running on wetware: the ghost between the ears

Where does Thought live, and what is its nature, exactly? Where does Life live, Consciousness live, and what are their respective natures, exactly?

Thought aka Mind is thought to live in the brain, or at least that's what most neurologists, psychologists and other horse thieves believe. It's also what our intuition suggests. Likewise re Consciousness. But in these matters, intuition may be leading us astray. The big stumbling block for me is the proposition that a non-material thing can be located in a place in the material world.

The production of language, for example, is said to be linked to the area of the brain known as Broca’s area after the scientist Pierre Paul Broca who did much pioneering work in neurology. In more recent years neuroscientists have focused on trying to establish clear associations between particular areas of the brain and particular mental/cognitive activities, eg language, memory, even meditation. They believe they've located where in the brain live basic instincts and emotions from fear to love to hate to jealousy to anger and beyond.

So yes we are learning more and more about the manifestations, the expression, of Thought and Consciousness, but little progress has been made toward understanding the nature of those things. Ditto for Life.

Little progress, but some progress. Specifically the understanding that Thought, Life and Consciousness are processes, not things, verbs not nouns. Not only are Thought, Life and Consciousness non-material, they are dynamically non-material, ie they move and change.

A process is a dynamic pattern. A pattern is a static process. And by its nature, a process needs a substrate on which to "run". A chunk of computer software is a process that runs on hardware. Similarly, Mind runs on Brain, "wetware" so to speak. Life runs on Matter. Spirit runs on Flesh. Verb runs on Noun. What we refer to as "the internet" is a process running on a physical substrate of a network of cables, junctions and routers.

Substrates that can bear patterns include material substrates, such as the brain or a microprocessor, as well as non-material or even "notional" or "virtual" substrates.

Another aspect that Consciousness, Life, Mind have in common is that they are emergent qualities. They are not present or seemingly not present in the parts, but emerge only in the whole. Reductionist science takes things apart, differentiates them, reduces them to their smallest components. And seeks to builds truth on that basis.

In contrast, an holistic approach puts things together, integrates them, and seeks to identify the emergent qualities of the integrated whole.

Neither approach is better than the other in all ways under all circumstances at all times. A combination of elements of both, IMHO, brings us closest to the truth.

Particular thoughts or types of cognitive activity can and have been associated with particular chunks of neuronal activity, ie biochemical "firing" of neurons. But the word "association" in this post does not imply there is necessarily a cause-and-effect relationship. Nor does "association" imply the relationship is a simple, static one-to-one correspondence.

Using the previous example of language, IMHO the fact that language use seems to "cause" Broca's area in the human brain to "light up" does not mean that language is produced by or in Broca's area. No. Language is produced by a dynamic process of neuronal activity that follows a "route" that goes through Broca's area, and other areas of the human brain. Broca's area is not the place or the space where language happens. Rather, Broca's area is one of several non-material nodes, virtual domains, through which the dynamic process of thought passes, much as cyber-traffic travels through the virtual or notional nodes/domains of the Internet. Thought is definitely webby.

Where Thought is concerned, the places in the brain where specific patterns of neuronal activity happen are less important than the route followed by thought-patterns as they travel across the brain. "Brainplace" vs "mindspace", if you like. And the route is comprised of the firing over time of neurons in a particular sequence alongside and connected to the firing of other sets of neurons in other particular sequences, all linked to and feeding back upon "itself": the emerging system.

Which brings us to a reasonable (in my view) working definition of Thought: dynamic neuronal activity in a structured but flexible pattern incorporating feedback loops and self-organising features. Some of the patterns are of a particular nature (in terms of information theory); they are reentrant patterns. I don't enjoy quibbling (in this case with Wikipaedia) but strictly speaking thought comprises reentrant processes, not patterns, as stated in another but more accurate Wikipaedia definition:

In computing, a computer program or subroutine is called reentrant if it can be interrupted in the middle (i.e. the control flow is transferred outside of the subroutine, either due to an internal action such as a jump or call, or by an external action such as a hardware interrupt or signal), can then safely be called again before its previous invocations have been completed, and once the reentered invocation completes, the previous invocations should be able to resume execution correctly.

