Tag Archives: Ideas

Ideas, Concepts, Thoughts – Physical Instantiation In Brains

[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.