You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Mind's I

I have had a growing interest in subjects related to the brain and consciousness, including philosophy and AI. After reading Douglas R. Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid I put The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul, edited by Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett, on my Amazon wish list, and got it for Christmas last year. Unfortunately it sat on my bedside table for nearly a year before I got around to it, but it was worth the wait.

The book is a series of essays or stories and the authors' reflections on different subjects revolving around the concept of self and what it means to be self-aware or conscious. Selections provide different angles on the question, such as whether a computer could ever think; what would it be like to experience life as a bat, or even another human; how our concept of "mind" is linked to the brain; how a system can become more than the sum of its parts; whether the fact that we are all made up of atoms following natural laws means that we are incapable of free will. These are all intriguing concepts that together build an interesting framework for understanding the self; understanding "understanding" itself at its core.

Dennett provides an essay, "Where Am I?", where he purports to have had his brain and body separated from each other, with technology providing the necessary links. He tries to determine where "here" is: is it where his body is located, or where his brain is located?:
...I thought to myself: "Well, here I am sitting on a folding chair, staring through a piece of plate glass at my own brain . . . But wait," I said to myself, "shouldn't I have thought, 'Here I am, suspended in a bubbling fluid, being stared at by my own eyes'?" I tried to think this latter thought. I tried to project it into the tank, offering hopefully to my brain, but I failed to carry off the exercise with any conviction.
Here he is describing the disconnect between where the mind's thoughts are physically manifested and where the perception, which feeds the brain, is oriented. I suspect that it would be an even stranger experience to have one's vision situated at many different locations, like the many facets of an insect's eye or a system with hundreds of video connections. How could we even conceive of this with out limited brains structured to understand a simple visual perception?

Also presented is a selection of Alan Turing's famous Turing test and a comment on it. Some have thought of it as a good test for consciousness, while others have seen it as only "faking" or "simulating" consciousness. For a rebuttal, they include an essay called "Minds, Brains, and Programs" by John R. Searle. Searle presents the analogy of a man who understands only English inside a room who is trained to take slips of paper with Chinese on them, put them through an elaborate process or set of rules to correlate the set of symbols together and produce an output, also in Chinese. The input and the output would be perfectly understandable Chinese, yet the man cannot possibly be said to really understand Chinese. Hofstadter and Dennett maintain that the analogy is flawed because Searle asks us to identity with the man instead of the system as a whole, which is what appears to have the understanding. It would be like saying a set of neurons does not understand English because it only passes along symbols as electric signals. When the system is shrunk down to size, it becomes much easier to identify with the room, or computer, and perhaps believe that is has some understanding. I think they all miss one point. A system cannot be said to be conscious unless it has a sense of self. A computer may have a set of knowledge about the world, itself, and its relationship to the world, but can it really be call "understanding" if it doesn't have a detailed concept of what it is and its place in the world, its strengths, boundaries, and limits? Then again, animals don't have a detailed concept of themselves yet they can be said to have a rudimentary consciousness.

I also enjoyed the story by Christopher Cherniak titled "The Riddle of the Universe and Its Solution." The concept is something gets displayed on a computer screen that puts the operator into a coma. Several other people are trapped by this before investigators realize what is going on. Apparently what is displayed is an image or text that, when perceived and understood, "freezes" the component of the brain that keeps thought processes going.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. My only quibble is that I would like to see it updated--it was published in 1981, and some of the ideas seem a little dated. I would like to see some reflections on the concepts of virtual reality, or the ideas presented in The Matrix. There's been a lot of work over the last thirty years in AI and neurology. For example, doctors can now pinpoint places in the brain where specific activities such as memories and language are processed, and can stimulate the brain to "simulate" certain sensations. We can even tell when someone is lying by watching for activity in certain regions. Other than that, I was pleased with the book. The essays and stories provide insight into these concepts from new and interesting points of view. A


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