Life and How to Make it
MIND and MATTER
SPIRIT and SUBSTANCE
....philosophical speculation about life and consciousness has been a sad, gradual process of the "explaining away" the soul. It has been turned into first a substance, then a force, and now a mechanism. Yet recognising that life and consciousness are products of material processes need not " explain them away" in the slightest. I think it calls into question the meaning of "material process" itself.
....the primitive, dualistic distinction between mind and matter, spirit and substance, has been replaced by a more modern one which in effect claims that there is only substance. I would prefer to claim that there is only spirit. One of the points of view this book seeks to explore can be stated as follows:
Life is not made of atoms, it is merely built out of them. What life is actually "made of" its cycles of cause and effect, loops of causal flow. These phenomena are just as real as atoms - perhaps even more real. If anything, the universe is actually made from events, of which atoms are merely some of the consequences.
...The natural world is composed of a hierarchy of "persistent phenomena", in which matter, life, mind and society are simply different levels or aspects of the same thing. I propose that this natural hierarchy can be mirrored by an equivalent one that exists inside a parallel universe called cyberspace. I want to sketch an outline for a common descriptive language which can be used at all levels of the hierarchy. In this language which shall find the basic operators of which life and mind are constructed. To create artificial life we have to understand the nature of this hierarchy, implement simulations of these basic operators using a computer (or other device) and build upon that foundation the higher levels of persistent phenomena that we seek. A computer cannot be intelligent, but did can create a parallel universe in which natural forms of intelligence can be replicated.
Intelligence involves a great deal more than the ability to follow rules (which is what a chess-playing program does). It is also the ability to make up the rules for oneself, when they are needed, or to learn new rules through trial and error.
In essence, the problem is that the digital computer was modelled on the outward appearance of mental processes, rather than the structures that give rise to them. Even though we know our brains consist of vast numbers of neurones operating in parallel, we each appear to have only one mind. This mind seems to operate in a stepwise way, thinking about or carrying out sequences of actions one at a time. We also get a sense that our conscious thoughts are at the top of a chain of command - we take the big decisions consciously, but then delegate the task of carrying them out to some lower, subconscious parts of our brains. The mind therefore gives us the impression that it is top-down (employs a chain of command), serial (only one mind per brain, operating one step at a time) and procedural (works in terms of logical procedures to be followed, as in a recipe). The digital computer is similarly a serial machine because it only carries out one operation at a time. It is procedural because the basic units of a program are actions to be carried out (such as 'add these two numbers and store the result here'). It is also top-down, since computer programmers tend to design their programs as control hierarchies - a central program carries out commands by issuing orders to subroutines, which in turn invoke subordinate routines to handle the finer details.
The computer was designed as a model of how the mind seems to work, and the operation of a computer program was assumed to be very similar to thinking. Yet there are flaws in this logic. For one thing, there is a potential pitfall with the top-down approach. In any chain of command the buck stops with the person at the top, and with a computer program it is all too easy for the buck to stop, not with the top level of the program, but with the programmer. In other words, what seems like intelligent behaviour initiated by the machine (for example the ability to play chess) is often just the stored intelligence of its designer, regurgitated on cue. Also, it doesn't follow that copying the outward appearance of something is the same as recreating the thing itself. Statues are not people: they just look like them. Sooner or later, the mask is bound to slip and the deception will be exposed. Finally, it is really only philosophers and mathematical logicians who would believe that thinking amounts to the formal manipulation of symbols according to set rules. Most of the time the rest of us don't think in neat syllogisms or conduct formal arguments in our heads. More often than not the answers just occur to us in some mysterious way, and we use logic only in retrospect as a means of justifying our conclusions to others or to ourselves.
So the digital computer was in many ways the wrong tool, applied to the wrong job. Ironically, though, this most organized of machines is such a powerful concept that it can actually get around its own limitations, but only if one thinks about it in the right way. This book is very much about how to turn the prim, tightly organized digital computer into a disorganized, self-organizing machine. We shall use the serial, procedural, top-down computer as a tool to create new machines that are parallel, relational and bottom-up.
...what we perceive as the correct way of looking at things is actually mistaking the ground for the figure. To understand life, mind, consciousness and soul, I believe we have to learn to turn our intuitive interpretation of a world inside out. In short, we need to stop looking at the actors and instead start focusing on the play.
...we need to stop looking at the actors ....and instead start focusing on the play.
...to understand life and mind we have to learn to let go of our natural tendency to divide the world into discrete chunks. Living organisms are systems in flux, their constituent stuff changing from moment to moment; minds are not really things in the conventional sense at all. But then, nor our clouds. All these things are shifting, blurred, interacting eddies in a single stream.
.... to see yourself as a persistent phenomenon, when the subset from which you are made is in constant flux, is to begin to understand life, and more than just life. Life is not the magical, of fluid substance, but neither is it simply a convenient label to attach to certain combinations of material substances. In fact, material substances themselves are not even as substantial as we have been led to believe.
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