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The Human Condition, Computer VS Human

Copyright © 2003 Dorian Scott Cole

To see word meanings or definitions, hold cursor over words in blue text . The primary reference used for word meanings is the WordNet lexical database, developed by the Cognitive Science Laboratory at Princeton University. WordNet 2.0 Copyright © 2003 by Princeton University. All rights reserved. Other definition sources are identified. Bracketed "[]" meanings are my own descriptions of word meanings.

When we write about people, we describe human beings and the human condition. How do we view people? Do we view them mechanistically, as simple stimulus/response mechanisms? Are we simply sophisticated computers? If not, how do we know that we are more than that? Faith? What evidence is there?

Theoretically the brain is a machine. It has a computer (processor) with neural connections, programmed responses, and a data bank. It has sensors in the body that input information into the computer. It has an output to devices that perform actions, and the brain communicates with these devices through electrical and chemical channels. But can this Reductive evaluation that describes the brain in such simplistic terms, be a valid description of the mind? Actually it is akin to the "materialist". view common among neurosurgeons, who typically refrain from the term mind, preferring to think only in terms of the brain, which is the only thing that they can work with. Is the total somehow more that the sum of the parts?

The comparison of the brain and the computer is a metaphor. Metaphors help us understand things. Metaphors convey the idea that one thing is like another thing. They are useful for helping us understand things, such as mind/body interaction. Metaphors don't mean that this thing is the same as that thing. One thing is not a substitute for the other.

When it comes to the brain, we often see the computer as a someday substitute. In some ways, this actually works. Today we can use computer inputs as substitutes for other sensory inputs, and for outputs to limbs or devices to create movement of neurologically damaged limbs, control our environment by sensing the brain's electrical impulses, and even create limited forms of sight. In parallel, great strides are being made in bionics, including artificial hearts that work for longer periods, and currently under study are replacements for muscle made from specialized ceramic or polymer materials that contract like muscles, which can be actuated by a computer. Perhaps the human being is not as special as we think we are. Could the computer one day replace even the brain?

What is it about the brain that relates to a "mind?" And how is the brain different from a computer?

First, the mind has awareness of its own being. It is "sentient." That means that the mind is aware of itself, and has "feelings," whatever that means. Science has not yet come to an explanation about what this awareness is, which is also called "consciousness." They have found that when the portion of the brain called the "anterior cingulate cortex" is removed in mice, consciousness some aspect of consciousness is not possible.

What do these things mean? What does it mean to be aware of itself? Interestingly, one of the first statements in the Bible that was perceived by humans as being from God was, "I am that I am." One of the oft' repeated statements of self-awareness by people, who are "made in God's image," is, "I think, therefore I am." I am is a state of being that indicates a profound presence and self-awareness. Consciousness is a sense of personal and individual identity and beliefs.

Compare the "I am" statement to the traditional first words of a computer program: "Hello World." A computer presents an output to human beings through an interface so that people know that it is working. The computer responds to programming that is external. One could hang a sign on a window saying, "Hello World," and we would see it as a reflection of the building's owners. But a sign that said, "I am," we would have difficulty understanding.

For God and people, the simple statement that they exist comes from internal motivation. They are not under external control, but are agents that think and act for themselves. They are profound; that is they have characteristics and qualities that have depth, are thorough, and are far-reaching.

Can a computer be sentient? After all, today computers can learn. They can accept some questions and respond. Programs can know when they aren't working properly, and "heal" themselves. Is this self-monitoring the beginning of self-awareness?

You could have a program routine that senses that the program is running. But awareness of self is far removed from the action of this simple switch. Declaring a switch to be awareness would be like mistaking a symptom for a disease, or a light switch for the light output it controls, or intelligence for a fact. To test it, we can ask the computer if it cares if it exists. A human cares.

A brain definitely has one thing that a computer doesn't, giving us a clue to a major difference. A brain communicates with itself and the body through neuro-chemicals. These communicate, and sometimes control, emotional feelings. I prefer to call an emotional feeling, "value," in the sense that meaning has a worth. A human can want to live... and can want to die. A person can love. A person can react emotionally to historical experience, either by outside stimuli, or by internal reflection. Emotion reflects a perception of value.

A person can do many things that a computer can't. Without external stimuli, a person can review experience and ideas, and then change a volitional direction and action.

A person can learn through metaphors, can integrate experience and knowledge, and choose different actions. A human can evaluate the consequences of a social action, and change behaviors. A computer probably wouldn't care.

