Experience Machines – Part 2

It’s the mycologist’s wet dream here this time of year! The mind-blowing, full resolution version of each is a mere click (touch) away

OK, so where were we 🤔 Ah, the problem of Free Will. Find below a diagram of a (very) simplified model of brain activity. Doesn’t have to be a human brain. I trust you will find nothing heretical with it. Except – recall from my last post I hypothesized the existence of a sixth sense, the Seemings sense, which I’ve diagrammed as lurking inside the brain. If it’s real and has a material basis, I don’t understand it. I don’t think anybody does. But positing its existence is hardly heretical. I mention this only because if it does exist it may represent the sense of agency most everyone experiences, including me. Namely, the profound sense, feeling, intuition – whatever you want to call it – that I direct my brain’s thoughts and actions. And you yours.

Nevertheless, it remains the case there is no material puppeteer in the brain. The brain is not a marionette. The material brain is grey matter, meat, connected up through the CNS to the bodily accessories (organs and limbs), which implement the brain’s thoughts through action. The aggregate Experience of those thoughts and actions is represented as a change to the Outside World (in an endless variety of complicated ways, to be sure). These changes in the Outside World trigger a new round of sensory input to the brain causing another round of processing, and on and on. That’s it, that’s the model. Is there a material basis for Experience? Not that I am aware of. If I had to guess, its material basis may the same as that for memory, for which there is experimental evidence. Also here. If so, the next logical question would be why some experiences are saved in long term in memory where most are not.

A simple example for consideration. Round one: A mosquito lands on my arm (sensory input). The nervous system alerts my brain which raises the opposite arm and lowers the attached hand fast to slap the mosquito dead (expressed thought and action). Round two: The Outside World has changed slightly (the visual sense signals to the brain there’s a bloody dead mosquito on the arm). The brain directs the opposite hand to grasp the nearby napkin and raise it to wipe away the mess (expressed thought and action). Outside World is changed yet again -> Round three. And so on. I propose every single thought and action works this way, from the micro to the macro. Now imagine the complexity of experience in a world where 8 billion human brains work this way every microsecond. And then add in the changes to the Outside World from the thoughts and actions of all other life forms, and on top of that changes to the Outside World from non sentient forces (e.g. earth, wind, fire). On this view then, “I” don’t operate my brain, I experience its operation. In the same way I (my brain) experiences the heart beating, the lungs respiring, the kidneys filtering, and so on.1 “I” am an Experience Machine.

In terms of the material brain, its relevant physical chemistry, what we understand so far is that there are chemical receptors (proteins) in the sensory tissues connected to the brain that each of the inputs binds to. We have taste receptors and photon receptors and audio receptors, etc. How these receptors work, at the molecular level, to trigger processing in the brain is understood in mind-boggling detail, trust me. Not all of it, surely. But all the evidence so far indicates the brain and all its workings can be entirely understood through chemistry and physics. So I’m saying we could model the human brain in a sufficiently large network of computers? No. That’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is there is no need for a ghost in the gaps. Activation of receptors by sensory inputs triggers a long chain of cause and effect, real physical chemistry, that produces our thoughts and actions and renders Experience. Again, complicated and fascinating in its behavior, yes. Mystical in nature, no.

What got me thinking about all this again? A new and controversial book by Dr. Richard Saplosky, a neuro-biologist at Stanford. Being the book was recently published I haven’t read it yet, but I’m well aware of his views on Free Will. This new book comes as no surprise. Overviews here and here. Sorry if the latter is pay-walled. (Pro tip: Try using the ‘reader view’ feature in anonymous (private) browser mode. Usually works for me so that at least I can read the text of article). I have read other books by Saplosky, such as Behave, which was really good for its comprehension on the topic of the science of human behavior (and baboons, which he’s spent 30 years studying in the wild). As if speculating about the existence (or not) of Free Will weren’t mind-boggling enough, even more so is the thought experiment of what life would be like if everyone came to believe that Free Will is bunk. If none of us really directs our own actions, then logically self responsibility is out the window, moral judgement (good or bad) of people’s action is out the window. Why? Well, if biology is just physics all the way down to the atom, if our brains are part of of the universe not separate from it, and cause and effect holds, then everything in the universe is predetermined. Including behavior. One doesn’t blame or get mad at their heart if it malfunctions, so why the brain? As Dr. Saplosky says in one of those interviews, we (humans) are merely complicated machines (Experience Machines – sound familiar?!) and it’s a little silly to hold a machine morally responsible for its outputs, good or bad. Think of what life on this planet would be like if we all came to believe that no human Can Do Otherwise. Ever. That’s what hard determinism would mean.

And no, I haven’t eaten any of those mushrooms 🤨

1. There are two separate parts of the nervous system, autonomic and somatic. The former controls the smooth muscle of the internal organs and the action is automatic, no conscious thought required (e.g. the contraction of the bowel). The latter controls the muscles of the limbs and skin, so-called voluntary actions in the body (e.g lifting a cup of coffee or a wink of the eye). However, while control of both systems clearly runs through the same brain it’s tempting to read voluntary and think dualism, the view consistent with the belief that there is a self (conductor) in the brain, the very belief arguers for no Free Will claim is bunk.