Friday, June 20, 2014

The Emergent Mind

Second week of China! Scheduled post for this week is my AP Literature final project, on the Emergent Mind.

I made a Prezi, and, since I'm one of those presenters who thinks that lots of bullet points is no fun (not to mention it would be difficult to work in with the *surprise* at the end), I thought the script of my talk would be helpful to include.

I don't exist. Or, to be more precise, "I" doesn't exist. Let me proceed, brainlike, by analogy. [->]

Behold the termite hill. As individuals, termites are rather stupid, but collectively, they display intelligence, capable of finding efficient paths to food and building nests such as the one you see. And so it is with neurons and their connections: instead of a central director calling the shots, intelligence emerges as a result of the myriad interactions and feedback loops of the group as a whole.

So maybe I lied. "I" does exist, but in a decentralized form, as an aggregate. [->]

Cartesian dualism, which postulates a strict dividing line between mind or spirit and matter, is wrong. Mind v. matter? No, mind from matter. [->] The mind is an emergent property of the neuronal substrate. The behavior of the system as a whole cannot be represented by the sum of its parts. (The technical term for this is a nonlinear system.)

What happens is that the neurons work together as a system, which intakes outside stimuli and arranges them into usable symbols. This system grows more complex and is able to create ever more powerful abstractions--ever higher-level generalizations. Finally, it creates and perceives and accepts as real the symbol representing itself.

Congratulations. You and I and all of us are nothing more than pattern-recognition machines. [->]

But we are also nothing less, and it is important to note that there is nothing reductionist about this view. Our individual experiences cause physical or chemical changes which rewire our brain's connections. These physical changes at the lower level have a ripple effect on the emergent property, the mind or self, that emerges from these structures, changing how our minds, which arise from that matter, perceive ourselves and the world. [->]

Just as with the Mandelbrot set--which should be familiar to anyone who has taken precalc at BHS--deterministic rules at a low level produce interesting, chaotic, unpredictable outcomes on a higher level. [->]

Those outcomes, of course, are our selves. We may be pattern-recognition machines, but we are fancy deluxe models. [->]

In such a chaotic system, it is not surprising to find that we often don't seem unified within ourselves. Some, such as Harry Haller of Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, go so far as to feel as though there are two souls inside that threaten to tear the mind apart. This is an extreme view, but all of us have been taught to respond to different stimuli in different ways, which give rise to different "personas" that may, at times, seem to be in conflict with one another. These selves combine--like the neurons one level below--to create a multifaceted, whole person. [->]

This phenomenon is not intuitively strange. Consider this quote from Steppenwolf:

"[E]very ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities. It appears to be a necessity as imperative as eating and breathing for everyone to be forced to regard this chaos as a unity and to speak of his ego as though it were a one-fold and clearly detached and fixed phenomenon...The delusion rests simply upon a false analogy. As a body everyone is single, as a soul never."

We look at that and say, all right. Humans are complex creatures, each of us with a rich inner life, more or less. Indeed, we may consider it necessary to think of ourselves as one person, but we have no problem admitting that that one person has various modes. This acknowledges our individuality.

A stranger phenomenon, psychologically more repulsive, happens when we go the other way. Flip the ratio. Instead of one body holding many minds, how about one mind spread out among many bodies? [->]

Among the invertebrates, we find examples of "colony animals," including the Portuguese man of war shown here. These animals are made of many smaller suborganisms which operate as a unit in the larger ecosystem. This is another edge case, but if you've ever been in a team or a group working for some cause, then perhaps you are familiar with the experience of a collective mind, in which the boundaries between you and other "individuals" seems thinner because of your shared goals. There is no "I" in "team": we give up part of our individualism to be more aligned with others' needs. [->]

In Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (DADOES?), the human population subscribes to a quasi-religious experience called Mercerism, in which people can use "empathy boxes" to join in the suffering of a martyred old man, Mercer, climbing a desert hill while others throw stones at him. They do not merely sympathize with or pity Mercer: rather, they share in his pain, feeling it as their own. [->] This is similar to the merging of the Self with the Whole found in many eastern religions. [->]

And empathy, even in less extreme forms, emerges as the factor that many cite as the litmus test for deciding to what degree an entity is conscious. The more empathy a mind is capable of feeling, the more conscious it is: mosquitoes and psychopaths are thus considered less conscious than people who take others' suffering onto themselves.

Why empathy? This seems a non-rigorous approach. Why, after denying the existence of a real "I", would I suddenly turn to warm fuzzies? But the choice of empathy as the indicator of consciousness is not arbitrary. [->]

To understand why, first we must recall that the mind and consciousness are emergent properties of a vast complex system, the brain, which excels at creating and using patterns based on information input. The greater this system's "processing power," the more complex its self-image, and hence, the greater its level of consciousness. So consciousness isn't just a yes or no question--instead, it represents a gradient, and any entity's position along that gradient is a function of its abstraction power. [->]

So if we're saying that empathy is correlated to consciousness, then empathy must also be correlated to high abstraction power. How? Well, it takes a certain level of complexity to develop first person experiences at all. It takes another huge leap of generalization to realize that not only do I have acute feelings and desires and first-person experiences, but so do you. And you. And all of you, probably.

Thus empathy.

This conclusion may make some people uncomfortable. After all, empathy is the emergent property of an emergent property: it is far removed from the level of brains and neurons and DNA. And in fact one of the main points to take away from the emergent property thesis is that pattern matters more than substrate. Thus sufficiently complex animals and AI may also be called "conscious." [->]

I admit that I am a robot sympathizer, and I have little patience with people who say that machines will never attain full intelligence because they are non-biological. Certainly our current AI has a long way to go; perhaps we won't have the technology to build a system that will give rise to a soul for many centuries. But, if or when we create a robot that can create and process high enough levels of abstraction, then it will be conscious even if it is not organic. [->]

Even Cleverbot [->] can be profound--and relevant--sometimes. The advanced androids in DADOES?, and particularly those in the movie adaptation Blade Runner, are almost indistinguishable in their behavioral patterns from humans. [->] They avoid death; they help one another; they have irreplaceable first-person experiences. [watch clip] [->] [->]

Anyone who would refute this argument by asking me to point out the exact region where consciousness arises is invited to find the ghost in their own machine. "I" only exists out of psychological necessity: "I" is an illusion born of particle collisions and feedback loops, the chaotic results of chaotic systems. [->] Yet it is a more convenient shorthand to say, yes, I am a self, I have an identity, I live and I will. We delude ourselves into existence. [->]

Stimuli and experiences from the outside create an I at the center of our existence. And from that eye, we perceive the world that created us, [->] and think ourselves its master.

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