Now that we’ve established a general outline to work within, let’s introduce the first topic area which will be a major focus throughout this book – Ideas and Mental Objects.
Ideas And Mental Objects
Imagine taking a leisurely walk through your home, inspecting everything you find. What do you notice? What do you see? In my case, I see a dining room table, chairs, cushions on the chairs, a stainless-steel refrigerator, a flat-panel television, a microwave oven, a lazy boy recliner, and so on. The first question is, “What are these things?” Now I’m not talking about their physical nature, such as the atoms by which they’re made out of. I’m talking about what they are to you. Light bounces off of these objects and finds its way to your eyes, which then process that retinal information inside your brain into objects located within both space and time. How does that happen? How does that work? These common everyday objects of our daily experience, I call “mental objects”.
Say I was to take a book down from my bookshelf and asked you, “What is this?” You’d tell me, “It’s a book”. How did you do that? Books come in a wide variety of different shapes, colors, and sizes. Still, even so, you’re able to easily tell me, “That’s a book”. Say you walk around my house with me and I point at objects along the way. You’d very easily be able to tell me, “That’s a recliner”, or “That’s a refrigerator.” Does your brain have a giant database of 3D models which it then links to words in your head? If so, how many 3D models does your brain store? Think of how many different things in the world you can instantly recognize without effort. To top it off, even if you did have these models all stored in your brain, by what sort of process do you compare the 3D models to the physical objects in front of you?
First off, how do you go from a 2D image on your retina to a 3D environment? That in itself is a problem which baffled the greatest minds for hundreds of years. But let’s assume we’re able to parse out a 3D environment of objects and place them in a spatial arrangement, now what? Do we just take a 3D model from our brain’s database and compare it to object in front of us? Would we have to compare every single model stored in our brain with the shape of, say, the recliner, in order for us to identify it? Are you telling me the brain can compare hundreds of thousands of object models, possibly millions, to what’s in front of you in a few milliseconds? Think of all the possible rotations and orientations, and statistical variances, such as objects which are similar but but not quite the same. How in the world did it do that? That’s incredible! But wait a minute, let’s think about this a little more deeply.
Jeff Hawkins, a prominent neuroscientist, and founder of Palm, had a friend ask him to sponsor a contest and offer a $1,000,000 cash prize. What were the contestants asked to do? They had to program a computer to do something you can do effortlessly – look at pictures of either a dog or a cat, and tell which one it is. Should be simple, right? WRONG! Think about it for a moment and you’ll realize why it’s difficult. Think of how many different 3D shapes (“forms”) a dog can have. Think of how varied different species of cats are. They vary in size, shape, color, and many other characteristics. But somehow, your brain has not only a database of individual dogs and cats you’ve had experiences with, but can abstract away general properties all dogs and cats have in common pretty much instantly. You take a small child, open up the picture book, show him or her a simple line drawing of a dog, tell them, “That is a dog”, and from then on, that child is capable of identifying any type of dog it sees, bulldogs, chihuahua, to golden retrievers. Wow! As a computer programmer, I find that mind boggling. That line drawing isn’t even 3D. It might be just a black and white contour line showing the general shape of the animal. To say that the human brain is sophisticated is an understatement.
Just a few days ago I was out for a walk through the neighborhood and noticed that one of the neighbors had renovated their front porch. In a flash I noticed this, with no effort whatsoever. Now pause and contemplate this marvel. My brain must have a stored representation of everywhere I’ve ever been, down to who knows what level of detail. It not only identified that this was the neighbor’s house, but it knew that the home’s front porch had changed. It also noticed that a new flower bed had been put in place. Now here’s the question of the day. How detailed are these 3D models stored in my brain? If I had nano-bots which could go into my brain and read in the information stored there, and we were to play that back on a computer screen for others to see, what would we be looking at? Would my brain have an entire database of everywhere I’ve ever been, and everything I’ve ever seen, and would I be able to fly through it and show it all to you guys? Would I be able to slide a bar along the bottom, and see how everything has changed through time? For example, would I be able to walk through my childhood home, with the old 1980s television set, with the original Nintendo hooked up to it, and watch my Dad play Zelda? Would we be able to watch my mother and I on my sixth grade field trip back in middle school, played back in a vivid motion picture? If not, how detailed is this information? I certainly remember these moments, though they seem a bit faded. There’s obviously something there. All of this information is crammed into a blob of jelly in our skulls. This is the question of memory and the time-line of our lives. We often associate ourselves with this time-line. It’s a major factor in defining who we are. But what is this “time-line” of memories exactly? How does the brain store it and access it? How much information is there?
