Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis

CategoryPhilosophy of Mind

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At Scientific American: Does Quantum Mechanics Kill Free Will?

Physicists take sides. Sabine Hossenfelder thinks superdeterminism enables quantum mechanics to kill free will; George Ellis disagrees

One of the most interesting science writers of our era is John Horgan, who has managed to infuriate so many of the right people (to infuriate, that is) while giving the rest of us something to ponder. In a recent column in Scientific American he takes on the question of whether quantum mechanics (quantum physics) rules out free will. At first glance, that might seem unlikely. Isn’t quantum mechanics (QM) the ultimate in things you can’t determine in advance? Ah, but some physicists think they have found a way around that: superdeterminism. Sabine Hossenfelder explains that, if we knew enough, we would see that everything is determined anyhow: “The reason we can’t predict the outcome of a quantum measurement,” she Read More ›

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What Do the World’s 1.2 Billion Hindus Think About the Mind?

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor interviews Hindu Arjuna Gallagher on the similarities and differences between that tradition and Western theism

In our most recent Mind Matters News podcast, “Hinduism, Reincarnation, and the Mind–Body Problem,” neurosurgeon Michael Egnor interviews Arjuna Gallagher, a Hindu in New Zealand. Gallagher hosts a YouTube channel called Theology Unleashed, which features an array of guests who have something to say about the spiritual dimension of our lives — philosopher David Bentley Hart, neuroscientist Mark Solms, atheist Matt Dillahunty… a variety of voices that can help us understand the intellectual climate in which we live. Gallagher has also produced a documentary, The Persecuted Saints You’ve Never Heard Of.about the persecution of Orthodox Christian monks. https://mindmatters.ai/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2022/03/Mind-Matters-News-Episode-177-Arjuna-Gallagher-Episode-1-rev1.mp3 A partial transcript and notes, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow. Michael Egnor: I don’t know a lot about Hinduism, and I Read More ›

Large cog wheels in the motor.

Can Computers –- and People — Learn To Think From the Bottom Up?

That’s the big promise made in a recent article at Aeon

Tufts University biologist Michael Levin and Columbia University neuroscientist Rafael Yuste have an ambitious project in hand: To explain how evolution “‘hacked’ its way to intelligence from the bottom up,” that is, from nothing. They base their thesis on computer science: This is intelligence in action: the ability to reach a particular goal or solve a problem by undertaking new steps in the face of changing circumstances. It’s evident not just in intelligent people and mammals and birds and cephalopods, but also cells and tissues, individual neurons and networks of neurons, viruses, ribosomes and RNA fragments, down to motor proteins and molecular networks. Across all these scales, living things solve problems and achieve goals by flexibly navigating different spaces – Read More ›

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Frog hiding in the mud

Science Writer: Explain-Away-the-Mind Book Doesn’t Succeed

In a departure from an all-too familiar approach to science writing, Philip Ball offers constructive criticism of the “nothing but”approach to the mind

At eminent science journal Nature, science writer Philip Ball reviews a book offering to explain how the mind arose from the mud. And he departs from the script. The book is Journey of the Mind: How Thinking Emerged from Chaos by neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam. One would expect a conventional science writer to announce that this new book is an important contribution to the quest to naturalize the human mind — to show that the mind is a mere adaptation that enabled the tailless ape to survive the savannah. Such a belief needn’t be true (and isn’t); it’s intended as a placeholder for a better-founded purely naturalist belief. Yet Ball looks at the claims made in Journey of Read More ›

New ideas

Do Mathematicians Think Differently From Other People?

