[This is part of a set: Thinking][This is part of a set: Consciousness]
Abstract ideas, concepts, thoughts, occur in human brains. But how are they instantiated in those brains? Physically.
There are patterns of matter and energy in the universe, sometimes called ‘fractures in the continuum’, or ‘lack of conformity’. In informational terms there are distinctions – distinct data patterns. These are synonymous to all intents and purposes, though some philosophers may object to this – but then I think if they object to this they’ve got bigger problems with solipsism anyway. Certainly from an inductive point of view this acknowledgement of the correspondence between reality and the patterns or distinctions in it is sufficient.
On this basis, everything is essentially data – including human brains. The change in human brains that occurs when thoughts flit through them or when they remember something is merely brain matter changing state, changing pattern. Conversely, everything is also material – including data, by virtue of the fact that it consists of the organisation of matter into distinct patterns, whether that’s a configuration of electrons in the capacitive element of a logic transistor, or the configuration of synapses in a human brain.
Even when we think in our minds of abstract data existing in some Platonic plane, that very idea itself has an existence in the formation of matter in the brain. The odd thing to grasp with this is that we have this abstract notion that there is nothing abstract, it’s all real, except the abstraction itself, which doesn’t have some separate reality independent of physical reality.
I think it important to note that all ideas, such as ‘idea’, ‘concept’, ‘abstract’, along with religious ideas like ‘soul’, ‘God’, are all inventions of the human mind – as is ‘mind’ of course, so I should really say, inventions of the human brain. No science has ever discovered the existence of a material object, or any trace of energy, or anything else, that is a ‘soul’, or an ‘idea’, or a ‘concept’, other than their physical instantiation as patterns in matter/energy.
So that when philosophers talk about these as if they have some existence, it’s pure invention with no verification through evidence. What we do find are patterns in matter which are used to represent these, which then invokes something in the brain.
Representation = Physical Implementation.
So, the word ‘concept’ itself invokes the concept of ‘concept’ in my brain as I read it. But given that this is happening in a material brain then there is little more to expect other than the word on the screen has triggered a corresponding pattern in the brain: word on screen, light to eye, retina activity, complex neuronal activity, triggered concept recognition.
This is why I think that even when talking about human ‘knowledge’ in the brain we are better sticking to terms like data, or information. This view also unifies the idea of knowledge as data within human brains, and outside them, on paper, in books and databases, and even unifies the idea with the material world.
Data = Physical Distinction
I accept that as a matter of convenience we will want to differentiate between the places where this data/matter resides. So, on some occasions we’ll talk about ‘the body of human knowledge’ when we mean the accumulation of all of what has at sometimes been in some human brains and has been translated into common media, such as books. On other occasions we’ll talk of how a person ‘knows some proposition to be true’, when we are talking about their commitment to the correspondence of the proposition to some relating thing or event in the world outside the human head. But when looking at this in the whole, and at the same time looking for how all this ‘knowledge’ exists in some detailed but unified way, it’s easier to talk about information, data, matter.
Let’s compare software. A piece of software is only ever an abstraction in a human mind. There is nothing you can touch that is a Microsoft Word program. When you buy it on disk you are actually taking with you a disk with some pattern on it. Look at the pattern on the disk and you see pits in a CD. You do not see nebulous software. When you install it onto a PC there is real physical energy transfer, from the CD reader, through the system, into magnetic patterns on the hard drive. Other than wear and tear and any decay, loss of fidelity on the disk through laser action is entirely incidental – the disk pattern largely remains. Software has not been transferred. It has been copied – re-represented. When it’s loaded into PC memory and run, it’s just bit states in the memory. Programs are data; data is information; information is distinction in physical state.
Abstractions, ideas, concepts, are our software. They don’t exist in any physical sense other than they are patterns. They are patterns in the brain, no matter how permanent, like long term memory, or how transient, like short term memory, or even non-memorised flashes across areas of the working brain.
