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The Brain as a Prediction Machine

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Over the last year, I’ve been reading a lot about Karl Friston and Andy Clark’s work on the concept of perception and action being mediated by a neurological schema centered on “predictive coding”, what Friston calls “active inference”, the “free energy principle”, and Bayesian inference in general as it applies to neuro-scientific models of perception, attention, and action.  Here’s a few links (Friston here; Clark here, here, and here) to some of their work as it is worth reading for those interested in neural modeling, information theory, and learning more about meta-theories pertaining to how the brain integrates and processes information.

I find it fascinating how this newer research and these concepts relate to and help to bring together some content from several of my previous blog posts, in particular, those that mention the concept of hierarchical neurological hardware and those that mention my own definition of knowledge “as recognized causal patterns that allow us to make successful predictions.”  For those that may be interested, here’s a list of posts I’ve made over the last few years that I think contain some relevant content (in chronological order).

The ideas formulated by Friston and expanded on by Clark center around the brain being (in large part) a prediction generating machine.  This fits in line with my own conclusions about what the brain seems to be doing when it’s acquiring knowledge over time (however limited my reading is on the subject).  Here’s an image of the basic predictive processing schema:

PPschema

The basic Predictive Processing schema (adapted from Lupyan and Clark (2014))

One key element in Friston and Clark’s work (among the work of some others) is the amalgamation of perception and action.  In this framework, perception itself is simply the result of the brain’s highest level predictions of incoming sensory data.  But also important in this framework is that prediction error minimization is accomplished through embodiment itself.  That is to say, their models posit that the brain not only tries to reduce prediction errors by updating its prediction models based on the actual incoming sensory information (with only the error feeding forward to update the models, similar to data compression schema), but the concept of active inference involves the minimization of prediction error through the use of motor outputs.  This could be taken to mean that motor outputs themselves are, in a sense, caused by the brain trying to reduce prediction errors pertaining to predicted sensory input — specifically sensory input that we would say stems from our desires and goals (e.g. desire to fulfill hunger, commuting to work, opening the car door, etc.).

To give a simple example of this model in action, let’s consider an apple resting on a table in front of me.  If I see the apple in front of me and I have a desire to grab it, my brain would not only predict what that apple looks like and how it is perceived over time (and how my arm looks while reaching for it), but it would also predict what it should feel like to reach for the apple.  So if I reach for it based on the somato-sensory prediction and there is some error in that prediction, corroborated by my visual cortex observing my arm moving in some wrong direction, the brain would respond by updating its models that predict what it should feel so that my arm starts moving in the proper direction.  This prediction error minimization is then fine-tuned as I get closer to the apple and can finally grab it.

This embodiment ingrained in the predictive processing models of Friston and Clark can also be well exemplified by the so-called “Outfielder’s Problem”.  In this problem, an outfielder is trying to catch a fly ball.  Now we know that outfielders are highly skilled at doing this rather effectively.  But if we ask the outfielder to merely stand still and watch a batted ball and predict where it will land, their accuracy is generally pretty bad.  So when we think about what strategy the brain takes to accomplish this when moving the body quickly, we begin to see the relevance of active inference and embodiment in the brain’s prediction schema.  The outfielder’s brain employs a brilliant strategy called “optical acceleration cancellation” (OAC).  Here, the well-trained outfielder sees the fly ball, and moves his or her body (while watching the ball) in order to cancel out any optical acceleration observed during the ball’s flight.  If they do this, then they will end up exactly where the ball was going to land, and then they’re able to catch it successfully.

We can imagine fine-grained examples of this active inference during everyday tasks, where I may simply be looking at a picture on my living room wall, and when my brain is predicting how it will look over the span of a few seconds, my head may slightly change its tilt, or direction, or my eyes may slowly move a fraction of a degree this way or that way, however imperceptible to me.  My brain in this case is predicting what the picture on the wall will look like over time and this prediction (according to my understanding of Clark) is identical to what we actually perceive.  One key thing to note here is that the prediction models are not simply updated based on the prediction error that is fed forward through the brain’s neurological hierarchies, but it is also getting some “help” from various motor movements to correct for the errors through action, rather than simply freezing all my muscles and updating the model itself (which may in fact be far less economical for the brain to do).

Another area of research that pertains to this framework, including ways of testing its validity, is that of evolutionary psychology and biology, where one would surmise (if these models are correct) that evolution likely provided our brains with certain hard-wired predictive models and our learning processes over time use these as starting points to produce innate reflexes (such as infant suckling to give a simple example) that allow us to survive long enough to update our models with actual new acquired information.  There are many different facets to this framework and I look forward to reading more about Friston and Clark’s work over the next few years.  I have a feeling that they have hit on something big, something that will help to answer a lot of questions about embodied cognition, perception, and even consciousness itself.

I encourage you to check out the links I provided pertaining to Friston and Clark’s work, to get a taste of the brilliant ideas they’ve been working on.

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Darwin’s Big Idea May Be The Biggest Yet

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Back in 1859, Charles Darwin released his famous theory of evolution by natural selection whereby inherent variations in the individual members of some population of organisms under consideration would eventually lead to speciation events due to those variations producing a differential in survival and reproductive success and thus leading to the natural selection of some subset of organisms within that population.  As Darwin explained in his On The Origin of Species:

If during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organisation, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometrical powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being’s own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterised will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterised. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.

While Darwin’s big idea completely transformed biology in terms of it providing (for the first time in history) an incredibly robust explanation for the origin of the diversity of life on this planet, his idea has since inspired other theories pertaining to perhaps the three largest mysteries that humans have ever explored: the origin of life itself (not just the diversity of life after it had begun, which was the intended scope of Darwin’s theory), the origin of the universe (most notably, why the universe is the way it is and not some other way), and also the origin of consciousness.

Origin of Life

In order to solve the first mystery (the origin of life itself), geologists, biologists, and biochemists are searching for plausible models of abiogenesis, whereby the general scheme of these models would involve chemical reactions (pertaining to geology) that would have begun to incorporate certain kinds of energetically favorable organic chemistries such that organic, self-replicating molecules eventually resulted.  Now, where Darwin’s idea of natural selection comes into play with life’s origin is in regard to the origin and evolution of these self-replicating molecules.  First of all, in order for any molecule at all to build up in concentration requires a set of conditions such that the reaction leading to the production of the molecule in question is more favorable than the reverse reaction where the product transforms back into the initial starting materials.  If merely one chemical reaction (out of a countless number of reactions occurring on the early earth) led to a self-replicating product, this would increasingly favor the production of that product, and thus self-replicating molecules themselves would be naturally selected for.  Once one of them was produced, there would have been a cascade effect of exponential growth, at least up to the limit set by the availability of the starting materials and energy sources present.

Now if we assume that at least some subset of these self-replicating molecules (if not all of them) had an imperfect fidelity in the copying process (which is highly likely) and/or underwent even a slight change after replication by reacting with other neighboring molecules (also likely), this would provide them with a means of mutation.  Mutations would inevitably lead to some molecules becoming more effective self-replicators than others, and then evolution through natural selection would take off, eventually leading to modern RNA/DNA.  So not only does Darwin’s big idea account for the evolution of diversity of life on this planet, but the basic underlying principle of natural selection would also account for the origin of self-replicating molecules in the first place, and subsequently the origin of RNA and DNA.

Origin of the Universe

Another grand idea that is gaining heavy traction in cosmology is that of inflationary cosmology, where this theory posits that the early universe underwent a period of rapid expansion, and due to quantum mechanical fluctuations in the microscopically sized inflationary region, seed universes would have resulted with each one having slightly different properties, one of which that would have expanded to be the universe that we live in.  Inflationary cosmology is currently heavily supported because it has led to a number of predictions, many of which that have already been confirmed by observation (it explains many large-scale features of our universe such as its homogeneity, isotropy, flatness, and other features).  What I find most interesting with inflationary theory is that it predicts the existence of a multiverse, whereby we are but one of an extremely large number of other universes (predicted to be on the order of 10^500, if not an infinite number), with each one having slightly different constants and so forth.