What's good about the above definition is that it highlights that Thought is dynamic, flexible, can be modified "on the move, in transit" and is self-modifying and self-organising.

And the nature of the dynamic processes called Consciousness and Life are similar to that of Thought.


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Alice Audrey said...

Wait. Why can't processes be nouns? Or rather, why can't they be looked upon from a point of view that takes them in a removed, holistic way?

Faycin A Croud said...

My thought has long been that there is no such thing as the supernatural, but that does not mean that I don't think that things that have been labeled "supernatural" exist. It is my belief most of the time that the spirit or soul, which survives the death of the physical body, is a natural energy. This is the part of us that conceives of thoughts. They matrix through the body's computer, the brain. If the computer is damaged, it becomes more difficult to process thoughts clearly. Just like if a regular computer's various mechanisms are damaged, it may spit out gobbledygook, or not work at all.

masterymistery said...

Hi Alice,
I'm not sure I understand your point correctly, but here goes: A process is a noun in some senses/contexts, a verb in others.

In the view of thought as a dynamic process, thought is "verb-like" in its dynamism: it moves, it interacts, it changes. It does stuff; doing/acting is in its nature.

In the reductionist view, in the other hand, thought is "noun-like": it's seen by many as an "epiphenomenon, a secondary phenomenon that occurs alongside ... a primary phenomenon" (wikip.) and of lesser significance than the primary phenomenon. The primary phenomenon (in this view) being metabolism and physiology, primary things that give rise to incidental things, such as thought, for which (in this view) no explanation is required or even possible. And so Thought is "noun-like" --- a static chunk of something that's impossible to fit within a flawed reductionist model, but which is not that critical anyway, being a mere epiphenomenon.

But I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle (as usual) ie thought is verb-like in some contexts and noun-like in others, much as sub-atomic particles in quantum physics can be waves or particles or both --- depending on the context and upon the interaction with the observer.

Does that make any sense?

masterymistery said...

Hi Faycin, if I understand your point correctly, I agree. We call things "supernatural" simply because we don't (yet) understand them, ie, they are not within the (currently prevailing) understanding of what "natural" is.

A cell phone, 200 years ago, would be considered supernatural.

Evrything is natural; nothing is supernatural (except those things we don't yet understand).

Re your comments on spirit/soul: I agree. And I would add that in my view the spirit/soul is not extinguished when the physical body becomes non-functioning, by simple virtue of the fact that being a process, spirit/soul can be transferred to and "run" on multiple substrates in series and/or parallel, including physical substrates (eg the body) and non-physical or notional substrates, (eg as in the movie, the Matrix).

mgeorge said...

Any emergent self-sustaining system - complex adaptive system - implies intelligence and deserve the respect of an equal or more. At least, that is the underlying view of the originals beliefs: animism, pantheism, shamanism.

The post seems to circle (like a vulture?) around the topic of dualism, something that seems to excite anyone who has studied Philosophy (with a capital P, and that excludes me). Much of our concerns in this matter arise from
(a) our anthropomorphic viewpoint and beliefs. I.e., we are "too clever by half", and seek a scientific basis to elevate ourselves.
This is related to hope and purpose.
(b) the fact that no system can define itself - Godel's theorem (a rehash of Russell and Whitehead). This means any sufficiently intelligent race anywhere in the universe is still grappling with this issue - or has given up if it is smart enough.

Dr. Nicholas Humphrey offered a sensible possibility for "qualia" (the relevant buzzword) (NS 1994-01-08).
a. Sensations began as overt bodily behaviours. For a primitive organism, the activity of sensing red, for example, may have involved responding to red light on one part of its surface with a particular behaviour. The subjective proto-experience corresponded to the form of response: to sense red was to issue the commands for the response. The “sensory” activities occurred in the public domain, and were shaped by natural selection. For each stimuli, a behaviour got selected as the biologically adaptive response.
b. Some responses became less important. To identify the stimuli, however, the organism required the “resulting” sensory representations. For that, it had to monitor its own response by issuing the customary commands. Such commands [related to now irrelevant behaviours] got “short-circuited”, resulting in no behaviour. Sensory activity became an internal loop within the brain.
c. This had the dramatic consequence of becoming self-sustaining and partly self-creating [possessing feedback?]. Sensory experience moved into the subjective present.

masterymistery said...

