Thursday, September 19, 2013

Consciousness raiser: Things versus processes

Some time ago I wrote about my feeling that many people could use a consciousness-raiser on the topic of trade-offs, partly to put a damper on rampant techno-optimism. One of the points was that biologists are more likely to be aware of the problem of having to make trade-offs because they constantly encounter them in living organisms, ecological adaptations and reproductive strategies. Today I want to talk about another issue that many people appear to have very odd intuitions about and thus could use a consciousness-raiser for, and in this case it might be physicists, chemists and engineers who naturally have the edge.

The context in which I came to think about the issue was again a discussion of futurist hopes (although it had not started out as that), specifically "brain uploading" or "mind uploading". The hope that something like that would be possible sometime in the future is based on the following claims:
  1. We are our minds.
  2. Our mind is best understood as information stored and/or a computer program running on the "wetware" of the brain.
  3. A simulation of a mind is a mind. Just as a simulation of a Windows environment on a Linux machine allows Windows programs to run, a simulation of a brain in a computer would allow our mind program to run on that computer.
  4. Consequently, if we could scan that program and the information (memories) off the brain and simulate it in a computer, we would be in that computer, and thus could achieve immortality (until humanity cannot afford to keep cyberspace running any more, that is, which might be as soon as in a few decades anyway when fossil fuels run out).
Phrased like this, most readers will presumably see immediately that something might be wrong with at least some of these claims. I would go further and argue that they are all complete bollocks, and that some of the problems stem from the human tendency to reify processes, that is to think that processes are things that can, for example, be moved around.

In the present case the specific mistake is to think of the mind as a thing that can be moved, or perhaps at least copied, from the body into a computer, which is essentially a form of Cartesian mind-body dualism. To get over this mistake, and to raise one's consciousness about the ease with which we make it, one could consider historical instances of the same error.

It was once seriously believed by many people that life was something like a substance that had to be present in a matter to, well, make it alive, the famous elan vital. We now know that there is no such substance. Life is not a thing, it is instead a biochemical process of metabolism, homeostasis and growth. The process can be stopped by killing an organism but it cannot be taken out of it and transferred into the corpse of a different organism or into a stone, for example. It cannot be stored, touched, weighted, seen or whatever because it is not a thing, just like "falling" or "writing" is not a thing.

Similarly, the mind is the process of the brain operating. To believe in mind uploading is to visualize the mind as a thing that can moved or copied from here to there.

However, the believer in mind uploading might counter that some processes can, in a way, be copied or moved from one substrate to the other. There was once a belief that fire was an element comparable to air, water and earth. Setting aside the fact that the four classical elements have been superseded anyway, it is very clear today that fire simply does not fit into that list. The other three are substances but fire is not; it is a process, the rapid oxidation of a substance. So with that in mind, the believer in mind uploading might say: aha, but fire can be copied and moved from one substance to another, so why not a mind? The same goes for certain other processes, such as movement in a direction; a momentum can also be transferred from one object to another.

The question is then, if you take a burning match and transfer the flame to a puddle of oil, is the burning of the match the same "thing" (for want of a better word) as the burning of the oil? Well no, the chemistries involved are very different. Is a momentum transferred from one ball onto another the same thing? Again, no, angles, speeds, etc may be very different. Most importantly, however, the match is not the oil, and the second ball is not the first ball.

As mentioned above, it is not only some of the claims that are wrong, it is all of them. So let us rephrase them to make them less wrong:
  1. We are our bodies.
  2. Our mind is best understood as our bodies thinking.
  3. A simulation of a mind is not a mind but merely a simulation of a mind because there is no actual body involved.
  4. Even if all you care about is the thinking, and argue that the thinking could also be done by a computer, it would still not be you doing the thinking but the computer. Thus you will not achieve immortality through mind uploading, at best some of your thoughts would.
The last one is clearly controversial although the underlying facts are not: If such technology were available (and it is quite probable that it will never be), at best I would lie down on a table, have my brain scanned, get up and wonder why nothing changed. Then I would get old and die while a copy of my memories is stored in a computer.

A believer in mind uploading would perhaps walk out of the room, get old and die thinking, "now I am immortal because another me is in the computer". But one might reasonably wonder why the same person could not simply have children, write a book or do some great good in the world, and then grow old and die thinking, "now I am immortal because I will live on in what I leave behind". Same thing really.

But sorry about the digression. The purpose of this post was to point out that we have the bad habit of reifying processes (and abstract concepts, but that is another matter), and that this habit leads us to have unrealistic ideas about what happens and what could possibly happen. Your mind cannot be copied or moved. Your mind is your body thinking; if something else is thinking the same thoughts - be it a computer or your identical twin - it is not your mind any more.


  1. I think this is why the more AI seeks to emulate humans, the more it has to be about robotics, so the human you are aiming at is paralysed and assisted by technology to recover senses and movement. However, I feel you're mistaken in assuming the self is any more than a process. So a copy of your self would continue on its own diverging path. You would both share the same past and both would feel like "you" in the future. Although different, both would feel that they were the real you. Technology permitting!

  2. I don't doubt that some implausible technology permitting a copy of me would feel that it were a copy of me. The point is it would not be me but a copy!

  3. You're assuming that there is an essential "me" and that your past self is more than a memory. Let's say you're in a terrible car accident (which is odd, considering by then all cars are 100% safe self-driving ones) and you wake up in a hospital bed to find that you've largely been rebuilt with robotic parts - and you wake up in another hospital bed to find that apart from some scarring you're pretty much all there. Which is you and which is the copy? The implausible technology is particularly good, by the way.


    I think I am not making any grandiose claims here. If a transhumanist is happy with the idea of a copy of themselves surviving then so be it, but I fail to see how that is any more immortalizing than a book that they wrote surviving. In addition, of course, I consider such technology to be highly implausible, but that is another matter.

  5. I thought you were making the same point as the comic. What I take issue with is your resort to the "complete bollocks" rationale, which makes you no better than Massimo
    What we are talking about is nearer the book but with consciousness.
    If immediately following the "mind transfer" in this hypothetical operation, the original you suffered brain damage, your family might regard the copy as containing more of the recognisable you than the original you. Indeed, the copy you would also consider that their personality had survived the crash. The engineer's view (and I've got to be a bit careful considering your area of expertise) may not be the one acceptable to the family.
    However, to make it harder, 100 copies were made in the hospital, each of which independently feels that they are the survived personality. Now there is no common-sense solution either for the family or the divergent "you"s.

  6. I think we are not actually disagreeing on anything of substance.

  7. Probably not! The survival of the personality seems very remote to me, but AI via robotics in some form less distant. If the mind is pretty much the body thinking, the less like us the robot is, the less like us the personality, perhaps? Frankenstein should still be the first point of reference, not full steam ahead.
    But I do think that in order to maintain our sanity, we humans (me) need to deliberately confuse the issue and view our self as more of a thing than the process(es) it really is.
    Although the science goes over my head, I do like the common sense approach in your blog.
    Thanks! Paul

  8. Funny you should mention that book because I bought it two days ago. One of many classics I have not read yet in the original.

  9. Oh good. I haven't read it for years, but have been thinking about it in relation to the Turing test. Last novel I bought was The Comforters about a woman who begins to realise she's in a novel, but I'e got some others to read first!