A person has the ability to evaluate value from multiple perspectives. Emotion is an indication of importance, value, related to "feelings" such as happiness, depression, love, desire, respect, loyalty, anger, affinity (like), admiration of others, guilt, admiration by others, hate, perception of power, volition, fear of death or not having lived, the desire to contribute to others' efforts or to others' well-being, belonging, feeling loved, feeling accepted, and feeling purpose.

A person can seek and deal with ideas and experience, choose ideas and experience, observe them, evaluate them, and make new choices.

The mind is the virtual reflection of these abilities.

The brain, and mind, release chemicals that condition the body for selective future action, and the sensations feedback to the brain, to perception, to sentient awareness.

People conjecture and evaluate - creativity - not just random and associative, but staged and planned. The mind can ask, "What if?" and conjecture multiple answers. "What if I cross a cat with an elephant? I get an animal that sheds a bushel of hair a day, uses a ton of sand a day, and shrieks meow through a trunk." The mind can make a decision, and proceed without sufficient evidence. The mind can ponder the imponderable, the irrational, and proceed.

The mind does these things by developing within itself internal direction. A computer might do any of these things by externally forced programming, externally directed.

A computer can be made to mimic many of the mind's activities. But mimicking doesn't mean understanding, or purposeful and guided activity from internal direction. Mimicking is a mechanical response. The question is always, "Can we make a computer do this?" The question is never, "When will the computer want to do this on its own.

One telling question is, can a computer on its own, examine its current state of being and decide that it wants to benefit humanity in a way that is different from its present course, and remake itself to perform in this new course, or, to lower the bar for the computer, even remake itself to do any other purposeful activity than that for which it is programmed?

Does the brain's effect on personality indicate that the mind is simply an electro-chemical device much like a computer? Brain damage from disease, injury, aging, or surgery sometimes leaves a person's personality substantially different, or even makes the person unrecognizable to others as the same person. Often the symptoms are short-lived and the brain seems to "heal" as brain swelling subsides, or through vasodilators which open blood vessels, restoring blood flow, and as new synapse connections are made to replace former pathways.

Sometimes the symptoms persist forever, even though many basic functions return as synapse connections are replaced. The person appears to be permanently changed. The person who was easy-going might become quarrelsome and given to emotional outbursts, even violent ones. The bright person may have difficulty concentrating or retaining information. The happy and well-adjusted person may fight depression and have suicidal thoughts. The outgoing person might become withdrawn.

In some cases memory loss occurs, the person may not even recognize family and friends, or be able to continue previous relationships and interests.

Experience with psycho-active drugs used for anxiety and depression also creates personality differences. The person who is depressed may seem happy, but at the same time may seem divorced from his previous attachments to others (dissociative state), and feel emotionally numb. Sometimes moral behavior changes, such as aversion to theft. Some inherit the inability to control their words, continuously spouting obscenities that they don't mean.

Various parts of the brain have been shown to support certain functions. For example, some parts of the brain are associated with the closeness of others. Even the experiences associated with dying can be partially simulated by electrically stimulating a certain part of the brain.

Are these things signs that the person is simply a product of electrochemically produced behaviors? Psychological research seems to indicate that personality is 50% nature (genetic tendencies) and 50% nurture (learned from the environment). When computers reach their full potential, could a damaged brain be better replaced by a computer.

The next step in understanding where the computer stands in relation to humans is understanding virtual reality. We have all had the experience of daydreaming, or dreaming at night, and perceiving, or even believing, that we are in an actual world. But the world is not real, it is simply a product of our imagination. We can create a "virtual world" inside of our minds at will.

A virtual world is a world that is not real, but mimics the real world. For example, a mime can mimic a glass wall, and make us almost believe that the wall is actually there. The mime creates the wall from experiential information in his memory. As the mime acts as if he is experiencing the wall, the watcher perceives the virtual wall as if it was really there. Perception is what virtual reality is all about. We see things, recognize them, and we interpret them.

Virtual reality is commonplace today, as military pilots see a virtual playing field by virtue of devices that project 3-D images inside their helmets. People play games on their computers in 3-D environments. Goggles display virtual worlds to those in projected 3-D environments in which they can move around as if the world was actually there. The actual area is completely empty, but the person perceives objects within the area.

The virtual world does not exist within the computer that generates it. Instead, representative bits of data about the world are contained in the computer memory, each bit being assembled by a program and sent to display devices. An output is provided to devices that create images. To move an object within the environment, the computer can plot coordinates, and understand where it is within a specific spatial arena. At no point in the process does a virtual world exist inside the computer or display devices. The computer mathematically understands spatial fields, but doesn't perceive the virtual world that it constructs. The constructed virtual world is simply in the perception of the viewer.

