Chapter 7: The Mind as a Computer
In English it’s common for the “conscious mind” term to be truncated down to just “mind”. If someone mentions having a mind to do something for example, it isn’t necessary to specify that a conscious form is being referenced — that’s naturally implied. But I’ve also noticed a general reluctance to permit the mind term to represent anything beyond a conscious idea. For example the current Wikipedia mind discussion begins this way: “The mind is a set of cognitive faculties including consciousness, perception, thinking, judgement, and memory. It is usually defined as the faculty of an entity’s thoughts and consciousness”. Observe that this position contradicts the Wikipedia “unconscious mind” discussion, where this form of mind functions “well under the surface of conscious awareness”.
I mention this inconsistency because I’ve found it useful to define mind by means of something that’s far more basic than consciousness itself. Indeed, given that useful conceptions of consciousness have been so difficult to develop, shouldn’t we begin with basic sorts of ideas that we do grasp? If an effective understanding of mind would be helpful to develop useful conceptions of consciousness, then it certainly behooves us to not define mind so that it encompasses what were attempting to make sense of.
I define the mind quite broadly as something which “processes information”, leaving mechanics to represent the function of all else. To illustrate the information processing difference between them, consider the function of a mechanical typewriter versus a personal computer.
By pressing a symbol on a mechanical typewriter we can actually witness as an arm rises up to strike the paper in correlation with the force applied to the key. I classify this variety of function to be purely mechanical, or non-mental, because it doesn’t seem useful to say that an algorithmic processing of information occurs here. Conversely when a symbol is pressed on a personal computer, it does seem effective to say that this input information becomes algorithmically processed for associated output. Thus under this “mind as a computer” definition, mental is distinguished from mechanical by means of an algorithmic processing of information.
Note that I’m not distinguishing between two fundamentally separate varieties of function here, which would get dualistic. Instead I’m providing a humanly fabricated distinction which resides under causal dynamics. Thus both a human and a cheap digital watch will have minds as defined here, since it seems quite effective to say that they each algorithmically process information. Conversely it doesn’t seem useful to say that a mechanical variety of watch functions algorithmically.
Apparently this mind definition needs just a bit more expansion as well however, since restricting a mind to a single quantified subject, such as a dog, computer, and so on, seems arbitrary. Therefore as I define it, when any number of minds function together in some regard there will be a communal mind that exists between them. Thus when two or more computers are mutually crunching numbers, or when I’m using a word processor to help express my thoughts, or when a group of birds is trying to chase away a hawk, a communal mind will exist. It could also be said that when a country elects a president it uses a communal mind — this type of mind is composed of any number of minds which are functioning together in some regard.
While it’s fairly clear that humans algorithmically processes information, as do computers, as do insects, do plants function this way as well? Overall I consider this sort of organism to function more like a mechanical typewriter than a digital device. For example consider a flower that tends to be open in the day and closed at night. How does this happen? Is the input of sunlight information algorithmically processed such that associated output forces the petals to open and close? I doubt this. Instead I suspect that this plant is structured such that sunlight under the proper conditions has the direct effect of opening the flower, with the opposite functioning in reverse. If a plant has a central processor from which to algorithmically factor input information for associated output, then which elements of its function does this control, and where might this mind be located?
Over at ProFlowers they imply that mechanics are involved here rather than computation. To open the blooms of cut flowers they suggest diagonally cutting the stalk and putting them in warm water to encourage absorption, and then using a warm hair dryer to mimic the heat of the sun.
Though I consider plants, fungus, and multicellular microbes to not have central minds at their disposal, consider the individual living cell that constitutes life in general. The cell’s genetic material seems to provide an algorithm by which input information is processed for output function. Thus as defined here it would seem that all living processes requires “mind”. Are there any reasonable examples of mind beyond life and what life creates? Suggestions would be welcome.
Though life seems to function with a mental component at its cellular level, many forms of life seem to have also developed central organism processors (eg: the human brain). So how might these central processors have evolved? Michael Smith provides some interesting thoughts about this here.
Smith theorizes a precambrian organism that has a system of nerves where each of them connect a specified type of input receptor to a unique associated form of output function. Thus if a given receptor comes into contact with what it’s structured to detect, such as the proper chemical, then this will incite the associated mechanical output. But he theorizes that at some point these input receptors must have come together at a single location (the spinal cord), thus bringing the potential for combinations of inputs to be assessed for algorithmically processed forms of output — a central organism mind. His thought is that perhaps this new kind of function was essentially responsible for the Cambrian explosion. Apparently most major animal phyla emerged about 541 million years ago, though over a period of only about 25 million years.
Another consideration here is how might a biological entity function as a computer does? Neuroscientist Steven Pinker provides an interesting discussion about this here. The premise is that neurons can function in the form of “and” “or” and “not” statements — features which can be used to constitute all means of logical function.