What is "Mind?"


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Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
May 18, 2014 - 01:25pm PT
you could ask the fundamental question: is "consciousness" an intrinsic property of the universe?

and justify your answer. If the answer is an "opinion" than it should be stated as such, if it is a "proof" then provide the supporting information.

May 18, 2014 - 01:41pm PT
What each region of our neurological system does is reasonably well known from studying people with damage to that system. Most of us on this thread (save the religious, perhaps) agree that if you kill the relevant tissue, the carnival stops.

The question, it seems, is whether or not the newly shorn sheep fantasy I'm currently entertaining - WITH APPROPRIATE MORAL DISGUST, OF COURSE - is all that much different than the light emitted when a lamp is turned on. Does that subjective thought inhabit an extra-physical space beyond the neural machinations that obviously (from brain injury studies) produce it, or is it just 'light from a lamp' that is trapped inside my head (currently, but perhaps not forever, given the pace of technology).

This is, indeed, a very interesting question.

Separate from this central question, there is also a bit of junk science being presented - the body as receiver/prism/woo-ometer for some universal sentience field - an idea pulled from the more general 'quantum physics is weird, and so is consciousness, so let's mix and match' bucket. This kind of stuff exemplifies the very animal desire to be out in front of the pack with a truly 'novel' idea (that, like religion, is conveniently immune from testing) - and for the less innovate, to subscribe to such 'alternative' ideas. I'm not so sure such ideas constitute a serious run at doing the 'heavy lifting' to solve the problem, however. Our body-brains as Higgs Bosons for that universal sentience field? I don't know about you, but that's a re-purposing that seems a bit too convenient to be taken very seriously to me.

It's an old idea - the amorphous, universal spiritual 'energy' - the ever nebulous 'something out there I can feel but I can't articulate'.

But a 'sentience field' that pre-existed the evolution of sentient beings?

That's God talkin' through ya.
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
May 18, 2014 - 03:19pm PT
if you strip away all your unnecessary prose, what you are left with is the opinion that there is no need for nature to have the intrinsic property of "consciousness"

you can't say it isn't true, and by construction those that argue that it is true obviously base that argument on a foundation that is not false (that is the nature of our logical discourse).

you point out, perhaps counter to your opinion, that universal fields exist and that they play a fundamental role in the universe we perceive. The Higgs field gives rise to mass (in the simplest exposition), it pervades all of the universe. It is at least consistent with recent measurements, directly, and the consequence of a number of inferences based on an interpretation of the physical observations that were made 40 to 50 years ago.

we face a similar possibility that the various fields that are necessary to explain our current cosmology might be lurking out there to be found, and that they have a profound influence on our physical universe.

but this would be a "physicalists" interpretation of "universal consciousness" that is not what the argument is about (though it is interesting to contemplate as a possible reconciliation). The reason that this isn't likely is simply that we do not know, empirically, that "consciousness" is universal. We have a lot of reasons to think it is not a necessary attribute of the physical universe (we haven't had to invoke it to explain that universe, except in the case of "consciousness").

the possibility that "consciousness" exists beyond the physical is the issue that properly describes the panpsychists argument.

I think the physicalist objection to this is the hypothesis that anything that results in a physical action has a physical cause.

Thus the panpsychists discussion of "thought" or "experience"? If it is not physical, then it is not necessarily subject to physical cause.

May 18, 2014 - 03:52pm PT
To be fair, none of the prose here is necessary.

But unnecessary ad hominems aside (guilty, although I consider mine more in the satire category, which necessarily requires a bit of humor as a sweetener), I never used the word 'true', nor would I presume to, so there's that strawman left out standing in its universal field.

I would observe, as you have Ed, that it's a matter of evidence. No evidence for the sentience field, plenty for the Higgs, etc. Ideas with no evidence get less love. Are universal gravitation and dark energy weird? Yes. Are they completely understood? No. Does this weirdness inform the possibility of a universal sentience field? No more than a universal ice cream field, really. IS THERE ICE CREAM ON OTHER WORLDS?

This could be yet another internet case of violent agreement, I think.

And I'm not so sure this is only a 'physicalist' vs 'non-physicalist' one. It seems there's a layer in between - a pure subjective experience of consciousness that has a physical cause (kill the neurons, kill the experience), but due to its inherent subjectivity cannot be studied through the scientific method. This is a 'can't objectively study the last (subjective) step' problem, not a 'no physical causality' one.

I don't subscribe to this, but I'll admit that it is a bit of a Gordian knot at this point.

We may never be able to 'port' one's consciousness into another, given the uniqueness and inseparability of each body + nervous system, but molecule by molecule matter replication or completely artificial (replication ready) bodies may be possible in the future, so who knows?

