Physics and the mind process

A pretty image I found floating all over the web. I know not to whom it belongs. Sorry!

Is it just me, or are a lot of people talking about consciousness and free will these days? It’s not just Deepak Chopra anymore, telling us how we’re each of us the entire universe because of, like, quantum breakfast or something. We have (real) scientists, philosophers, and average human meatbags talking about the mind from the very modern perspective that hey, it’s all just quarks and electrons, I’m sure we can figure this out!

All that talking about the mind? Absolutely fantastic. Love it. Except…

The problem is that not everyone has a philosopher’s sticklerishness for precise language. We’ll get halfway into a conversation before bothering to clearly define the words we’re using. Next thing you know, all my beautiful mouth noises are just flying right past you because my very specific and idiosyncratic use of the word “awareness” is definitely the same as yours, right?

Don’t worry, though, the Cyber Monk is on the case. As a self-educated enthusiast of the philosophy of mind, I’m clearly the best person to straighten things out and bring some much needed clarity to this age-old conversation.

Right?

In all seriousness, I started this article as a way to sort out my own muddled thinking on the topic of free will. My opinion went through a real transformation through the writing process, and I actually ended up stumbling into a position that’s fairly well-trodden in philosophy. This article will start with brief presentations and arguments for naturalism and against dualism. It then explains how the “mind as process” view logically follows from those assumptions. Next, we take a look at how the mind process accommodates free will. Finally, we use this new perspective to gain insight into popular arguments on free will you might already be familiar with.

If you’re new to this area of philosophy, I hope this article equips you with some basic background and vocabulary. If you’re a veteran, I hope you find my contributions interesting and enriching. Either way, as the title says, I consider this article an entry into a dialogue; I welcome your comments and criticism.

Some ground rules

Before we get started, we have to agree on some basic operating principles. What type of universe are we living in? Is it a lawful one, where physical processes and interactions always follow strict rules? Or is it possible for something (you, the Force, maybe Hephaestus) to break those rules somehow?

The first view, the one with the rules, is called naturalism, which would make the second one supernaturalism.

When it comes to having a rational conversation, naturalism is really the only practical choice. Belief in the supernatural makes it nearly impossible to make a coherent argument about practically anything. The epistemology giving force to the concepts of “proof” and “truth” goes out the window once you allow for some causal agent that is not bound by the laws of nature. So either a) we assume the universe is naturalistic and we can construct nice arguments about stuff, or b) logic is broken because grandma’s ghost is gonna change the rules any second now.

For convenience, I’m going to refer to the rules or laws of the universe as physics. By extension, you might summarize the naturalistic view as when it comes to how the universe works, everything is just physics. This gives you an easy way to test if your view of the universe is naturalistic: could a complete description of how the universe works be written down as a set of laws that always apply in every situation? If you believe that is possible — at least in principle, even if no species ever reaches such a point of total knowledge before entropy grinds them to space dust— congratulations, you’re a naturalist.

If not — if you think that the speed of light in a vacuum is always the same, except when Jenny needs it to just freaking chill for one second! — I’m afraid we’re not going to see eye to eye on much else in this article.

This basic sanity check can save you a lot of headache if you run it before getting too deep into a conversation on the mind. Thanks to humanity’s history of magical thinking, it’s not uncommon to find that your conversation partner is harboring supernatural beliefs that contradict the underlying assumptions on which your worldview is based. Or maybe you’ll discover that oh my, I DO believe in faeries!

What does naturalism mean for the mind? Well, the mind is part of the universe. The universe is governed by laws. So the mind is also governed by laws. It might be that, on top of the currently known laws of the universe, there is a still undiscovered “physics of the mind” comprising laws of physics nobody knows yet. Whatever those laws might be, though, the mind is by definition a slave to them. It has to follow those laws too, in addition to all the vanilla stuff about protons and whatnot. If you accept that the universe is naturalistic, even a hypothetical “physics of the mind” cannot make the mind into something supernatural.

