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Thread: From Cooling System to Thinking Machine: The Long, Strange History of Ideas About the Brain

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    Default From Cooling System to Thinking Machine: The Long, Strange History of Ideas About the Brain

    Carl Zimmer 10/10/2012 21:00

    Hilary Putnam is not a household name. The Harvard philosopher’s work on the nature of reality, meaning, and language may be required reading in graduate school, but Putnam’s fame hasn’t extended far beyond the academy. But one of Putnam’s thought experiments is familiar to millions of people: what it would be like to be a brain in a vat?

    Here’s how Putnam presented the idea in his 1981 book, Reason, Truth, and History:

    Imagine that a human being…has been subjected to an operation by an evil scientist. The person's brain…has been removed from the body and placed in a vat of nutrients which keeps the brain alive. The nerve endings have been connected to a super-scientific computer which causes the person whose brain it is to have the illusion that everything is perfectly normal. There seem to be people, objects, the sky, etc.; but really, all the person…is experiencing is the result of electronic impulses travelling from the computer to the nerve endings.

    Philosophers have wondered for thousands of years how we can be sure whether what we’re experiencing is reality or some shadowy deception. Plato imagined people looking at shadows cast by a fire in a cave. Descartes imagined a satanic genius. Starting in the 1960s, philosophers began to muse about what it would be like to be a brain in a vat, with reality supplied by a computer. The story circulated in obscure philosophy journals for over a decade before Putnam laid it out in his book.

    To track the rise of the “brain in a vat” story, I turned to the Google Ngram Viewer, a web site that can search for any word or phrase you supply in Google’s digital library of millions of books and magazines. After Putnam published his account, the story exploded, the number of times it appeared rising like a rocket into orbit. Hollywood made billions off the image, by making it the basis of the Matrix movie series.

    But there’s something telling and important about the success of the brain in a vat that usually goes unremarked. Putnam’s story became an instant hit because it made sense. To see why this fact matters, imagine if Putnam had suggested you imagine an evil scientist had removed your heart, rather than your brain. He put your heart in a vat, and connected its veins and arteries to a computer, causing you to have the illusion that everything is perfectly normal.

    This thought experiment would strike a modern listener as absurd. Of course, given the current state of technology, it’s also absurd to think that a human brain could be kept alive in a vat. And yet the idea that a scientist could create a full-fledged experience for someone in their brain remains plausible. It accords with how we think about the brain. We all know that the brain is where we receive sensations, store memories, experience emotions. We all know that all those sensations, memories, and emotions are encoded in electrical impulses in the brain. If indeed you could keep a brain alive, and if indeed you could supply it with the right electrical impulses, then it makes perfect sense that the person whose brain you had extracted would go on having the same experiences as before.

    Read the rest at http://beinghuman.org/article/coolin...inking-machine

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    I will continue thinking that the Matrix was based on the Allegory of the Cave, as well as this thought experiment. Thank you very much.
    Easy Day

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    We still have no idea what consciousness is, unless I'm missing something.

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    Quote Originally Posted by InvisibleJim View Post
    We still have no idea what consciousness is, unless I'm missing something.
    Nonsense. Descartes who is clearly the most insightful man in history has defined consciousness as existence.

    Therefore, We know exactly what consciousness is.
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    Quote Originally Posted by JWC3 View Post
    Nonsense. Descartes who is clearly the most insightful man in history has defined consciousness as existence.

    Therefore, We know exactly what consciousness is.
    I can't follow you at times, JWC3. I've seen you kill Aristotle with your awesomeness, for you say he deserves it (socionics reasons), yet you call after party Descartes, that is, the cup Descartes has been drinking from, the most insightful man in history.

    How so?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Absurd View Post
    I can't follow you at times, JWC3. I've seen you kill Aristotle with your awesomeness, for you say he deserves it (socionics reasons), yet you call after party Descartes, that is, the cup Descartes has been drinking from, the most insightful man in history.

    How so?
    See, this is just too damn meta now. Absurd, who is known for being facetious not understanding when others are being facetious? Surely this is itself facetious. OR IS IT?!
    Easy Day

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    Don't judge the book by its cover. Anyhow, I'm killed.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ashton View Post
    That still doesn't mean we know what it is.
    Sure it does, you know that feeling that you feel every moment of every day ever? Like you know how you are able to feel? Boom, existence. Problem solved.

