The Von Neumann Mind: Constructing Meaning

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: The homunculus fallacy: attempting to explain understanding in terms of representation begs the question of how that representation is itself understood, leading to infinite regress.

Turn your head to the left, and make a conscious inventory of what you’re seeing. In my case, I see a radiator upon which a tin can painted with an image of Santa Claus is perched; above that, a window, whose white frame delimits a slate gray sky and the very topmost potion of the roof of the neighboring building, brownish tiles punctuated by gray smokestacks and sheet-metal covered dormers lined by rain gutters.

Now turn your head to the right: the printer sitting on the smaller projection of my ‘L’-shaped, black desk; behind it, a brass floor lamp with an off-white lampshade; a black rocking chair; and then, black and white bookshelves in need of tidying up.

If you followed along so far, the above did two things: first, it made you execute certain movements; second, it gave you an impression of the room where I’m writing this. You probably find nothing extraordinary in this—yet, it raises a profound question: how can words, mere marks on paper (or ordered dots of light on a screen), have the power to make you do things (like turning your head), or transport ideas (like how the sky outside my window looks as I’m writing this)? Read more »

The Projected Mind: What Is It Like To Be Hubert?

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: Hubert, the author’s cheerful plush ladybug flatmate.

Meet Hubert. For going on ten years now, Hubert has shared a living space with my wife and me. He’s a generally cheerful fellow, optimistic to a fault, occasionally prone to a little mischief; in fact, my wife, upon seeing the picture, remarked that he looked inordinately well-behaved. He’s fond of chocolate and watching TV, which may be the reason why his chief dwelling place is our couch, where most of the TV-watching and chocolate-eating transpires. He also likes to dance, is curious, but sometimes gets overwhelmed by his own enthusiasm.

Of course, you might want to object: Hubert is neither of these things. He doesn’t genuinely like anything, he doesn’t have any desire for chocolate, he can’t dance, much less enjoy doing so. Hubert, indeed, is afflicted by a grave handicap: he isn’t real. He can only like what I claim he likes; he only dances if I (or my wife) animate him; he can’t really eat chocolate, or watch TV. But Hubert is an intrepid, indomitable spirit: he won’t let such a minor setback as his own non-existence stop him from having a good time.

And indeed, the matter, once considered, is not necessarily that simple. Hubert’s beliefs and desires are not my beliefs and desires: I don’t always like the same shows, and I’m not much for dancing (although I confess we’re well-aligned in our fondness of chocolate). The question is, then, whom these beliefs and desires belong to. Are they pretend-beliefs, beliefs falsely attributed? Are they beliefs without a believer? Or, for a more radical option, does the existence of these beliefs imply the existence of some entity holding them? Read more »