We have a few more factors to consider as well. If I were to tell you I had a cloth sofa, I bet you can imagine, just from a picture of it, what it would feel like if you were to touch it. After all, you know it’s not going to feel slimy, or cold as ice. How many other properties of these objects are stored in your brain? Their weight? How it would smell? Taste? Whether or not it could support you if you were to sit on it? Whether its parts can move? For example, a microwave oven’s door, you know if you pull on the handle, it will open in a certain way. How many other object properties are stored, and how does the brain organize and work with all of this vast information?
We’ll also be discussing logic and abstract thought. For example, if I were to say to you, “Every pet dog I’ve ever had has eventually died”, how does your brain understand this statement? You’re able to group objects into classifications by all sorts of things, such as their motions, forms, movement patterns, behaviors, and their changes in states over time. You can then assume properties and make predictions about objects if they fall within these groupings. Abstract thought is fascinating. How do we group things together and why do we associate things the way we do? How do we perform things like induction, inference, and what are “thought” and “ideas”?
While we’re discussing how mental thought processes take place in the mind, we’ll discuss logic and why scientific method works, and the consequences of holding beliefs that knowledge can be obtained through other means. For example, can you sit in your armchair, speculating about the world, and come to a deep understanding of the universe? Pious religious monks believe this, as they sit in meditation, they believe they’ll learn the greatest truths this world offers. Others believe in divine revelation from God. If you don’t know the answer to something, you should pray about it, and God will lead you down the path you need to go. But what does evidence suggest about these things? When we look at what the brain actually is doing, and how it comes to what we associate with “knowledge” about the world, such notions will look ridiculous.
I want to lay out your brain, section by section, and tell you what each area is doing. By the end of this talk, I hope you can look at yourself in the mirror and know how your brain is giving you a sense of space, organizes information into a time-line, lets you recognize yourself in the mirror, how you recognize others and objects, and every other major aspect as to how you think. As we’re examining which brain areas are doing what and the general informational processes being performed, we’ll look into some rather fascinating issues, such as whether or not animals can think like we can. After all, your dog walks around the house and has no trouble noticing what’s going on around it. What’s different between us humans and that dog? What extra mental faculties do we possess and why? We’ll see an interesting development which shows that animals are very similar to us. To anyone knowledgeable in biology this isn’t surprising. After all, every lifeform on Earth is directly related in the tree of life.
Speaking of biology, that will be a major aspect within this book as well. The brain developed from the inside out. Within it, we find baggage from ancient times, and I want to walk you through this development. It will leave you not only feeling more connected with other life around you, but you’ll also see others around you being primarily motivated by instincts and passions from their evolutionary baggage which serves no purpose in the modern world. I want to take you on a journey, backtracking our evolutionary development, covering each major transition, and what mental faculties we gained.
You may also be wondering what all of this has to do with the previous post related to the grand epochs. If we begin to modify both the Earth and the human mind in a transhuman era, there are some rather drastic consequences which we need to consider. A lot of things change. For example, we tend to think of things like our memories, our loves, our preferences, our skills, and our relationships with others as who we are. Once you get into discussions related to tiny robots in your brain feeding your senses information, everything changes. Wittgenstein once commented, “Suppose someone were to say, ‘Imagine this butterfly exactly as it is, but ugly instead of beautiful.'” None of us can choose whether or not we find a butterfly beautiful. We simply look at it and find it lovely to the eyes. But once we start modifying our brains, anything goes. We can find anything beautiful. That’s very profound, but also a bit troubling. Skills will be able to be downloaded into our brains and our entire time-lines which we call our lives will be something more akin to files on a computer hard-drive. We can modify that time-line and make ourselves think we lived a life which we never did. We can choose what foods we find enjoyable to eat because we can change the sensation the foods produce in our mouths. We could grab a person off the street and reprogram their brain and make them fall madly in love with us, or anyone for that matter. Combine this with advancements in say genetics and bioinformatics, and we start modifying our bodies, possibly making them entirely artificial and robotic. The sheer power of this technology is mind boggling and so vast in its implications it requires us to totally rethink the very nature of what we are.
