3: Minds on my Mind

How I came to be interested in studying minds

Minds are the most complex, interesting, and important things in the universe. They offer both scientific mysteries and practical, existential problems. For example, how is it that we recall just the right information when we need it, bypassing thousands of unrelated things in the process? And how do we avoid the damage and destruction of minds by aging, disease, and accident?

These and other questions about minds first began to develop in my mind in high school, while (nerdily enough) I was attending a math and physics competition held at a local university. Between events, I browsed the campus bookstore, wide-eyed at my first exposure to technical genres like popular science.

The book that won my pocket money that day was V. S. Ramachandran’s A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, which had one idea at its core: damaged brains are a window into healthy ones. Their weird errors, like seeing numbers as having colors, offer an opportunity to study mechanisms which are also silently at work in healthy brains. Steven Pinker, come to think of it, also took a similar approach when he studied the grammatical errors of children as a window into the mind. He noted that, when children incorrectly conjugate irregular verbs by saying things like, “I heared a sound” instead of “I heard a sound”, they had to be generating new words according to some general rule - not just recalling things they’d heard before. After all, “heared” wasn’t a word they could’ve picked up from adults, since adults always say “heard”.

At any rate, brain damage and irregular verbs aren’t the only games in town when it comes to studying the mind. The philosophy of knowledge - epistemology - is another. In his 2012 article, Creative Blocks, David Deutsch argues that the work of the philosopher Karl Popper is indispensable in understanding minds well enough to create them, for “What is needed is nothing less than a breakthrough in philosophy, a new epistemological theory that explains how brains create explanatory knowledge.”

Popper viewed knowledge-creation as an evolutionary process consisting of variation and selection - conjecture and criticism. Deutsch echoes this point and adds, “the ability to create new explanations is the unique, morally and intellectually significant functionality of people (humans and AGIs)…” So, while knowledge-creation in general is always about variation and selection, it matters what is being varied and selected, and what mechanisms of variation and selection are at work. For instance, genes are changed only by undirected, random mutations while human ideas are often varied on purpose by recombining existing ideas. Though these are both forms of variation, their speed, efficiency, and range of practical application could not be more different.

Within minds, too, there is another important distinction - this time between explanations and other kinds of ideas. Explanations are about what is objectively true rather than only what is useful. What are the consequences of this? What makes this sort of knowledge more powerful, and indeed more useful, than other kinds? What is different about its structure? What mechanisms of variation and selection are required to create this sort of knowledge? What is so difficult about creating it? (After all, it’s an extremely recent innovation in the history of life on earth.)

These open questions are fascinating in their own right, for they are about knowledge and knowledge-creation, which are fundamental. They are essential to understanding biological evolution, human minds (and minds in general), political systems, markets, and much else besides. Although these domains all have their own unique problems and controversies, they also share a unifying logic. They all require conjecture and criticism - the creation of new ideas and the elimination of bad ones. In the course of jumping rapidly from field to field while applying Popper’s ideas, I’ve often thought of epistemology as the intellectual equivalent of a wormhole - it lets you jump across vast stretches of the universe at speeds that should be impossible. One moment, you may be thinking about error-correction in political systems, and in the next, you may be thinking about biological selection pressures, software testing, or scientific peer review.

So, I guess what I’m saying is… epistemology and artificial general intelligence would be worth studying even if they didn’t hold the promise of everlasting life in the form of highly-reliable, backed-up digital minds.