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Thinking Without Brains

By Roy D. Follendore III

Copyright (c) 2003 by RDFollendoreIII


This is not another essay about politics and perhaps more surprisingly in spite of the title, it is also not specifically about brains.  It is really about thinking about our human perception of ourselves, our limits and our ability to realize the scientific possibilities of growth and our physical and intellectual harmony as part of our environment.  As with many of the essays that I have written, an event triggered my thoughts that caused me to dive into this effort.

Yesterday a young lady came to my door to do an annual Gypsy moth survey for my county.  She uses a GPS  and counts viable egg casings in the early fall every year.  I first met her about three years ago when the project began.  She explained to me about the moth and how important it was for me to destroy any eggs that I might find.  She explained to me how they can devastate trees, how the eggs are fully formed when they are laid and how the female pulls her brown "downy fur" from her body before she dies in order to protect them.  When she said that something about the humanity of that act clicked inside me.  I expressed my wonder at the commonality that we share with nature.  

I went on to try to explain my feelings of how much alike all living things are in nature and the particularly with respect to the complexities and innate intelligence that trees appear to demonstrate for survival. After a neighbors large tree had blown down during the recent hurricane I had realized how important the forest becomes to the individual forest tree.  The pattern of progressively smaller plants not only buffer the shear winds, forests also change the trees pattern of growth that would allow it to protect itself.  Because the older forest trees have lived in relationships with each other, their root systems are not as projected further out.  Sometime ago I had read papers about how root systems interact and occasionally seem to wage war on each other.  (I had made a note to myself at the time that this seemed like a legitimate form of communication.)  

I suppose that it was the moment when I mentioned that plants communicate that I first noticed her face change.  She did not understand what I had said but I was sure that she did not believe me.  For some reason I felt somehow obligated to try to explain without success.  In spite of her apparent openness, I could see that she had a preconceived mechanical concept of nature. It was impossible to explain that I have studied and experimented with software that attempts to emulate different kinds of organized intelligence. It was also impossible in that moment to verbally reference the research that I knew existed.  But for what it was worth, after she had left I Googled a reasonable link reference and passed it on to her.  I then sat down and began to write this essay, which I hope you enjoy.             

September 25, 2003

There has never been a faster pace of technological change in the history of humanity.  Many things that our great Grandfathers might have once thought as impossible. If a person of their age and time had posed a serious question to average people about cell phones, or jet aircraft, or the Internet or even the potential of man walking around on the moon, then that person might have been considered crazy.  The point is that the things that we may think of as normal was once not.  But it is not just that events and technology exist. The philosophical perspective of our place in the universe is changing.  From quantum theory to the concept of the big bang, through our belief systems we are truly changing what we are because of what we know.   

Is it possible for living things to think without a brain or is the model of thought predetermined by our brains form?  Is the purpose of our brain determined by our senses and communication so that if we had different senses we would think differently?  Is the ability to think intelligently dependent upon centralization or is it the speed of the processing?  These are some of the basic questions about what makes we humans what we are.      

In some respects, the human mind seems to work much like a pinhole camera.  When we human beings think using our brains we are processing the byproducts of stimuli.  Like the pinhole camera, the objectification of things is a matter of minimization, not maximization.  Our brains assign appropriateness and when at moments we feel that we are focusing on a thing, what we are actually doing is filtering everything else.  Minds are made to objectively discriminate the things of interest from background noise.  There is an obvious physical reason for this.  The brain finds it easier to manage a stream than an ocean.

It is the intimate immediacy of streaming processing that creates what we call conscience. We are constantly comparing that which is of value and contrasting them with those things from what is of no value.  In doing so, it is as though we are no longer observing that which is there as much as that which is in between.  The most profound things can be discovered though analogies and maybe that is why our minds work like they do.

In our minds eye it is as though we are constantly flipping the channel on a television set and refocusing on a series of independent scenes and sounds that somehow make sense together.  The issue of which came first, the interdependencies of the observed relationships or the observation and conclusion of interdependencies.  The temporal observation of time seems to be inherit within the conceptual meaning of the existence of intelligence. The simultaneity of the experience expressed in the idea, "I think therefore I am" is quite different from the physical reality of "I sense therefore I shall be."    

