Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Chocolate and vanilla bourbon ice creams
Photo licensed via Adobe Stock

How We Know the Mind Is About Information, Not Matter or Energy

The computer program’s world is one of binary 0 or 1 decisions but the physical world is one of many different shades of more or less

It’s really hard to picture the “mind,” isn’t it? You might think of wavy ghosts, or a spectral light. But nothing very definite.

The brain, on the other hand, is very easy to visualize. Images and videos are just a Google away.

That’s why it’s easy to assume that our brains are the entities that do our thinking for us. The brain is not only easy to image, it is physical. We can (in theory) touch it. Poke it. The brain even runs off electricity, just like your computer.

But what makes a computer run Windows? It isn’t just the transistors on silicon wafers. It isn’t just the electricity coursing through the circuits.

Windows itself is a ghostly being, like our mind. It is the structure of electrical signals in your computer. But the electrical signals themselves are not the structure. You can’t gather up a handful of electrical signals, and drop them into another computer at random, and get Windows out the other end. The structure matters, and the structure is what we call information.

The special thing about information is that it is not pinned down

The information that defines Windows makes your computer responsive, flashes graphics on your screen, and plays sound in your speakers. But that very same Windows operating system can be run on any compatible computer. The information is the same, regardless of where it is running.

This is how our minds feel. When you close your eyes and relax, your mind does not feel pinned down. It feels like it is in its own world.

It is easy to imagine your mind in many different bodies and experiences. That’s the source of our rich imagination. The mind, like information, is not pinned down.

So maybe our minds are more like information than they are like computers.

But, what is information?

Information is decisions. Singling out one choice from a range of options is information. If you ask me if I prefer chocolate or vanilla, and I say chocolate, I have given you a piece of information.

A decision, in its simplest form is one thing or else another. A yes or a no. A true or a false. A 0 or a 1.

Windows is made up of billions upon billions of 0s and 1s. And each 0 or 1 is a decision. It is only one or the other, not both. That is what makes Windows run. Billions upon billions of decisions.

What does this tell us about the mind? If the mind is like information, then it is composed of decisions. In contrast to what?

In contrast to the analog physical world. The physical world is not made of a multitude of binary decisions, but rather gradations of more or less, faster or slower, heavier or lighter. The physical world exists as a multitude of slides and dials, not on/off switches.

Where is this all taking us?

Previously, I discussed how neural networks could not learn a checkerboard pattern that is trivial for us humans. I also argued that these neural networks are, surprisingly, better at learning than the human brain. We can deduce that maybe the mind is not the brain.

The reason why neural networks get hung up on simple patterns is that they are like the physical world: Dials upon dials incrementally spinning and nudging the network towards a solution.

The problem is, if the network has to make a big leap to find the right structure, dial-spinning can’t do the job. These leaps are very much like decision-making because they cannot be arrived at incrementally.

All well and good, but what does it mean practically?

Well, there is a practical point… in fact a practical algorithm. The algorithm is called the decision tree algorithm, and it can give us insight into how the mind operates. Next time, we will talk about the decision tree algorithm.

You may also wish to read:

The Salem Hypothesis: Why engineers view the universe as designed. Not because we’re terrorists or black-and-white thinkers, as claimed. A simple computer program shows the limits of creating information by chance. Engineers doubt chance evolution because a computer using an evolution-based program would be chugging away well past the heat death of our universe. (Eric Holloway)

Eric Holloway

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Eric Holloway is a Senior Fellow with the Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence, and holds a PhD in Electrical & Computer Engineering from Baylor University. A Captain in the United States Air Force, he served in the US and Afghanistan. He is the co-editor of Naturalism and Its Alternatives in Scientific Methodologies.

How We Know the Mind Is About Information, Not Matter or Energy