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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mechanical Mind, Mechanical Eye

Marcus T Anthony's new web site and blog can be found at

We are within a decade or so of building the first electronic brain, exhorts writer Drew Turney in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald. (A brain, but not as we know it ) Yet how much fact, and how much speculation, assumption or pure mythology lie behind the claim? Apologies in advance, but I'm going to get a little philosophical and intellectual.

Today I am going to put forward my view. It is not an impersonal view. No such thing exists, as all discourse is driven by the mind of the knower. My view is that of a person who has explored consciousness at a first person level for a couple of decades. Yet I have also studied quite a bit of literature surrounding the topic, and my doctoral thesis featured a deconstruction of representations of mind and intelligence (see Integrated Intelligence, Sense Publishers 2008). So I am not without academic understanding of the subject area.

Now, let’s take a look at several claims and statements made in Turney’s article.

The 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes claimed there was a disembodied driver in the brain, a kernel of intelligence that viewed sensory input and wielded consciousness to act upon it.

Though we're no closer to discovering the soul today, we know about dendrites, axons (cell components) and synapses (empty, electro-conductive space).

Right here at the beginning of the article, the most important linguistic feature is presents itself. Who is the “we”, whom Turney is referring to? The answer is that it is the assumed perspective of the dominant discourse, mainstream science, and its mechanistic paradigm. Turney unquestioningly (and probably unconsciously) attempts to force the legitimatation of this mainstream perspective by aligning with the status quo. The use of “we” also implicitly excludes all those people who have found differently, or who might argue otherwise (such as me, for example). Note that we “others” would not be given a moment of airtime in much of mainstream science. Thus an implicit hegemony is established right from the start of Turney’s article.

It is true that science is no closer to understanding the soul. All definitions of ‘soul” aside, it is my experience that the essence of consciousness is found through silent meditation, not by observing the material substrates of brains through a microscope or the printouts of computers hooked up to electroencephalographs. The very process being employed to understand the problem in mainstream science is therefore self-limiting. It is much like taking a calculator into the National Gallery and attempting to calculate the meaning of the artworks on display. The wrong way of knowing is being employed. It is not in the “space” that the soul is found, but in the emptiness between spaces, where thoughts have not yet emerged.

But what is still a mystery is how even though the brain comprises little more than these simple structures, it has somehow given rise to everything from language to love, from Beethoven to Big Brother.

Here, with the term “given rise”, Turney assumes that consciousness is a bottom-up process, that mind is reducible to its micro-components. This is a metaphysical assumption – a guess.

Now our increasing knowledge about the brain's building blocks is bringing us closer to the ultimate neurology experiment: building one. The Blue Brain Project is one effort to create an in situ brain, using software instead of proteins in a supercomputer called Blue Gene to model the brain of a two-week-old rat. It does so by creating a 3D computer model of neurons in the neocortex (the 'intelligent' sector of the brain) where scientists can simulate the sizes, shapes, densities and electro-receptiveness of different neurons in the biological version and watch their behaviour under certain conditions.

Once again the assumption is that neural microcomponents can produce mind. The term “building blocks” suggests the materialist presupposition.

That the neocortex is declared “the intelligent sector of the brain”, implies that the rest of the brain is not intelligent. This is a culturally biased assumption. The neocortex mediates verbal/linguistic processes, and these are assumed to be the highest expressions of human intelligence, because these are the cognitive processes that the people making the claim typically employ. It is a self-fulfilling given. We define intelligence as being predominantly related to logic and language, identify those parts of the brain which are mediate these processes, then declare them to be the centre of intelligence. 

As I have argued in my theory of Integrated Intelligence, there are “intuitive” forms of intelligence which transcend reason. This can only be genuinely understood through doing committed inner work, and directly applying these “other” ways of knowing in living one’s life. This cognitive set does not form part of intelligence testing, and so does not appear on current maps of intelligence in mainstream cognitive science – again, a self-stultifying problematique.