Hi mgeorge, lots to respond to in your comment so let me get cracking.

your para #1: Agree, though I would modify it slightly by saying "deserves appropriate respect" else the implication that an organism that is less than equal deserves less respect. Are bacteria less worthy of respect than so called higher animals such as humankind?

I'm very comfortable with the ideas in pantheism, the main one from a comparative theology point of view being "immanence" as opposed to the "transcendence" eg as in the monotheistic deity Jehovah.

I believe the whole of Reality past present and future, material and non-material, comprises an actual organism, a being, who is alive, intelligent, self conscious, and who learns, grows, develops.

Pantheism in my view offers a way to experience and access the numinous, without any of the drawbacks of religion, eg the requirement to worship, to obey commandments, the need for intermediaries ie priests, etc

Dualism: yes you've got me there. Though I see it more as "multi-ism" because I think there are more than just two categories, material vs non-material.

I understand the argument (I think) that there's only one kind of thing: mind/consciousness, and that the apparent differences between so called material and non-material things are illusions, mere epiphenomena.

But even so the quality "difference-ness" is not necessarily reduced when it is expressed non-materially vs materially. The mirage in the desert is an illusion of water, but it's a real mirage.

Re No system can define itself: and yet systems can be self-sustaining. Living things as anti 2nd law of thermodynamics machines, manufacturing order or at least keeping disorder at bay.

RE the incompleteness theorems, I think there are some systems that don't require defining: emergent systems. Or at least that emergent systems define themselves as they go along.

The Universe would seem to be self-defining, or at least self-birthing, by virtue of the big bang.

I need to mull over the other issues you raise, before responding.

Thanks for your comments.

mgeorge said...

My "deserves the respect of an equal or more" should have been "has its intrinsic place regardless of human opinion". Jains monks make much of sweeping away insects before them, as do vegetarians with their food, whereas bacteria, plants, etc are all living things we cannot avoid destroying.

Dualism: I just took a crack at this field of pontification, but am not implying I have a position on this either way.


Anonymous said...

Ok, you guys obviously have the philosophical high ground, but I quote from the great Stross (

"Despite all our propaganda attempts to convince you otherwise, AI is alarmingly easy to produce; the human brain isn't unique, it isn't well-tuned, and you don't need eighty billion neurons joined in an asynchronous network in order to generate consciousness."

... that "reentrant" reference is great, but you're actually linking to a Neuroscience perspective, NOT an information theory perspective. The actual Wikipedia entry (reentrant conditions is not something I'd heard of) was very focussed on thread safe conditions as well as reentrant behaviour. I actually SUSPECT that the network neurons produce is far weirder than this - that they exhibit some sort of quantum superposition, so who the hell knows what our internal OS is, let alone our thread-safe reentrant processes?

masterymistery said...

I hadn't known / known about Stross until your comment. Thanks for the lead --- very interesting stuff.

I'm no expert in this field, but based on what I know, I disagree that AI is easy to produce. Perhaps a relatively stupid AI is easy to produce, but one that can play in the same ballpark as the human brain is still far away though recognised as a possibility for the future.

The smart AI's that do exist are very narrow and purpose specific, (expert systems would be more accurate) eg chess playing AI's. But an all-purpose, all -singing, all-dancing flexible adaptable AI is currently not in reach, IMHO.

Your point about quantum superposition is excellent --- hadn't thought of it before but it makes very good sense. All thoughts exist potentially until a thinker collapses the wave function and turns a greyed out thought into a proper instance. ??? Or the primary consciousness flipping back and forth across the highways and byways of the multiverse.

I think! (??)

Thanks for stopping by