A math teacher illustrates some ways in which creative ones do but it’s really about imagination, not just getting the figures right

Math teacher Ali Kayaspor has thought a lot about how mathematicians have come up with fundamental ideas about the nature of reality and he shares anecdotes that give us a glimpse. But first, the cold shower: Unfortunately, there is no clear way to answer the question of how a mathematician thinks. But we can approach this question as follows; if you watched any chess tournament, the game’s analysis is shared in detail at the end of the match. When you examine the analysis, you will see a breaking point in each game. Similarly, mathematicians also experience a breaking point while working on a problem before finding a solution. Ali Kayaspor, “How Does a Mathematician’s Brain Differ from Other Brains?” at Read More ›

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It’s Not Even Clear How the Mind Relates to the Brain

Journalist and editor Ken Francis asks a series of skeptical questions of those who claim that the mind is really just the brain

Kenneth Francis, co-author with Theodore Dalrymple of The Terror of Existence: From Ecclesiastes to Theatre of the Absurd (2018), offers some thoughts at New English Review on why the mind cannot be the same as the brain. The context is whether artificial intelligence will ever have minds or be able to read our minds (as opposed to scanning our brains): Without even a basic understanding of what consciousness is, the idea of putting it into a machine, while not difficult to imagine in the fantasy of science fiction, becomes almost impossible to grapple with when it comes down to real and practical implementation… As to where the mind resides, that is the biggest mystery in philosophy. Although it interacts with Read More ›

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Can Waiting for a Marshmallow Predict a Child’s Future?

Believing so was all the rage in recent decades but later research didn’t back up the idea

You’ve maybe heard of Stanford University’s “marshmallow experiment,” right? A child’s future can be predicted, we were told by psychologist Walter Mischel (1930–2018), by whether the child can delay gratification: Walter Mischel’s pioneering research at Bing in the late 1960s and early 1970s famously explored what enabled preschool-aged children to forgo immediate gratification in exchange for a larger but delayed reward… This research identified some of the key cognitive skills, strategies, plans and mindsets that enable self-control. If the children focused on the “hot” qualities of the temptations (e.g., “The marshmallows are sweet, chewy, yummy”), they soon rang the bell to bring the researcher back. If they focused on their abstract “cool” features (“The marshmallows are puffy and round like Read More ›

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Will Your Life Flash Before Your Eyes When You Die?

Sophisticated neuroscience equipment accidentally captured the complex brain states of the final moments of a dying patient.

Recently, researchers were able to study the brain of an 87-year-old patient while administering treatment for epilepsy. Dr Raul Vicente of the University of Tartu, Estonia and colleagues were using continuous electroencephalography (EEG) to detect the seizures but during the recordings, the patient had a heart attack and passed away. Thus they were abled to record the activity of adying human brain: “We measured 900 seconds of brain activity around the time of death and set a specific focus to investigate what happened in the 30 seconds before and after the heart stopped beating,” said Dr Ajmal Zemmar, a neurosurgeon at the University of Louisville, US, who organised the study. “Just before and after the heart stopped working, we saw Read More ›

Tunnel of light

Agnostic Psychiatrist Says Near-Death Experiences Are Real

They change lives but he is unsure what they mean

Psychiatrist Bruce Greyson, emeritus at the University of Virginia, tells us that he first started thinking about near-death experiences many decades ago when a young woman, rescued from suicide, asserted that she had seen a spaghetti stain on his tie during an out-of-body experience. She could not have known that he had gone to considerable pains to conceal the embarrassing mark from colleagues. Nothing in his background had prepared him, as a young psychiatrist, for taking seriously the possibility that the mind could be detached from the brain. He grew up with a chemist father who had a great love for science but no metaphysical convictions. But he just could not forget the spaghetti stain episode and that background prompted Read More ›

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Do Our Minds Really Extend Into Our Smartphones?

An Australian philosopher proposes a startling view — that our minds start to inhabit our environment via our technology

British tech philosopher Tom Chatfield offers a profile of the work of Australian philosopher of mind David Chalmers, who is known for iconic concepts such as the Hard Problem of consciousness and the Philosopher’s Zombie, both pointing to the fact that there is no “easy explain” for human consciousness. Chalmers had started out in math but drifted to the study of consciousness at a propitious time; in the early 1990s, information theory was reinvigorating the field. At a time when some were looking for the consciousness switch in the brain or proclaiming consciousness to be an illusion, Chalmers suggested an alternative “non-reductive” approach to consciousness, a form of panpsychism: … every form of information processing entails an irreducible component constituting Read More ›

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“Slightly” Conscious Computers Could Doom Atheism

That might sound surprising but let’s follow the logic of the “consciousness” claim through to its inevitable conclusion