Aside #1: On quantum physics

No, that’s not what quantum physics says, stop pretending like you know stuff. The quantum wave function is not magic, and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle doesn’t mean that anyone can just make shit up and who knows, maybe that’s how it works, nobody’s certain, right? Most importantly, the fact that some missing knowledge lies between us and a complete understanding of quantum mechanics does not especially favor your pet theory over any other.

Definition, please

Look at me up there, just throwing around the word “mind” without bothering to define it. Forgive me, friend.

In this article, a mind is something that thinks and experiences. “Thinking” is the processing of information, and “experiencing” means — in the famous words of Thomas Nagel—that there is something that it is like to be that mind.

There are two things I’ll ask you to consider now. First: a mind experiences, and to experience means that “there is something that it is like to be a mind”. From that perspective, the phrase “my mind” seems illogical because a mind is not something you have, it is what you are. You are a mind.

Second: a mind thinks and experiences, but does it exist as something separate from the thinking and experiencing? I defined thinking as a type of processing, and I argue below that experiencing must be a process too, so it would be more accurate to say that a mind is a process of thinking and experiencing. I’ll get into the importance of this thing/process distinction later on, but first here’s a pretty diagram to help us think through all this:

I see a possible misunderstanding barreling our way here, so let me be a bit more careful about my use of the words “thought” and “thinking”. Thinking is the processing of information, and it does not require a representation that is verbal, visual, or in any other format that would feel at all intuitive to us humans. Thoughts can be experienced verbally in a language or visually as images, and we commonly use the word “thought” when referring to such an experience. But the experience is not the entirety of the thought, and there are many thoughts that are not experienced (in fact, a lot of cognition happens subconsciously).

When you snatch your hand away from a hot stove before you even experience the heat, that is thinking. That reflex happens entirely between your hand and your spinal chord (Look Ma, no brain!). If I were to somehow thought block the information on its way to your brain but let the snatch reflex do its thing, you would have no experience of the event, but your hand would still draw away from the stove and we would still call the process “thinking”. This kind of stuff is happening throughout your body all the time.

So a mind is something that thinks and experiences. If you take away the experience but keep the thinking, you have a drone. I use “drone” to avoid the baggage (and potential logical impossibility) associated with David Chalmers’s infamous “zombie”. Drones include things like computers and other systems that process information.

If you take away both the experiencing and the thinking, you’re left with boring stuff like rocks (sorry, geologists!). It’s an open question where the dividing line is between thinking and not thinking (just what is information anyway?), but we should be able to acknowledge that a rock thinks a whole lot less than, say, a cat.

What happens if you take away the thinking but keep the experiencing? What do we call those things? Well, I don’t think such things exist (sorry, panpsychists!), so I don’t call them anything. I explain this in more depth below after introducing a couple more useful concepts.

Aside #2: Blindered by the present

Modern philosophers of mind have wryly noted that, throughout the ages, we have consistently used the latest technology of the time as a metaphor for the mind. For example, Freud thought the hydraulic pump was dope af and made heavy use of it in his totally legitimate psychology that definitely wasn’t just projecting his own issues onto everyone else.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the metaphors of computation and information processing have their grubby mitts all over modern philosophy. We’re all wearing the blinders of the culture we’re born into. As a software engineer and full-blooded tech geek, those blinders are probably hot-wired into my skull with cyberpunk pride. I acknowledge I have a bias resulting from the pure accident of being born in this particular moment in history, and yet I still use the information processing framework talking about the mind because I find it incredibly useful.

Mind from matter

Which brings us to the question posed by the Dalai Lama at an Alabama neuroscience symposium (seriously, this was a thing that happened): where is mind?

And so we’re forced to make another choice: either we allow for the mind to be made of special mental stuff that’s different from ordinary matter (dualism); or we decide that everything is physical (materialism), and so the mind must either be physical itself or arise from the physical in some way.