Take a concept, any concept. Can you hold one? Or are they fleeting brain content? If I have the concept of a car, and I draw that car on paper, and show that paper to someone, and they recognise the pattern as representing a car, their brain will likely construct, immediately, a concept of a car. At no time did that concept exist on the paper. Only a representation of it existed. If the other person did not share the concept of car, had they never seen one (our classical ‘jungle native’, ignorant of all technology), then, they would only see lines on the paper – and might even mistake the paper for some kind of leaf or some object they are familiar with. The lines in which we see a car would not invoke the concept of a car in anyone ignorant of the human technology.
An example used by Sam Harris is language. When I hear English spoken it triggers patterns in my brain. My brain recognises the words and converts them into brain patterns that emerge into consciousness as concepts. This is to a great extent unconscious, thanks to my having learned English from childhood. I have limited experience of other languages. If I listen to a French speaker speaking quickly I may pick up only a portion of the content, and may miss some key words so that I get the story completely wrong. I know some French but I’m not fluent. My brain is not attuned to the sound patterns of quickly spoken French. If I listen to Korean it will be pure noise. I don’t know that I know any Korean. Just as someone who has no experience or knowledge of cars would not recognise a line drawing of a car, so my brain does not pick anything useful out of Korean. It’s noise.
Information theory relies on distinction for any information at all. In our physical universe distinction amounts to different states of matter/energy; and dynamic states at that. The whole point of the heat death of the universe is the complete and utter loss of distinction. Our very existence relies on distinction in states of matter. Our brains undergo dynamic changes to the matter of which it is constituted to form distinct states.
Is it surprising that thoughts, concepts, ideas, only came into being along with our evolved brains, and even more so when our brains acquired language? But, you might ask, what about the thoughts of God? Well, so far, all the evidence points to God coming into existence, as a concept, along with the development of human brains. I don’t know of any encoded record of God being present along with any fossils. Our first notions of gods appear with the early artifacts of creatures that were already human.
Epistemology is a problem for philosophy. Knowledge doesn’t have a satisfactory water tight definition that gets us anywhere. Far simpler to accept the information theory use of knowledge which is more about the correspondence between what we have in our heads and the material experience it represents. The problem is that we are inundated with continuous experiences from our first conception, though cognitive experiences await some rudimentary brain development in the fetus. By the time we’re old enough to think consciously about ideas like ‘concept’, ‘knowledge’ and other ‘abstract’ ideas, our brains are already full of them. This leaves us with the impression that they have some sort of abstract life of their own, but they don’t. They exist as brain states, and changing states: behaviour.
I find it odd that anti-physicalists want to use the insubstantial ephemeral nature of ‘ideas’, ‘concepts’, as evidence of a real and active ‘mind’ that is distinct from the brain. To my physical brain, my mind, the very nebulous nature of ‘concepts’ and ‘ideas’ is evidence of their non-existence in any independent reality, and better as evidence of their existence only in the brain.
13 thoughts on “Ideas, Concepts, Thoughts – Physical Instantiation In Brains”
They probably aren’t. Maybe you could say that they are instantiated as action potentials, but that’s already pretty abstract.
I take the view that everything has a material basis. I do not assume that everything is material, for that seems too restrictive.
If thoughts aren’t instantiated in brains, where are they? Are they the ghostly companions of the ghost in the machine? Thought bubbles hovering above our heads? I don’t see any reason or evidence to suppose they are anywhere but instantiated in the physical brain.
Action potentials are only one aspect of brain activity and state. What are action potentials? They are instantiated as a pattern of ions flowing through gates along the length of the axon. Those ions are just as physical as the neurotransmitters released at the end of neuron. One sequence of physical events causes internal events within the neuron that causes, in turn, the release of neurotransmitters.
Of course there’s lots of other detail that hasn’t been investigate as well as neurons, such as glial cells. But as yet, there is nowhere else for thoughts to hide. other than in the physical brain.
Could you expand more on why you think that something that has a material basis is not material?
A long loose spring, like a partially stretched slinky, if stimulated can be made to respond as a wave. Either transverse or longitudinal waves can be generated. But what is this wave? If we cause the physical spring to become still, the wave has vanished. This is not a magic trick. Some magic entity, a wave, has not appeared and vanished. The wave was always only ever the physical spring in motion. Just as the action potential is ions in motion.
So, to my mind, to say something has a material basis is to say it is material. what else could that possibly mean?
