT

Ward Trotter

Trad climber
May 19, 2014 - 01:14am PT
in fact the western classical dialectic would be "things" and "ideas" so ideas would be outside of the domain of the physical, not being things and not needing to be placed under that domain.

The definition of" idea "used here is then apparently that specific category of idea which is not primary and representational ( or an idea derived strictly from the mere image of an object.) In other words , an "idea" in the quote above operates in the brain as an abstraction which is seen to bare no direct relationship to objects. An innate idea .

One view on the nature of ideas is that there exist some ideas (called innate ideas) which are so general and abstract, that they could not have arisen as a representation of any object of our perception, but rather were, in some sense, always in the mind before we could learn them. These are distinguished from adventitious ideas which are images or concepts which are accompanied by the judgment that they are caused or occasioned by some object outside of the mind.[1]

There exists this crucial distinction in understanding what an idea might be. One is perceptual and the other is abstract.
Is this distinction only semantical?
Can ideas be the direct representation of objects?

If ideas were , by and large, not the identical representations of external objects, of things accessible to the brain and senses --then the evolutionary biologic success of humans as a species would not have taken place.
We know that the mechanisms of evolution would have selected out an organism like humans if the essential formation of adventitious ideas did not directly, for all intents and purposes, correspond to external objects, external conditions.
If ideas contained de novo qualities which were, and are, diametrically antithetical to the nature of external objects we would then have consequently misjudged and misperceived the external world of objects ; their nature, their operations, their relationships.

Now you might scoff at the that and say that ideas are things, but not so fast. First off, you have to describe how an idea is something physical.

At this point I can only point to the evolutionary history of human beings and the proof which an interpretation of this history provides.
Certainly a worm does not need ideas to correspond to an external reality , but highly complex triune-brained organisms like humans do need an instant ,relatively utilitarian set of mental calibrations and associations to insure a modicum of survival outcomes.
A set of mental representations to that end, namely ideas, must be something physical --simply because they arose as a requirement to survival in a physical context, not a non-physical one. The provenance of ideas are physical and their ultimate proving ground is in the physical world of objects and things.

If ideas are non-physical it must be shown precisely how these non-physical elements corresponded to the physical environment .What justifies their function as non-physical entities.? If ideas are non-physical why do we have them? Why were they evolutionarily developed in the context of an otherwise physical world of tooth and claw and corporeal objects?
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
May 19, 2014 - 01:39am PT
win what?

tvash, you got anything or are you folding?

really, you were just bluffing?

ok, I don't want to pull a Largo and not get back to the discussion once I said I'd get back to the discussion.

start first with Gödel's realization that logical propositions can be represented by natural numbers

I would turn it around then and ask where do logical propositions come from?

we know that we can describe propositional calculus in terms of algebras, there is Boolean algebra which generates Boolean logic. There is also an algebra which generates quantum logic (which differs from Boolean logic)

very deep connections exist between various logical systems and the algebras that describe them.

So here's the leap, the physical universe is defined by its symmetries. As I had described above for the intrinsic angular momentum of fundamental particles, it is the symmetries of nature that determine the properties of fermions and bosons (for instance). These symmetries are responsible for the stability of matter, they are why all these particles don't collapse down from the void.

A conjecture regarding the propositional calculus might be that they are generated from the symmetries of the universe, so that mathematics is a consequence. These same symmetries generate all the physicalness of the universe, too, so it is no surprise that mathematics is effective in describing natural sciences.

We would conclude that mathematics is not an intrinsic property, but the consequence of what makes the universe what it is.

A similar idea might generate dimension also, space and time, which has long been suspected as not being "intrinsic" either, but maybe that would be too much here... after all, space and time is the stage on which "things" do their thing, one could ask the physicalist to demonstrate that space and time are also physical. While it has not been done yet, there are many interesting ideas that have attempted it. My guess is that we'll have very good ideas soon.

But back to ideas, which we can essentially make equivalent to propositional statements. These statements have an existence, and depending on our logical system, values such as "true," "false," "undecidable" etc. The statements exist independent of their values.

What I have conjectured here is that the propositional calculus is generated from algebras which are the consequence of symmetries, just as chemistry depends on the interaction of electrons, which have interact through algebras which are the result of symmetries.

Spin is "real," it is "physical" and we can measure the physical consequences. In this sense, "statements" could be real things also, physical in nature, a consequence of symmetry.

It's a wild speculation, but hey, why not... that's what I got in this hand as a physicalist... though I've thrown my mathematician friends "under the bus" as it were, and denied them the possibility that what they study is something other than physical. Sorry about that.

Once propositional calculus is physical, then we have a means of describing ideas as physical also, and those things that generate the ideas are physical.

Now Largo can complain that an object with no physical extent cannot spin, so the analogy with the electron doesn't mean anything because we know the "real" electron can't have these properties.

And it is true that we haven't resolved all the issues regarding just what an electron is... but our physical ideas are quite powerful and have a wide range of validity even though they are not the "complete truth." We have empirical evidence of that over a broad range of phenomena and a theory able to compute predictions which are very accurate.

I'm just speculating here, but the idea the ideas are physical doesn't have to be stated as a definition, it can be explored from a physical standpoint.

What I have suggested above is very unlikely to be the correct physical theory of ideas, and there may be very simple demonstrations that the consequence of the conjecture is inconsistent with our observations of the universe. But it makes definitions, provides a logical framework from which to make predictions and, in principle, can make predictions that can be tested.

That's a start, along with the willingness to be wrong, and the understanding of what we know and what we don't know.

We can state that ideas are physical, but if we can't explain how they are physical then we can't claim to know.

I showed you my hand...
...we can deal another. I suspect you don't want to play anymore, especially if your bluff is going to be called.
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
May 19, 2014 - 01:41am PT
Ward Trotter, I think you need to learn more about evolution.

Ward Trotter

Trad climber
May 19, 2014 - 01:48am PT
Ward Trotter, I think you need to learn more about evolution.

Okay. How so?
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