Neurophilosophy

Neurophilosophy and the philosophy of neuroscience (II) – Buyer Brain

Sean Carrol spoke to philosopher Patricia Churchland last year on his Mindscape podcast, where the two of them discussed the relevance of Churchland’s work in neuroscience to morality. Churchland argues that if we want to understand morality (and, I think, pretty much everything relating to mind), we need to understand the brain. This approach has resulted in her being shunned by her philosophy contemporaries, even as she has been welcomed by her neuroscience ones. In this article, I will investigate neurophilosophy, a term Churchland herself coined, as she discusses it in this podcast (to be fair, I haven’t read any of her books on the subject, so my comments in this article are restricted to the podcast), and discuss whether Churchland has been wrongly (or justly) excluded from her philosophical peers.

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Blindsight (2) – The Brain and Consciousness

This is the second in my article series discussing philosophical issues raised in the excellent SF novel Blindsight by Peter Watts. In this article we will be looking at the brain. I will focus on the relatively recent idea that the brain is modular and also look at a number of fascinating neurological disorders Watts describes in the story.

 

The Brain and Neurology

There are three brain- and neurology-related issues Watts raises, which I will tackle in turn. The first concerns the protagonist, Siri Keeton. To prevent the seizures he was prone to as a child, Keeton had to have an operation which effectively involved the removal of half his brain. The effect of this operation was to leave him completely lacking in emotions and emotional understanding, so much so that in the book, he appears to be autistic, although highly functioning.

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Reality Checking AI (2/5) – Intelligence

Before I start, I should point out that I am an expert in neither AI nor computer engineering. My thoughts and opinions are based on my limited understanding as a (somewhat) informed layperson.

What is Intelligence?

Image result for intelligence

Max Tegmark defines intelligence as the ability to accomplish complex goals. Now, this is interesting because on this definition, no computer is intelligent, even AlphaGo Zero. Why? They don’t have any goals and they certainly can’t be said to accomplish anything. Goals and accomplishments are things only conscious agents can have. Although we do sometimes use these terms to refer to non-conscious objects, when we do, we are speaking metaphorically. When I say the tree is growing or my computer is saving a document, I don’t literally mean either of them are actually trying to accomplish a goal. On the contrary, it is the human being who planted the tree or wrote the document who has the goal.

If we strip the conscious agent implications from the words ‘accomplish’ and ‘goal’, we can certainly get to the desired conclusion that computers are intelligent, but in widening the semantic net to let computers slip through, we also unwittingly let a whole host of undesirables through. If computers are intelligent, all life must be intelligent, including plant life. Grass achieves complex goals every time it converts light energy into chemical energy in order to grow. Do you think your lawn is intelligent? But we need not stop at that level of absurdity. Calculators must also be intelligent, so must thermometers, and even eco-systems. Gaia anyone? Ironically, at this stage we are no longer making our computers intelligent; rather, we are making ourselves less intelligent.

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Reality Checking AI (1/5) – Brains and Computers

Before I start, I should point out that I am an expert in neither AI nor computer engineering. My thoughts and opinions are based on my limited understanding as a (somewhat) informed layperson.

The Brain / Computer Analogy

Image result for brains and computers

Is the brain a computer? Well, at a crude level brains can be thought of as information processing systems; that is to say, systems which accept inputs, perform some kind of operation on them, and then produce outputs. Since computers can also be described as information processors; in some sense, the brain is a computer. However, relying too heavily on this analogy conceals at least as much as it reveals, because a brain is simply not like any computer we know of nor is it even like any futuristic variant that anyone has any realistic idea at all about how to build.

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Free Will by Sam Harris – An Absurd Being Book Review

In his short book, Freewill, Sam Harris mounts a concerted attack on the notion that we are free. He argues that our universe is predicated on some mix of determinism and randomness that doesn’t stop somewhere just outside our craniums, but rather penetrates all the way in to our thoughts and intentions carrying an inert ‘conscious witness’ along for the ride.

 

Past Behaviour and Thoughts

He starts out by identifying two assumptions that will serve to define freewill: 1. We could have behaved differently than we did in the past and, 2. We are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions. He asserts that both of these are false. Continue reading

Free by Alfred Mele – An Absurd Being Book Review

At just 90 pages, Free, by Alfred Mele, is a light, easy to read, accessible refutation of the idea that scientists have proven freewill doesn’t exist. Mele tackles some of the scientific arguments typically offered in defence of determinism and succeeds in, while not strongly making a case for freewill, definitely dismantling the scientific case against it.

He begins by looking at Benjamin Libet’s now infamous experiments from the 80s in which he asked subjects to flex their wrists whenever they felt like it and report when they first had the intention to do so. On average, participants reported the urge to act around 200 milliseconds before the muscle burst. However, through EEG, Libet detected activity in the brain (called the readiness potential, (RP)) around 350 milliseconds before the subject reported the conscious intention. Libet concluded from this that our brains ‘make’ our decisions without any conscious input. Continue reading

Aping Mankind by Raymond Tallis – An Absurd Being Book Review

aping_mankindFor a complete summary of Aping Mankind see the philosophy page at the Absurd Being website here.

If one word serves to describe Aping Mankind, that word would be ‘thorough’. Tallis’ book takes the reader on a detailed and rigorous trek through the latest attempts in science to explain consciousness. He focuses on what he calls, “neuromania” (the idea that the mind and the brain are the same) and “Darwinitis” (the idea that we are nothing more than animals), and produced a ‘take-no-prisoners’ refutation of the various claims made by his twin nemeses. Continue reading