[ExI] Does the computational theory of mind imply a "soul"?

Jason Resch jasonresch at gmail.com
Mon Apr 3 05:03:03 UTC 2023

On Sun, Apr 2, 2023 at 1:01 PM Max More via extropy-chat <
extropy-chat at lists.extropy.org> wrote:

> Jason, although I agree with much of your post I have a concern or two
> about what you wrote. Naturally, I’m going to focus on the concerns rather
> than the agreement.

Thank you for your detailed write up. I will try to address each of your
points below.

> > According to the computational theory of mind, the conscious state must
> be identified not with any particular physical manifestation (body), but
> rather, with some abstract informational/computational pattern. At first
> glance, this seems like a trivial distinction, but on a deeper inspection
> we see that it yields many properties which religions typically ascribe to
> souls:
> > It has no definitive physical location, no associated mass or energy. In
> a sense, it is immaterial.
> > Moreover, none of the states of an abstract computation bear any
> dependence on physical properties, so in this sense it might also be called
> non-physical.
> I’m not sure this is incorrect or just potentially misleading. By “the
> computational theory of mind” I take it that you mean some form of
> functionalism.

That's correct.

> According to that view, it is correct to say that “the conscious state
> must be identified not with any particular physical manifestation (body)”.
> However, I get uncomfortable when you go on to say it “yields many
> properties which religions typically ascribe to souls”, including
> immateriality and “non-physical” and having no dependence on physical
> states or energy. This is a Moravecian view but it’s not a functionalist
> view – or might not be depending on how you mean it.

What I mean is that the particulars of the physical can be abstracted away
and ignored completely, because the logical meaning of the computation
operates at a higher level. Programmers need not consider electric fields
or quark gluon interactions when they write software. If our universe had
different fields and particles, but still permitted the construction of a
computer, then the computations could execute in that universe just as well
as any other. As it happens, a universe needn't even have particles or
fields, a universe as simple as the Game of Life, has everything necessary
to build a Turing machine. In this sense, one's conscious state is entirely
divorced from the underlying physics, and any conscious state can exist in,
or be realized in any universe permitting construction of Turing machines.
It is in this sense that I say consciousness is non-physical.

> In a functionalist/computational theory of mind, any *instance* of
> mental/cognitive state is instantiated in a physical system,

I agree that at least one instantiation is required. And I did not mean to
imply otherwise. However, I would add that the instantiation need not be
what we would conventionally consider a "physical one." See more below.

> which consists of energy (always in the form on matter, at least so far).

In *this universe* it does. Though a conscious state could also be realized
in other universes of different kinds. Our consciousness may even exist in
purely mathematical/platonic objects, or existing as a necessary
consequence of mathematical truth. As it happens, this hypothesis can
explain many aspects of our physical universe as I write about here:
If this theory is true, it leads to a a form of idealism, wherein the
physical universe as we see it is derivative of conscious states (rather
than, as is normally supposed, consciousness being derivative from physical

> Souls, as traditionally understood, have NO physical instantiation.

There is a very long history of the concept of the soul. Beliefs concerning
it across religions and time are varied. Here is a link to some of my
writings about beliefs about the soul (including those of religions and
philosophers) from prehistoric times on through to the middle ages:

> There is a big difference between Christians who believe their souls will
> be to Heaven after death and those who believe they will be physically
> resurrected. The latter actually do not believe in a soul. Their bodies and
> brains could be reconstituted from entirely new atoms. If God was feeling
> creative, He/it/they might even use a completely different chemical basis
> for the resurrected people.

When we learn new information, we are given a choice of what to do with our
language. We can either throw out and discard the word, or we can amend and
expand the meaning of the word. Across history, it seems we tend towards
the latter path. Our concept of "atoms" and "heat", etc. have existed for
thousands of years. But rather than throw out the word atom, when we
learned atoms are in fact divisible, or rather than throw out the word
heat, when we learned it was just the average speed of particles, we
retained those words and expanded our meaning and understanding. It's not
my choice whether we retain the word soul, or come up with a new term for
the "immaterial, non-physical, transmigrating conscious state and primary
essence of a person" that exists within the theory of computationalism, but
my bet is that going forward we will keep the word, but expand its meaning.