I’m not taking data as metaphysical. I’m taking it as physical. Data is like the wave. It is distinction in physical reality. Examining data in transit, in wire, consists of nothing but the motion of electrons. Data as sound waves consists of the motion in particles caused by pressure waves. what are pressure waves? Particles in motion.
“That seems to be saying that a particular abstract datum is identical to some brain configuration.”
That doesn’t quite catch it. The term ‘identity’ can have the suggestion of two identical things, or it can mean one and the same. I want to emphasise it’s the latter. A datum is some brain configuration.
But take care not to think that some ‘idea’, say ‘car’ is easily represented consistently across all brains, or even the same brain from one instant to another. As I think of ‘car’ any number of car related images might come to mind, but as long as I keep the idea of ‘car’ in my mind it is a very fluid thought, as details are filled in, changed. This time I might bring either of my two cars to mind, or a cartoonish image of a car on a child’s learning flash card, or the Batmobile. The concept of ‘car’ is already consisting of billions of data points as brain activity is triggered, as that brain activity.
“But I doubt that any such identity will ever be found”
That may be the case. But that may also be because when we think of a concept, an idea, it is so transient, fluid, that we can never pin it down. But why is that a problem stopping us appreciating it.
If a physicists tells me that a balloon is held in shape by the vibration of all the gas molecules trapped inside, I don’t expect at any instant to know where every molecule is, as if captured in a freeze frame instant. And this is a simple homogeneous gas.
The brain is clearly more complex than that, where in addition to the pressure of vibrating atoms (for example the pressure inside a single cell membrane, or the blood pressure in blood vessels). Even the basic figure of 100-billion neurons with 10,000 connections each, 10^15, doesn’t come close to accounting for the fleeting state of each neuron, or the state of its content, of the number of released neurotransmitters, or the number taken up. So I agree there is some difficulty pinning down a particular idea as it flits through the brain.
“…I prefer the less restrictive view, that there is a material basis for the abstract idea – this does not try to pin down how the abstract idea is connected to the matter.”
But a material basis is matter. I think there is a material basis for an atom, and it is that the atom is matter. I think there is a material basis for chemistry, because chemistry consists of the interaction of atoms, which is matter. I think there is a physical basis for biology, because biology is the complex interaction of chemicals, is the interaction of atoms, is matter. I think there is a material basis for ideas, and, because they have to be somewhere, I suspect they consist of fleeting or preserved complex states in the brain, as physical matter.
How can you think thoughts and ideas are not material? Isn’t this suggesting the non-material? Where is that? What is that? This sounds like the basis for religion.
Why do they need to have a location?
I visit Niagara falls. It is a spectacular sight. But how are the falls physically instantiated? It can’t be the water molecules, because they will shortly have passed downstream to be replaced by different water molecules. It can’t be the particular configuration of molecules, because that is in constant flux.
The trouble with assertions of physicalism and materialism, is that they are often expressed in ways that are too simplistic.
What makes X a thought isn’t any particular configuration of molecules or ion exchanges or brain activity. What makes X a thought is that humans say that X is a thought. Similarly, what makes Y exist is that humans agree that Y exists.
Take a look at my post on mathematical duality. I gave the example of the duality between descriptions in the time domain and those in the frequency domain, with the Fourier transform giving the mathematical relation between the two. It is fairly easy to see that what happens in the time domain is physical. But that isn’t so obvious about the frequency domain. We can think of frequency domain descriptions as part of a virtual world that has a basis in reality, but with the mathematical duality providing that basis.
Similarly, maybe there is something like a mathematical duality between mind events and brain events, such that there is no direct logical account of mind events as brain events. Rather, those mind events could exist in a virtual reality that is explained by a relation like that of mathematical duality.
I don’t think ‘need’ is the right framing. Thoughts have location in the brain that is having the thoughts. There’s a notion in philosophy that some things we think about, such as abstract ideas, have no location, but I think that’s totally wrong. They have the location of where the idea is being thought of, in a brain. When a brain dies, all its thoughts go with it – those thoughts no longer exist because they have no continued context because the activity in of the physical brain has stopped. Just like stopping a slinky stops the wave.
