Brain Breakthrough! It's Made of Neurons!
post by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky)
In an amazing breakthrough, a multinational team of scientists led by Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal announced that the brain is composed of a ridiculously complicated network of tiny cells connected to each other by infinitesimal threads and branches.
The multinational team—which also includes the famous technician Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and possibly Imhotep, promoted to the Egyptian god of medicine—issued this statement:
"The present discovery culminates years of research indicating that the convoluted squishy thing inside our skulls is even more complicated than it looks. Thanks to Cajal's application of a new staining technique invented by Camillo Golgi, we have learned that this structure is not a continuous network like the blood vessels of the body, but is actually composed of many tiny cells, or "neurons", connected to one another by even more tiny filaments.
"Other extensive evidence, beginning from Greek medical researcher Alcmaeon and continuing through Paul Broca's research on speech deficits, indicates that the brain is the seat of reason.
"Nemesius, the Bishop of Emesia, has previously argued that brain tissue is too earthy to act as an intermediary between the body and soul, and so the mental faculties are located in the ventricles of the brain. However, if this is correct, there is no reason why this organ should turn out to have an immensely complicated internal composition.
"Charles Babbage has independently suggested that many small mechanical devices could be collected into an 'Analytical Engine', capable of performing activities, such as arithmetic, which are widely believed to require thought. The work of Luigi Galvani and Hermann von Helmholtz suggests that the activities of neurons are electrochemical in nature, rather than mechanical pressures as previously believed. Nonetheless, we think an analogy with Babbage's 'Analytical Engine' suggests that a vastly complicated network of neurons could similarly exhibit thoughtful properties.
"We have found an enormously complicated material system located where the mind should be. The implications are shocking, and must be squarely faced. We believe that the present research offers strong experimental evidence that Benedictus Spinoza was correct, and René Descartes wrong: Mind and body are of one substance.
"In combination with the work of Charles Darwin showing how such a complicated organ could, in principle, have arisen as the result of processes not themselves intelligent, the bulk of scientific evidence now seems to indicate that intelligence is ontologically non-fundamental and has an extended origin in time. This strongly weighs against theories which assign mental entities an ontologically fundamental or causally primal status, including all religions ever invented.
"Much work remains to be done on discovering the specific identities between electrochemical interactions between neurons, and thoughts. Nonetheless, we believe our discovery offers the promise, though not yet the realization, of a full scientific account of thought. The problem may now be declared, if not solved, then solvable."
We regret that Cajal and most of the other researchers involved on the Project are no longer available for comment.
Comments sorted by oldest first, as this post is from before comment nesting was available (around 2009-02-27).
comment by Robin_Brandt ·
2008-04-01T19:30:08.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Appreciating and understanding the obvious is what makes a wise man wise. Nothing is really obvious. But the pursuit of truth should be! Nobody can dispute reductionism if he understands that the map is not the territory.
comment by Tiiba3 ·
2008-04-01T20:03:24.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
A thought occured to me: people who are offended by the idea that a mere machine can think simply might not be imagining the right machine. They imagine maybe a hundred neurons, each extending 10-15 synapses to the others. And then they can't make head or tail of even that, because it's already too big. Scope insensitivity, in other words.
comment by Scott_Scheule ·
2008-04-01T20:06:53.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
In other news, Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman has published the result of some recent experiments in behavioral economics, which suggest--quite surprisingly!--the most effective means to overcome one's innate biases is by identifying those you disagree with and subjecting them to unrelenting ridicule. The neutralizing effects of this technique were found to be most successful when performed in groups consisting entirely of like-minded individuals (though occasional insertion of one naysayer to prove the foil might have helpful effects). Of the several tested modes of ridicule, the most effective were shown to be: 1. asserting one's opponents are just too dumb to understand an argument; 2. insisting hard questions faced by one's own position are the result of defects in opponents' cognitive machinery and not really questions at all (Kahneman admits this may be a subset of method 1); and 3. finding the silliest members of the opposition and training most of one's rhetorical firepower there. Also, try suggesting the Virgin Mary was a slut.
comment by Psychohistorian3 ·
2008-04-01T21:55:19.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Spinoza was correct? Mind and body are simply two aspects of god, the one and only being that contains its own reason for existence? I never expected to see that on this site.
comment by Anon22 ·
2008-04-01T22:24:12.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Well, I don't second Scott.