Perception means to recognize and interpret. To a computer, a beautiful scene is nothing more than mathematics and bits of picture code. A secret tunnel to a computer is nothing more than mathematics and bits of picture code. A mystery presented by a puzzle, to a computer is an abstract concept that it doesn't understand. Skills are things that computers can measure, but have no idea why someone would want a skill. Neither perception nor interpretation are abilities of a computer.

The human is able to perceive the virtual world, appreciate the meaning that it has, and interact with it. Rather than an absolute meaning indicating a passageway or an object that is impenetrable, that a computer might present, the artifacts in the virtual world have both common meanings and individualized meanings for the human. In one moment, a chair might be part of pleasing decor, in another moment it might be something to stand on. A wall might be part of the defensive system of a city.

The brain, in some senses, is a device that stores information, and enables the mind to perceive it as a reconstructed memory or as part of a new construct. The mapping functions of the brain which model the real world, or the virtual world of a computer interface, plus the brain's memory, probably provide some of the logistical functions of creating virtual environments inside the mind. But perception of various meanings, and meaningful interaction are a different story.

The visual/spatial sense of virtual reality is just one way of virtual mapping within the mind. Other relationship mapping that doesn't involve vision and space, occurs as well. Exactly how the mind perceives and indicates relationships is conjectured, but isn't yet known.

To extend this idea of comprehending meaning, a computer might possibly be made to have sex with an individual, but can the computer sense and recognize the significance of the emotional bonding, the emotional high, and the accompanying sense of commitment and responsibility for one's actions? Even some people have difficulty understanding these things.

The brain stores experiential memories partially through the use of symbols. For example, we understand the meaning of a word because we have experience with the word. We tie the word to definitions that we remember, and to experiential memories of when we used the word. We tie words to relationships with other words, we tie words to Context, and sometimes to emotion. The meaning of a word, which becomes more complete over time, and is stored in various parts of the brain, in our brain and mind is a complex object composed from far reaching strands within memory. So when the mind hears, sees, or projects a word, it grasps the full meaning of it. The mind perceives and comprehends.

Worth mentioning about the mind is that evidence abounds that the mind is able to perceive things beyond the six senses and its own thought. There seems to be some kind of psychic connection with the rest of the world. There seems to be some kind of spiritual connection with God. Except for the phenomenon of random number generation being influenced by someone with psychic abilities, a computer shows no other connection with the universe.

Is there such a thing as a "mind?" Some have difficulty seeing how a mind can exist. We can understand the brain mechanistically, but it probably takes a step into the virtual realm to understand the mind. We can't see the mind, so we have to look for clues from observable behaviors to know that it exists, and then rule out the abilities of the brain. Since we don't yet understand all of the abilities of the brain, this task is full of pitfalls. Empirical science investigates by observation and experiment... often driven by a theory.

Do some of the more complicated functions of the mind work with symbols, projecting them into a virtual world or relationship, and then perceiving the result, in an interactive relationship? Complex symbols might contain representative pieces of information, relationships, and felt meanings.

By representative pieces of information, I mean that when you think of an abstract notion, all of the more concrete ideas which compose this abstract thought are not there in their fullness. For example, a small piece of a hologram contains enough information to project a representation of the whole, but it lacks detail. In non-technical terms, you can miss most episodes of a soap opera for a week, month, or year, and when you return you pretty much know what is going on - very little changes even though you miss a lot of detail. Abstract thoughts are probably more conceptual (framework or structural), and lack some of the detail.

By relationships, I mean the complex network (ontology) that connects one idea or sign with another to establish a field of relationships and therefore understanding.

By felt meanings I mean the experiential memory that is lodged with events and symbols. During an event, the body releases chemicals related to emotions (what is "felt"). Theorists in psychology have long thought that the mind retains these "feelings," and re-experiences them when the events are recalled. Researchers now know that post-traumatic stress can be reduced in patients by suppressing epinephrin (adrenalin), during the period in which the patient experiences the event and it remains transfixed in his mind. Epinephrin does many things as a response to physical or mental stress, such as from fear or injury. It initiates many bodily responses, including the stimulating a rapid heart beat, increasing blood pressure, metabolic rate, and blood glucose concentration. Some part of the memory contains the "felt" part of these responses, and when the memory is triggered, the person "feels" the same feelings again. If the feelings can be lessoned by suppressing epinephrin, less of "felt" portion of the memory is retained, so post-traumatic stress is lessened.