Once again, Darwin’s big idea, when applied to inflationary cosmology, would lead to the conclusion that our universe is the way it is because it was naturally selected to be that way.  The fact that its constants are within a very narrow range such that matter can even form, would make perfect sense, because even if an infinite number of universes exist with different constants, we would only expect to find ourselves in one that has the constants within the necessary range in order for matter, let alone life to exist.  So any universe that harbors matter, let alone life, would be naturally selected for against all the other universes that didn’t have the right properties to do so, including for example, universes that had too high or too low of a cosmological constant (such as those that would have instantly collapsed into a Big Crunch or expanded into a heat death far too quickly for any matter or life to have formed), or even universes that didn’t have the proper strong nuclear force to hold atomic nuclei together, or any other number of combinations that wouldn’t work.  So any universe that contains intelligent life capable of even asking the question of their origins, must necessarily have its properties within the required range (often referred to as the anthropic principle).

After our universe formed, the same principle would also apply to each galaxy and each solar system within those galaxies, whereby because variations exist in each galaxy and within each substituent solar system (differential properties analogous to different genes in a gene pool), then only those that have an acceptable range of conditions are capable of harboring life.  With over 10^22 stars in the observable universe (an unfathomably large number), and billions of years to evolve different conditions within each solar system surrounding those many stars, it isn’t surprising that eventually the temperature and other conditions would be acceptable for liquid water and organic chemistries to occur in many of those solar systems.  Even if there was only one life permitting planet per galaxy (on average), that would add up to over 100 billion life permitting planets in the observable universe alone (with many orders of magnitude more life permitting planets in the non-observable universe).  So given enough time, and given some mechanism of variation (in this case, differences in star composition and dynamics), natural selection in a sense can also account for the evolution of some solar systems that do in fact have life permitting conditions in a universe such as our own.

Origin of Consciousness

The last significant mystery I’d like to discuss involves the origin of consciousness.  While there are many current theories pertaining to different aspects of consciousness, and while there has been much research performed in the neurosciences, cognitive sciences, psychology, etc., pertaining to how the brain works and how it correlates to various aspects of the mind and consciousness, the brain sciences (though neuroscience in particular) are in their relative infancy and so there are still many questions that haven’t been answered yet.  One promising theory that has already been shown to account for many aspects of consciousness is Gerald Edelman’s theory of neuronal group selection (NGS) otherwise known as neural Darwinism (ND), which is a large scale theory of brain function.  As one might expect from the name, the mechanism of natural selection is integral to this theory.  In ND, the basic idea consists of three parts as read on the Wiki:

  1. Anatomical connectivity in the brain occurs via selective mechanochemical events that take place epigenetically during development.  This creates a diverse primary neurological repertoire by differential reproduction.
  2. Once structural diversity is established anatomically, a second selective process occurs during postnatal behavioral experience through epigenetic modifications in the strength of synaptic connections between neuronal groups.  This creates a diverse secondary repertoire by differential amplification.
  3. Re-entrant signaling between neuronal groups allows for spatiotemporal continuity in response to real-world interactions.  Edelman argues that thalamocortical and corticocortical re-entrant signaling are critical to generating and maintaining conscious states in mammals.

In a nutshell, the basic differentiated structure of the brain that forms in early development is accomplished through cellular proliferation, migration, distribution, and branching processes that involve selection processes operating on random differences in the adhesion molecules that these processes use to bind one neuronal cell to another.  These crude selection processes result in a rough initial configuration that is for the most part fixed.  However, because there are a diverse number of sets of different hierarchical arrangements of neurons in various neuronal groups, there are bound to be functionally equivalent groups of neurons that are not equivalent in structure, but are all capable of responding to the same types of sensory input.  Because some of these groups should in theory be better than others at responding to some particular type of sensory stimuli, this creates a form of neuronal/synaptic competition in the brain, whereby those groups of neurons that happen to have the best synaptic efficiency for the stimuli in question are naturally selected over the others.  This in turn leads to an increased probability that the same network will respond to similar or identical signals in the future.  Each time this occurs, synaptic strengths increase in the most efficient networks for each particular type of stimuli, and this would account for a relatively quick level of neural plasticity in the brain.

The last aspect of the theory involves what Edelman called re-entrant signaling whereby a sampling of the stimuli from functionally different groups of neurons occurring at the same time leads to a form of self-organizing intelligence.  This would provide a means for explaining how we experience spatiotemporal consistency in our experience of sensory stimuli.  Basically, we would have functionally different parts of the brain, such as various maps in the visual centers that pertain to color versus others that pertain to orientation or shape, that would effectively amalgamate the two (previously segregated) regions such that they can function in parallel and thus correlate with one another producing an amalgamation of the two types of neural maps.  Once this re-entrant signaling is accomplished between higher order or higher complexity maps in the brain, such as those pertaining to value-dependent memory storage centers, language centers, and perhaps back to various sensory cortical regions, this would create an even richer level of synchronization, possibly leading to consciousness (according to the theory).  In all of the aspects of the theory, the natural selection of differentiated neuronal structures, synaptic connections and strengths and eventually that of larger re-entrant connections would be responsible for creating the parallel and correlated processes in the brain believed to be required for consciousness.  There’s been an increasing amount of support for this theory, and more evidence continues to accumulate in support of it.  In any case, it is a brilliant idea and one with a lot of promise in potentially explaining one of the most fundamental aspects of our existence.

Darwin’s Big Idea May Be the Biggest Yet

In my opinion, Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection was perhaps the most profound theory ever discovered.  I’d even say that it beats Einstein’s theory of Relativity because of its massive explanatory scope and carryover to other disciplines, such as cosmology, neuroscience, and even the immune system (see Edelman’s Nobel work on the immune system, where he showed how the immune system works through natural selection as well, as opposed to some type of re-programming/learning).  Based on the basic idea of natural selection, we have been able to provide a number of robust explanations pertaining to many aspects of why the universe is likely to be the way it is, how life likely began, how it evolved afterward, and it may possibly be the answer to how life eventually evolved brains capable of being conscious.  It is truly one of the most fascinating principles I’ve ever learned about and I’m honestly awe struck by its beauty, simplicity, and explanatory power.

Neurological Configuration & the Prospects of an Innate Ontology

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After a brief discussion on another blog pertaining to whether or not humans possess some kind of an innate ontology or other forms of what I would call innate knowledge, I decided to expand on my reply to that blog post.

While I agree that at least most of our knowledge is acquired through learning, specifically through the acquisition and use of memorized patterns of perception (as this is generally how I would define knowledge), I also believe that there are at least some innate forms of knowledge, including some that would likely result from certain aspects of our brain’s innate neurological configuration and implementation strategy.  This proposed form of innate knowledge would seem to bestow a foundation for later acquiring the bulk of our knowledge that is accomplished through learning.  This foundation would perhaps be best described as a fundamental scaffold of our ontology and thus an innate aspect that our continually developing ontology is based on.

My basic contention is that the hierarchical configuration of neuronal connections in our brains is highly analogous to the hierarchical relationships utilized to produce our conceptualization of reality.  In order for us to make sense of the world, our brains seem to fracture reality into many discrete elements, properties, concepts, propositions, etc., which are all connected to each other through various causal relationships or what some might call semantic hierarchies.  So it seems plausible if not likely that the brain is accomplishing a fundamental aspect of our ontology by our utilizing an innate hardware schema that involves neurological branching.

As the evidence in the neurosciences suggests, it certainly appears that our acquisition of knowledge through learning what those discrete elements, properties, concepts, propositions, etc., are, involves synaptogenesis followed by pruning, modifying, and reshaping a hierarchical neurological configuration, in order to end up with a more specific hierarchical neurological arrangement, and one that more accurately correlates with the reality we are interacting with and learning about through our sensory organs.  Since the specific arrangement that eventually forms couldn’t have been entirely coded for in our DNA (due to it’s extremely high level of complexity and information density), it ultimately had to be fine-tuned to this level of complexity after it’s initial pre-sensory configuration developed.  Nevertheless, the DNA sequences that were naturally selected for to produce the highly capable brains of human beings (as opposed to the DNA that guides the formation of the brain of a much less intelligent animal), clearly have encoded increasingly more effective hardware implementation strategies than our evolutionary ancestors.  These naturally selected neurological strategies seem to control what particular types of causal patterns the brain is theoretically capable of recognizing (including some upper limit of complexity), and they also seem to control how the brain stores and organizes these patterns for later use.  So overall, my contention is that these naturally selected strategies in themselves are a type of knowledge, because they seem to provide the very foundation for our initial ontology.