Recently, Ilya Sutskever, co-founder of OpenAI, proposed that artificial intelligence (AI) may currently be “slightly” conscious. His claim was probably in reference to the GPT-3 AI that can generate text from a prompt. I’ve played with a couple of the linguistic neural networks a bit, and you can try them out here. Some of the output is quirky, which could be mistaken for personality and make the algorithm appear conscious. The algorithm also generates emotional statements, that can generate empathy in a human user of the system. Just as kids make believe their dolls are alive when they develop an emotional bond with their toy, the algorithm text generates empathy in the human user. It can make us feel a Read More ›

A chariot wheel at the sun temple at Konark.

Ancient Indian Philosophy Sounds Surprisingly Modern

A period of expansion of horizons from about 800 BC – 200 BC encouraged people in India to ask thoughtful questions about reality

Jessica Frazier, a fellow of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, offered some thoughts about a remarkable period in human history, the Axial Period (roughly 800 BC – 200 BC) when a number of today’s major thought traditions got started or were amplified. One of these traditions was philosophy of mind in India. Frazier, author of Hindu Worldviews (Bloomsbury, 2017), offers a look at one of the drivers of the trend: The answer lay in the public’s growing worry about existential problems. Mortal life seemed little more than a flame struck over the open ocean at night; our minds shine but a brief, faint spotlight on the immensity of the world before sputtering into darkness again. As their frustration grew, Read More ›

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Can AI Really Be “Slightly Conscious”? Can Anyone?

It’s rare to see popular media actually call out nonsense re artificial intelligence. Here’s is what it looks like when it happens

On February 9, Ilya Sutskever,co-founder of fake text generator OpenAI, made a claim that was frothy even for Twitter: “it may be that today’s largest neural networks are slightly conscious.” it may be that today’s large neural networks are slightly conscious — Ilya Sutskever (@ilyasut) February 9, 2022 Well, “slightly conscious” is like being “slightly pregnant” or “slightly dead.” While Sutskever didn’t name any specific developments, he was likely referring to huge natural language processing systems like OpenAI’s enormous GPT-3 which can translate, answer questions, fill in missing words, and generate fake news. No thought process is involved. The system approximates vast masses of actual instances of language use. The more stereotyped the language use is, the easier it is Read More ›

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How Does Dualism Understand Personal Identity?

Both neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and theology professor Joshua Harris acknowledge weaknesses in their philosophies’ understanding of personal identity

In “The Body and the Soul” podcast, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor interviews theology professor Joshua Farris on how a sense of personal identity is preserved (or not) in Aristotelian vs. Cartesian philosophy (both are dualist philosophies; they do not think that the mind is merely a product of the brain). Along the way, Michael Egnor talks about the remarkable way that neuroscience affirms a dualist view. https://mindmatters.ai/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2022/02/Mind-Matters-News-Joshua-Farris-Episode-2-rev1.mp3 A partial transcript and notes follow: Michael Egnor: Had it not been for neuroscience, which led me to a Thomist view, I would probably be a Cartesian because I do agree that there’s a great deal to say for it. Although my sense of Cartesianism is that the closer we get to Berkeley and Read More ›

Quantum Wave

Study: Science Fiction Not As Strange As Quantum Physics Fact

At least, that’s what we can assume from a failed effort to disprove physicist Eugene Wigner’s thought experiment

According to prominent science writer John Horgan, a “radical quantum hypothesis” is creating doubt about objective reality: The author of Mind-Body Problems explains that, while quantum mechanics has been confirmed by countless experiments as well as by computer chips, it “defies common sense.” Specifically, it creates doubt about what “the facts” are. In 1961, physicist Eugene Wigner proposed a thought experiment, similar to the more famous Schrödinger’s Cat dilemma: Instead of the fabled cat in a box, imagine that a friend of Wigner is inside a laboratory monitoring a radioactive specimen. When the specimen decays, a detector flashes. Now imagine that Wigner is outside the lab. If Wigner’s friend sees the detector flash, he knows that the specimen has decayed. Read More ›

