minds and brains

Ray Scanlon rscanlon at wsg.net
Wed Dec 9 21:28:07 EST 1998

We aim for a rational explanation of how the brain works. It must be based
first on the molecular biology of the neuron. Second, on the anatomy of the
nervous system. Third, we ask that the explanation pay attention to those
aspects of the nervous system that are reflected in the subjective view of
the brain as experienced by the mind.

As a starting point we take the position that the mind has no causal powers.
The mind is completely extraneous to our explanation of brain activity. The
brain would act just as well with no mind present, but an explanation of
brain activity that ignores the mind will not satisfy many people. We wish
to say, "When these neurons are active, we have decided". We have not
decided, our brain has decided but we experience the active neurons and say
that we did it.

Our answer to the soul (mind)/body problem is that a material universe has
no need of soul. We leave that to the philosophers, they may worry it to
their heart's content. Our position for purposes of brain explanation is
that there is soul (mind) but it has no part to play in a material account
of brain action.

We direct our attention to the nervous system and, in particular, the
mammalian nervous system The brain is an artifact of anatomy, the nervous
system is the basic reality of animal life. We exempt from consideration
those primitive neural structures that lack interneurons. At the same time
we insist that all those neural structures that include interneurons are
members of the club, they differ only in complexity.

Why such an explanation? Because it is a common complaint of
neuralphysiologists that no such overall explanation exists to serve as a

Since the very beginning, since 1955, AI has been bedeviled by the mind.
Anyone who put forward a design for an intelligent machine was asked, "Can
it think?" They said "think" but what they meant was, "Is there something
inside that machine that is aware?" In place of "mind" put the word "soul"
and we will have the raw question, does the machine have a soul? This
belongs strictly to religion. This is what they mean, why don't they say so.
They don't because they are afraid of appearing soft on religion.

At the same time the philosophers are very self conscious about their lack
of technical knowledge. They know nothing of neuroscience, they know nothing
of computer engineering. But they are very confident (and rightly so) of
their ability to spin word castles in the air. So we have Turing's Test, so
we have Searle's Chinese Room.

As Turing originally posed his test, it was simple engineering answer to the
philosophers. If you can't tell the machine from a human through a teletype
interface you might as well agree that it has a mind (soul). But Turing's
Test can be described with words and the philosophers have had a field day
with it. Big Blue passed the test in a very restricted universe. You can't
tell Big Blue from a man at the chessboard.

Searle said, "You can't put a soul in the machine using syntax." (His
thought. my words) In another place he says, "A soul needs a carbon
substrate, it rejects a silicon substrate." (Again, his thought, my words)
Of course he didn't use the word "soul", he too is afraid of being accused
of religion.

We should leave soul (mind, self, intelligence, whatever) to the theologians
and proceed with the design of a machine that can think and decide using
only neuromimes. As a first step we examine the brain to see how the neurons
do these things. If we can explain the how the brain thinks, how it decides,
we shall know how to design the machine.

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