To See A World In A Grain Of Silicon: Why Minds Aren’t Programs

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: The IBM 5150 Personal Computer, introduced August 1981. Image credit: wikipedia.

The year 2021 marks the 40th anniversary of the introduction of IBM’s first Personal Computer (PC), the IBM 5150. Since then, computers have risen from a novelty to a ubiquitous fixture of modern life, with a transformative impact on nearly all aspects of work and leisure alike.

It is perhaps this ubiquity that prevents us from stopping to ponder the essentially mysterious powers of the computer, the same way a fish might not ponder the nature of the water it is immersed in.

By ‘mysterious powers’, I don’t mean the impressive capabilities modern computers offer, in terms of, say, data storage and manipulation—while it is no doubt remarkable that even consumer grade devices today are able to beat the best human players at chess, and the engineering behind such feats is miraculous, there is nothing mysterious about this ability.

No, what is mysterious is instead the feat of computation itself: a computer is, after all, a physical object; while a computation, say something straightforward like calculating the sum of two numbers, operates on abstract objects. Therefore, the question arises: how does the computer qua physical system connect to abstract objects, like numbers? Does it reach, somehow, into the Platonic realm itself? To the extend that computers can use the result of computations to drive machinery, they seem to present a bridge by which the abstract can have concrete physical effects. Read more »

“The Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness” By Mark Solms

by Joan Harvey

For several years I enjoyed discussions about neuroscience with a friend (now deceased) who was a top rock climber. He and his buddies, when not performing solo climbs with torn shoulder muscles and sleeping on cliffside bivouacs, would listen to Sam Harris and talk neuroscience. We have conquered mountains, was their creed; now we will take on the mind. Because of this, and despite the fact that many top neuroscientists are women, and that many neuroscientists come across as gentle and balanced individuals, I got the idea of neuroscience as a slightly competitive macho sport. I grew up among mountains and as a young person I was fond of the Hopkins lines:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed…

Men and women are now fathoming these mind cliffs and, here and there, claiming first ascents.

In the middle of his new book The Hidden Spring, Mark Solms quotes Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” This could describe the thinking behind The Hidden Spring: to make the complex theory within as simple as possible, without dumbing it down so much as to be meaningless. It’s an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking—on the one hand Solms is addressing the “hard problem” of consciousness with his own relatively controversial theory; on the other hand he’s trying to explain general concepts of science (falsifiability, Bayesian theory, the free energy principle, Markov blankets, etc.) to a reader who might not know them, so as to guide them through his thinking.

Solms is successful, to my mind, but there remains the question: Who is the general reader (I salute you, General Reader) to whom he says the book is addressed, and whom he advises to ignore the endnotes aimed at academics? I suppose I qualify as a General Reader, as I have neither a math nor a science background, though I did compulsively read all the endnotes. One needn’t be familiar with the arguments of Nagel and Chalmers or Andy Clark’s predictive processing, as Solms summarizes their arguments clearly; on the other hand it probably doesn’t hurt to have some background, and I suspect the “general” reader who comes to this book will do better with at least an acquaintance with these things. Read more »

Translating Descartes

by Leanne Ogasawara

1. The philosopher and the translator

It was probably the most interesting translation job I ever had. Hired directly by the philosopher himself, my task was to translate into English a series of talks and papers he would be delivering in the US and Europe in the coming year. Philosophy being what I studied as an undergraduate, I had high hopes for the job. But my Japanese philosopher quickly became frustrated with me.

Leanne-san, is it possible for you to forget Descartes while you translate my papers? He wrote superciliously in a style of Japanese designed to be condescending beyond belief.

Well, this took me by surprise! Was it possible that I was guilty of an unconscious Cartesianism? Surely, he must be joking; for had I not studied at the feet of the great Heidegger scholar, Hubert Dreyfus, who had made it his mission to demolish Descartes in front of our very eyes –before turning to Heidegger? In all my philosophy classes, in fact, Descartes (always referred to as “the father of modern philosophy”) came up again and again–mainly in the form of other philosophers’ reactions to some aspect of his work.

So much so, that sometimes I think my understanding of Descartes is itself a rejection of Descartes.

And so, I informed my philosopher that not only had I forgotten Descartes long ago, but that I had no plans to ever remember him again.

He was not convinced and pressed his point. Read more »

On Awareness, pt. 1

by Evan Edwards

Nan-in

There’s a zen koan about master Nan-in and a younger monk, Tenno, who had been studying with his teacher for ten years. Tradition went that a student had to study this long before they were qualified to begin teaching, and Nan-in had invited Tenno over for tea to celebrate his pupilship coming to an end. Since it was raining that day, Tenno wore clogs and brought an umbrella, and left them by the door when he entered Nan-in’s home. After his guest had sat down, Nan-in asked Tenno, “I assume that since it is raining, you brought an umbrella. Correct? And did you put it on the left or the right of your clogs?” When he didn’t have an immediate answer, Tenno stood up and returned to the monastery in order to continue as a student for six more years.

The story is usually interpreted as an illustration of the value of attention and, more importantly, what we might call ‘awareness.’ Because Tenno was unable to recall the position of his umbrella, or perhaps better, because he was unaware of how he had arranged his things in the other room, he was not practicing “every-minute zen.” In other koans, the theme of the significance of attention and awareness return again and again. A student asked Master Ichu to write him something of great wisdom. Ichu took up his pen and wrote “attention.” The student asked Ichu what “attention” meant, and he responded that “attention means attention.” This theme seems to be so recurrent because, as individuals in the Vipassana school argue, nirvana, as a kind of “Budda-consciousness,” has to do with a particular state of vijnana, or “consciousness.” This kind of consciousness is a state of perfect awareness.

Certain strains of ecology and western environmental philosophy, also, stress the importance of awareness. In the work of Henry David Thoreau, we see an intense attention to nature that has been described by several commentators as an attempt to integrate himself more fully, and therefore live more authentically, within the web of life. Read more »