Consciousness, Math and Aristotle

By Carley, Adam L. | Free Inquiry, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Consciousness, Math and Aristotle


Carley, Adam L., Free Inquiry


In "What Is Consciousness?" (Fl, Fall 1994) I thought I was using hyperbole when I said "all" the classical philosophers had tied themselves in knots over the mind-body problem. Surely, one of those great philosophers so revered by our humanities departments must have sometime, somewhere written something insightful about consciousness. Without meaning to, Professor Noel Smith convinces me otherwise. (See his article on p. 29.) Consider this counter-example, Aristotle: "The psyche is the first grade of actuality of a natural body having life potentiality in it. That is, it is the actualization of the organism's fundamental potentiality of actions" [Smith's paraphrase].

With all due respect to Smith and Aristotle, this is gobbledygook. Even allowing that it might mean something, it is untestable. It's not even good pseudo-science. Absent Aristotle's name, New Age magazine would be embarrassed to publish it. It simply can't and doesn't tell us what to do in the lab Monday morning.

But consciousness, from whatever perspective, is a win-win issue for humanists and atheists. Only we carry light enough baggage to follow the trail wherever it leads. While the literature-oriented approach Smith brings to the discussion is, in my view, pre-scientific, it nonetheless offers humanists valuable historical perspective.

But our humanities colleagues must face a simple fact: their literature-centered approach to consciousness has gone three thousand years without making any progress. Deep introspection and specialized terminology (e.g. "contextual interactionism"), even by the most brilliant minds of history, have just plain failed. It was a reasonable thing to try - one would think we would have "inside" access to our minds - but it just doesn't work. We must move on to something that does work: science. It wasn't Aristotle's fault he didn't have access to PET brain scans. But we do. Let's acknowledge the intellectual debt owed Aristotle et al. and then get into the lab, onto the computers, and solve this thing. And it shall be solved. The resistance of literary philosophers to having their domain coopted is understandable, but hasn't the mind-body problem been verbalized at enough by now?

Consciousness and Math

One discipline has been largely missing from the consciousness discussion: mathematics. There are results in information theory and computation theory that, in my view, essentially preclude the mind from being qualitatively different from a computer.

For many writers the computer is merely an analogy or metaphor for the brain or a product of our current culture. They are confusing the computer as a physical entity with computation as a mathematical abstract. Mathematicians who study compatibility have made elegant discoveries that are independent of computational architecture or physical mechanism. Their theorems apply equally to computation done by gears, transistors, neurons, DNA, quantum effects, or some as yet unimagined laws of physics organized in some as yet unimagined way. They apply to anything that manipulates information. They would even apply to a spirit world if there were one. It is irrational to exclude the brain from them.

There is no longer even surface plausibility to the idea that the brain's function is other than information processing or that the seat of mental activity (including consciousness) is elsewhere or nowhere. Tens of billions of rapidly firing, complexly interconnected, intercommunicating neurons aren't there for the hell of it. Contrary to Smith's assertion, many psychological functions have been located and understood. They happen not to correspond to our introspective self-image because that self-image is false.

Bits, Bytes, and Brains

Half a century ago, Claude Shannon (later to be my thesis supervisor) discovered a group of elegant mathematical proofs now called "information theory." What he showed was that information is completely fungible: all forms of it are equivalent to all other forms of it. …

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