Once we look into what our brain is, its information processing nature, and what knowledge is, we’ll see how we could connect ourselves to a global “brain”, storing all knowledge. The small robots in our brains could identify patterns and then access the “cloud” (like a Google of all human knowledge), look up what that object is, its properties, how it behaves, what to expect, whether or not its dangerous, and so on, and then produce in you any sort of conscious reaction or feeling we feel appropriate. Right now, humans are like distinct laptop computers which have strict access permissions set where very little new software can be installed. They’re in many respects hard-wired, and just barely connected to one another through a super-slow information transfer process which we call oral and written language. We’ll look into this information transfer process, such as how our brains decipher audible pressure waves into sound, and various sights, such as letters on a page, into thought. We’ll realize how limited these methods are, and then examine how in the transhuman era you’ll be able to feel what another person feels, see what they see, hear what they hear, taste what they taste. We’ll be connected in a way humanity has never been connected before. Everything which we currently attribute to our individuality will be seen to be an illusion. But what does this mean? Humanity is having an identity crisis, and it’s going to take us a while to come to grips with what science is now telling us. All of our religions, and most all of our philosophies, when closely examined within the context of modern physics, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology, is just wrong. Biology is telling us we can reprogram our bodies. Neuroscience is telling us we can reprogram our brains. Modern physics is telling us reality can be pretty much anything, like a programmable construct which supports near infinite possibilities. So what do we do with all this?
Eventually the distinction between knowledge “in our heads” and reality becomes very blurred. It all becomes controlled flows of information. The distinction between what’s alive and what’s dead matter becomes indistinguishable. Take for instance the idea of transforming the entire Earth into tiny robots which follow the dictates of a super-computer of which we’re all plugged into. We take a stroll on the surface of the Earth and we think a thought, and then robots, at super speeds, assemble themselves together into whatever form we envision, the super-computer calculating what the robots need to do to make themselves into the forms we desire. You’re in an open field and think, “I’d like to see the Notre Dame Cathedral”, and the robots assemble themselves into that cathedral. Such a world is incomprehensible to us. We tend to think of the world as this place that doesn’t care about us, our health, and our desires. We struggle just to exist day by day, facing toil and disease, starvation and poverty, but these future humans will live almost in a dream. If they’re in virtual reality, their senses will be fed whatever they want to experience. If they’re materialized in physical reality, in some body linked to their brain, these tiny robots caress them like a child, watching over them, making sure no harm comes to them. Anything they can imagine they can experience, and if you hold a rather solipsistic philosophy, how are such beings not Gods by every way we’ve ever thought of the term? Imagine a newborn child being born into this wondrous place. They wake up in a daydream, always happy, experiencing bliss every moment. And you want to know what’s truly bizarre? This is completely possible! I’m not saying it’d be easy to achieve, especially with our current technological means, but this is the direction things are moving if we don’t annihilate ourselves in stupidity. The other day I was sitting on my front porch, pondering this.
In such a world, you would lose your sense of space and time. We’d think, “Oh, this is virtual reality. This is actual reality. Even though I’m in this “body” over here, my brain, which is the real me, is stored in some protected vault near the core of the Earth.” In time though, you’d forget about that brain. The philosopher Daniel Dennett has an excellent article he wrote quite some ago called Where am I? In it he envisions a project where they take out his brain, put it in a jar, wire it up using electronics to his body wirelessly, and then explores the implications. It’s very interesting to think about staring at your brain in a jar. You’d think, “I am here in this room, in this location”, but then you’re actually in the jar. Or are you? He ends up going on a dangerous mission under the surface of the Earth, his body is destroyed, and scientists build him a new one, and then wirelessly hook it back up to his brain. Later he also discusses a philosophical idea of mind called functionalism, and they wire his brain up to an artificial mind made of different electronic materials, but the two process information identically. They then set up a switch where he can use either his old biological brain, or the “new” brain in order to give him conscious experience. He’s originally “running” on his biological brain, he flips the switch, and nothing happens. He flips it again, nothing happens. As long as the two are in sync, it makes no difference. But then the two “minds” get out of sync, and that gets interesting. We’ll talk about all of this in our discussion later in the book.
There’s really two main sections to this book, the first being this “Ideas and Mental Objects” section, which is basically how informational flow patterns give rise to a mind, consciousness, and a sense of space and time. Possibly in a second section, or along with the other posts, I haven’t quite decided, I want to talk about the physical fabric of reality. Those atoms of which everything is made, including our minds, follows the laws of physics. These atoms come together in one way and you have a conscious brain thinking thoughts or falling in love. If they come together another way, you get a flowing stream and a waterfall or a blue sky. They come together another way, you get a distant star emitting radiation. It’s profound and amazing. The universe is so remarkable, I have no words for it. We experience a lot of hardship and suffering in this world, but if you’ll open up some science books and just explore for a while, you’ll see things beyond anything you can imagine, quite literally — a framework which can make anything you can imagine real, even things you’ve never considered and never will consider. I became a physicist because I started to see this picture and I just keep walking toward the light. I’m going to keep going, wherever it takes me. I hope this journey is as exciting and wonderful to you as it is to me.