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Hi. I'm a Unix Administrator, mathematics enthusiast, and amateur philosopher. This is where I rant about that which upsets me, laugh about that which amuses me, and jabber about that which holds my interest most: Unix.
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RuntimeError: maximum recursion depth exceeded

Posted 07-06-2011 at 11:55 AM by rocket357
Updated 07-10-2011 at 06:49 PM by rocket357

Ok, so this is another philosophy post (sorry for the misleading title...if you're playing around with recursion in Python I should hope you know how to fix the error message in the title =)

Anyhow, I posted yesterday about determinism and free will. Today I'm going to follow up with the mind. In contemporary knowledge, the mind is roughly equivalent to the "meta-brain"...the activity that takes place "within" the brain. Since the dawn of time people have wondered what exactly the mind is, and I'm pretty convinced we'll never understand it fully. Here's why:

I'm going to build a house. It's a glorious house...it has some unusual characteristics. First, it must be awesome. Second, it must be beautiful. Third, it must be constructed such that it can contain itself.

Wait...what? I'm supposed to build a house that can house itself? That's a core dump if I ever heard of one...how am I supposed to build something that can shelter itself? How can I build a structure that keeps itself out of the weather? Where should I begin??

That's what trying to understand the human mind **from within the human mind** is like. It's a guaranteed core dump. It cannot be done...not on all levels, at least.

Sure, we can understand the very basics of neurons firing and chemical interactions within the brain...that's something akin to understanding the anatomy of a rabbit...but we're trying to answer "how does the behavior of the rabbit affect the environment in which it lives?" Egads! A level jump (or more?)!

We can understand the brain...but what's this "ethernet port to the Matrix" we're talking about? What exactly is the mind? Consciousness? Nevermind higher level "what is justice" type of Plato-esque questions...we haven't even gotten there yet!

Douglas Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" has probably one of the best (IMHO) explanations to date on the subject. In one of his many "dialogues" throughout the book, the anteater is discussing a friend of his with the usual crew (Achilles, Tortoise, Crab, etc...). The anteater's friend is an anthill. Perplexed, Achilles asks how an anteater and an anthill can be friends...don't anteaters EAT ants?!? The anteater responds "Oh, I never said I was friends with the ants...no, no! I'm friends with the ant *hill*."

During the course of the discussion, the anteater explains how the anthill communicates back with him. The ants...barely intelligent enough to accomplish more than walking, breathing, and carrying...should move about randomly, right? But they don't...they move purposefully. And in the course of their movements he "reads" what the anthill is trying to say.

That's a bit like the level jump required to "understand" the mind. We can study electro-chemical reactions all day...but WHY do they occur, and more importantly, WHAT does it mean when they occur?

Unoccupied ants wander about the ant pile looking for work to do. This movement is hardly notable...they're moving so they can find purpose, not to express purpose. It makes it difficult to distinguish between "purposeful movement" and "treading water movement". It makes "work" difficult to distinguish from "looking for work". Neurons fire regularly...but is this "purposeful firing", or "treading water"?

Back to the ants, the anteater (rather, Hofstadter) explains that there are different kind of ants, and they team up in "work groups" that rove about in search of things to do...whatever the ant hill "needs" done. When they come upon a task, the appropriate members of the team break off and get to working on that task, and the remaining ants continue wandering about the anthill, picking up other ants who finish their tasks as they go. These "work teams" break and reform constantly.

The "work team" of an anthill can be likened to a "symbol" in the human mind. The symbols may be dormant (a long suppressed memory...i.e. looking for something to "activate" them) or active (your current train of thought...i.e. "working"). The symbols in the mind chain together like workgroups in an anthill...as one task (thought) is finished, the symbols of that thought go dormant again until such time that they're relevant to the current work being done again. Symbols may be simple (i.e. just a few similar ants) or complex (perhaps a combination of simpler symbols). If I tell you a story of some event that happened to me, you don't know the experience that I had except through mutual agreement on what language symbols mean. I tell you about a mountain...even if you were standing beside me during the experience, do you truly have the same experience I do? No, we can relate via language symbols, which in turn are "encoded" into internal symbols our minds use to differentiate between conceptual "objects" that we only know via our sensory perception.

Now let's say I tell you about driving a car on a mountain. You know from your symbol collection that "car" is an object that is "smaller" than the object "mountain". Perhaps you have a specific "mountain" in mind...so your "mountain" symbol would likely be more complete than someone else's symbol who had never experienced a mountain in real life.

Point is, you can view the mind as a collection of symbols that exist within the context of the underlying "hardware" of the brain...but even that doesn't explain how the symbols interact to form thoughts, or how we inject new knowledge to the "thought stream" through reasoning. Intelligence is yet a step up from thought, and intelligence is only a portion of the mind's capabilities. The mind is self-referential, and is capable of altering itself. In keeping with Godel, the mind is a powerful enough system to be unable to answer all questions about itself.

Truth is, we don't possess the capability of understanding the human experience in it's entirety (i.e. maximum recursion depth exceeded =). Some things just have to be experienced and not fully understood.
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  1. Old Comment
    Quote:
    I'm going to build a house. It's a glorious house...it has some unusual characteristics. First, it must be awesome. Second, it must be beautiful. Third, it must be constructed such that it can contain itself.

    Wait...what? I'm supposed to build a house that can house itself? That's a core dump if I ever heard of one...how am I supposed to build something that can shelter itself? How can I build a structure that keeps itself out of the weather? Where should I begin??
    That's kind of like my reasoning on why 100% predictability of any given system is impossible: you would have to gather information about the state of every particle in the universe (since every particle affects every other particle), and store that information *in the universe*, which can't be done; no system can predict itself.

    This doesn't mean predictions *in general* can't be made, however; it just means that any predictions made are only accurate to a certain degree.

    Not to start a major debate or anything, but this is what disturbs me about the implications of determinism with regard to the human mind and the concept of free will (or rather, the lack of predictability of one's actions; free will doesn't actually exist): does the brain operate on a level high enough to where the important functions can be (theoretically) predicted with enough accuracy such that one's entire course of life could be known to the predictor?

    You might say that yes, it is possible, since we know that the brain does operate on such a level (neurons and biochemistry), but at the same time, there's the old "quantum uncertainty argument": the idea that since there is uncertainty at the quantum level (Heisenberg principle), there must be a certain level of uncertainty at higher levels as well. I won't go into all the major specifics of supporting/objecting arguments to that point (mostly because I'm not familiar with all of them ), but suffice it to say that it's a tangled, messy subject.
    Posted 07-10-2011 at 07:48 PM by MrCode MrCode is offline
    Updated 07-10-2011 at 07:52 PM by MrCode (punctuation)
  2. Old Comment
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by MrCode View Comment
    suffice it to say that it's a tangled, messy subject.
    I can certainly agree with you on this point...and I don't think we'll ever know if we're truly deterministic or not precisely because we don't operate at a high enough logical level to "see the forest, not the trees".

    I've many times wondered about this myself, considering that the foods you "desire" are foods that contain what your body needs to maintain it's natural blood chemistry. If I consistently feed my body sugar, then over time regardless if I develop diabetes or not I'm going to experience cravings for sugar...even given the information that continuing to consume sugar could (in severe cases of diabetes) be fatal. If I know this beforehand, though, I'm not as likely to get myself into that situation (though this isn't always true...I've known plenty of people who have all the information they need to know to avoid something, yet they continue doing it).
    Posted 07-11-2011 at 09:48 AM by rocket357 rocket357 is offline
 

  



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