Fortunately, we have some empirical evidence to help you with this particular choice. One delightfully old-timey way of dealing with treatment-resistant epilepsy was to cut the tract connecting the left and right hemispheres of the patient’s brain. Snip snip, and those delinquent neurons acting up on one side of the brain can’t spread their bad attitude to the other side, preventing a total seizure from occurring. Crazy thing happened afterwards, though: these “split-brain patients” clearly showed two distinct minds occupying the same body. Two different sets of knowledge, beliefs, experiences, even goals and desires!

If you’ve never heard of this before, please go Google it immediately. It will blow your mind. Damn, I said the phrase “your mind” doesn’t make sense. OK, it will blow you.

Away! It’ll blow you away (nice save).

If you’re a dualist, you have to do some flying logical acrobatics to explain why a simple change in physical structure would affect the functioning of a mind (or create a new one!) that should be made of different mental stuff. It’s not impossible to come up with such an explanation, but it’s going to be a lot more complicated and less empirically supported than the simple conclusion that the mind is a process of the physical body.

The brain seems to play a key role in the “mind process.” However, we probably have to give some credit at least to the rest of the nervous system, and it’s possible that we also owe some thanks to even the lowliest cell in that traitorous vagabond we call an appendix. Let’s not quibble about which organs get the most credit right now, it’s not important to the rest of our discussion.

Aside #3: Acknowledging a mystery

I completely rushed through that whole “mind is a physical process” bit without stopping to acknowledge how absolutely freaking crazy it is that the mind exists at all. That any conceivable physical process should produce something with an inner experience is far from obvious. In fact, it’s a downright mystery referred to as the “mind-body problem” or the “hard problem of consciousness”.

Certain circuits in your brain will reliably spark up in response to light bouncing off that red rose over there and streaming in through your eye holes. If we stick you in an MRI machine and show you some pretty pictures, machine learning algorithms have gotten good enough at decoding and interpreting these neural responses that they can not only guess which picture you’re looking at, but they can even reconstruct a (super blurry) version of what you’re seeing. That’s impressive, but it doesn’t even attempt to answer the question of why vision should feel like anything at all.

And neither will this article. Consciousness exists, it’s fucking awesome, it’s the result of a physical process, but nobody knows exactly how—yet. Remember that magnets were magic too at one point.

Where’s there a will?

OK, I think we’re ready now to dig into the textured vegetable protein of the problem: what do you mean when you say “free will”?

You and I are minds, right? We discussed that above. Minds think, which means they process information: given some information input (e.g. physical sensations, thoughts, etc.) a mind produces some output (e.g. an action, more thoughts, etc.). Another way of saying that is that a mind is an instantiation of some information processing algorithm. Just like a mind is what you are and not something you have, an information processing algorithm is what a mind is and not something it uses.

I’ll return to this idea of instantiation towards the end of the article. Right now I feel the need to ward off a few more potential misunderstandings. An algorithm is not a schematic, it doesn’t proscribe how something looks at any particular moment in time. It’s a set of instructions, it describes how something acts, and our particular type of algorithm contains instructions for modifying itself. We’re always changing, learning, growing, dying. Also, “algorithm” does not imply “serial”. We are massively parallel, every raised hair, dividing cell, and firing neuron acting simultaneously.

In the context of free will and responsibility, the philosophical literature often uses the term “agent” to refer to minds or drones that are taking actions in the world. It also often uses the phrase “decision making” to refer to this particular type of information processing. Note, though, that whether a drone can make “decisions” depends on the philosopher, a point to which I’ll return later (spoiler: yes, drones make decisions).

If you break any algorithm down into small enough pieces, you will eventually reach a point where the only useful language of description is one of brute mechanics. But if you go the other direction, if you collect lots of observations of the output produced by the algorithm in response to a wide range of input, you might start to notice self-consistent — even self-sustaining — behavior. That’s what the “will” in “free will” refers to, and it’s unique to algorithms that process information.