Based on my understanding, after many of the initial activity-independent mechanisms for neural development have occurred in some region of the developing brain such as cellular differentiation, cellular migration, axon guidance, and some amount of synapse formation, then the activity-dependent mechanisms for neuronal development (such as neural activity caused by the sensory organs in the process of learning), finally begin to modify those synapses and axons into a new hierarchical arrangement.  It is especially worth noting that even though much of the synapse formation during neural development is mediated by activity-dependent mechanisms, such as the aforementioned neural activity produced by the sensory organs during perceptual development and learning, there is also spontaneous neural activity forming many of these synapses even before any sensory input is present, thus contributing to the innate neurological configuration (i.e. that which is formed before any sensation or learning has occurred).

Thus, the subsequent hierarchy formed through neural/sensory stimulation via learning appears to begin from a parent hierarchical starting point based on neural developmental processes that are coded for in our DNA as well as synaptogenic mechanisms involving spontaneous pre-sensory neural activity.  So our brain’s innate (i.e. pre-sensory) configuration likely contributes to our making sense of the world by providing a starting point that reflects the fundamental hierarchical nature of reality that all subsequent knowledge is built off of.  In other words, it seems that if our mature conceptualization of reality involves a very specific type of hierarchy, then an innate/pre-sensory hierarchical schema of neurons would be a plausible if not expected physical foundation for it (see Edelman’s Theory of Neuronal Group Selection within this link for more empirical support of these points).

Additionally, if the brain’s wiring has evolved in order to see dimensions of difference in the world (unique sensory/perceptual patterns that is, such as quantity, colors, sounds, tastes, smells, etc.), then it would make sense that the brain can give any particular pattern an identity by having a unique schema of hardware or unique use of said hardware to perceive such a pattern and distinguish it from other patterns.  After the brain does this, the patterns are then arguably organized by the logical absolutes.  For example, if the hardware scheme or process used to detect a particular pattern “A” exists and all other patterns we perceive have or are given their own unique hardware-based identity (i.e. “not-A” a.k.a. B, C, D, etc.), then the brain would effectively be wired such that pattern “A” = pattern “A” (law of identity), any other pattern which we can call “not-A” does not equal pattern “A” (law of non-contradiction), and any pattern must either be “A” or some other pattern even if brand new, which we can also call “not-A” (law of the excluded middle).  So by the brain giving a pattern a physical identity (i.e. a specific type of hardware configuration in our brain that when activated, represents a detection of one specific pattern), our brains effectively produce the logical absolutes by nature of the brain’s innate wiring strategy which it uses to distinguish one pattern from another.  So although it may be true that there can’t be any patterns stored in the brain until after learning begins (through sensory experience), the fact that the DNA-mediated brain wiring strategy inherently involves eventually giving a particular learned pattern a unique neurological hardware identity to distinguish it from other stored patterns, suggests that the logical absolutes themselves are an innate and implicit property of how the brain stores recognized patterns.

In short, if it is true that any and all forms of reasoning as well as the ability to accumulate knowledge simply requires logic and the recognition of causal patterns, and if the brain’s innate neurological configuration schema provides the starting foundation for both, then it would seem reasonable to conclude that the brain has at least some types of innate knowledge.

The Properties of God: Much Ado About Nothing

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Having previously written about various Arguments for God’s Existence, including some of the inherent flaws and problems with those arguments, and having analyzed some of the purported attributes of God as most often defined by theists, I decided to reiterate some of the previous points I’ve mentioned and also expand further on the topic. Specifically, I’d like to further analyze the most common definitions and properties of God as claimed by theists.  God is often defined by theists as an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent being that is also uncaused, beginningless, timeless, changeless, spaceless, and immaterial among other attributes.  God is also defined by many as some form of disembodied mind possessing free will.  Since this list of terms is perhaps the most common I’ve seen over the years within theological circles, I’ll simply focus on these terms to analyze within this post.

Omniscience, Omnipotence, Changelessness, and Free Will

The property of omniscience is perhaps the single most significant property within this list because if it is taken to be true, it inevitably leads to the logical impossibility of some of the other attributes in this list.  For instance, if God’s knowledge includes complete knowledge of the future, then God is unable to change that future.  That is, whatever future that God would be aware of must happen exactly as it does, and God would not have the ability to change such a fate (otherwise this God would have failed to know the future without error).  This leads to the logical impossibility of God possessing both omniscience and omnipotence, as God loses the ability to enact any kind of change whatsoever that isn’t already pre-ordained or known by this God in advance.  God would not only know the future of all events occurring within the universe (presumably mediated by the very laws of physics that this God would have created) thus eliminating any possible free will for all of humanity, but this God would also know the future of all his other actions, thoughts, intentions, etc., and thus God wouldn’t be able to have free will either.  One can try to preserve the theological property of omnipotence or free will by denying that of omniscience (by limiting God’s knowledge of the future in some way).  However, even if this God didn’t have the ability to know the future with 100% certainty as implied with omniscience, the absence of omniscience wouldn’t negate the possibility that this God may still have no choice or ability to act any other way (even if this God doesn’t know ahead of time what those actions will be).

Even if we accepted that God doesn’t have omniscience, and if we also ignored the possibility that God may still lack free will or omnipotence even in the absence of that omniscient foreknowledge, one must still explain how a definitively changeless being could ever instantiate any kind of change at all, let alone to create the entire universe, space, and time (which is dependent on change).  Is it even logically possible for a changeless being to instantiate change?  That is, could a being possessing a de facto property such as changelessness simultaneously possess a modal property or capability of change?  Even if it were logically possible, there doesn’t appear to be any way at all for the modal property to ever be self-instantiated by a de facto changeless being.

An outside causal force may be able to instantiate the change in the previously changeless being, but I see no way that this could be accomplished by the changeless being itself.  One may try to resolve this dilemma by positing that one aspect or component of the changeless state of God was the constant or changeless intention to eventually cause a change at some future time x (e.g. to eventually create the universe), but this attempted resolution carries with it the problem of contradicting the supposed theological property of timelessness, since there can’t be some future moment for any change to occur in any kind of timeless scenario.  This would suggest that some kind of temporal delay is occurring until the change is eventually realized, which is logically incoherent in a timeless scenario.  Thus, I see no reason or logical argument to support the claim that a de facto property of changelessness could ever co-exist with a modal property or capability of self-causing any kind of change, and thus a timeless or changeless being would be causally effete thereby negating the property of omnipotence.

Omnibenevolence

One major problem that I see regarding the property of omnibenevolence, is that the term itself isn’t well-defined.  Sure, one can easily grasp the basic concept of being all-loving or all-good, but exactly what standard is one using to define goodness, or love, since these are not objectively defined concepts?  Another way of describing this problem, within the context of Divine Command Theory, is known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma (from one of Plato’s dialogues), where one must ask: Is something good because God says it is good, or does God say something is good because of some other quality it has?  If the standard of goodness comes from God (i.e. “it’s good because God says so”), then it is entirely arbitrary and this would also mean that the definition of omnibenevolence is circular and therefore invalid.  If the standard of goodness comes from some other cause or being, then that means that goodness is dependent on something other than God and this would also undermine the idea that God is uncaused or beginningless, since the property of God’s benevolence (even if omnibenevolent) would have been dependent on something other than God.  Beyond these problems it would also undermine the idea of God being omnipotent since God wouldn’t have the power to self-instantiate this standard of goodness.

Another problem with positing that God is omnibenevolent, is the oft mentioned Problem of Evil, which ultimately refers to the problem of how to reconcile the supposed existence and omnibenevolence of God with all of the suffering that exists in the world.  If God was truly omnibenevolent, then how can one explain the existence of any “evil or suffering at all?  If God doesn’t have the ability to create a universe without any suffering, then this is another argument against God’s omnipotence.  If God does have the ability to do this but doesn’t, then this is an argument against God’s omnibenevolence, assuming that the elimination of all suffering is in accord with the standard of goodness, as one would expect.

Some philosophers have attempted to form various theodicies or defenses to reconcile the Problem of Evil with the idea of an omnipotent and/or omnibenevolent God, but they are ultimately unsuccessful.  For example, some attempts to resolve this problem involve asserting that good simply can’t logically exist without evil, implying that they are relative to and thus dependent on one another, which basically reasserts the old adage “you can’t have the sour without the sweet”.  The problem with this argument is that, if taken further, it would also imply that an omnibenevolent being (as God is often defined as) is also logically dependent on the existence of an equal but opposite omnimalevolent being, or at the very least, that it is dependent on the property of omnimalevolence.  This would mean that if God is indeed omnibenevolent, then this property of God is logically dependent on the existence of omnimalevolence, and this is another argument showing that God is not uncaused or beginningless, because this particular property of God wouldn’t even be a possibility without the existence of something that is definitively not a part of God (by definition).