If I understand correctly what he's trying to say, he means that every time someone here mentions something they don't believe to be true (in this case, Eliezer not believing in god, gods, the supernatural), they should recapitulate the whole argument against that thing, otherwise they're just attacking a strawman.
Well, I, for one, am quite glad that Eliezer isn't repeating the arguments against magic/gods/etc in each post. If the religious people want a debate, they should write a post about their reasons for rationally believing in the supernatural and then we can see if they hold up.
Accusing people of acting in bad faith because they aren't mega-redundant is pointless.
comment by Ben_Jones ·
2008-04-02T09:39:05.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
See also the excellent live action adaptation.
Can't see why any of this should be difficult to grasp. I'm currently half way through GEB, and I've never been more convinced that the mind is complex and wonderful and weird mostly because there's so much of it. Roll on the day when a person hooked up to some electrodes can think 'cat' and the screen displays 'Concept:Cat'.
comment by Yelsgib ·
2008-04-02T09:47:49.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I agree with Robin that there needs to be meta-analysis of what's been going on in Eliezer's recent posts and replies to those posts.
As a concrete example, Eliezer continually sets up the "silly post-modernist professor" archtype, but I haven't seen anything even vaguely resembling a critique of more serious post-modern thought (like Foucault, for instance). In any case, post-modernism makes sense under some interpretations - e.g. if it is taken to mean that "truth" is dependent on context (since statements cannot have meaning without relation to a set of semantic primitives).
As a direct reformulation - Eliezer has not addressed how I personally think about consciousness/why I personally think it is a hard question (not that I have necessarily expressed it explicitly). I agree with Scott's frustration that he seems to continually hark on morons. Maybe I'm a moron, too, but I'd sure like to know in what way!
This isn't meant to be harsh - really I do enjoy Eliezer's posts a lot and think that they are really insightful. I just haven't been satisfied with the level of sensitivity towards other people's opinions which has been displayed here. Eliezer says that we can turn questions understandable by asking why we think them. Well then why do I think I am conscious and that this is "special?!?" I have no clue! I can't even imagine what an answer to that question would look like!
comment by anon11 ·
2008-04-02T12:23:59.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Richard and Chalmers are not religious, believe that AIs can be conscious, etc. Substantively, I tend to expect that a reduction of consciousness will eventually feasible. That doesn't mean it's OK for Eliezer to lower the standard of his argumentation on a subject, and fail to properly address opposing points.
However, I will cut him some slack for this post, since he may have written it already on March 25th, before the recent brouhaha.
comment by Caledonian2 ·
2008-04-02T12:37:22.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
believe that AIs can be conscious
Why should we care whether they believe a machine can manifest a property if they cannot even begin to explain what that property is or what it means?
"I believe that AIs can be fitzgoanth." Well, so what?
Demanding that we produce an explanation for a thing is pointless if we cannot first show that the thing exists, or even give a coherent explanation for what properties the thing is supposed to have.
comment by Goplat ·
2008-04-02T15:34:05.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Websites are made of files, as we all know. But those mysterians out there are claiming that there exist websites that they call "blogs", where new content magically appears by virtue of some entity existing outside the World Wide Web, which is an utterly ridiculous concept when given a moment's thought; how could something existing outside the Web possibly affect it?
comment by LazyDave ·
2008-04-02T16:57:49.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Caledonian - the problem is, while we cannot show that consciousness exists in anything besides ourselves; we KNOW it at least exists inside ourselves. We know it more than we know that the earth exists, or that there are physical laws, etc. But when it comes to entities other than ourselves, it may as well be phlogiston; we can make ZERO predictions that would confirm or deny its existence. This is what makes it qualitatively different from any other phenomenon out there.
comment by AkCarl ·
2013-06-23T13:42:57.665Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
How do you know that consciousness exists within you? I thought that the point of dualism ala chalmers is that consciousness is something which cannot possibly be objectively examined?
comment by LazyDave ·
2016-11-13T18:14:52.472Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
It indeed cannot be objectively examined (afaik), but it can be subjectively examined, which is why I know that I have consciousness, but cannot say the same about anyone else. That being said, I do assign an incredibly high probability that others do indeed have it.
comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) ·
2008-04-02T18:38:59.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Goplat, you seem to be hypothesizing a world containing "information that cannot be Googled". Not just information for which we do not know the Google keywords, but information that cannot be Googled even in principle. I would hold this to be an incoherent concept: information is that which, in principle, can be Googled.