The Blue Brain Project's goal is to model the brain's response behaviour down to the nano-level.

The language reveals the same agenda as that of outmoded early twentieth century behaviourism, and brings with it the same baggage. Behaviourism attempts to understand the person through observing the surface movements and features of the organism. It treats people as biological automata. The Blue Brain Project appears to be making the same mistakes.

Though recreating the brain is the stated aim, the Blue Brain project isn't the first neurological architecture model. As long ago as 2005 the futurist and writer Kevin Kelly claimed the internet was essentially a brain. Every computer and device can be thought of as neurons, every bit of information like the bio-electrical sparks across synapses that constantly shift, connect and disconnect to form memories, thoughts, emotions and sensory data.

Jeff Stibel, author of last year's Wired for Thought, thinks the similarities go deeper. ''The internet already has the parallel processing capability of the human mind,'' he says, ''neuroscientists call it distributed computing, where the brain's functions are distributed all over the place to happen simultaneously. The internet is a massive storage and retrieval system, and the brain's fundamental structure is roughly the same.''

The architecture metaphor indicates the materialist presuppositions which underpin the argument. Buildings are empty shells – it is my first person experience that brains are not.

The idea that the internet is a brain is a deeply flawed and limited analogy. Firstly and most obviously, the internet is not conscious. It is not conscious because information and consciousness are not the same thing. The brain-as-information-processing-unit is another presupposition of dominant neuroscience, as well as being the implicit metaphor of the discourse.

Secondly, consciousness is not merely the processing of information at a rational/linguistic level. There are levels of mind which transcend the “rational” (and reason itself is culturally defined). The more one begins to transcend reason, the more it becomes readily apparent that some forms of perception are non-linear, immediate, and transcend the limits of conventionally understood notions of space and time. The internet is limited, at least in its current expression, to four-dimensional space time. Furhter, the information it contains is processed by web surfers at the level of consciousness that they have developed – in most cases, the typically expressed “rational”/linear processing that most modern people exhibit.

This interconnectedness is also the secret to that elusive quality we call intelligence. Older scientific understanding might have convinced us to try and replicate the brain by creating a super-driver, but the true smarts might be in the network integration of a huge number of simple, low-powered processors. ''A brain is really a massive composition of mini-brains or hives,'' Stibel says. ''There's no such thing as a central decision-maker in the brain; intelligence emerges from complex parallel processing of information.''

The information processing metaphor dominates again. Further, the misunderstanding about there not being any central processing unit probably emerges from a confusion between automatic functioning in the brain (which comprises probably 99% of what goes on there) with the self, which does effectively form a (potentially) self-directing centre of consciousness. With greater awareness, some of that autonomic processing is reclaimed – that part which has been formed by habit, and the self-regulating predisposition of the human ego. As just one example, Indian yogis, under scientific testing, have been shown to be able to slow down heart rate and respiratory function at will.

The internet=mind argument also fails to understand that the mind, as is commonly experienced by most people (including scientists), is not the only “mind’ which potentially exists within individuals. The ego or personality construct is essentially a product of natural selection, and its prime function is to ensure the physical survival of the body. In a sense it it the “voice in the head”. Yet there is a higher self (for want of a better phrase) which emerges naturally once the “talking head” is allowed to go quiet. The problem is that science and education are dominated by talking heads, and there is an inability to perceive the higher levels of mind. Again, it’s a self-regulating problematique. The very ways of knowing and the investigative tools and methods being employed reinforce the misunderstanding, as they cannot perceive that which lies beyond their own perceptual limitations (by definition).

Bill Lytton, a Blue Brain Project technical adviser, is a professor of physiology, pharmacology, biomedical engineering and neurology at New York State University. He thinks if we can perfect the mechanism to generate those hundreds of millions of base-level computations in a simulated brain, the mental commands we know as decisions, emotions or thoughts might arise as spontaneously and magically in it as they do in us.