Beyond all of these problems mentioned thus far, there seem to be at least several possible solutions that God (if omnibenevolent and all-powerful) could employ to eliminate suffering, and if these possibilities exist, the fact that none of them have been implemented argues against God being omnibenevolent.  For example, why couldn’t God simply feed our brains (even if just a brain in a vat) with a sensory input of nothing but pleasurable experiences?  Even if pleasure was dependent on some kind of contrast with less pleasurable experiences in the past (or if we would unavoidably become desensitized to a particular level of pleasure), God could simply amplify the magnitude of pleasurable sensory inputs with each subsequent moment of time indefinitely, thus producing an experience of nothing but constant and equally potent pleasure.

Moreover, if the God that most theists propose truly exists, and some kind of heaven or eternal paradise is within God’s capabilities (filled with a bunch of disembodied minds or souls), then there’s no rational reason why God couldn’t simply create all of us in heaven from the very beginning of our existence.  This is basically the case already with many miscarried or aborted fetuses (if theists assume that fetuses have souls and go to heaven immediately after their death), since many of these fetuses aren’t even alive long enough to have developed a brain with any level of consciousness or ability to experience any suffering at all.  Thus, they would represent a perfect example of individuals that only experience an eternity of pleasure completely void of any kind of suffering.  One would think if this is already a reality for some individuals, God should have the power to make it the case for all people, so nobody has to suffer at all.  This is of course if God couldn’t simply create all humans in heaven from the very beginning and skip the creation of the physical universe altogether.  If God lacks this ability, it is yet another argument against this God being omnipotent.  In addition to this, if it were the case that any conscious being created by God is ever destined to any kind of eternal torture (i.e. some version of “hell”), due to no chance of forgiveness after death, this would be perhaps the strongest argument against this God being omnibenevolent.  So as we can see, if eternal paradise and/or eternal damnation are actually real places created/mediated by God, then their very existence argues against God’s omnibenevolence and/or God’s omnipotence since we’re not all created in heaven from the very beginning of our existence, and/or since there are people destined to suffer for eternity.

Another attempt to resolve this Problem of Evil is the argument that humans wouldn’t be able to have free will without the existence of “evil” or suffering.  However, this makes absolutely no sense for a number of reasons.  For one, as mentioned previously, classical free will (i.e. the ability to have chosen to behave differently, given the same initial conditions, less randomness) is already impossible based on the laws of physics and our level of causal closure, and this is the case whether our physical laws are fundamentally deterministic or random.  So this attempted resolution is a desperate objection at best, because it also requires us to assume that we’re constantly violating the laws of physics and causal closure in order to be causa sui, or self-caused intentional agents.  So we’d have to grant one absurdity in order to explain away another which doesn’t solve the dilemma at all, but rather just replaces one dilemma with another.

Finally, if “heaven” or some form of eternal paradise is still a possible product of God’s power, then the free will argument is irrelevant in any case.  After all, presumably we wouldn’t have free will in heaven either, for if we did have free will to rebel or cause “evil” or suffering in heaven, this would contradict the very idea of what heaven is supposed to be (since it is defined as an eternal and perfect paradise without any “evil” or suffering at all).  If one argues that it is still possible to have free will in a heaven that is guaranteed to be void of evil or suffering, then this simply shows that suffering isn’t necessary in order to have free will, and thus the free will argument to the Problem of Evil still fails.  If we didn’t have free will in heaven (which would seem to be logically necessary in order for heaven to exist as defined), then we can see that infinite or maximal “goodness” or eternal paradise is indeed possible even in the absence of any free will, which would thus negate the free will argument to the Problem of Evil (even if we granted the absurdity that classical free will was possible).  So no matter how you look at it, the property of omnibenevolence appears to be ill-defined or circular and is thus meaningless and/or it is incompatible with some of the other purported theological properties used to define God (i.e. uncaused, beginningless, omnipotent, etc.).

Omnipresence

If God was omnipresent, one would think that we would be able to universally and undeniably detect the presence of God, and yet the exact opposite is the case.  In fact, God appears to be completely invisible and entirely undetectable.  In cases where there are theists that claim to have actually experienced or detected the presence of God in some way, it is always in a way that can’t be validated or confirmed by any physical evidence whatsoever.  Science has demonstrated time and time again that when people experience phenomena that do not correlate with reality, i.e., phenomena that do not occur outside of their minds and thus that can’t be independently verified with physical evidence, they are the result of perceptual illusions and other strictly mental phenomena (whether they are full blown hallucinations, delusions, mis-attributed emotional experiences, etc.).  In general though, the basic trend exemplified by theists is that whenever they have an experience that is seemingly unexplainable, they attribute it to being an act of God.

Unfortunately, this is an extremely weak position to take (and increasingly weak as history has amply shown) simply because this “God of the gaps” mentality has been demonstrably proven to be fallacious and unreliable as science has continued to explain more and more previously unexplainable phenomena that were once attributed to one god or another.  So in Bayesian terms, the prior probability that some unexplainable phenomenon is the result of some kind of God is infinitesimally small, and that probability has only decreased over time and will only continue to decrease over time as scientific progress continues to falsify supernatural explanations and attributions by replacing them with natural ones.

So unless we are talking about some kind of Pantheism (where God is basically defined as being equivalent to the universe itself), then we have theists claiming that God is everywhere when this God in fact appears to be nowhere at all.  The simple fact that nobody has been able to demonstrate or verify the existence of God with any physical evidence whatsoever, is a strong argument against the omnipresence of God (if not an argument against the very existence of God).  Ultimately, the theological property of omnipresence is a meaningless term if this type of presence is one that is completely undetectable and unfalsifiable, which would make sense regarding a being that doesn’t possess any properties of space, time, or material, but unfortunately it also means that this term doesn’t adhere to any reasonable convention of what it means to be present, and it also means that the property of omnipresence is incompatible with the properties of being spaceless, timeless, and immaterial.  If the type of omnipresence is that which is claimed to be experienced by theists from time to time, experiences that have been shown to be strictly mental with no correlation to the external world, then this is actually nothing more than a limited type of presence (and one that is strictly mental), and one likely resulting from mis-attributed emotions combined with various inherent human cognitive biases.

Abstract Objects, Disembodied Minds & God

Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve discovered regarding these theological properties pertains to the subset of properties that specifically describe God to be uncaused, beginningless, timeless, changeless, spaceless, and immaterial (which I’ll now abbreviate as simply UBTCSI).  These terms have also been formulated by theists in various arguments for the existence of God (such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument), with theists trying to argue that the origin of the universe must have been brought about by a cause having this particular set of properties.  What I find most interesting is that contemporary philosophers of ontology have ascribed this set of terms to certain abstract objects such as numbers and properties.  It is also notable that these properties seem to result by way of negation, that is, by removing all (or nearly all) aspects of our perceived reality.

The fact that these terms are used to describe the properties of abstract objects in general, which are almost universally agreed to be causally effete, actually supports the idea that God is nothing more than an abstract object.  Even if abstract objects have some kind of ontological existence independent of the brains that most likely produce them, they have still been shown to be causally effete.  If abstract objects do not have any kind of ontological existence independent of the brains that most likely produce them, then they are actually the product of brains which possess the converse of the UBTCSI properties, that is, they are the product of brains which possess the properties of being caused and thus having a beginning, as well as the properties of time, change, space, and material.

If abstract objects are nothing more than constructs of the brain, then we may expect that the minds that produce these abstract objects would have similar properties ascribed to them as well.  Sure enough, many philosophers have indeed also used the aforementioned UBTCSI properties to describe a mind.  So, if it is true that abstract objects as well as the minds they appear to be dependent on are ultimately products of the physical brain (with the latter being well-nigh proven at this point), then ultimately they are both produced from that which possesses the naturalistic properties of causality, beginning, time, change, space, material, etc., thus arguably challenging the claim that either abstracta or minds can be defined properly with the UBTCSI properties.

Many theists have taken advantage of the aforementioned “ontology of mind” and posited that God is some kind of disembodied mind, thus presumably adhering to these same UBTCSI properties, yet with the addition of several more properties that were mentioned earlier (i.e. omnipotence, omniscience, etc.).  However, one major problem with this tactic is that the term, disembodied mind, is simply an ad hoc conceptualization, and one that doesn’t make much if any sense at all when thought about more critically.  After all, if the only minds that we’re aware of are those demonstrably produced from the underlying machinery of physical brains, then what exactly would a disembodied mind entail anyway?  What would it be composed of if not physical materials (and thus those which lie in space)?  How would it function at all if the only minds we know of involve an underlying machinery of constantly changing neuronal configurations which subsequently cause the mental experience that we call a mind?  How can this mind think at all, when thinking is itself a temporal process, known to speed up or slow down depending on various physical variables (e.g. neurotransmitter concentrations, temperature, Relativistic effects, etc.)?