Pretty much all life has will. Life consumes energy and increases the entropy of the environment to sustain and propagate itself. That sounds pretty willful to me! Drop a rock from a window, and it will plod along through the curvature of spacetime until acted upon by some other force (e.g. the electrons of the ground). Try to drop a cat from a window and… well, let’s just say you’ll need a lot of band-aids.

The drop, the distance, and the ground all contain information that can be processed by a cat or a human and not by a rock. This processing produces behavior that — though it is undoubtedly the result of particles interacting under the laws of physics — is best understood in the language of information. Humans express the will not to fall, and this will is clearly visible in the world through the presence of such things as guardrails and the relative lack of houses built on the edges of cliffs.

There’s a hotel in Peru that caters to minds that really like to process information.

There’s no way that’s free!

So that gives us will, but what does it mean for that will to be free? Well, we’ve accepted naturalism, so free can’t mean that these algorithms are free from the laws of nature. An algorithm is a mind is a physical process, and there’s no escaping physics.

One way of thinking about the idea of free is that the output produced by a “willful” algorithm to a certain input is impossible to determine without running it, even if the interaction of a given agent with a given environment is entirely deterministic. If you’re coming from a computational background then you might recognize this as Turing’s famous halting problem. What’s especially interesting is that, in the case of a conscious agent (i.e. a mind), the result of the interaction is not necessarily foreseeable even by the mind itself.

This is something that each of us is familiar with from everyday experience. When approached with a decision, I sit down and deliberate about the possibilities. I turn the problem over and over, looking at it from different angles, weighing the pros and cons. Eventually, I find myself wanting to take one course of action more than the others, and so I do. Before that point, though, I had no idea which option I was going to take. After all, I hadn’t decided yet!

So that’s what it means for you to be free: you make choices based on information input, and those choices are in principle impossible to predict perfectly without running that input through the unique information processing algorithm that is you. Any other algorithm would produce a different output, even if only slightly, and any algorithm that produces the exact same outputs given all the same inputs is, by definition, you.

Around here is usually where people start talking about determinism and randomness. I’ll only touch the topic to say that it really doesn’t matter. None of the above reasoning relies on either the existence or non-existence of randomness. When the universe is dealing out the cards, maybe it’s random and maybe it’s not. Either way, all you can do is play the cards you were dealt. To imagine the ability to do otherwise is to imagine yourself acting upon the laws of physics. But we’re naturalists, so that’s nonsense.

Conscious wills and settling an argument

The peculiar phenomenon of a mind being unable to foresee its own thoughts and actions is sometimes used as an argument for why free will doesn’t exist. Such an argument might go something like this:

Let’s say you decide to become a doctor. At some point, you experienced the thought I want to become a doctor. This thought was the result of some neuron(s) firing in your brain. If that neuron hadn’t fired, you wouldn’t have had that thought, and you therefore wouldn’t have wanted to become a doctor. You can’t control the firing of neurons in your brain, that’s just electrons and ions doing their thing. But all thoughts and actions are just the result of firing neurons. Whatever thought followed the become a doctor thought — whether it was yeah, that’s a great idea! or no, that sounds hard! or I want chunky monkey ice cream! — was also the result of firing neurons. The intention and actions to move yourself to a computer, write an application, submit it; all just firing neurons, and none of those neurons were in your control. Therefore, if you can’t control the process that produces your thoughts and actions, how can you possibly have free will?!

Unfortunately, this argument doesn’t actually prove what it intends to. On the one hand, it considers the possibility that you could “make your neurons fire,” which is to imagine “you” somehow separate from those neurons and acting on them to create “your” experiences; but that’s straight-up dualism. Yet at the same time the argument accepts that the experiences of the mind are the product of physical processes like firing neurons — i.e. materialism. You can’t have it both ways, and all this argument succeeds in proving is the impossibility of its own contradictory premise!

