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Are Ideas Physically Manifested in the Brain?

January 31, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

My answer to on Quora.

I don’t think that ideas can be said to be physically manifested, unless we extend physics to include phenomenology. Neurons, brains, and bodies* can all be reduced to the behavior of three dimensional structures in space. In this context, behavior is really the function of those 3D structures over time, and function is a chronological sequence (so a fourth dimension or 3D+1D) of changes in those structures. All such changes can be described in terms of movements of structural units, typically atoms or molecules, as they are rearranged according to deterministic and random-seeming chain reactions. The existence of ‘ideas’ or consciousness within such a system is, to paraphrase William James, “an illegitimate birth in any philosophy that starts without it, and yet professes to explain all facts by continuous evolution.

This is to say that there is no logical entailment which can explain how we get from a phenomenon which can be imagined to be composed of countless particle collisions that look like like this:


to something else. This gap, known in Philosophy of Mind as the Explanatory Gap, and the existence of that something else in the first place (known as the Hard Problem of Consciousness) are the two insurmountable obstacles for anti-idealistic worldviews**.

What many computer scientists may not appreciate is that while the theoretical underpinnings of information science point to brains being reducible to simple arithmetic functions, this reduction cuts both ways. If we can reduce everything that a brain does to a computation which can be embodied on any material substrate, that also means that no semantic content is required, other than low level digital logic. Just as all of the content of the internet can be routed by dumb devices which have no appreciation of images or dialogue, so too can the entire content of the brain be reproduced without any thoughts, feelings, or ideas.

Once we have used a mathematical or physical schema to encode our communication, there is no functional benefit to be gained by decoding it into any form other than computation. The computation alone – invisible, intangible, silent facts about the parts of a calculating machine in relation to each other (3D+1) is all that is necessary or sufficient to execute whatever behaviors will allow an animal’s body to survive and reproduce. Once we have converted conscious experience to localized machine signals, the signals alone are enough to generate any physical effect, without signifying any non-local content. This is what Searle was talking about with the Chinese Room, and is known as the symbol grounding problem.

In consideration of the above, the answer to the question is “no”. What is present in the brain can only be a-signifying material relations, not ideas. The connection between matter and ideas cannot be accessed in terms of physics or information, but only in the direct aesthetic participation which we call ‘consciousness’. In my view, it is not consciousness which is emergent from information or mechanisms, but information and mechanisms which are ‘diffracted’ or alienated from consciousness.

*not to mention windmills, computers, and rooms with people translating messages that they don’t understand from a book.

**These would include materialism, eliminativism, logical positivism, behaviorism, empiricism, verificationism, functionalism, computationalism, and emergentism.


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