These questions illustrate the fact that the only concept of a mind that makes any sense at all is that which involves the properties of causality, time, change, space, and material, because minds result from particular physical processes involving a very complex configuration of physical materials.  That is, minds appear to be necessarily complex in terms of their physical structure (i.e. brains), and so trying to conceive of a mind that doesn’t have any physical parts at all, let alone a complex arrangement of said parts, is simply absurd (let alone a mind that can function without time, change, space, etc.).  At best, we are left with an ad hoc, unintelligible combination of properties without any underlying machinery or mechanism.

So the fact that there exist strong arguments and evidence in support of abstract objects being nothing more than products of the mind, and the fact that minds in general are demonstrably the product of physical brains and their underlying complex neuronal configurations, illustrates that the only things in our universe that philosophers have ascribed these UBTCSI properties to (minds and abstract objects) are in fact more accurately described by the converse of those very properties.  It would then logically follow that God, claimed to possess the very same properties, is most likely to be nothing more than a causally effete abstract object — a mere mentally simulated model produced by our physical brains.  This entails that the remaining properties of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence, which are themselves abstract objects, are ultimately ascribed to yet another causally effete abstract object.

Much Ado About Nothing

As we can see, the properties commonly ascribed to God suggest that this God as described is:

1) Ill-defined since some of the properties are ultimately meaningless or circular, and

2) Logically impossible since some of the properties contradict one another, and

3) Likely to be a causally effete construct of the mind.

So overall, the theist’s strenuous endeavors in arguing over what the properties of their purported God must be, has ultimately been much ado about nothing at all.

Knowledge: An Expansion of the Platonic Definition

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In the first post I ever wrote on this blog, titled: Knowledge and the “Brain in a Vat” scenario, I discussed some elements concerning the Platonic definition of knowledge, that is, that knowledge is ultimately defined as “justified true belief”.  I further refined the Platonic definition (in order to account for the well-known Gettier Problem) such that knowledge could be better described as “justified non-coincidentally-true belief”.  Beyond that, I also discussed how one’s conception of knowledge (or how it should be defined) should consider the possibility that our reality may be nothing more than the product of a mad scientist feeding us illusory sensations/perceptions with our brain in a vat, and thus, that how we define things and adhere to those definitions plays a crucial role in our conception and mutual understanding of any kind of knowledge.  My concluding remarks in that post were:

“While I’m aware that anything discussed about the metaphysical is seen by some philosophers to be completely and utterly pointless, my goal in making the definition of knowledge compatible with the BIV scenario is merely to illustrate that if knowledge exists in both “worlds” (and our world is nothing but a simulation), then the only knowledge we can prove has to be based on definitions — which is a human construct based on hierarchical patterns observed in our reality.”

While my views on what knowledge is or how it should be defined have changed somewhat in the past three years or so since I wrote that first blog post, in this post, I’d like to elaborate on this key sentence, specifically with regard to how knowledge is ultimately dependent on the recall and use of previously observed patterns in our reality as I believe that this is the most important aspect regarding how to define knowledge.  After making a few related comments on another blog (https://nwrickert.wordpress.com/2015/03/07/knowledge-vs-belief/), I decided to elaborate on some of those comments accordingly.

I’ve elsewhere mentioned how there is a plethora of evidence that suggests that intelligence is ultimately a product of pattern recognition (1, 2, 3).  That is, if we recognize patterns in nature and then commit them to memory, we can later use those remembered patterns to our advantage in order to accomplish goals effectively.  The more patterns that we can recognize and remember, specifically those that do in fact correlate with reality (as opposed to erroneously “recognized” patterns that are actually non-existent), the better our chances of predicting the consequences of our actions accurately, and thus the better chances we have at obtaining our goals.  In short, the more patterns that we can recognize and remember, the greater our intelligence.  It is therefore no coincidence that intelligence tests are primarily based on gauging one’s ability to recognize patterns (e.g. solving Raven’s Progressive Matrices, puzzles, etc.).

To emphasize the role of pattern recognition as it applies to knowledge, if we use my previously modified Platonic definition of knowledge, that is,  that knowledge is defined as “justified, non-coincidentally-true belief”, then I must break down the individual terms of this definition as follows, starting with “belief”:

  • Belief = Recognized patterns of causality that are stored into memory for later recall and use.
  • Non-Coincidentally-True = The belief positively and consistently correlates with reality, and thus not just through luck or chance.
  • Justified = Empirical evidence exists to support said belief.

So in summary, I have defined knowledge (more specifically) as:

“Recognized patterns of causality that are stored into memory for later recall and use, that positively and consistently correlate with reality, and for which that correlation has been validated by empirical evidence (e.g. successful predictions made and/or goals accomplished through the use of said recalled patterns)”.

This means that if we believe something to be true that is unfalsifiable (such as religious beliefs that rely on faith), since it has not met the justification criteria, it fails to be considered knowledge (even if it is still considered a “belief”).  Also, if we are able to make a successful prediction with the patterns we’ve recognized, yet are only able to do so once, due to the lack of consistency, we likely just got lucky and didn’t actually correctly identify a pattern that correlates with reality, and thus this would fail to count as knowledge.  Finally, one should also note that the patterns that are recognized were not specifically defined as “consciously” recognized/remembered, nor was it specified that the patterns couldn’t be innately acquired/stored into memory (through DNA coded or other pre-sensory neural developmental mechanisms).  Thus, even procedural knowledge like learning to ride a bike or other forms of “muscle memory” used to complete a task, or any innate form of knowledge (acquired before/without sensory input) would be an example of unconscious or implicit knowledge that still fulfills this definition I’ve given above.  In the case of unconscious/implicit knowledge, we would have to accept that “beliefs” can also be unconscious/implicit (in order to remain consistent with the definition I’ve chosen), and I don’t see this as being a problem at all.  One just has to keep in mind that when people use the term “belief”, they are likely going to be referring to only those that are in our consciousness, a subset of all beliefs that exist, and thus still correct and adherent to the definition laid out here.

This is how I prefer to define “knowledge”, and I think it is a robust definition that successfully solves many (though certainly not all) of the philosophical problems that one tends to encounter in epistemology.

Artificial Intelligence: A New Perspective on a Perceived Threat

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There is a growing fear in many people of the future capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI), especially as the intelligence of these computing systems begins to approach that of human beings.  Since it is likely that AI will eventually surpass the intelligence of humans, some wonder if these advancements will be the beginning of the end of us.  Stephen Hawking, the eminent British physicist, was recently quoted by the BBC as saying “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”  BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones said in a recent article “Prof Hawking says the primitive forms of artificial intelligence developed so far have already proved very useful, but he fears the consequences of creating something that can match or surpass humans.”  Hawking then said “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate.  Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

Hawking isn’t alone with this fear, and clearly this fear isn’t ill-founded.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that human intelligence has allowed us to overcome just about any environmental barrier we’ve come across, driving us to the top of the food chain.  We’ve all seen the benefits of our high intelligence as a species, but we’ve also seen what can happen due to that intelligence being imperfect, having it operate on incomplete or fallacious information, and ultimately lacking an adequate capability of accurately determining the long-term consequences of our actions.  Because we have such a remarkable ability to manipulate our environment, that manipulation can be extremely beneficial or extremely harmful as we’ve seen with the numerous species we’ve threatened on this planet (some having gone extinct).  We’ve even threatened many fellow human beings in the process, whether intentionally or not.  Our intelligence, combined with some elements of short-sightedness, selfishness, and aggression, has led to some pretty abhorrent products throughout human history — anything from the mass enslavement of others spanning back thousands of years to modern forms of extermination weaponry (e.g. bio-warfare and nuclear bombs).  If AI reaches and eventually surpasses our level of intelligence, it is reasonable to consider the possibility that we may find ourselves on a lower rung of the food chain (so to speak), potentially becoming enslaved or exterminated by this advanced intelligence.

AI: Friend or Foe?

