Monday, November 03, 2008

Mental Causation

An old philosophical problem is the problem related to mental causation. The question relates to how a mental event can cause physical events or whether mental events are the results of physical events. In my previous blogs, I once posted about how clever we think we are. This post is sort of an extension on that. In the post, I pointed out that we consciously often consider ourselves more intelligent and better than other species, but our actions are not necessarily that much better in regard to action -> consequence. It's just more words and more fluff. In short, we easily believe that we're radically analyzing a certain situation, considering it from any angle, objectively, but when one uses hindsight to analyze the situational developments later on, we often see that the original arguments were severely misguided or didn't have any such intended effect.

In my studies, I'm now following courses on modelling. The A.I. classes are divided into a group following Collective Web Intelligence and another is following Human Ambience. The latter requires to understand more stuff about decision-making, well-being, psychology, sociology, altruism and so on. You wouldn't possibly exactly expect it from courses in A.I., but there you go.

It's intensely interesting. One of the courses today is about emergence, which I also blogged about before. Emergence is about simple constructs which act/interact in rather simple ways, which eventually construct a new model of behaviour at a higher level. Ants are the most common examples, where each individual ant follows a couple of simple rules, but the behaviour of the ant-hill overall is far more complex than the sum of individual ant together.

You could consider the mind not having any actual conscious thought at all. A not-so inspiring idea is to think of ourselves as soul-less beings, within which just run a very high number of different physiological processes (100 billion neurons), shooting off electrical messages between one another whilst being impacted by a couple of hundreds of different proteins, which are messages from one organ to another. So, we have no specific 'soul', we're just like robots with very complex physiological processes, eventually yielding a certain behaviour that allows us to interact with others.

The ability of a neuron to form an electrical current than is the physiological level. Let's call this emergence level A. But by forming this current together with a simple method for recognizing a previous pattern (neuron A firing off and then neuron B responding similarly because it has done so before, also known as strengthening of a synapse), is a cognitive process, where it doesn't just become a process of firing electrical currents between neurons, but a more complicated process of responding to certain firing patterns. Let's call this emergence level B.

(We then need to take a couple of too quick steps by jumping to enormous assumptions and conclusions) If we assume that thoughts are somehow emerging from these patterns of firing neurons, then the 'memory' together with some other 'machinery' for computing and predicting the results of actions could be seen as the basis of our behaviour. Thus, behaviour in this definition is the ability to recognize and remember and predict future outcomes and then acting on those computations. The next level is our decision-making and behaviour, level C.

When you go one more level up, you get to the behaviour level of a complete society. Remember the ants? For humans, you can develop similar models, because we have a model for our economy (where each of us acts as agents) and a model for certain criminological events, etc. The behaviour of society is made up out of individual decisions at level C, but overall might develop a new emergence level D, that of the collective.

The interesting part in this consideration is that mental processes aren't so much "spirited". From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

(1) The human body is a material thing.
(2) The human mind is a spiritual thing.
(3) Mind and body interact.
(4) Spirit and matter do not interact.

The above four rules regard the mind as a very special kind of element, sort of like a merger of the soul with some physical abilities that the brain can do (vision, smell, motor control, etc.), but decision making, emotion, etc. are considered somewhat deitous.

If we simply regard the mind as a number of computations that are biologically there and thoughts and consciousness are the de-materialization(?) of certain cell assemblies becoming activated or not, then we can find ways to merge this blog story with certain theories about how DNA is actually indirectly programming us and how we serve as carrying "agents" for the continuation of the DNA structure. Thus, in that sense, we are walking biological computers, which are continuously responding to our environment, learning from it and through those processes become more efficient in the propagation of cultures of DNA.

One can wonder whether our consciousness is really that 'evolved' in the sense that it is the motor of all our cognitive processes, decisions and what have you. Are we guiding our actions and thoughts processes through our conscious 'participation' in this process or is consciousness the reflection of the human brain itself, which has basically already determined the best course of action and has considered each alternative? Thus, in this latter idea, consciousness is more like an observation of "mental processes" that have already taken place or are going to take place thereafter. Thus, the difference here is that we must properly identify the CPU, memory and machine and not point at the monitor screen to describe "the computer". In this analogy, consciousness is the reflection of what goes on in a computer (thus, the image on the computer monitor), but it should not be mistaken for the computer itself, which is generally more out of view, housing the CPU and memory.

What is not explained though in this entire story is the element of attention and how we are able to 'consciously' execute certain actions or pay attention to important things. Is that just a matter of directing more attention and execution power to physical events? If it is, then who's instructing our machine that it is important and should be paid attention to? Is the brain in this sense self-preserving and intelligent that it controls itself? Or is there an externality involved which directs the attention of the machine? Or are we thinking too much in hierarchical terms and is the entire problem of decision-making the problem of weighing off cost/benefit and dealing with direct influences first vs. more indirect influences?

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