Scientists can stimulate the brain with electrical impulses and get reports from the patient about what the patient is experiencing. For example, he may see the color red, or remember an experience with a friend. By using MRIs, scientists can "see" brain activity during mental activity. For example, the MRI may show that a particular area is active when the person is thinking about certain tasks, or when someone with obsessive/compulsive disorder is obsessing about something. Scientists can even tap into that electrical activity so that when a person wants the light on, he can make it go on with his mind instead of his fingers. But if the brain creates information that is very specific to the individual (as in categorization), and of course has different experiences that are attached to symbols (like words) to create meaning, and the mind is formed from perception that is not located, but virtual, yet comprehended by the brain/mind, then the magnitude of complexity of mental activity may be beyond physical means to sense, monitor, and evaluate.

While the physical may be sufficient to hold the brain, which operates through sensory inputs and through electrochemical responses, so that a mind can be produced, how the mind senses is probably very different. As mentioned previously, what the brain "sees" is interpreted by the mind. The details of a wall are seen - the mind interprets the wall as protection, which is a very complex symbol built from relationships, felt meaning, and representative pieces. Similarly, people hear or read words, which are complex symbols, which the mind interprets. Ideas are the complex currency of communication.

While we might be able to conceive of mind/brain interaction in this way, the question remains, is there a transcendent connection? By transcendent, I mean a connection with the greater universe or God? Most people feel that there is a connection between a person and God, and often some form of psychic communication between people. If so, how does this communication interact with the mind? Some feel that quantum physics1 may hold the answer. For example, studies of subatomic particles show that when something happens to one particle, the identical thing simultaneously happens to its "twin," even though they are far apart.

While we can monitor brain electrical and chemical activity, and potentially see behaviors that indicate the work of a mind, none of us at this point really have a firm idea of what the mind is. Without the brain, the mind would not have the mechanism to be present in the physical body. From the perspective of this world's reality, they are mutually dependent. (Whether or not the mind pre-exists, or exists beyond the body, especially after death, are different questions.) I don't think that the mind is merely some projection of a virtual image, nor does the mere ability to perceive reality in some virtual way define consciousness, let alone sentience. I think it is much more complicated than that. I don't think that we are anywhere close to an answer, which means that the computer will remain in catch-up mode, if it is able to even mimic what the mind does.

Consider this: Perhaps sentience dawns at the confluence of seven projected perceptions. These seven are: 1) the ability to perceive and represent both past, present, and future realities internally; 2) the ability to project an internal or external reality, and project internal meaningful relationships (spatial, categorical, etc), to perceive these in a virtual way; 3) the ability to examine one's self and project a virtual representation of it; 4) the ability to create, project, and examine an alternate representation; 5) the ability to comprehend ideas and recognize the significance of them, including the ideas of life, love, and experience, thus placing value on these which may additionally be expressed and sensed as emotional responses; 6) the ability to be aware of and interact with all of these representations for comparison, evaluation, and modification (either sensing the greater desire, objectively evaluating, or prioritizing). and 7) The ability for abstract reasoning. So the result of these seven abilities is Heightened Awareness - at this point the mind has the ability to comprehend the past person, the present person, and the potential for the future person, aware that it is an ongoing entity with repercussions that it values (cares about), and with volitional control. Perhaps it is at this point of selective convergence of these complex streams of perception into a single dynamic construct (symbol), forming a unique identity that is persistent, that the mind is able to say, "I am."

Questions you might want to research further:

Is there a single point in the brain, a nexus, in which the convergence of multiple complex streams of perception could take place? Or is this a manifestation of the entire mind? Or does this occur at all?

How does the mind perceive daydreams and internal representations of reality? Does it actually create a picture inside the mind? Or is what we see through the eyes projected differently inside the brain?

Are the seven perceptual abilities mentioned, instinctive abilities of the mind, or are these programmed in by society, or are the abilities potentially there, but only flourish in a context rich environment?

If a simple computer program says, "I am," is it meaningful, or just a reflection of the programmer who created the program?

Other articles with thoughts about AI and related topics on the Visual Writer Web site:

  • Story idea: Krahri - The Composite Soul
  • Computer Relationship Systems Discourse on what it would take for a computer to really understand a word, in What's In A Word Part III
  • Intelligence and Freewill. ( An article on this Web site exploring quantum mechanics and the potential for a causal relationship with freewill. The article also reports on recent findings in neuroscience that demonstrate the brain's ability to influence and even recreate itself.

    Freewill. An article about freewill on this Web site.

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