However, the argument completely nails the point that consciousness is not the source of will. A will, which is an information processing algorithm, which is a physical process, produces both consciousness and its contents (i.e. thoughts and experiences). Consciousness therefore cannot be causally prior to will.

The key here is to remember that free will is not something you can have. You are a free will. Neurons firing do not cause thoughts. “Thought” is simply the word we often use (incorrectly, I say, see above) to describe the first-person experience of what from a third-person vantage point we would call “firing neurons”. They are two different perspectives on the same thing. Again, you are a free will, you are a mind, you are a physical process. You are not being acted upon by physics, but you’re also not doing the acting. You are the action itself.

That is what it means to be an instantiation of an algorithm. An algorithm is contained in its totality in its instructions. If no instructions are being carried out, there is no algorithm. You are a particular, actual instance of an algorithm, and those instructions are implemented as physical processes. If we throw the brakes on all activity in the body, there is no processing, there is no you. This happens to all of us at least once, we call it death, and it has seriously mixed reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.

This is why I don’t believe in things that experience but don’t think. Experience is a physical process. If there is no process, then nothing exists to be doing the experiencing. If there is a process, then what is it that’s being experienced if not thoughts?

Aside #4: More than a feeling

A common objection to the “mind as physical process” view is that I want to be a doctor (or any other thought) just doesn’t feel like a firing neuron. It doesn’t feel like any kind of physical process, for that matter.

As a response, I ask you to consider Wittgenstein’s famous question to his student Elizabeth Anscome:

Wittgenstein: Tell me, why do people always say, it was natural for man to assume that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth was rotating?

Anscome: Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going round the Earth.

Wittgenstein: Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?

So tell me: if thought really were just information processing and physical processes, what would it feel like?

Consider again the example of heat and temperature. Imagine you fill a plastic ice tray and put it in your freezer. A few days later, you pull it out to prepare a nice cold glass of lemonade with mint and ginger. When you touch the ice cubes, they feel really cold, right? Obviously, they’re frozen! But what about the tray itself? It’s not so bad. How is it that you’re able to hold the tray without discomfort while even brief contact with an ice cube results in a feeling of biting cold? You might think that ah, ice is colder than the tray! But that’s clearly not true. They have both been in the freezer long enough to reach the same temperature. So what’s going on?

Unlike a snake with infrared vision, you actually don’t have the ability to sense temperature at all! At least not directly. What you’re actually sensing is heat, or the transfer of thermal energy between yourself and the thing you’re touching. Your body then infers the temperature difference between you and that object based on how quickly or slowly the thermal energy gets shuttled between the two of you. Water conducts heat better than plastic and will sap it right out of you, so it feels “colder”.

And what is temperature anyway? It’s just a measure of the average kinetic energy (i.e. speed) of the molecules in a given object. Those molecules are all jiggling around and bouncing off of each other. As two objects come into contact, the fast molecules in one object slam into the slower molecules in the other object. On average, this causes the slower molecules to speed up and the fast molecules to slow down. We call this transfer of thermal energy “heat”.

Let’s put it all together now! When you touch an ice cube, the slow ice molecules suck a lot of speed very quickly from the fast skin molecules — a physical process — and your body uses this rate of change to infer — information processing — that the temperature difference between you and the ice is high. You then experience this as the particular sensation we’ve come to call “cold”.

So tell me again why firing neurons can’t feel like thoughts?

Until next time…

And that’s it for today, friend!

At this point, you might accuse me of having done little more than play simple word games. By redefining “free will”, have I really just dodged the main issue? I’d call it less of a dodge and more of a side-step. It matters to use the right words in the right ways if we want to have a reasonable conversation on a topic — which is the point of this article, remember?

When most people say “free will”, I think they really mean something like responsibility or autonomy. Those can be some slippery concepts, but the little bit of fancy footwork we did in this article has positioned us to straight-up body tackle them.

Next time. Talk to you then!

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Sami Jawhar

Sami Jawhar

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Builder of things. Digital nomad. Neurotechnologist in training.