> In other words, mental states cannot exist purely abstractly.

States can only be defined abstractly, and in that sense only exist
abstractly. But I see and agree with your point that there must be an
instantiation. Though I should add the caveat that I consider platonic
objects sufficiently real to count as an instantiation medium (though some
might call platonic objects abstract, I think the difference between
abstract and concrete is a matter of perspective --what appears as abstract
to one observer might seem quite concrete to another (e.g. an observer in
another inaccessible universe)).

> Nor can functioning minds exist simply as static data.

I agree there are probably no mental states associated with statically
stored information. At a minimum, I think information must be subject to
some kind of relation. Information cannot inform unless there is a system
to be informed.

> Only once that data has been embodied in a functioning system can mental
> statues restart.


> I’m not sure you will disagree with this but the way you state it makes it
> sound like you a dualist. I’m constantly correcting those who call
> transhumanist dualists. (At least, substance dualists. Property dualism is
> trickier.)

Functionalism leads to ideas which are often associated with religion, but
from this association you should not assume that functionalism is a dualist
theory. I confine my notion and description of
functionalism/computationalism, purely to what can be explained in terms of
simple mechanical rules.

However, that said there is a bit of a parallel between functionalism and
dualism that I noticed recently. If you consider Hofstader's notion of a
strange loop (wherein a hierarchy of different levels of causality, a top
level reaches down to interfere in a lower layer (think molecules bouncing
around in nerve cells, and nerve cells linking into neural nets, and neural
nets supporting thoughts, and then a thought causes a neural activation,
which triggers a muscle movement, which triggers changes in molecules))
there is some similarity to Descartes's idea that one's conscious thoughts
DO reach down "from above" to interfere with the goings-on in the physical
universe. Though here "from above" just refers to the higher levels of
causality (each layer of which is sustained in purely mechanistic ways by
the layer below it).

> > It can survive the death of the body (just as a story can survive the
> death of a book containing it), and be resurrected into new bodies via a
> transfer of this "immaterial" pattern, e.g. mind uploading.
> There is no “transfer”. There is a reinstantiation. Information is
> transferred, yes, but the non-functional, static information is not a
> consciousness.

I think this may just be a slight difference in our use of words. I agree a
snapshot of a computational state that is transferred is not some living
experience while in transit. It is tantamount to cryogenically freezing a
person, moving them to a new location, and then thawing them. My analogy
with a book was not meant to suggest the pages of the book are alive, it
was only meant to demonstrate the difference between "tokens and
<https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/types-tokens/>". A conscious state,
like a story, or a cent is a type. A particular brain, book, or penny, are
tokens for those respective types. Types, being abstract, can be said to
exist so long as there is at least one token of it.

> There’s a sense in which we can loosely say there is a transfer, but it’s
> likely to be misleading. Hence all the mistaken “transhumanists are
> dualists” statements.

Such criticisms I think are not coming from people who understand the
meanings of those terms.

> An “immaterial pattern” is not a functioning mind until it has a suitable
> embodiment.

I agree.

> > One's consciousness (or "soul"), not being tied to any physical
> incarnation or material properties of this universe, can then also be
> realized in wholly different universes having very different laws.
> I would amend that to “not being tired to any *specific* physical
> incarnation…”

Good correction.

> > If denial of the soul is a reason you have rejected the computational
> theory of mind, you should know this theory might be the support science
> offers for the idea of the soul.
> The soul is usually understood as a non-physical substance. That is very
> different from a mind understood from the computational/functionalist
> perspective.

I agree that the concept of soul, as implied by computationalism, is
different in many ways, but also similar in many ways, to what various
religions have supposed about it. Various religions have supposed different
things about the sun, and as our scientific understanding grew, we retained
the word, but we now understand the sun very differently from how ancient
peoples understood it.

