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Do you know epiphenomenon? I only learned about the concept recently (thanks to Tim Ferris), describing Ptolemy’s epicycle-intensive universe model, and have been thinking about them a lot. It’s nice to have a word for knowing and describing what something looks like without understanding it (a word other than “physics”, I mean). I desperately need a word for a model for something that is extremely in its basic assumptions but produces correct results, and though epiphenomenon does not exactly mean that, I will briefly coopt it to serve.
This idea–an accurate, incorrect model–has bothered me re: consciousness since I heard a keynote at SXSW by (I think) Raymond Kurzweil a few years ago about artificial intelligence. I didn’t really follow how much of what he said led to his conclusions (it seemed the other way around to me, really, but I was pretty hung over, and also this was four-plus years ago now, and I’m going entirely from memory here.), but he had a rather convoluted metaphorical reductio ad absurdam about a field of wheat waving in the wind. If we take the stalks that are bent by the wind N degrees or more as 1s and the unbent stalks as 0s, the field of wheat can be interpreted as one very long binary number. Since everything on a computer, (presumably including a computer which happened to be sentient because it’s a 1:1 model of the human brain), is a long binary number, or a series of them, then a field (or fields) of wheat sufficiently large to represent the bits of a computer sufficiently complex to reproduce the human brain, then given the right wind, you have to admit that it’s possible for your wheat field, sentient computer, and human brain all have the same data in them right then. Therefore, if consciousness is just a matter of electrons (or, you know, the arrangements of collapsed wave functions that we call electrons) arranged in a certain way in the brain, your model turns Dinge-an-sich and you have a conscious wheat field.
This, while obviously wrong, is hard to concisely (not that I really go in for concision. obviously) and clearly refute if you don’t have my concept of epiphenomena on hand. Once you can start slotting it into analogies as Ptolemy’s model is to planetary motion, it’s much easier to shake the nonsense out of your head and start arguing about the difference between a representation and a real thing, and the ship of Theseus, and all kinds of other all-Greek-to-me stuff.
Of course, my understanding of Buddhism is that it already takes consciousness as something like an epiphenomenon to begin with–just a trick the universe is playing on itself–so this probably has a completely opposite point if you approach it from that angle. More evidence that the wheat field is just as much a conscious self as are you–i.e. not at all. (My understanding of this particular tenet of Buddhist thought, I hasten to point out, is just about as shaky as my memory of Kurzweil’s speech. I have lots of trouble with keeping this idea from seeming like crackpottery on the order of Billy Pilgrim telling that kid not to feel bad because though his father my be dead now he’s still alive in the past, but it seems to have to do with Heraclitic (the Greeks are Buddhist sometimes (I rewrote that twice, flipping the copular around)) rivers, state versus process, and dewdrops on spiderwebs. I think you’re going to have to look this one up for yourself.) Some people took Ptolemy literally, too.
Also, I really need someone to tell all this to Umberto Eco. Probably instead of a wheat field, we’d have to use a book metaphor, say a library with the checked-out books as 0s and the books present as 1s. What with “On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale of 1 to 1” (can I mention here how much I enjoy that I’m the first result Google lists for that title?), and his already knowing plenty about epiphenomena I’m sure he could have some real fun with it.

Filed by shaun at November 13th, 2008 under indifferenthonest

If you want more confusion, why limit yourself to only one and zero? In quantum theory it gets much more complicated. Read Quantum, by Tom Grace for a lot more information in a very enjoyable fictional novel.

Comment by T.O.M. — 13 Nov 2008 @ 2:30 pm

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