A Single Mind Out of a Thousand Brains
I just finished reading A Thousand Brains (autumn 2021). It had to be read word for word for I have never seen the likes of it. Jeff Hawkins is perhaps approximating the smartest physicist ever, say a regular David Deutsch—although he's a neuroscientist not a actual physcist. He writes about his research into the inner universe of the mind for ordinary folks like me. I heard of the book from Richard Dawkins. Psst, Hawkins doesn’t use the word mind and that’s alright, I’ll adjust for that below, for there is a logical explanation for human agency, learning beyond your grade, being maximally self-aware and employing free-will over time in the context of the theory of consciousness supported by the 1000 brain supposition without contradicting or falsifying the overall hypothesis, which I believe to be a correct one.
The neocortex (the new part of the brain) is where we create and store knowledge. The adult human brain contains about 85 billion neurons (“the cells responsible for receiving sensory input from the external world, for sending motor commands to our muscles, and for transforming and relaying the electrical signals at every step in between”—Wikipedia), 125 trillion synapses (“a junction between two nerve cells, consisting of a minute gap across which impulses pass by diffusion of a neurotransmitter”—Wikipedia) and 150,000 cortical columns which help create a massive simulation-apparatus subjectively mirroring the objective world outside our brain—summarizing Hawkins. The columns, looked at as learning-modeling modules-biomechanisms, build hundreds of thousands of map-like reference frames (the act of thinking is analogous to movement inside an actual place wherever the brain is mapping-out a model as it comes into new territory of whatever it is learning). Picture by analogy ‘thinking as movement’: “The neocortex has many models of any particular object. The models are in different columns. They are not identical, but complementary”— A Thousand Brains—“we now understand that most of the cells in your neocortex are dedicated to creating and manipulating reference frames, which the brain uses to plan and think.”
Addressing our ability to learn this way, (i.e., in models, mapping with action-like events) solves many prior difficulties about how the complicated machinery of the physical brain actually works. Reference frames are the physical anchors of concepts which ties the world together with the use of language(s) inside the machinery of the physical brain; the sensual intake (sensations) are translated into named precepts by the neocortex and are sorted in a lexicon of ideas which we used to call universals or essences but now can think of as wide-ranging and inclusive (broadly defined) concepts. Columns and reference frames are little physical tunnels inside the brain which are tens of thousands of separate model makers-creators trying desperately hard to obtain everything (we sense) with the juxtaposition correct, so that as we evolved (in the million-years slow journey) we didn’t get killed before leaving our DNA to another generation. Sometime ago (40,000 years or so—an instant in evolutionary terms) we became self-aware and escaped the biological slavery of DNA replication. We started to gather knowledge collectively (cultural evolution) and that’s the good news—we’ll come back to this soon. I promise this won’t be too long or painful.
“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.”
Did the poet Rumi 1200 years ago stumble into one of the best definitions of the neocortex? The bad news is that the old brain used the knowledge we collectively gathered with the new brain not for humankind’s overall best interest, but for its own (self, family, kin, tribe, race and so forth). We muddled along for 40,000 years and another unplanned accident occurred, ‘the Enlightenment’; however, it was a mixed success at first. Those who hated this sensual life of ours, especially mystics and religious leaders, and the conquered indigenous peoples everywhere, joined with the European aristocratic autocrats who hated the market economy and middle-class virtue, and began tearing away the foundations of the single greatest (fortunate) accident that we had (blindly) lurched upon—reason, science and wealth creation. The tools used for this relentless attack utilized philosophy and religion. They joined with artists and revolutionaries and became the foresworn enemies of said rational-explanations and human-rights (started through the establishment of the first democracies, i.e., rational government which behaved with incremental respect towards its (white male) citizens—later, finally, ultimately, women, children, gays, minorities, peoples with special needs and all LGBTQ2. How this was afforded was through the debate over knowledge: specifically, it was charged that science and reason were no different or more reliable than intuition, faith, instinct, emotion, and other such blind manners of knowing.
Our Knowledge is NOW different than 50 Years Ago.
When Karl Popper finally solved the problem of induction and returned metaphysical hypotheses to reason and science, he, and not Kuhn, helped close an open wound which had divided the Continentals from the Empiricists over how we can know things. He made progress in philosophy; an event unheard of since the original empiricists of the Enlightenment, i.e., John Locke and then back to Aquinas via Avicenna to Aristotle. This divide had led to the undermining of reason/science by irrational declinists like Hegel, Spengler, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Heidegger and the many enemies of reason/science. The religious-minded on the whole are a defeatist and gloom-and-doom crowd along with the fundamentalists—all who hate this sensual life, many artists, and some philosophers—including Marxists and neo-Marxists—for the most part they championed the demise of reason/science altogether while using the words themselves as static absolutes and practicing irrationalism and scientism.
“If the idea you are working on is novel and controversial, don't be afraid to create a small group of people whose job it is to invalidate the idea itself. If they fail to do so by the end of the project, you will have withstood the toughest test. If they succeed they will have saved you a lot of future pain.” Rip Anderson; this is the Popperian Criterion.