> The soul explains nothing. It’s a useless hypothesis.

To me "soul" is a word, rather than a theory. Just as different religions
may all have their own concept and understanding of "god" and yet all use
the same word "god".

> It fails to even begin to explain why alcohol makes you drunk or why head
> injuries may cause loss of memory, blindness, or change in personality. The
> functionalist view, seeing the mind as instantiated in a physical system
> (currently the brain) can explain these and other things.

If someone asks you "Do dogs have souls?" and you are only allowed a "yes"
or "no" answer, which answer is least wrong? You might say "no" is more
correct, because you don't think anything like a soul exists. While another
person, whose conception of a soul is amended to be consistent with their
understanding of reality, or someone who considers how the other person
will interpret the answer, might think "yes" is more correct, as to say
"no" might imply to the other person that you think dogs are non-conscious
automatons. Language is tricky, and I would rather avoid discussion of the
merits of should we use this word or not, what is important are the
properties and capabilities imbued to consciousness when we accept
functionalist theories that abstract away the importance of particular
material instantiations, and I think the word "soul" may be the most
similar currently existing word in the lexicon for representing something
having these properties, but I am welcome to suggestions for other
better-fitting terms.

> > If what you are is that organization of information that has structured
> your body's control system
> I’m much more comfortable with this way of putting it, because it doesn’t
> imply that mind or personality can exist without *any* embodiment.

No disagreement here.

> > There is actually an astonishing similarity between the
> mind-as-computer-program idea and the medieval Christian idea of the
> ?soul.? Both are fundamentally ?immaterial?
> > -- Frank Tipler in "The Physics of Immortality" (1994)
> Now I’m uncomfortable again! The David Darling quote also suggests a
> conflation of dualism with functionalism.

To me, immaterial does not carry the same connotations as supernatural or
magical. Scientists readily accept the existence of many abstract things:
numbers, bits, words, concepts, emotions, stories, etc.
"Immaterial" in this sense, just means it is something of an abstraction
which exists at a level above the physical. To acknowledge that
computational states are abstract and immaterial in this sense is not to
suggest that there is a ghostly realm of souls which reach down from heaven
to magically push atoms around in our Pineal gland, it's just to point out
that like numbers, bits, and words, computational states are not defined as
particular material arrangements.

> Moravec’s view has long bothered me. When I pressed him on it, he said
> that he believed every mind already exists everywhere because you could see
> it with the right mathematical interpretation. Yikes!

While I agree every mind state exists (because I believe reality contains
every logically possible structure), I, like you, do not buy the idea of
every possible computation happening within a rock, as some philosophers
have argued. Counterfactuals matter in computation, without the IF-THEN
follow-through, there is no relation among the bits and therefore no
computation to speak of. Computations, through their structure of
relations, are in a sense, self-defining, there is only one way to
interpret the computation as it unfolds.

> Bostrom: “> Recent cosmological data indicate that our universe is quite
> likely infinite and contains an infinite number of galaxies and planets.”
> I admit than I’m not terribly current on cosmology but this isn’t what I
> understand. The universe appears to be expanding without limit but is not
> infinite in extent. Unless we can reignite a physical singularity, there is
> not an infinite amount of energy or matter.

The current leading model in cosmology (the standard model of cosmology)
a.k.a. the "ΛCDM Model
assumes a flat geometry of spacetimes which implies a spatially infinite
universe. This has not been proven, but our best observations have not
ruled it out either. An infinite cosmology is also implied by eternal
inflation, which is the model for how the

Max Tegmark explains how the universe is big enough to have duplicates of
each of us according to standard models:
Alan Guth explains how inflation implies bubbles which appear infinite in
extent from the inside: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfeJhzPq3jQ
My article on how big is the universe:

"In an eternally inflating universe, anything that can happen will happen;
in fact, it will happen an infinite number of times."
-- Alan Guth, in “Eternal inflation and its implications

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