Back to your point and to further belabor mine: things that obey no physical laws are, by definition, magic.

I don't believe in magic.

Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
May 18, 2014 - 04:00pm PT
once again, I think you intentionally use a disparaging term "magic" which is the power of supernatural influence.

the interesting limitation is that supernatural influence of the non-physical is allowable to a physicalist.

once again, if things like "consciousness" are not physical, then they could be susceptible to supernatural influence, magic.

thus the line of argument regarding the nature of "consciousness" or "mind" or "thought" or "experience." Are these things physical?


May 18, 2014 - 04:02pm PT
One man's disparaging is another's brevity and accuracy, and that's OK. I do use the word magic because that is the most concise, appropriate word for the job. Euphemisms aren't my thing.

FYI - I think you meant to write the opposite with regards to physicalists.
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
May 18, 2014 - 04:09pm PT
a physicalist has really nothing to say regarding the unphysical...

the physicalist may doubt that there is anything "unphysical" but obviously if the domains are separate and not interacting then the physicalist would probably not care, obviously. Maybe think of reading fiction, do you care if it is real or not? true or not?


as far as language goes, if you want to get your point across, you must consider you audience. it's a matter of intent, if you want to aggravate your audience you use one set of words, if you want to co-opt your audience you use another...

you also used the word "believe," where does that fit into your scientific methodology?

May 18, 2014 - 04:16pm PT
Well, I certainly neither need nor want a patronizing lecture on how to communicate to an audience, but thanks anyway, Ed. My words are chosen intentionally. If you choose to let them frost you, that's not really my problem. 'Magic' seems benign to me, but YMMV.

Subjectivity and all.

And you're 180 degrees out with regards to what physicalists have to say about magic, as wiki quickly points out:

"In philosophy, physicalism is the ontological thesis that "everything is physical", or that there is "nothing over and above"[1] the physical."

Your attempt at a 'believe' entrapment seems pretty far beneath you, speaking of credibility. Pointless on its face, among other things.

You started out strong, anyway, but then it seemed to get too personal for you.

Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
May 18, 2014 - 04:27pm PT
I'm a physicalist and I'd say I don't mind one way or the other what happens in the non-physical domain, whether I believe it exists or not... it simply doesn't have anything to do with the physical world.

I won't apologize for not conforming the the Wikipedia article description. Which by the way is still consistent if you think about what is meant by "every thing" (as Largo has pointed out previously).

Now I'd also say that I fully expect "mind" to have a physical explanation, which it must have in order to uphold the physicalist's belief. But there is no explanation. Part of this is because of the difficulties in describing what "mind" is, and what it is we are trying to describe.

That is not to say that we don't have a physical description of "mind." Those we have are tentative, just like our belief in the Higgs prior to experimental confirmation.


May 18, 2014 - 04:32pm PT
Bill Shakespeare made up his own words and phrases - but not his own definitions for existing words.

You're free to violate lexical convention all you want - but don't expect to be universally understood afterwards. You're not really a physicalist by definition, but you're free to call yourself one incorrectly. Now, if you were to state you don't believe there's anything outside the physical universe (incl multiverses, etc) for lack of evidence, then you'd be a physicalist, because belief is as far as any of us can take anything. And we'd be in complete agreement.

Your 'fiction' analogy is ridiculous, of course. Every idea, fictional or not, is real - every one has an associated neural map which can actually be imaged, even with today's crude technology.

You seem to be tripping over a confusion between 'things' and 'objects' or 'matter' or something, which seems to me to be a noob mistake.

Everything (not every thing, BTW) in the universe means exactly that.

It's not a tricky concept.

As for where we are with regards to understanding what 'mind' is, we are, as I've previously stated, in violent agreement. That's more of a statement of the obvious than anything else.

This never was a discussion about what is - we've all agreed that our understanding of the subject is still in the early stages. This is, for the most part, a discussion about what we may or may not discover in the future.

And that's OK.

Ward Trotter

Trad climber
May 18, 2014 - 04:48pm PT
the physicalist may doubt that there is anything "unphysical" but obviously if the domains are separate and not interacting then the physicalist would probably not care, obviously. Maybe think of reading fiction, do you care if it is real or not? true or not?

I think there are some important points to be made as regards the source and form of reactions to be found in mutually opposing convictions.

I've often asked myself why I should care if any given poster states a position which that poster considers to be true but which I consider false, or at the least, debatable.