Choosing the High Road or Low Road

My Challenge to Two Atheists Who Deny Free Will

There is too much of this nonsense in the science blogosphere. If Pigliucci or Coyne would like to debate free will, they can consider this a challenge from me

Of all of the materialist cults, free will denial may be the most bizarre. Nothing could be more obvious in everyday life that in a very real sense we generally have the option to choose our acts. We choose mundane things like what to have for breakfast and what clothing to wear and we make moral choices every day. The denial that we have the freedom to choose is essentially the assertion that we are robots, enslaved to our physics and chemistry and incapable of freedom. Obviously this view of humanity is deeply insulting – it’s just a slur – but is also rank nonsense. In fact, it’s self refuting and obviously so. At his blog, Why Evolution is True, Read More ›

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The Philosopher’s Zombie Still Walks and Physics Can’t Explain It

Various thinkers try to show that the zombie does not exist because consciousness is either just brain wiring or an illusion, maybe both

Canadian science journalist Dan Falk tells us, the philosopher’s zombie thought experiment, “flawed as it is,” demonstrates that physics alone can’t explain consciousness. Not that many physicists haven’t tried. But first, what is the philosopher’s zombie (sometimes called the p-zombie)?: The experiment features an imagined creature exactly like you or me, but with a crucial ingredient – consciousness – missing. Though versions of the argument go back many decades, its current version was stated most explicitly by Chalmers. In his book The Conscious Mind (1996), he invites the reader to consider his zombie twin, a creature who is ‘molecule for molecule identical to me’ but who ‘lacks conscious experience entirely’.” He does everything he is supposed to do but experiences Read More ›

Cute little baby looking into the camera

The Mystery of How Newborns Know Things Gets Deeper

But learning more about it may help us understand autism spectrum disorders better

Neuroscientist Giorgio Vallortigara ponders the mystery of how exactly babies quickly recognize things when they are born — like human faces — that they simply cannot have learned. We might call it “imprinting” or “instinct” but that’s just a classification, not an explanation. The author of Born Knowing (MIT Press, 2021) decided to start with chicks. That’s a bit simpler. Psychology students know, of course, that newly hatched chicks seem to know that they should follow their mother and do what she does. But what specific cues enable them to identify their mother? It turns out, according to his and colleagues’ research, that they are looking for specific geometrical patterns: Chicks need to actively explore and learn about their environment Read More ›

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A Neurosurgeon and a Philosopher Debate Mind vs. Body

Philosopher Joshua Farris defends controversial Cartesian dualism. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor critiques it but thinks it may account for near-death experiences

In “Why Cartesian Dualism,” neurosurgeon Michael Egnor interviews theology professor Joshua Farris on dualism, the idea that the human being is both mind and body. That is, the mind is not simply a product of the brain, as many philosophers and scientists believe. What are the arguments for and what is the evidence for the reality of the mind? In this podcast, they talk about a specific type of dualism, Cartesian dualism — developed by French mathematician René Descartes (1596– 1650). https://mindmatters.ai/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2022/02/Mind-Matters-Episode-172-Joshua-Farris-Episode-1-rev1.mp3 A partial transcript and notes follow: Michael Egnor: The topic today is why Cartesian dualism? In this episode, we’ll discuss the merits of a theory of the mind–body relationship, in contrast to alternative viewpoints, such as materialism, hylomorphism, Read More ›

Illustration of synapse and neuron on a blue background.

Neuroscientists: The Hard Problem of Consciousness Isn’t So Hard!

Damasio and Seth tell Nautilus that materialist explanations will eventually crack consciousness, as they have cracked everything else

Recently, thinkmag Nautilus brought together neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Anil Seth to argue that the “Hard Problem of Consciousness.” is not so hard after all. Antonio Damasio, author of Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious (Penguin Random House, 2021), has argued that intelligence is everywhere in life forms and that even viruses have “some fraction of” intelligence. Anil Seth is the author of Being You: A new science of consciousness (2021). He is convinced that the Hard Problem, so named by philosopher David Chalmers, is “magical thinking” and that “there is much to be done in a straightforward materialist understanding of how the brain relates to conscious experience.” For the purposes of their discussion with Kristin French, consciousness is defined Read More ›