"I am." is the winner because it is a record of existence.  Going back to the mind camera analogy, there is also a kind of camera that has been used at horse races called a slit camera. The size of the hole within the camera determines the rate at which light can enter.  Unlike traditional cameras you may be used to using however, the film moves as it is being exposed.  A narrow vertical slit behind the lens allows the speed of the shutter to be adjusted to the movement speed of the film.  This means that the subject of the photograph must have an appropriate relationship with both the direction and movement of the film behind the slit in order to be recorded clearly.  In other words, the physical construction and mechanics of the slit camera acts to isolate details with respect to light.  This is the sort of thing that the mind does. The mind isolates dynamic images from the noise of the background.

There is the camera and there is the film.  The thing about the mind is not just that it discriminates but that it is also a record.  But at this point, camera analogies go too far.  Memories in the mind are not really the same as photographs. Rather than images, they seem to be more like  "multi media references, formulas really, from which we may recreate a representation of what we have experienced.  This is a kind of compression that allows the massive amount of accumulated experiences to be accessible. A normal mind may forget a particular image but it does not forget the formula for that image. 

Suppose for instance that Bob and Tom look very much alike and if we are not all that familiar with either of them we might easily mistake one for the other.  But we may not only mistake Bob for Tom or Tom for Bob; the way that our minds work, we also refer to their separate identities through their commonality.  The film of the minds camera takes in the concept of one (for instance Bob) but refers to the formula of the other (Tom) in order to fill in the empty space.  The film of the mind is really a web of such associations so that as we grow older, it takes progressively fewer acts of storage and more associated references to manage a redeemable mental record of a witnessed event. The mind works that way because it is far more efficient to create pointers to data than it is to record and store new data.  

The stimulus of our immediate surroundings will program the mind to respond in certain ways, similar to the way that code causes computer processors to operate.  We can empathize with the perspective of others because our mind can consider hypothetical situations in which it might respond.  Writers constantly use this kind of thinking to place characters in situations and the ability to manage this process is probably what makes a "reasonably good" writer a genius.  Readers can be fascinated by the ways that characters interact with respect to their surroundings and it becomes not only the agreement to our own expectations, the disagreements that become so interesting.  In this way writing changes the context of our minds as we share the identity pointers of the writers characters while we simultaneously acquire new pointers.

Suppose we were to step in a room full of hundreds of people.  They are in groups talking with each other.  We have all been in that situation at some time or the other.  You may have noticed that a few people tend to be off to the side and not communicating while most are in groups, usually twos and threes and fours carrying on conversations.  There are some people maneuver around and flirt between the various groups and even speak or are occasionally spoken to by the loners.  As a whole, the social body of the crowd of people are interacting on different meta levels than the individuals.  The body is generally acting through a side effect of their immediate perceptions.  

As individual people communicate only fraction of each persons mind is typically directed toward the larger aspects of the surrounding. There is too much complexity to recognize every individual simultaneously and yet connections are constantly being made and pieces of conversations from other groups intrude.  The individuals and the immediate group in relation to the crowd become pointers in much the same way as those fillers between Bob and Tom. The body of the crowd has acquired identity with autonomy.  It can be said that through this process a crowd acquires a "personality."  

Through this process, the body of the crowd as a whole can be said to affect the individual just as we might expect from personal experience. If a fire were to break out, there is the potential that this crowd as a whole could react in ways that are independent of the expected potential reaction by individuals. Because of the personality of the crowd, the potential range of interactions is different has both been transformed and the individual is conformed.  What is interesting is that the mind of the individual is centralized, whereas the group and crowd becomes more distributed. This is the idea behind social distributed intelligence.  The big question is can social distributed intelligence have a greater intelligence than the sum of its parts.  Let's consider this.

Distributed group intelligence can be demonstrated today through the use of robotics.  It is now possible to build relatively "stupid" individual robots in such a way that it is only as a whole they begin to be able to do what might be called intelligent community tasks.  But the really best example for this can be found in the insect world.  Ants for instance, are identical and just about everything that they need to respond as individuals and as a whole colony is predetermined within the notion of their biology.  In spite of this, ants have an amazing facility to perform a larger range of group activities within very complex environments. 

