Physical Minds

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The brain is an amazingly complex system which developed over an incredible amount of time, built upon old systems and found new uses for them, and grew to further and further size and complexity (all while staying simple in design). Within this massive development of time and selection are billions of connected neurons and axons and synapses, all firing around when they reach a certain critical limit; and of course such firings make new patterns, which breach the limit at other places, causing other firings, making new patterns, and so on.

Within the brain reside and travel all these patterns, constantly moving and firing and redesigning, and even imprinting themselves in the very structure of the connections they travel on. Douglas Hofstadter makes the analogy to an ant hill. There are many different levels to an anthill - starting with the individual ants at the bottom level, up to little work groups he calls signals, up to bigger groups and overall structures, and higher and higher through the levels until it reaches the ant hill as a whole.

He talks about how the ant signal groups (analogous to sets of neurons) walk around doing a job, and when it is done, they shoot off in new directions to join other such groups and start a similar process but in a different place. There are all sorts of different jobs that the groups do (some gather food, some build, some reconstruct after damage, some fight, etc.), but all are made up of the same ants. As the groups travel around, they may encounter another group in need of ants (that need transmitted by scents left and the current pattern of ants in the needing group) and so one or two break off to join the other group. What causes this breaking off of a number of ants seems to have to do with the number of ants present - at a certain critical limit, some ants begin breaking away. It is a very complex and beautiful process, especially as you travel up in levels.

At the bottom are individual ants, none of them considered conscious themselves - just acting basically on pre-programmed laws of their nature (follow/leave scents, etc. - instinctual things). But at the top, at the ant hill, Hofstadter suggests (metaphorically - just something to help the analogy of levels) that it is conscious - it talks to an anteater (one of the characters of the dialogue explaining this whole analogy) through the patterns of the ants and groups of ants. That is, the scents and trails and overall structure of the ants and their work reflects a complex and sort of meaningful pattern that is not present to a single ant participating somewhere on the lowest level.

The point is not to make a perfect analogy (and thus state ant hills are minds) because the physical analogy is obviously lacking (a human brain is much more complex and developed than even a massive ant hill), but to show how at the bottom level can be things without consciousness (ants/neurons) acting solely on laws of cause and effect (scents for ants; the basic working of neural structure for neurons, where they fire if they reach a certain limit and that in turn hits the limit of other places making them fire, and so on), while at the top level can reside patterns and structures with meaning lacking at the lowest levels.

Hofstadter suggests that out of these patterns and structures in the brain arose self-referential loops, self-consciousness basically, though it took ages and ages of further development to approach the state we humans are at today.

He shows that there can be a connection between these complex, physical, mindless patterns and structures of our physical brain (neurons) and our consciousness/minds. People treat the brain and consciousness/mind separate because the connection is not immediate or simple (who should suspect it to be, given the complexity and time and selections it took to give rise to this?). In other words, they see the trees, they see the forest, but they cannot imagine how the two are connected.

He gives another example: a light board at Time Square. The many light bulbs pop on and off, making designs that work out into meaningful symbols (words, pictures, etc). The patterns on the board have meaning, but if you look at the board on the level of individual lights, you see single lights just turning on and off - no suggestion of meaning there. Its only when you consider the patterns and levels between (in this case an extremely simple two levels) that the connection between the meaningful symbols and the meaningless little pieces that make it up becomes apparent.

I think this view of mind makes a lot of sense, and does not require some abstract non-physical world where minds exist separately, which brings up problems of how something non-physical could cause physical things (like body movement), and other similar dilemmas.

Hofstadter's explanation at least tackles the problem that dualists (or even mind-only philosophers) put forward of how mind could possibly reside in or be the brain. In a manner of speaking, it is the brain (think forest, from the forest/trees metaphor above). The things of consciousness (like memories, specific thoughts, etc.) are parts of this (in other words, patterns of these amazingly complex neural structures and connections and processes) - they are meaningful symbols, but themselves only part of the system. As you go down the levels, you eventually get down to just a whole ton of unthinking little neurons connected to each other and firing off following specific physical laws and cause/effect principles that are relatively easy to understand.

I admit my brief explanation of Hofstadter's view is a sore excuse of an attempt at summarizing what is a quite complex notion. I highly recommend the book Godel, Escher, Bach for a more detailed view explained at length.

Originally Written: 03-10-01
Last Updated: 03-10-01