For myself I have come to the conclusion that my desire to engage in a debate rests entirely on personal motivations having nothing to do with the issue in play.
How could it?
There is nothing inherent within the confines of the subjects //physical/non-physical// (for instance) that would include the optional engaging of an opponent.
Such an option is determined by affective psychological elements ---despite a thin veneer of moral or political outrage.
Of course the one other motivation is a type of learning to be had---and maybe to get in some writin' practice.

(Has the italic function been disabled?)

This is what I mean by learning: the italic function is disabled if you include either a slash or a dash in the item you intend to be italicized.
You learn something new everyday.

Further proof that life is just a bowl of....what is it....cherries?

May 18, 2014 - 04:56pm PT
If you can explain how ST's italic function works only part of the time without resorting to magic, my wife-turned-hat's off to you.

Boulder climber
May 18, 2014 - 04:58pm PT
the possibility that "consciousness" exists beyond the physical is the issue that properly describes the panpsychists argument (Ed)

I'm not certain this is entirely correct. Isn't it the position that "mind" is "everywhere", rather than "consciousness?" The subconscious is part of the mind. If consciousness were everywhere one might consider the plausibility of remote viewing.

With video cameras all over the place, drones in the sky, constant texting, etc. humanity seems bent on extending "consciousness" as far as possible. Perhaps it's already there and we are merely uncovering it.

I'm not sure we're going to see any breakthroughs here . . .

May 18, 2014 - 05:04pm PT
Demasio posits that everything we do - technology, culture, government, etc...is an extension of a hierarchical drive to manage life that is active right down to the cellular level. As we create more sophisticated super organisms, we are simply adding layers and complexity to that hierarchy, but we're not really inventing anything that didn't exist the moment that first organism began making its way.

That's not to say that everything we do works out. Analogously, only a relatively small percentage of species survive for very long, geologically speaking.

4 Corners Area
May 18, 2014 - 05:09pm PT
Atmosphere is getting a little thick in here.

Hey, what do you think is going to happen when they try to download a person's "mind" into a computer.

There are people who believe this is the path to immortality.

But, it might also be an interesting experiment to shed light on the question of "mind".
Ward Trotter

Trad climber
May 18, 2014 - 05:18pm PT
Perhaps it's already there and we are merely uncovering it.

That brings to mind Michelangelo's stated conviction, born of the religiosity of his times, that the figure of David was already contained within the amorphous marble block--- therefore his (Michelangelo's) job was merely to chip away all the excess.

But, it might also be an interesting experiment to shed light on the question of "mind".

If a human individual's consciousness could be downloaded into a computer--- at that point ,rest assured , most questions of "mind" would then exist ex post facto

May 18, 2014 - 05:38pm PT
It would be hard to imagine downloading a mind into a machine without a substantial change in the nature and quality of conscious experience, because the human mind is so inextricably and thoroughly linked to every part of the body. So much of who we are is driven by fundamental life management needs - once that has been removed - who would we be then?

That's not to say bodies won't be synthesized in the future - but the tendency will be to improve upon homo sapiens - less maintenance, less pain, more pleasure, smarter, stronger, better senses, more senses, more connectivity - we won't be us anymore.

It will never be possible to download a mind into a computer that looks anything like today's computers - for the aforementioned reasons. Too much of who we are depends on the body we inhabit.
Ward Trotter

Trad climber
May 18, 2014 - 06:04pm PT
downloading a mind into a machine without a substantial change in the nature and quality of conscious experience

True. That is why it is preferable to regard the term: "download a mind" in a purely categorical way.
Permit me to speculate:
If enough of Tvash is downloaded to preserve Tvash's essential memories ,then... fait accompli.
Remember it is memory that is important here. The entire complex said to represent Tvash is not that important initially. ( First things first!)
Alzheimer's and other dementias are the result of the disintegration of memory--- memories are where any given person resides. It is the collection of things that have made up the person. Without his memories, Tvash would disappear.

Without memory " life management needs " would be a perfunctory course.

This is not to dismiss the tremendous problems encountered with any kind of set of functions that would be responsible for the coordinating and processing those memories into a dynamic and coherent whole which might simulate an on-going general awareness of Tvash to Tvash. Therein might lie the technical rub.

I don't know enough about AI to be be fully aware of what the current thinking is along these lines, embryonic as they might be.( All I know is that a visit to AI sites , such as JAIR, might render one susceptible to bizarre and unpredictable lurking computer infestations---especially if you click on certain search functions.LOL----beware!)

BTW ,I say these things in a disinterested way. I am not necessarily advocating any particular technological course as regards the fiddling with in situ human consciousness ---other than the amelioration of disability and suffering.

Boulder climber
May 18, 2014 - 06:09pm PT
So much of who we are is driven by fundamental life management needs - once that has been removed - who would we be then?

A basket case of "phantom limbs?"
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.

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