[extropy-chat] Be[ing] or Not Be[ing]

Spike spike66 at comcast.net
Sun Apr 18 16:37:17 UTC 2004

> Harvey Newstrom
> I disagree.  Unfalsifiable, unscientific ...it is about as useful as a

> religious debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
> Harvey Newstrom, CISSP, CISA, CISM, IAM, IBMCP, GSEC...

I am endebted for the following meme to Damien Broderick,
from his upcoming book about philosophy.  I haven't checked 
with him if it is OK to reveal the title, so I will allow 
him to do so if he wishes.  (Coming soon to a bookstore 
near you...)  I hope I have contributed at least a little 
to his meme.

When medieval theologians argued about angels dancing on
pins, what were they actually doing?  

Consider humans.  We know how big we are, in Harvey and
my case perhaps in the 50 to 60 kg range, but we contain a lot
of mass that does not contribute directly to thinking
but rather only supporting the brain.  If we had no legs
or arms, we would be smaller but would still be able to
think.  If we managed to figure a way to oxygenate, 
add nutrients to and pump our blood, we would not technically
need a body either, for it has been demonstrated in the
laboratory on a dog that a head can be kept alive, in which
case we would only be about 5 kg.  For that manner, we 
could still think even if we had no eyes or ears; Helen
Keller managed it somehow.  A clever team of scientist
might even keep a naked brain alive, as demonstrated
by Steve Martin in The Man With Two Brains.

But much of even the mass of the brain does not contribute
directly to thinking.  With no eyes, one would not need
a visual cortex.  Without heart, lungs and all the
other superfluous equipment down south, one need not
have those regions of the brain which control bodily
functions.  I have a notion that the conscious thought
that makes us sentient and human takes place in the 
frontal lobes, which are not so large, but even then,
the frontal lobes contain cells and structures that
do other things besides think.

A neuron as a mysterious (to me anyway) device that consists
of a bunch of inputs and one output.  When the right
combination of inputs are present, then the output fires.
Could not we wire a bunch of transistors together to do
something like this?  We are really good and making
transistors really small, so a semiconductor analog of
a neuron would likely be much smaller than a neuron, so
perhaps our human brain's ten billion neurons could be
packaged in a much smaller space than the baseball
sized(?) glob that is our frontal lobes.

If so, then the support of that tiny package would become
much simpler than the elaborate "ground support equipment"
that our brains require.  In fact we could add back in tiny
instrumentation that would provide sight and hearing to
the semiconductor brain analog, and perhaps even other
senses that we do not have, such as ultraviolet vision
for instance.  The smaller brain-analog would have shorter
pathways for signals to travel, so the brain analog would
be much faster than its meat counterpart, so the resulting
device might be considered in some ways much superior
to humans, or as the vocabulary limited old-time 
theologians might call them: "angels."

So what is the smallest possible angel?  
A backhanded way of asking might be: how many 
angels can dance on a pinhead?

That, my extropian friends, is one hell of a profound question.


More information about the extropy-chat mailing list