Who does dream of electric sheep?


Cute but unlikely: no human brain, no human sadness. (Scene from Wall-E.)

What is the mind? What is consciousness? These are some of the most intriguing questions we may ask. Although we are far from a consistent and compete theory like those we have in physics, the black box is being opened. I will make an exercise of futurology to guess what we should learn when this knowledge finally comes.

The cornerstone of the Theory of the Mind will be that all mental faculties – including thinking, memory, emotions, consciousness – have material basis. They are consequence of complex bio-physical-chemical processes taking place in our bodies.

It will become clear that reason and emotions are not independent faculties. They are complementary faculties working together to allow judgement.

We are going to find out that the mind is not like a software being executed in the brain. The mind is an emergent property of an amazingly complex but awfully kludged hardware. It is more like layers of analog computers making reference to each other.

School teachers will tell that the mind is not executed in the brain, but it happens in the brain. The release of a hormone, the transmission of electric impulses between neurons, they are not simply generating bits of information. They generate brain states. The feeling of these states are the thoughts themselves. Closing the cycle in itself, these feelings are also some of these states.

If the mind were a software, it could eventually be executed in another “platform”, another body or maybe a machine. But being hardware, its existence intrinsically requires a specific bio-physical-chemistry.

Each brain with its body constitutes a unique system. If we wanted to transfer the mind from one body to another, it would be necessary to transfer the entire neural architecture and deeply change many features of the target body. At the end of the transfer, the second body would have become a kind of clone of the first, even in its physical appearance.

(Scary to think that, in a very twisted way, raelians may be right…)

Artificial intelligence will be possible, but we will learn that human intelligence is possible only in human bodies. Other types of machines could be intelligent, having even supporting emotional systems. These emotions, however, would be completely distinct from ours, as they would be based on a different physical-chemistry to exist.

We will move beyond the Turing test. In that test, we try to distinguish whether an unknown interlocutor is a machine or a human from their answers during a conversation. If during the test the interlocutor convinces you that it is sad, you can’t deny its sadness.

The Turing test just reflects old philosophical problems: if the mind is a black box, I can’t know whether you are lying about your feeling or not. I cannot even know whether your feelings and mine are alike: is the red color that you see the same red color that I see?

When the Theory of the Mind finally comes, we will be able to look into the box. Then, if someone or something says “I am sad”, we will be able to check the physical-chemical patterns to know whether the statement is true or not. We will be able to compare our mind states when we see the color red and to know how much different our feelings of redness are.

We will learn that, because humans share the same physiology, our perceptions and feelings of the emotions are similar to a good extent. We will also learn to which level each other animal species is sentient. Then, we will need to review our ethics in eating and experimenting with them.

We will be better equipped to deal with the numerous limitations that a brain evolved to live in small communities of hunter-gatherers faces when it is placed in crowded metropolis.  We will need to reinvent much of our religions, to take into account that no immaterial spirit is puppeteering us.

We will have to rethink our moral concepts, as we learn that emotions like love, pride, or angst should never be started with capital letters. We will discover that they are not universals, but very human-restricted experiences.

We will laugh at the old sci-fi and fantasy movies with their implausible mind exchanges, talking creatures and emotional ETs.

And we will finally know whether androids dream of electric sheep.


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  • A good starting point to explore this topic in more details is Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.
  • Is your feel of red like my feel of red?
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Categories: Cognitive Sciences, Life Sciences, Philosophy of Science, Science, Scientific Culture

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2 replies

  1. Hello Cesar:

    I would like to send my sincere congratulations, about this your important and organized Página de Blog, where we can read wonderful articles about many and interesting subjects covered.
    Thank you and a great hug for you…

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