When two people communicate and ‘share a thought’ there are multiple thoughts going on, which if encoded into a common language might come out as identical. If we both simultaneously start to think of the concept ‘car’, and say a word that represents that concept our thoughts are going to be on a somewhat similar track, but we both might say the word ‘car’, or one of us might interpret the request as asking for type of car and proffer ‘Jeep’. Thinking, as instantiated in a fuzzy active brain is a messy business, so there will not be a one-to-one correspondence between brain states. So this should be expected. But that doesn’t mean that thoughts don’t exist as physical brain activity. They just don’t have some separate existence of their own.
Niagara Falls is like the wave example I gave. A wave exists on the slinky in as much as it is the slinky in motion. Niagara Falls exists in this way, but has other concepts attached to it. It is a combination of the land over which the water falls, and the motion of the water over that land. It has location by virtue of its geographical location and the name given to it. That some water molecules (or indeed rock molecules) don’t remain a part of Niagara Falls is no different from saying that over time many of the atoms that make up my body do not persist as much as the my body as a whole does.
“What makes X a thought isn’t any particular configuration of molecules or ion exchanges or brain activity.”
It probably isn’t that particular, because the same neuron may take part in many thoughts, and the same thought (as a crude descriptor for what is happening) may consist of many different neurons in action over time. But there is some correspondence, and the correspondence is detected – even if only crudely for now with current tools. That the stimulation of a particular neuron or group of neurons can trigger an out of body experience shows how specific this can be – though the whole mental experience will consist of not just by that one neuron or group but by the subsequent firing of other groups, as it triggers parts of the brain that are involved in personal identity and location.
“What makes X a thought is that humans say that X is a thought”
That’s just the labelling we use. Are you saying we don’t have thoughts? I’m not clear on both what you think thoughts are and what you think they are not. If you don’t account for them as being physically instantiated, like a wave, or like software, then what do you think is going on? I don’t think its enough to say, “Well there’s my brain, and here (to self) is my thought – there is no correspondence.” If, as you say, there is a ‘basis’ in reality, then what is the nature of that basis?
I take your point about domains, which are only perspectives. The mental view, the psychological experience of having a thought, is something nebulous somewhere in or about the head. But the physical view is that it is brain activity. The brain is the physical reality, and the mental experience is the virtual duality – which ties in with our feeling that thoughts are in some other domain, and may lead to the notion that there is an actual duality and that thoughts rside in some real but non-material domain. The basis in reality is the physical instantiation.
The difference is that we can’t experience the physical reality because the brain does not have sensory neurons detecting the flow of information through the neurons doing the thinking – even for the conscious activity. And, we are completely in the dark about the unconscious activity – but no one seems to reject the notion that that is going on. Even many non-dualists, and even some dualists, who insist free-will is real and free of the physical, don’t have too much objection to unconscious events being entirely physical and caused and causal.
Is it only the conscious bits, and free-will, that brings out the cognitive dissonance that prevents them seeing it all as physical?
No, not at all. I am saying that we don’t have a good definition of what constitutes a thought.
The point is that the thought occur in that alternate or virtual domain. And locations are not part of that domain, so a thought has no location. Sure, brain activity is involved in thought. But it probably isn’t a case where we can identify thoughts with specific brain activity.
I think you’re confusing definition and understanding. At one time we didn’t have a good understanding of what a star is, and thought it different from our sun. The understanding cleared up this problem, so that we realised that stars are suns, or suns are stars. But even the crude definition we could derive from that understanding we now find inadequate, and our current understanding has changed the detail of what a star is – its definition.
So, we currently have mixed, and many vague, ‘definitions’ of what thoughts, ideas, concepts are, because we don’t fully understand them yet. But, like the intermediate definition of a star, we know enough to say that thoughts, ideas and concepts are constituted of physical brain activity.
Your frequency domain representation is a difference is domains of representation, not of physical reality. Your time and frequency domain representations is misleading.