So what exactly prompted Stephen Hawking to make these claims?  As the BBC article mentions, “His warning came in response to a question about a revamp of the technology he uses to communicate, which involves a basic form of AI…The theoretical physicist, who has the motor neurone disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is using a new system developed by Intel to speak.  Machine learning experts from the British company Swiftkey were also involved in its creation. Their technology, already employed as a smartphone keyboard app, learns how the professor thinks and suggests the words he might want to use next.”

Reading this article suggests another possibility or perspective that I don’t think a lot of people are considering with regard to AI technology.  What if AI simply replaces us gradually, by actually becoming the new “us”?  That is, as we further progress in Cyborg (i.e. cybernetic organism) technologies, using advancements similar to Stephen Hawking’s communication ability upgrade, we are ultimately becoming amalgams of biological and synthetic machines anyway.  Even the technology that we currently operate through an external peripheral interface (like smart phones and all other computers) will likely become integrated into our bodies internally.  Google glasses, voice recognition, and other technologies like those used by Hawking are certainly taking us in that direction.  It’s not difficult to imagine one day being able to think about a particular question or keyword, and having an integrated blue-tooth implant in our brain recognize the mental/physiological command cue, and successfully retrieve the desired information wirelessly from an online cloud or internet database of some form.  Going further still, we will likely one day be able to take sensory information that enters the neuronal network of our brain, and once again, send it wirelessly to supercomputers stored elsewhere that are able to process the information with billions of pattern recognition modules.  The 300 million or so pattern recognition modules that are currently in our brain’s neo-cortex would be dwarfed by this new peripheral-free interface and wirelessly accessible technology.

For those that aren’t very familiar with the function or purpose of the brain’s neo-cortex, we use its 300 million or so pattern recognition modules to notice patterns in the environment around us (and meta patterns of neuronal activity within the brain), thus being able to recognize and memorize sensory data, and think.  Ultimately, we use this pattern recognition to accomplish goals, solve problems, and gain knowledge from past experience.  In short, these pattern recognition modules are our primary source or physiological means for our intelligence.  Thus, being able to increase the number of pattern recognition modules (as well as the number of hierarchies between different sets of them), will only increase our intelligence.  Regardless of whether we integrate computer chips in our brain to do at least some or all of this processing locally, or use a wireless means of communication to an external supercomputer farm or otherwise, we will likely continue to integrate our biology with synthetic analogs to increase our capabilities.

When we realize that a higher intelligence allows us to better predict the consequences of our actions, we can see that our increasing integration with AI will likely have incredible survival benefits.  This integration will also catalyze further technologies that could never have been accomplished with biological brains alone, because we simply aren’t naturally intelligent enough to think beyond a certain level of complexity.  As Hawking said regarding AI that could surpass our intelligence, “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate.  Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”  Yes, but if that AI becomes integrated in us, then really it is humans that are finding a way to circumvent slow biological evolution with a non-biological substrate that supercedes it.

At this time I think it is relevant to mention something else I’ve written about previously, which is the advancements being made in genetic engineering and how they are taking us into our last and grandest evolutionary leap, a “conscious evolution”, thus being able to circumvent our own slow biological evolution through an intentionally engineered design.  So as we gain more knowledge in the field of genetic engineering (combined with the increasing simulation and computing power afforded by AI), we will likely be able to catalyze our own biological evolution such that we can evolve quickly as we increase our Cyborg integrations with AI.  So we will likely see an increase in genetic engineering capabilities developing in close parallel with AI advancements, with each field substantially contributing to the other and ultimately leading to our transhumanism.

Final Thoughts

It seems clear that advancements in AI are providing us with more tools to accomplish ever-more complex goals as a species.  As we continue to integrate AI into ourselves, what we now call “human” is simply going to change as we change.  This would happen regardless, as human biological evolution continues its course into another speciation event, similar to the one that led to humans in the first place.  In fact, if we wanted to maintain the way we are right now as a species, biologically speaking, it would actually require us to use genetic engineering to do so, because genetic differentiation mechanisms (e.g. imperfect DNA replication, mutations, etc.) are inherent in our biology.  Thus, for those that argue against certain technologies based on a desire to maintain humanity and human attributes, they must also realize that the very technologies they despise are in fact their only hope for doing so.  More importantly, the goal of maintaining what humans currently are goes against our natural evolution, and we should embrace change, even if we embrace it with caution.

If AI continues to become further integrated into ourselves, forming a Cyborg amalgam of some kind, as it advances to a certain point we may choose one day to entirely eliminate the biological substrate of that amalgam, if it is both possible and advantageous to do so.  Even if we maintain some of our biology, and merely hybridize with AI, then Hawking was right to point out that “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”  Although, rather than a doomsday scenario like we saw in the movie The Terminator, with humans and machines at war with one another, the end of the human race may simply mean that we will end up changing into a different species, just as we’ve done throughout our evolutionary history.  Only this time, it will be a transition from a purely biological evolution to a cybernetic hybrid variation.  Furthermore, if it happens, it will be a transition that will likely increase our intelligence (and many other capabilities) to unfathomable levels, giving us an unprecedented ability to act based on more knowledge of the consequences of our actions as we move forward.  We should be cautious indeed, but we should also embrace our ongoing evolution and eventual transhumanism.

Mind, Body, and the Soul: The Quest for an Immaterial Identity

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There’s little if any doubt that the brain (the human brain in particular) is the most complex entity or system that we’ve ever encountered in the known universe, and thus it is not surprising that it has allowed humans to reach the top of the food chain and also the ability to manipulate our environment more than any other creature on Earth.  Not only has it provided humans with the necessary means for surviving countless environmental pressures, effectively evolving as a sort of anchor and catalyst for our continued natural selection over time (through learning, language, adaptive technology, etc.), but it has also allowed humans to become aware of themselves, aware of their own consciousness, and aware of their own brains in numerous other ways.  The brain appears to be the first evolved feature of an organism capable of mapping the entire organism (including its interaction with the external environment), and it may even be the case that consciousness later evolved as a result of the brain making maps of itself.  Even beyond these capabilities, the human brain has also been able to map itself in terms of perceptually acquired patterns related to its own activity (i.e. when we study and learn about how our brains work).

It isn’t at all surprising when people marvel over the complexity, beauty and even seemingly surreal qualities of the brain as it produces the qualia of our subjective experience including all of our sensations, emotions and the resulting feelings that ensue.  Some of our human attributes are so seemingly remarkable, that many people have gone so far as to say that at least some of these attributes are either supernatural, supernaturally endowed, and/or are forever exclusive to humans.  For example, some religious people claim that humans alone have some kind of immaterial soul that exists outside of our experiential reality.  Some also believe that humans alone possess free will, are conscious in some way forever exclusive to humans (some have even argued that consciousness in general is an exclusively human trait), and a host of other (perhaps anthropocentric) “human only” attributes, with many of them forever exclusive to humans.  In the interest of philosophical exploration, I’d like to consider and evaluate some of these claims about “exclusively human” attributes.  In particular, I’d like to focus on the non-falsifiable claim of having a soul, with the aid of reason and a couple of thought experiments, although these thought experiments may also shed some light on other purported “exclusively human” attributes (e.g. free will, consciousness, etc.).  For the purposes of simplicity in these thought experiments, I may periodically refer to many or all purported “humanly exclusive” attributes as simply, “H”.  Let’s begin by briefly examining some of the common conceptions of a soul and how it is purported to relate to the physical world.

What is a Soul?

It seems that most people would define a soul to be some incorporeal entity or essence that serves as an immortal aspect or representation of an otherwise mortal/living being.  Furthermore, many people think that souls are something possessed by human beings alone.  There are also people who ascribe souls to non-living entities (such as bodies of water, celestial bodies, wind, etc.), but regardless of these distinctions, for those that believe in souls, there seems to be something in common: souls appear to be non-physical entities correlated, linked, or somehow attached to a particular physical body or system, and are usually believed to give rise to consciousness, a “life force”, animism, or some power of agency.  Additionally, they are often believed to transcend material existence through their involvement in some form of an afterlife.  While it is true that souls and any claims about souls are unfalsifiable and thus are excluded from any kind of empirical investigation, let’s examine some commonly held assumptions and claims about souls and see how they hold up to a more critical examination.