Here the metaphor “mechanism” betrays the paradigm, as does the verb “computations”.

''The simultaneous processing going on will achieve its objectives without ever bothering to reach higher levels of integration,'' he says, ''and it's not just the brain that does this - consider chickens or mice running around with their heads cut off.''

As far as I am aware, chickens and mice with their heads cut off do not meet the requirements of being conscious, and even if they do, it is short “lived”. Ironically, the seemingly perpetual and fruitless quest to generate consciousness from machines appears to duplicate the behavior of the aforementioned headless bioforms.

The world view of the brain as a machine packed with incredible densities of deceptively simple parts isn't new. In his 1995 book Are We Alone? cosmologist Paul Davies suggests there is no life force. The only difference between us and rocks, air or plastic might be the complexity of the structure; make something complex enough - like the proteins that form DNA - and it can be termed alive, he suggests.

Davies’ argument is at best circular, or at worst nonensical. We might then ask “What does it mean to be ‘alive’?” The argument makes no attempt to ascertain what the qualitative difference is between “alive” and “not alive”. A fresh corpse retains neurological complexity, but in terms of consciousness, has more in common with a rock than, say, Barack Obama.

So how do even start creating something so intricate it generates normal function spontaneously from the basic engineering, like expecting a 747 to take off and fly by itself just because we've built it? While a single neuron is comparatively simple it's the sheer number of types and behaviours involved that makes the computational task so big.

This is an apt metaphor.

Another way to gain a closer understanding of the brain is to examine how it interacts with itself, as Srini Pillay does. The chief of the coaching and organisational psychology company NeuroBusiness Group and a brain imaging researcher, Pillay uses brain scanning technology to watch for changes in blood flow relative to emotion. When he prompts an emotional response in a patient or subject, the positioning and quantity of blood flow offers the possibility of regulating it to generate the mental model or mind state we want to study.

The key way of knowing, and its limitations, are clearly seen here. “Watching” and “scanning” the “subject” involve surface level perception, and can never reveal the knowledge that first-person introspection can (there are also limitations with introspection, but introspection permits the contextualisation of the observations via a holistic, immediate perception, while external observation does not). Most significantly, any observation which attempts to ascertain the links between brain physiology (such as blood flow), and the emotionality (first person experience) of a person can only ever observe a correlation, not cause. It tells us nothing about the source of consciousness itself.

Note also that the people being quoted and references in this paper are all mainstream science and culture people – the aforementioned “we”. For a deeper understanding of the problem of consciousness, there is a need to begin to broaden the paradigmatic parameters of the discourse and invite “others” to participate.

The applications of brain modelling could transform neuroscience. We can already model chemicals - most of us did so in year 7 science - if we have a virtual mock-up of how they interact at the synaptic level it would let us design better treatment for a huge range of conditions from depression to stroke.

This is true. Intervention at the physical level can assist in the treatment of a whole host of psychological and neural problems. They may not always assist in finding the cause, however.

But as we have seen, simply arranging the parts won't cause the virtual brain to just switch on. External stimulus is the key to all theoretical biology. ''We can grow neurons and support cells in culture and make them grow,'' says Richard Senelick, a neuro-rehabilitation specialist and medical director of HealthSouth Rehabilitation Institute of San Antonio in Texas, ''but we can't effectively direct them to make the correct connections consistently to reproduce function.''

The limitations of a disembodied, software-based brain don't stop there. As Bill Lytton reminds us, a real brain doesn't exist in a vacuum. ''A full brain wouldn't be all that interesting without being connected,'' he says, ''and I doubt we'd ever have the resources to build a full simulated nervous system.''

Finally, an admission. Science isn’t really close to producing an artificial brain at all. The problems are huge. The limitations of the entire model are easily seen in the phrase “External stimulus is the key to all theoretical biology”. Such stimulus is key to the knowledge claims of mechanistic biology, but it is not the essence higher levels of consciousness. These levels permit an essentially spiritual experience, and no amount of observation of “external stimulus” will deliver this understanding.