Why the old brain ignores reason and neocortex knowledge will be made obvious in a minute. In evolutionary terms the old brain contains dozens of separate organs which long ago did all the work that lead to our slow evolution as self-aware (conscious) Homo sapiens; for natural selection builds on what it already has and it cannot ever afford a redesign without suffering extinction. From A Thousand Brains: “we are left in no doubt about the disparity between the goals of old brain (serving selfish genes) and of the new brain (knowledge).” So there is this great divide in the third chimpanzee’s old brain and sometimes in matters like “flight or fight” it often has the final say. However, the neocortex, you will be exceedingly happy to learn takes up about 70 percent of the brain’s capacity. Those who have rejected irrationalism, individuals raised in enlightened households, folks who have thrown off the shackles of religion no matter how loving and cuddly its form, those standing by knowledge found in science, those who search for real truth, not phony Platonic or mystical truth, but tentative knowledge fought tough and won hard with reason/science are the voice of a new day on this tiny planet of ours. It’s a fight against—not just the forces of irrationalism—but ‘time’ itself. We are almost eight billion strong and will likely grow larger still, although there are signs that as our collective wealth increases, our numbers stabilize. Perhaps by 2050 it will take a downward curve; nonetheless, we must solve the warming climate crises with science—i.e., safe nuclear energy worldwide—quickly. The world is in serious trouble and the solution lies before us but the clock is ticking. Multiple safe nuclear facilities need to be built globally. All the main problems of plant-operation safety, security and waste disposal are now solved satisfactorily after 70 years of advancement on the original reactor designs but China and the US instead of building thousands of nuclear power plants are building hundreds of power plants to convert coal into gasoline; it’s wrong thinking and may get us all killed.
Agency and Controlling the Old Brain with the New One
Just as there are incorrect ways to decide between wrong-thinking and right-thinking, there are false beliefs and bad philosophy. There was no instruction manual—to borrow Jeff Hawkins’ excellent metaphor—that came with evolution, our eventual self-awareness or the Enlightenment. We got all kinds of stuff wrong while we were progressing, and erroneous enough for many to call the whole enterprise into question. One of the ways Hawkins describes agreement-creation among the model makers (the columns and reference frames), inside the neocortex is voting; deciding which model is the most correct is done by the concept of column voting, what models worked best for our survival. The brain is ultimately a simulation of the world outside the brain and that is why if you have read books on how the brain functions almost all of them will explain how we are tricked by things like the Müller-Lyer illusion and many others. This is far less of a problem today than it once was. We were often fooled by observation but now with reason/science, (especially with the use of scepticism and falsifiablilty)—i.e., the new enlightenment—we can correct the false impressions. The dreadfully worst one of all these illusions for humankind has been that there is a supernatural reality (a designer) of some sort, but this is changing rapidly: belief in this harmful misapprehension is now being challenged all over the world wherever there is free speech. The gradual removal of prejudices is the common aim of all science—paraphrased from the Danish physicist, Niels Bohr. Reason/science will triumph over religion and silliness—it must! We are remarkably close to winning final victory over the forces of the irrational and ending the modern Platonic nightmare.
The mammalian self has agency for reasons of survival as I have explained elsewhere. The self-aware consciousness of Homo sapiens has advanced over time a neocortex ability to focus on a conceptual problem and gather the information to solve it even against the wishes of the old brain. A sense of self is essential to human mental health. It is clear to everyone in the current debate that not all people can use reason, some can’t and never will. Some will not by choice, others have been raised so irrationally (i.e., religiously), that they are permanently damaged and are confused about their personal freedom. Not everyone develops free will. No debate exists here. Some science is complicated and difficult, let us insult you and say beyond your grade, but you’d be surprised what the effort over time can achieve. Being maximally self-aware is a tough habit to learn (at least at first . . . maybe), but for it to become a lifelong project there must be a commitment to reason, clear unemotional (objective) thinking and science. Developing strong free-will over time, in the context of these tools, gives you new abilities on two vital fronts: you gain to chose the truth from the false by the self/selves—actually even choosing a way or measurement of deciding these issues which in good time overlord the old brain no matter how insistent it is. Whether the old brain is refusing to exercise, keeping a proper diet, being a good citizen, holding its temper, treating all people with respect, gaining human capital, embracing science and so forth—it gives you actual freedom to choose your better angel and not be a slave of the savage (old) brain; secondly, you gain freedom by creating choices in the complex universe which is your mind, proposing hypotheses about difficulties you face in your life while using these rational guidelines, frees you from much of the manipulation by viral memes. Although no one can use reason in all choices such as love, friendship, tragedy, grief and deep mortal pain; reason mitigates and modifies all of these so that they don’t destroy the self/selves—the biological creature who has ‘some’ agency—when they strike. Without reason, unpredictable events—see the turkey story—in our lives can make us simply an animal in response—a pathetic mindless DNA replicator. Goodness, I don’t think I’ve ever ended an article with the word replicator.
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