A Single Mind Out of a Thousand Brains
Reading A Thousand Brains, word for word as it were, has led me to write about human agency. Jeff Hawkins is a neuroscientist and he writes about his research into the inner universe of the mind. I heard of the book from Richard Dawkins’ Books Do Furnish a Life. Mind you, Hawkins doesn’t use the word mind and I will adjust for that below. A logical explanation exists for human agency, learning beyond your grade, being maximally self-aware and employing “earned” 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,” 125 trillion synapses (“a junction between two nerve cells, consisting of a minute gap across which impulses pass by diffusion of a neurotransmitter,” 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, (words and linguistic-symbols if you will) which ties the world (outside of our brains and minds) together with the use of language, computational and framework symbols or signs inside the machinery of the physical brain; the sensual intake (raw 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) words.
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.
“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 (yet fortunate) accident that we had (blindly) lurched upon, i.e., 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 2SLGBTQ+. 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 led 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. Sometimes in matters like “flight or fight” it often has the final say. Natural selection favours selves that manage their actions in such a way that they make the best use of their surroundings, but those "selves" can take over the machine, not completely, but comprehensively. 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 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. Despite what Daniel Dennett says about movie-making and brains, ["There is no movie in your head."] the brain is ultimately a simulation of the world outside the brain and you are the producer-director. 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 falsifiability)—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 and pathological altruistic 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, and with reason as a tool, agency can re-wire the circuits (i.e., change the premises of our belief system to some degree). A sense of self is essential to human mental health. Full Stop! However, 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, ideologically, or brutishly), 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 rational analysism, clear unemotional (objective) thinking with reason/science. Developing strong freewill over time, in the context of these tools, gives you new abilities on two vital fronts: you gain to choose 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. Before we decide on action, there are subliminal and other unconscious factors, plus a whole host of biases, that the chief administrator, (the self), over time, must learn about, and generally, lean against; thus, using Spock-logic to try to figure out and prevent outside sources from hacking your mind (as for instance, cults do). We have to push back against our human biases and our own Machiavellian tendencies.
“Neuroscientists agree with Darwin's assumption that variation is healthy for a species as a whole, even if some variations may be maladaptive for a given individual. Darwin's theory of natural selection argues that, in order for a species as a whole to survive and to adapt to changing environments, the individuals of that species need to exhibit a wide variety of physical traits and capacities…. Since what is maladaptive in one environment may be adaptive in another, evolutionary pressures have resulted in the retention of maladaptive variations…. It can be conceptualized that for evolutionary reasons such as these the biological impairments of BPD [borderline personality disorder] have been retained in the human species. What Darwin's theory implies is that normal is relative. Normal exists as a range. Every biological factor, whether it be height, eye color, blood type, serotonin level, cortisol level, or autonomic reactivity, exists on a continuum—a bell-shaped curve—in which some variations are more common (i.e., in the middle range of the curve) and other variations are less common (i.e., at the tails at either end of the curve). I stress Darwin's theory of natural selection to emphasize that every symptom of BPD exists somewhere on a bell-shaped curve of the traits found in humans, albeit on the statistically less common tails of the curve.” R. Pally, “The Neurobiology of Borderline Personality Disorder: The Synergy of ‘Nature and Nurture,’” Journal of Psychiatric Practice 8, no. 3 (2002): 133–42.
However, “willpower is more than just a metaphor; self-control is a finite resource. Frontal neurons are expensive cells, and expensive cells are vulnerable cells,” (quoted from Behave) . . . and to paraphrase Sapolsky its author: willpower is hard work that the frontal cortex does its Calvinist best to over-surmount and complete its assigned tasks. It is all exhausting work in some ways and can often cause cognitive overload; however, there is a splendid upside: after the demanding assignments are mastered by the individual, they are taken over by the cerebellum, (i.e., they become habits which require very little motivation or willpower, indeed we mostly then do them without thinking). Although no one can use reason/science in all choices such as love, friendship, tragedy, grief and deep mortal pain; reason mitigates and modifies all of these challenges 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, i.e., a human slave to the bio-logic. The self—the entity that chooses, (i.e., the driver at the wheel)—is the agent in us; so, if you knowingly drive through a stop sign and are caught in the act, the buck stops there in the causal chain. You are responsible in law, and in ethics, and you do not get to blame it on the Big Bang. Compatibilists assume the causal chain cannot be broken by agency, a choice which is the terminus of an act of all previous antecedent factors in an individual’s life; however, I have falsified this view, i.e., Thinking, Fast and Slow, (moral noncogntivism combined with intuitionism) in Haidt’s Magical Elephant. You are not free from responsibility in that you fell victim to some determinists’ or compatibilists’ “practicing a sort of philosophical shell game on themselves and their less discerning readers” so they can trade off moral choice with Hume’s causal theory, which is, no more or less, than bad philosophy, and wash their hands of the hornet’s nest of freedom of the will and human agency.