Here we can see that, despite the huge advances in science in the last century, it is still dominated by mechanistic presuppositions. This is because the ways of knowing have changed little. Both peering down a microscope (as did scientists a hundred years ago), and peering at the computer readouts generated by electroencephalograms, are externalized modes of perception which disconnect the observer both from his/her inner world and intuitive perceptions. They separate the knower and the known.

Until such time as mainstream science encourages, or at least permits, the intimate perceptions of the human intuitive mind to be incorporated within its discourses, it will continue to repeat the paradigmatic errors of the past century or more.

But the biggest constraint is that we simply don't know what language the brain uses to work. ''We're missing the code,'' says Lytton, who worked with the DNA pioneer Francis Crick at the Salk Institute, where the latter devoted the remainder of his career to decoding the brain.

''The brain uses different codes simultaneously to deliver information at different rates for different purposes. It's difficult to record from many neurons at once and then analyse what you've recorded. Right now we can record up to 100 but we might need to do up to 10,000.''

Of course, if we can grasp and deploy all the theory and technology we need to build a simulated brain from the ground up...

Note the verbs of knowing, which mirror the prime ways of knowing developed by science over the last 150 years: classification, analysis and experimentation.

In her 2008 book ID, the Oxford University pharmacology professor Susan Greenfield outlines how our personalities, our hopes and dreams and our sense of self are no more than the sum total of our own neurons.

''The mind'', she writes, ''far from being some airy-fairy philosophical alternative to the biological squalor of the physical brain, is the physical brain - more specifically the personalised connectivity of that otherwise generic brain.''

In order to come to this "nothing but" conclusion, not only must a person reject all the experience and data gathered from thousands of years of mystical insight (which reveals that transpersonal levels of mind are genuine human potentials, and that mind and brain are not the same thing); one also has to reject (or explain away) all the scientific evidence garnered by those investigating psi phenomena. Parapsychology is a highly problematic field, but its discussions and findings should at least lead a learned professor to use conditionals in her pronouncements about consciousness.

If that's true and we build a human brain from scratch, what will it mean for the spiritual dimension of human life if a fully formed, sentient consciousness wakes up, shakes it computerised head and declares: ''I think, therefore I am''?

I suspect that Descartes never transcended the rational mind, and equated “self” with ego, or the voice in the head. It is more accurate to simply say “I am”. Like so many of th deeper understandings of consciousness, the meaning of that cannot be intellectualised.

If you have gotten this far into this article, no doubt the question has arisen, “Who is this Marcus T. Anthony to be claiming to know better than international renowned scientists and researchers?”

It’s a good question.



  1. Behaviorism is what eventually turned me from Psychology to Human Development as a field of study. My university, known for Washoe the "talking" primate, was geared around behaviorism. The human being is so much more than dendrites and synopses, just as you so eloquently state in this post. HDFS was the first field of study where the professors actually talked about spirituality and the multi-dimensions of what makes us who we are. One professor actually lectured on her NDE, much to the avid interest of her students. But in my psychology classes it was all about brain functioning.

  2. Glad you made it through this very long post, Nancy! It's great you were able to hear about some less "mechanistic" aspects of the mind at your uni. One of my seminal influences was Professor Ronald Laura at the University of Newcastle, Australia - as I mentioned in my book.


  3. I often want to ask these people what happens to them when they see a wonderful landscape, or make love, or listen to Bach - and how that differs from doing mental arithmetic, or worrying whether we double-locked the front door before leaving home.

    Mozart wrote his operas in ink on paper; so did his servant when she made her laundry lists. It doesn't go very far to "explain" The Magic Flute or Don Giovanni.

    I sometimes wonder whether the reductionist brigade bear a grudge against higher experiences and emotions that they're not able to enter into.