Creation or Correlation of Souls

Many religious people now claim that a person’s life begins at conception (after Science discovered this specific stage of reproduction), and thus it would be reasonable to assume that if they have a soul, that soul is effectively created at conception.  However, some also believe that all souls have co-existed for the same amount of time (perhaps since the dawn of our universe), and that souls are in some sense waiting to be linked to the physical person once they are conceived or come into existence.  Another way of expressing this latter idea is the belief that all souls have existed since some time long ago, but only after the reproductive conception of a person does that soul begin to have a physical correlate or incarnation linked to it.  In any case, the presumed soul is believed to be correlated to a particular physical body (generally presumed to be a “living” body, if not a human body), and this living body has been defined by many to begin its life either at conception (i.e. fertilization), shortly thereafter as an embryo (i.e. once the fertilized egg/cell undergoes division at least once), or once it is considered a fetus (depending on the context for such a definition).  The easiest definition to use for the purposes of this discussion is to define life to begin at conception (i.e. fertilization).

For one, regardless of the definition chosen, it seems difficult to define exactly when the particular developmental stage in question is reached.  Conception could be defined to take place once the spermatozoa’s DNA contents enter the zygote or perhaps not until some threshold has been reached in a particular step of the process afterward (e.g. some time after the individual parent DNA strands have mixed to produce a double-helix daughter strand).  Either way, most proponents of the idea of a human soul seem to assume that a soul is created or at least correlated (if created some time earlier) at the moment of, or not long after, fertilization.  At this point, the soul is believed to be correlated or representative of the now “living” being (which is of course composed of physical materials).

At a most basic level, one could argue, if we knew exactly when a soul was created/correlated with a particular physical body (e.g. a fertilized egg), then by reversing the last step in the process that instigated the creation/correlation of the soul, we should be able to destroy/decorrelate the soul.  Also, if a soul was in fact correlated with an entire fertilized egg, then if we remove even one atom, molecule, etc., would that correlation change?  If not, then it would appear that the soul is not actually correlated with the entire fertilized egg, but rather it is correlated with some higher level aspect or property of it (whatever that may be).

Conservation & Identity of Souls

Assuming a soul is in fact created or correlated with a fertilized egg, what would happen in the case of chimerism, where more than one fertilized egg fuse together in the early stages of embryonic development?  Would this developing individual have two souls?  By the definition or assumptions given earlier, if a soul is correlated with a fertilized egg in some way, and two fertilized eggs (each with their own soul) merge together, then this would indicate one of a few possibilities.  Either two souls merged into one (or one is actually destroyed) which would demonstrate that the number of souls are not conserved (indicating that not all souls are eternal/immortal), or the two souls would co-exist with that one individual and would imply that not all individuals have the same number of souls (some have one, some may have more) and thus souls don’t each have their own unique identity with a particular person, or it would indicate that after the merging of fertilized eggs took place, one of the two souls would detach from or become decorrelated with its physical counterpart, and the remaining soul would get to keep the booty of both fertilized eggs or so to speak.

In the case of identical twins, triplets, etc., a fertilized egg eventually splits, and we are left with the opposite conundrum. It would seem that we would be starting with one soul that eventually splits into two or more, and thus there would be another violation of the conservation of the number of souls.  Alternatively, if the number of souls are indeed conserved, an additional previously existing soul (if this was the case) could become correlated with the second fertilized egg produced. Yet another possibility would be to say that the “twins to be” (i.e. the fertilized egg prior to splitting) has two souls to start with and when the egg splits, the souls are segregated and each pre-destined twin is given their own.

The only way to avoid these implications would be to modify the assumption given earlier, regarding when a soul is created or correlated.  It would have to be defined such that a soul is created or correlated with a physical body some time after an egg is fertilized when it is no longer possible to fuse with another fertilized egg and after it can no longer split into fertilized multiples (i.e. twins, triplets, etc.).  If this is true, then one could no longer say that a fertilized egg necessarily has a soul, for that wouldn’t technically be the case until some time afterward when chimerism or monozygotic multiples were no longer possible.

If people believe in non-physical entities that can’t be seen or in any way extrospectively verified, it’s not much of a stretch to say that they can come up with a way to address these questions or reconcile these issues, with yet more unfalsifiable claims.  Some of these might not even be issues for various believers but I only mention these potential issues to point out the apparent arbitrariness or poorly defined aspects of many claims and assumptions regarding souls. Now let’s look at a few thought experiments to further analyze the concept of a soul and purported “exclusively human” attributes (i.e. “H”) as mentioned in the introduction of this post.

Conservation and Identity of “H”

Thought Experiment # 1: Replace a Neuron With a Non-Biological Analog

What if one neuron in a person’s brain is replaced with a non-biological/artificial version, that is, what if some kind of silicon-based (or other non-carbon-based) analog to a neuron was effectively used to replace a neuron?  We are assuming that this replacement with another version will accomplish the same vital function, that is, the same subjective experience and behavior.  This non-biologically-based neuronal analog may be powered by ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) and also respond to neurotransmitters with electro-chemical sensors — although it wouldn’t necessarily have to be constrained by the same power or signal transmission media (or mechanisms) as long as it produced the same end result (i.e. the same subjective experience and behavior).  As long as the synthetic neuronal replacement accomplished the same ends, the attributes of the person (i.e. their identity, their beliefs, their actions, etc.) should be unaffected despite any of these changes to their hardware.

Regarding the soul, if souls do in fact exist and they are not physically connected to the body (although people claim that souls are somehow associated with a particular physical body), then it seems reasonable to assume that changing a part of the physical body should have no effect on an individual’s possession of that soul (or any “H” for that matter), especially if the important attributes of the individual, i.e., their beliefs, thoughts, memories, and subsequent actions, etc., were for all practical purposes (if not completely), the same as before.  Even if there were some changes in the important aspects of the individual, say, if there was a slight personality change after some level of brain surgery, could anyone reasonably argue that their presumed soul (or their “H”) was lost as a result?  If physical modifications of the body led to the loss of a soul (or of any elements of “H”), then there would be quite a large number of people (and an increasing number at that) who no longer have souls (or “H”) since many people indeed have had various prosthetic modifications used in or on their bodies (including brain and neural prosthetics) as well as other intervening mediation of body/brain processes (e.g. through medication, transplants, various levels of critical life support, etc.).

For those that think that changing the body’s hardware would somehow disconnect the presumed soul from that person’s body (or eliminate other elements of their “H”), they should consider that this assumption is strongly challenged by the fact that many of the atoms in the human body are replaced (some of them several times over) throughout one’s lifetime anyway.  Despite this drastic biological “hardware” change, where our material selves are constantly being replaced with new atoms from the food that we eat and the air that we breathe (among other sources), we still manage to maintain our memories and our identity simply because the functional arrangements of the brain cells (i.e. neurons and glial cells) which are composed of those atoms are roughly preserved over time and thus the information contained in such arrangements and/or their resulting processes are preserved over time.  We can analogize this important point by thinking about a computer that has had its hardware replaced, albeit in a way that matches or maintains its original physical state, and understand that as a result of this configuration preservation, it also should be able to maintain its original memory, programs and normal functional operation.  One could certainly argue that the computer in question is technically no longer the “same” computer because it no longer has any of the original hardware.  However, the information regarding the computer’s physical state, that is, the specific configuration and states of parts that allow it to function exactly as it did before the hardware replacement, is preserved.  Thus, for all practical purposes in terms of the identity of that computer, it remained the same regardless of the complete hardware change.

This is an important point to consider for those who think that replacing the hardware of the brain (even if limited to a biologically sustained replacement) is either theoretically impossible, or that it would destroy one’s ability to be conscious, to maintain their identity, to maintain their presumed soul, or any presumed element of “H”.  The body naturally performs these hardware changes (through metabolism, respiration, excretion, etc.) all the time and thus the concept of changing hardware while maintaining the critical aspects of an individual is thoroughly demonstrated throughout one’s lifetime.  On top of this, the physical outer boundary that defines our bodies is also arbitrary in the sense that we exchange atoms between our outer surface and the environment around us (e.g. by shedding skin cells, or through friction, molecular desorption/adsorption/absorption, etc.).  The key idea to keep in mind is that these natural hardware changes imply that “we” are not defined specifically by our hardware or some physical boundary with a set number of atoms, but rather “we” are based on how our hardware is arranged/configured (allowing for some variation of configuration states within some finite acceptable range), and the subsequent processes and functions that result from such an arrangement as mediated by the laws of physics.

