Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Can machines dream? (Part 2)

Quoting Ron Burnett, Emily Carr University
Imaging of the brain can provides pictures of the connections between different parts, but imaging cannot provide details of what Gregory Bateson has so aptly described as the set of differences that make relations between the parts of the mind possible. “The interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a non-substantial phenomenon not located in space or time… (Bateson, 1972: 92)

Ronny Siebes, Free University of Amsterdam
If I understand you correctly, you mean that our imaging techniques only allow us to make snap-shots of a fixed state of our neurons (by doing terrible animal experiments) or energy levels (PET, CT, MRI or EEG-scans). I agree with that.

Besides this I still believe (rationally) that every state change has a physical cause, and therefore a physical change in neuron-activity also has a physical cause. I'm not sure what Bateson and you exactly mean by 'difference', but allow me to give my definition by introducing another example: difference is like a comparison between a high and low pressure areas in the weather domain. We 'see' wind indirectly by experiencing that the trees are moving. Also when we make satellite pictures of the clouds and measure other things like pressure and temperature, we can see that there is a 'difference' between the values of these properties when comparing the high- and low pressure area.

However this is not enough to *explain* the reason (cause) for this difference. Physics only allows us to come up with theories (models) and when they describe reality precisely (by doing direct or indirect observational experiments) we assume that we know the reason for the difference. In other words, physics only provides detailed discriptions and models of the input and output behaviour of certain physical 'objects' that we experience in reality.

Like wind, 'thoughts' and 'dreams' and other mental utterances of our brain are, in contrast with snap-shots of mental activity, words used for pointing to eventsand processes. A dream is only a dream when there is something going on, meaning that a snap-shot is not enough to describe it because the process includes transitions between the states.

Again, physics is limited in this sense that it can only try to explain the difference between two snap-shots of our brain (where the difference could indicate that the person was dreaming), by giving a detailed descriptions of the state of the objects that can be seen on the snap-shots and come up with theories that caused the changes.

To conclude: Although I know that we humans are able to experience events like wind and dreams, we have to deal with a limited toolkit (science) that only allows us to look at snap-shots and come up with theories that explain the causal differences between those different states.

I agree that difference is a non-substantial phenomenon but therefore it can also not be investigated by science and therefore must be researched by another method. I do not mean that non-scientific investigations are less important than scientific ones, however I am personally limited to the use of rational (i.e. scientific) argumentation in a discussion about our brains. I am completely aware of my limitation :-) and also am convinced that science allows us to explain only a (perhaps very small) subset of the things we experience.

Response from Ron Burnett
I agree that science provides us with models and that inevitably there are limitations to what can be described. The distinction for me is between investigations of the brain and how we research, talk about and explain the mind. The brain is a physical, biological object. It is in the simplest sense, matter. The question is whether scientific research into the brain using more and more complex imaging technologies ends up creating metaphors that overwhelm the complexity of what the mind does.

Science reduces to idealize which is what I understand by modeling. Rationalism looks at cause(s) and effect(s). In these instances, (for the purposes of this debate) the danger is that the many elements that make up the human body, from homeopathic pathways to the immune system as well as the complex networks of interaction between neurons that constitute brain activity, will be reduced to function (alism). Reasoned argument is essential, but can a reductive argument work here?

So, is it the limitations of science itself that we are discussing? Or are we dealing with models and paradigms that tend to focus on what can be researched and from which extrapolations are made that lead in potentially dangerous directions?

A large measure of what we describe as intelligence is derived from our own, quite self-reflexive understanding of thought processes. We understand intelligence from a very subjective point of view. We know very little about how the electrical and chemical activity of the brain translates into intelligence. We do know that we are capable of incredible mental feats. For example, our use of language is just one of many activities we engage in for which we have a fragmentary understanding. There may well be a part of the brain, for example that deals with language, but as Edelman and Tononi point out, it is likely that the complex processing of information of this sort is distributed throughout the brain.

This means that it takes millions of interactions among neurons across networks connected in millions of predictable and unpredictable patterns and ways for a simple sentence to be formulated. Ironically, we can only hypothesize that the sentences so produced actually relate to the thought(s) we have had. (Ramachandran, & Blakeslee, 1998)

Part Three…