The implication is that because the individual brain of an ant is so tiny, it can not dedicate a large amount of processing to the colony.  The degree of intelligence that can be proscribed to individual is therefore not the same as the group. This should not be surprising since this observation is in line with the basis of where individual human intelligence is derived.  Individual cells compose the human brain and individually they are not intelligent.  It is the crowd of cells that differentiate and operate as a colony that are considered intelligent.  

Just as there is more than one way to emulate the idea of a camera, and more than one way to differentiate objects of noise from objects that are useful, intelligence may arise from a completely different path that of the human brain.  It is entirely possible and even probable that such intelligence could be far more significant than the intelligence of individuals within the body of we call humanity.  We choose to compare the intelligence of other things to ourselves because that is our standard but also perhaps because doing so fills in the empathic gaps, once again just as Bob fills the gap for Tom.  The attribution of intelligence therefore may in fact be the same thing as intelligence.  If we perceive a thing to be intelligent then it is, just as when we think, we are.  When we look at the larger idea of what it is humanity is becoming we can see that the social intelligence of humanity is emerging at a faster and faster rate.  That means that the importance of distributed group intelligence may be just as important as what we are or shall become.

All of this means that our simplified and self serving formula for describing the act of thinking is constantly evolving. Just because thoughtful communication does not exist, does not mean that thought does not.  As a Helen Keller showed us, the deaf and muted can be intelligent and productive thinkers.  We are only now discovering that entities we may not be able to communicate with or be capable of thought might also be thinkers.  For those of us who worry about such things as the purity of Science.  In response it can be rightfully argued that Science is simply returning to the roots of its most essential and productive philosophy of asking questions and expressing doubt rather than simply spewing beliefs.  Doubt works both ways and it is through the scientific method that the scales of our belief system should operate.  This is not crazy speculative science fiction, it is a legitimate hypothesis with substantial evidence.  If true there are vast potential benefits in robotics, nanotechnology research, security and computer networking.  

When it comes down to it, all that we ever really know is that which we can prove.  Scientists are better intellectual explorers, than inventors. They search the curiosities of intellectual physical space for evidence of the proof of truth within our belief systems. A case for thinking without brain systems as we know them exists. But more than that, this idea that brains as we traditionally think of them may not be required for thought is a fundamental and ancient belief that has existed within all of cultures of humanity.  

Studies of the apes has forced Science to constantly revise the definition of man. They use tools.  They understand the concept of death, fairness and they demonstrate compassion. They can even be taught sign language. Until a few years ago, humanity did not know that animals and insects communicated through ultrasound.  We once did not realize that whales communicated with each other from vast distances.  The zoo keepers did not even realize until fairly recently that the giraffes they cared for used ultrasound to communicate and organize themselves in cooperative ways. It took man a long time to recognize that the bumps on the front legs of grasshoppers were actually their ears.  Maybe it isn't so far fetched that we do not understand those things that are not like us.  

Perhaps thought on some level is a prerequisite of all life and it is the concept of thought itself that must be redefined. Different life forms may simply have different perspectives of thought and what is important to communicate.  Maybe the least of the plants are capable of thought and if so, somehow communicate if we only knew the scale of how to listen. Though it may go against everything we have been taught but there appears to be research suggesting that this may be possible. "According to Dr. Tony Trewavas of Edinburgh University, plants are capable of assimilating information, calculating outcomes, and responding through complex molecular signaling pathways that are similar to those within our brains."  He is arguing that observations on the complexity of plant responsiveness and behavior may be evidence of intelligence; a different kind of intelligence, but intelligence none the less.    

Maybe we need to put perspective on all of this.  If our earth were to have began at the stroke of midnight, Prokaryotes would not have appeared until 5 A.M., single celled eukaryotes would have been present in the water at 4 P.M. and by 8 P.M., multicellular plant forms would started to appear.  The land on our earth would have been invaded by plants at 10 P.M. but the first signs of human beings would only appear about 30 seconds before the end of the day. Computers have only been around for about the last .0.000005 seconds.  In spite of the circumstantial evidence that plants have been systematically reorganizing themselves on earth for billions of years, while modern man only left Africa about a hundred and fifty thousand years ago, and even if his hypothesis of "intelligence with out the benefit of a brain" is proven true, in some ways it would be easier for Dr. Trewavas to explain an alien intelligence living in a distant galaxy.  




Copyright (c) 2001-2007 RDFollendoreIII All Rights Reserved