Is the type of hardware important?  It may be true that changing a human’s hardware to a non-biological version may never be able to accomplish exactly the same subjective experience and behavior that was possible with the biological hardware, however we simply don’t know that this is the case.  It may be that both the type of hardware as well as the configuration are necessary for a body and brain to produce the same subjective experience and behavior.  However, the old adage “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” has been applicable to so many types of technologies and to the means used to accomplish a number of goals.  There are a number of different hardware types and configurations that can be used to accomplish a particular task, even if, after changing the hardware the configuration must also be changed to accomplish a comparable result.  The question becomes, which parts or aspects of the neural process in the brain produces subjective experience and behavior?  If this becomes known, we should be able to learn how biologically-based hardware and its configuration work together in order to accomplish a subjective experience and behavior, and then also learn if non-biologically-based hardware (perhaps with its own particular configuration) can accomplish the same task.  For the purposes of this thought experiment, let’s assume that we can swap out the hardware with a different type, even if, in order to preserve the same subjective experience and behavior, the configuration must be significantly different than it was with the original biologically-based hardware.

So, if we assume that we can replace a neuron with an efficacious artificial version, and still maintain our identity, our consciousness, any soul that might be present, or any element of “H” for that matter, then even if we replace two neurons with artificial versions, we should still have the same individual.  In fact, even if we replace every neuron, perhaps just one neuron at a time, eventually we would be replacing the entire brain with an artificial version, and yet still have the same individual.  This person would now have a completely non-biologically based “brain”.  In theory, their identity would be the same, and they would subjectively experience reality and their selves as usual.  Having gone this far, let’s assume that we replace the rest of the body with an artificial version.  Replacing the rest of the body, one part at a time, should be far less significant a change than replacing the brain, for the rest of the body is far less complex.

It may be true that the body serves as an integral homeostatic frame of reference necessary for establishing some kind of self-object basis of consciousness (e.g. Damasio’s Theory of Consciousness), but as long as our synthetic brain is sending/receiving the appropriate equivalent of sensory/motor information (i.e. through an interoceptive feedback loop among other requirements) from the new artificial body, the model or map of the artificial body’s internal state provided by the synthetic brain should be equivalent.  It should also be noted that the range of conditions necessary for homeostasis in one human body versus another is far narrower and less individualized than the differences found between the brains of two different people.  This supports the idea that the brain is in fact the most important aspect of our individuality, and thus replacing the rest of the body should be significantly easier to accomplish and also less critical a change.  After replacing the rest of the body, we would now have a completely artificial non-biological substrate for our modified “human being”, or what many people would refer to as a “robot”, or a system of “artificial intelligence” with motor capabilities.  This thought experiment seems to suggest at least one of several implications:

  • Some types of robots can possess “H” (e.g. soul, consciousness, free-will, etc.), and thus “H” are not uniquely human, nor are they forever exclusive to humans.
  • Humans lose some or all of their “H” after some threshold of modification has taken place (likely a modification of the brain)
  • “H”, as it is commonly defined at least, does not exist

The first implication listed above would likely be roundly rejected by most people that believe in the existence of “H” for several reasons including the fact that most people see robots as fundamentally different than living systems, they see “H” as only applicable to human beings, and they see a clear distinction between robots and human beings (although the claim that these distinctions exist has been theoretically challenged by this thought experiment).  The second implication sounds quite implausible (even if we assume that “H” exists) as it would seem to be impossible to define when exactly any elements of “H” were lost based on exceeding some seemingly arbitrary threshold of modification.  For example, would the loss of some element of “H” occur only after the last neuron was replaced with an artificial version?  If the loss of “H” did occur after some specific number of neurons were removed (or after the number of neurons that remained fell below some critical minimum quantity), then what if the last neuron removed (which caused this critical threshold to be met) was biologically preserved and later re-installed, thus effectively reversing the last neuronal replacement procedure?  Would the previously lost “H” then return?

Thought Experiment # 2: Replace a Non-Biological Neuronal Analog With a Real Neuron

We could look at this thought experiment (in terms of the second implication) yet another way by simply reversing the order of the thought experiment.  For example, imagine that we made a robot from scratch that was identical to the robot eventually obtained from the aforementioned thought experiment, and then we began to replace its original non-biologically-based neuronal equivalent with actual biologically-based neurons, perhaps even neurons that were each taken from a separate human brain (say, from one or several cadavers) and preserved for such a task.  Even after this, consider that we proceed to replace the rest of the robot’s “body”, again piecewise (say, from one or several cadavers), until it was completely biologically-based to match the human being we began with in the initial thought experiment.  Would or could this robot acquire “H” at some point, or be considered human?  It seems that there would be no biological reason to claim otherwise.

Does “H” exist?  If So, What is “H”?

I’m well aware of how silly some of these hypothetical questions and considerations sound, however I find it valuable to follow the reasoning all the way through in order to help illustrate the degree of plausibility of these particular implications, and the plausibility or validity of “H”.  In the case of the second implication given previously (that humans lose some or all of “H” after some threshold of modification), if there’s no way to define or know when “H” is lost (or gained), then nobody can ever claim with certainty that an individual has lost their “H”, and thus they would have to assume that all elements of “H” have never been lost (if they want to err on the side of, what some may call, ethical or moral caution).  By that rationale, one would find themselves forced to accept the first implication (some types of robots can possess “H”, and thus “H” isn’t unique to humans).  If anyone denies the first two implications, it seems that they are only left with the third option.  The third implication seems to be the most likely (that “H” as previously defined does not exist), however it should be mentioned that even this third implication may be circumvented by realizing that it has an implicit loophole.  There is a possibility that some or all elements and/or aspects of “H” are not exactly what people assume them to be, and therefore “H” may exist in some other sense.  For example, what if we considered particular patterns themselves, i.e., the brain/neuronal configurations, patterns of brain waves, neuronal firing patterns, patterns of electro-chemical signals emanated throughout the body, etc., to be the “immaterial soul” of each individual?  We could look at these patterns as being immaterial if the physical substrate that employs them is irrelevant, or by simply noting that patterns of physical material states are not physical materials in themselves.

This is analogous to the concept that the information contained in a book can be represented on paper, electronically, in multiple languages, etc., and is not reliant on a specific physical medium.  This would mean that one could accept the first implication that robots or “mechanized humans” possess “H”, although it would also necessarily imply that any elements of “H” aren’t actually unique or exclusive to humans as they were initially assumed to be.  One could certainly accept this first implication by noting that the patterns of information (or patterns of something if we don’t want to call it information per se) that comprise the individual were conserved throughout the neuronal (or body) replacement in these thought experiments, and thus the essence or identity of the individual (whether “human” or “robot”) was preserved as well.

Pragmatic Considerations & Final Thoughts

I completely acknowledge that in order for this hypothetical neuronal replacement to be truly accurate in reproducing normal neuronal function (even with just one neuron), above and beyond the potential necessity of both a specific type of hardware as well as configuration (as mentioned earlier), the non-biologically based version would presumably also have to replicate the neuronal plasticity that the brain normally possesses.  In terms of brain plasticity, there are basically four known factors involved with neuronal change, sometimes referred to as the four R’s: regeneration, reconnection, re-weighting, and rewiring.  So clearly, any synthetic neuronal version would likely involve some kind of malleable processing in order to accomplish at least some of these tasks (if not all of them to some degree), as well as some possible nano-self-assembly processes if actual physical rewiring were needed.  The details of what and how this would be accomplished will become better known over time as we learn more about the possible neuronal dynamic mechanisms involved (e.g. neural darwinism or other means of neuronal differential reproduction, connectionism, Hebbian learning, DNA instruction, etc.).

I think that the most important thing to gain from these thought experiments is the realization of the inability or severe difficulty in taking the idea of souls or “H” seriously given the incompatibility between the traditional  conception of a concrete soul or other “H” and the well-established fluidic or continuous nature of the material substrates that they are purportedly correlated with.  That is, all the “things” in this world, including any forms of life (human or not) are constantly undergoing physical transformation and change, and they possess seemingly arbitrary boundaries that are ultimately defined by our own categorical intuitions and subjective perception of reality.  In terms of any person’s quest for “H”, if what one is really looking for is some form of constancy, essence, or identity of some kind in any of the things around us (let alone in human beings), it seems that it is the patterns of information (or perhaps the patterns of energy to be more accurate) as well as the level of complexity or type of patterns that ultimately constitute that essence and identity.  Now if it is reasonable to conclude that the patterns of information or energy that comprise any physical system aren’t equivalent to the physical constituent materials themselves, one could perhaps say that these patterns are a sort of “immaterial” attribute of a set of physical materials.  This seems to be as close to the concept of an immaterial “soul” as a physicalist or materialist could concede exists, since, at the very least it involves a property of continuity and identity which somewhat transcends the physical materials themselves.