I’ve been wondering about the nature of the mind…

I just read an article about Robert J Sawyer’s new book, Mindscan. It talks a bit about the prediction that in 40 years it will be possible to copy your mind onto a machine. Sawyer has used this idea at least once before in his novels, not to mention numerous dealings with artificial intelligence.

I think the prediction is fine on the computer end of things. The article mentions that at the rate PlaySation consoles are impoving, PlayStation 5 will be as complex as the human brain. That’s something I’ve heard before. I think it was at a lecture by Seth Shostak where I heard that comupters as they are now are about on par with a spider. (Who knew spiders were so internet savy, eh?)

Yes, I think in a few years we could easily let a human mind run wild on a little supercomputer. The problem – and this is the bit that, at least as far as I’ve read, SF readers tend to gloss over just a bit – will be copying the mind in the first place.

Computers are simple creatures. I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to build one, but because we’ve built them from wires up we know exactly how they work. With enough resources anybody could have a supercomputer. But what do we know about consciosness? Granted I know less about that than I do computers, but I think there are only two sides. The biochemists are doing a pretty fine job of working out how all the chemicals work, and psychologists have all sorts of ideas about how the end result workings – we know which chemicals make us depressed, and what being depressed feels like – but what about the hazy ground in the middle?

I don’t think it can be all chemical reactions driving us. It’s a nice idea, but then what of free will? Sure it might be said that it’s all just an illusion, and chemicals really are all there is. And that might even fly in some scenarios, but I can still decide to come check my email, or I can go play something on the piano. What’s the connection between those photons coming into contact with my retina and the impulse that makes my hand play the notes on the keyboard? When confronted by a bear, what’s the connection between the sight of a bear and the feeling of fear? Between the feeling of fear and the release of chemicals in the blood?

Frankly, I don’t think there’s anything special about humans. My dog seems to have just as much free will as I do. Even if he can’t open the door himself he can decide for himself when he wants to go out. He’s learned that certain sounds means that someone’s taking him for a walk or that he’ll get a biscuit if he sits nicely. As far as I know chemical reactions can’t be learned.

The line between human and the rest of the animals, between animals and plants, and even between what is life and what is not life is fuzzy and arbitrary. I don’t believe in “souls” because of this. I think the mind and the soul can be synonymous, and that both are possessed by everything alive (if you can somehow define what life is) but by varying degrees. I doubt there was ever a thing that we could call a spark of consciousness, where one moment humanity (be it homo habilis or homo erectus or homo sapien – again the lines are arbitrary) was operating on instinct and the next they were doing cave drawings. Maybe I’m completely wrong, but it seems to be a more natural position. Segregating modern humans as having consciousness, sentience, a soul, a mind – whatever you want to call it! – is merely anthropocentric wishful thinking.

Sure, I’d like to think that the mind is something that could be understood completely scientifically, but I certaintly don’t think that we’ll arrive at that understanding in time for PlayStation 5. We still don’t even have copies of spider minds to play with!

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