Or consider IRC: People write that they're AFK or "away from keyboard", and claim to be somewhere else, somewhere that isn't on the Internet at all; but have you ever actually seen a message from someone who's AFK? No, as soon as you see a message from them, they say that they're "back".
The obvious conclusion is that people do not, in fact, exist while they are "away from keyboard" - and neither do you.
I don't believe in a supernetural world. The supernetural world is just a myth fueled by the fear of being offline.
comment by Silas ·
2008-04-02T18:53:19.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
information is that which, in principle, can be Googled....The obvious conclusion is that people do not, in fact, exist while they are "away from keyboard" - and neither do you.
/me tries to untangle all the reductios and sarcasm going on here...
comment by Ben_Jones ·
2008-04-02T23:01:39.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Aha! Finally caught you out fair and square Eliezer: you've clearly forgotten Gögel's Incompleteness Theorem, which states that there are certain Google search strings which are fundamentally incalculable and will cause your browser to crash.
comment by Caledonian2 ·
2008-04-02T23:16:17.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
the problem is, while we cannot show that consciousness exists in anything besides ourselves; we KNOW it at least exists inside ourselves
No, we don't. You possess a conviction that you have 'consciousness'. Conviction is not the same thing as knowledge.
That conviction is so strong, though, that even high-powered minds can completely fail to perceive the obvious flaws in their own arguments. Roger Penrose is a polymath, a true genius. But The Emperor's New Mind is trite nonsense. I'm sure Chalmers has a first-rate mind, but he is unable to perceive that his definition of 'consciousness' does not permit it to take part of existence in any fashion. Their errors have more elaborate protections against self-evaluation and elimination than lesser minds might produce, but the errors themselves are elementary.
It's always easiest to fool yourself, and the very smartest people have a hard time finding people capable of seeing through the arguments they make when they fall into delusion, not to mention suppressing their egos long enough to listen to those people.
comment by Richard4 ·
2008-04-03T00:17:58.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Caledonian, you may wish to reconsider who's failing to listen to whom. Epiphenomenalists are well aware that phenomenal consciousness, as they understand it, plays no causal role in the world. This is indeed obvious. What's not obvious is that it's a fatal "flaw" in their view. You have a "strong conviction" that it is. Good for you. You still haven't said anything that's news to those you disagree with. Repeating common knowledge in a triumphant tone does not constitute an argument.
"the very smartest people have a hard time finding people capable of seeing through the arguments they make..."
Eh? You forget that top academics get positions in top departments, and so spend much of their time conversing with the other very smartest people around.
comment by Caledonian2 ·
2008-04-03T12:34:28.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Epiphenomenalists are well aware that phenomenal consciousness, as they understand it, plays no causal role in the world. This is indeed obvious. What's not obvious is that it's a fatal "flaw" in their view.
On the contrary, anyone can quickly note that 'epiphenomena' cannot be responsible for any aspect of the universe's behavior, whether they're ones we're aware of and capable of measuring or completely unknown to us. That means that we have no way of gathering information about them, and that as far as this universe is concerned, there are no consequences of asserting their existence that differ from exerting their nonexistence: the concepts are identical.
Perhaps it really isn't obvious to you why that's fatal.
I'm afraid, though, that codifying incompetence and calling it a disciplinary branch is not enough to validate it.
comment by LazyDave ·
2008-04-03T17:51:50.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I think this is the reason that some rationalists seem to find consciousness so disturbing; objective consequences are THE way to determine if something "exists," except in the case of consciousness, and in that special case, the probability of it actually existing, at least for one person (namely, me) is 1.
comment by bigjeff5 ·
2011-02-03T05:29:19.865Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Why is consciousness a special case?
I've been reading through these discussions on consciousness, and I've taken the time to read Richard's external blogs on the subject, and I still have not found a single concrete reason why I should expect "consciousness" to be a special case.
It really, truly does sound an awful lot like phlogiston. It seems to me that the idea has been backing into a corner for the last few decades, as more and more is understood about the brain and how it works, there seems to be less and less room for this ephemeral idea of consciousness.
Eliezer & Co. certainly could be wrong about consciousness, and Richard & Co. could be right, but Eliezer's position seems to me to be the far more defensible and realistic position.
The idea of a consciousness that is not tied to the physical is certainly romantic. Unfortunately, the universe as I understand it does not leave much room for such an idea, and the space in which it may be found continues to shrink. It has already gotten to the point where Richard can only argue for a concept of consciousness that seems entirely pointless, so why bother with it at all?