First, your time domain representation of a sine wave already has the time dimension within it. Your representation of the frequency domain has removed the time domain altogether, so you have misrepresented reality. The frequency domain representation of a sine wave is not a point but a straight line. A frequency domain representation does not remove the time domain. Vertical frequency axis and horizontal time axis gives you a horizontal straight line. A more realistic plot would be of a complex time varying waveform, such as speech. Plot that in the frequency domain and it’s just as ‘real’ (but as we’ll see next, un-real) as the time domain plot.
Second, your time domain plot has already removed spatial (localization) information – i.e. it was already a non-reality example. Introduce spacial position into both time and frequency domains and you would see the localisation. Of course 5-D plots (3-L, 1-T, 1-amplitude) are tricky. The usual amplitude-time and frequency-time are un-real already. No wonder there’s no localization.
So, your particular example domains are already virtual representations by being plots, on paper or on screen, and are also virtual by being transformed by maths in a computer. Whatever reality your waves represent, such as a single tone of a tuning fork, they are not actually it.
Actual non-virtual thoughts don’t come in nice plots, but in physical brain activity. The fact that we can’t pin each bit of each fleeting thought to a particular set of neurons is no different, in principle, than expecting to pin down the location of each and every atom when saying we understand where the molecules are that are causing the pressure of a balloon.
But thoughts can be localized in brain regions, even though crudely with current tech. As crude and as easy to criticise as fMRI scans are, they already produce localization information when carried out live while performing experiments. Split brain patients show crude localization in hemispheres: one half does the rationalising (has conscious thoughts) that try to explain the un-conscious activity driven by the other side.
When talking about thoughts being material based only, it seems to me that we would be leaving out “potential”. First generation stars had the potential to become human brains, an elementary particle had the potential to become a first generation star, and something had the potential to become an elementary particle…..that something is what the entire brain consists of. Thought is arrived at through potential, the same potential that encompasses “everything”. Maybe even a potential for Universal intelligence….if you reverse engineer it. 🙂
Hi John, welcome.
But all those early elements had the potential to be any of the things they could be – so any hydrogen atom could be in a drop of water, or bound to an organic molecule in any living thing, and part of a methane fart of a cow. And, what’s more, the same atom will have been those things and many more over the time since it formed. Of course some of the early hydrogen atoms had to hang around a while and go through a few generations of stars, being transformed through the nuclear processes of stars into other elements; and the current hydrogen atoms that have been around all this time have bonded many times with other elements. It’s not like any hydrogen atom is destined, as a potential, to be part of any particular intelligent or non-intelligent thing.
As I drink water and eat food my body makes use of these, and some of the atoms, molecules, make it into my brain, chemically interact with other components, take part in reactions at synapses as neurotransmitters (http://www.chemistryexplained.com/A-Ar/Acetylcholine.html).
So, all those potentials at the early stages of the universe could be anywhere doing anything – we haven’t a clue, except to say that anything our brains contain now was probably at some point star stuff. But so was my last urine sample.
As we go more elemental than that, with the formation of particles, what makes them come into existence, what lies at the fundamental levels of material reality, well, it’s all frontier physics. And if all the effort that goes into particle physics is struggling with this stuff then I’m afraid I’m not too impressed with speculative claims about consciousness, or “Maybe even a potential for Universal intelligence”. As speculative meanderings, that’s fine. Metaphysical speculations are interesting.
The problem with the universal intelligence idea is that we only have a limited idea of what intelligence is, what sort of stuff can be intelligent – i.e. life forms of various sorts here on earth. And it seems intelligence is in someway directly related to the complexity of brains, or simple nervous systems.
It’s easy to ‘see’ intelligence where it might not be. Like visual pareidolia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareidolia), the tendency to see faces in rock formations on Mars, or Jesus on tree bark or toast, so we also tend to see intelligence where it might not be (or in terms of Intelligent Design we think we see the result of design in non-designed objects).
If you look at the activity of slime mold, it looks intelligent. But then so do some chemical reactions.
The thing is, life *is* chemical reactions, but on massively complex scales that seem to defy our analysis, and so we tend to attribute magic to it, as our incredulity is induced in the face of mere matter doing complex things. So, the question is not: should we be looking for intelligence, as some non-physical magic as the source of everything; but rather: is it a case of us mistaking very complex systems for magical properties of the universe, or magical disembodied entities?
We have no other examples of intelligence. Rocks don’t generally seem too intelligent. So, I think the better inference from all we know is that all of material reality is not intelligent, but that some complex instances of matter (e.g. brains) behave in ways we label as ‘intelligent’. Some simple life forms seem to exhibit ‘intelligent’ behaviour. There’s a lot of philosophy, neuroscience, AI work trying to figure out what we mean by ‘intelligence’, and ‘consciousness’, and there are various working definitions. But we really don’t know what the limits to conscious intelligence are, what is necessary or what is sufficient.
We’re just shooting in the dark when we start talking about universal intelligence, or gods, or disembodied minds, or souls, of any kind. The materialist perspective is at least based on, is a reasonable extrapolation of, all that we know now.
Thanks Ron, of course I agree with most all of a materialist perspective. After reading all the arguments for and against “duality”, it’s hard not to take that path. But sometimes I tend to think “particle entanglement” might somehow indicate that all particles are actually one in the same, just occupying different spaces. So it brings me to the proffer that, “Any theory will be wrong when applied to a system which contains the observer himself, due to self-reference.”. If the brain conceives of its self as only materialistic in nature, then the concept is suspect for that individual brain. It might be valid for another brain, but not the one that conceived it. If we take it farther, every brain would then be individual, and upon analyzing its self, it would always include an observer…which affects the validity of a theory test. I am self educated in all of this, so what I offer is only what my brain “thinks”. 🙂 It is really a fun thing for me to be able to take advantage of information available from informed people such as yourself….thank you for the kindness!
I am glad to read your ideas Ron, and agree completely. I was just thinking today about how all digital data has a physical base, such as in cd/dvd optical media, magnetic media, and electronic media , and this is paralleled by how all memories and thoughts and ideas are stored in our brains , which is biological electro-chemical media. All abstract thoughts, ideas, and concepts originated in a physical brain, and reside in physical brains and representations of those concepts reside on media such as books, computers, discs, etc.
I have been a materialist for a while now and just wanted to reign in any possible non-material things that may be out there…some people think that abstract concepts of beauty, art, poetry, love, math…etc could not possibly be material…but it is clear to me that they are since a brain is required to describe and debate those concepts…
.love is all about chemical reactions in the human body and brain…its funny how people admit that they cannot control falling in love..but dont want to admit its because its a physical chemical process that does things on its own much like all of our internal bodily functions happen automatically without asking our conscious permission.
Hi Geroge, thank you, and welcome.
Yes. I don’t see how a material entity, such as a human, evolved as a species from simpler material precursors, or as an individual developing from a few cells, is supposed to acquire some magical capacity to detect, interact, know a supposed non-material reality. Whatever we discover must be part of the material world. Even if we discover some ‘additional’ aspect to reality it will be incorporated into our material understanding of the world.
Another thought which may or may not be helpful.
When we speak of the body and brain as being material/physical, I will remind others that this includes all types of known (and maybe even some unknown) physical phenomenon, including electric and electromagnetic fields. These fields, and how they interact as a sum total, would serve to make an already complex “material” organism (us) even that much more complex…it is this utter complexity that prevents us from deciphering in detail the nuances of how the brain/body produces the “mind”, but it is ultimately, in our view, all a product of natural causes.
“These fields, and how they interact as a sum total, would serve to make an already complex “material” organism (us) even that much more complex”
I would think it the other way round.
The fields that constitute our reality make all matter complex to a certain degree: all particles, all elements. This applies to rocks or proteins. But proteins are generally more complex than because of their complex arrangement of a variety of elements in the same molecule, whereas rocks tend to be less complex mixtures of fewer elements.
Then the complexity is compounded in living systems by arranging complex molecules into cells, and then organs, and then organisms, of which the most complex know example is the brain.
So, the fields and their particles form one level of complexity that applies across the board to all material elements. The interconnectedness of particles is what makes the brain especially complex. The connectedness of matter particles in some arrangements, such as brains, is many levels of complex above fields, and indeed contains fields in common with far simpler systems.
What degree of complexity is required for consciousness, or what configurations of what materials are required for consciousness, remains a puzzle.