    It's like magic but empathy instead.
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    Quote Originally Posted by InvisibleJim View Post
    We still have no idea what consciousness is, unless I'm missing something.
    That would be the ability to read a short article in its entirety. The last two paragraphs:

    "Nor do our brains exist in isolation, like some laptop sitting on a table that can be simply powered up. They are embedded in bodies, and they have evolved to depend on a continual flow of feedback about how well their predictions have fared in the outside world. And, finally, out of all that computation, consciousness emerges. While many scientists are exploring the nature of consciousness in inventive ways, no one has a theory that makes sense of it yet.

    Are we brains in a vat? Strictly speaking, it’s hard to prove we’re not. But in any world—real or manufactured—we still know so little about how brains work that we wouldn’t be able to put Putnam’s thought experiment into practice."

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    Quote Originally Posted by k0rpsy View Post
    That would be the ability to read a short article in its entirety.
    Ah, I can only conclude from your usual loving response that you seem to think this article is 'the definitive source of all theory and knowledge' and therefore it would be inappropriate, infact worse, an insult against the author to consult freely on the topic for alternative viewpoints or appeal for more evidence as means of improving everyone's knowledge.

    Might as well close the thread then. Fin. Solved. Concluded.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ashton View Post
    Okay, so reality is whatever we empathize it to be?

    Saying that we know what consciousness is simply because we happen to be aware of the experience of seeming to possess the faculty of consciousness, doesn't explain what consciousness is.
    It's kinda like a watermelon.
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    Quote Originally Posted by JWC3 View Post
    Nonsense. Descartes who is clearly the most insightful man in history has defined consciousness as existence.

    Therefore, We know exactly what consciousness is.



    Ahaha

    Heaven help me I think I've busted my gut.
    "[Scapegrace,] I don't know how anyone can stand such a sinister and mean individual as you." - Maritsa Darmandzhyan

    Brought to you by socionix.com

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ashton View Post
    Well, that's at least a better argument than your hanging off Descartes' ballsac.
    *chuckles* Yes. Yes, it is.
    Easy Day

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    Quote Originally Posted by InvisibleJim View Post
    Ah, I can only conclude from your usual loving response that you seem to think this article is 'the definitive source of all theory and knowledge' and therefore it would be inappropriate, infact worse, an insult against the author to consult freely on the topic for alternative viewpoints or appeal for more evidence as means of improving everyone's knowledge.

    Might as well close the thread then. Fin. Solved. Concluded.
    It's ludicrous that I'd present information as you've said merely to stifle commentary upon it. The article itself is mostly just science history trivia, useful primarily to those unaware that the brain hasn't always been regarded as the locus of thought and awareness. As such I didn't expect it to generate a great deal of conversation. However, since I've noticed that respondents to these articles I post often provide their opinions without having read the material fully or carefully, evidence of that failure is something that catches my eye. So good job of being the lazy one this time and providing further entertainment with childish dramatics after being caught.

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    Quote Originally Posted by k0rpsy View Post
    It's ludicrous that I'd present information as you've said merely to stifle commentary upon it. The article itself is mostly just science history trivia, useful primarily to those unaware that the brain hasn't always been regarded as the locus of thought and awareness. As such I didn't expect it to generate a great deal of conversation. However, since I've noticed that respondents to these articles I post often provide their opinions without having read the material fully or carefully, evidence of that failure is something that catches my eye. So good job of being the lazy one this time and providing further entertainment with childish dramatics after being caught.
    *stops fapping to his life-sized cardboard cutout of Descartes* Sorry, was this room taken for serious things?
    Easy Day

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    Quote Originally Posted by JWC3 View Post
    Sure it does, you know that feeling that you feel every moment of every day ever? Like you know how you are able to feel? Boom, existence. Problem solved.
    Sounds like best drug ever.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JWC3 View Post
    *stops fapping to his life-sized cardboard cutout of Descartes* Sorry, was this room taken for serious things?
    No.

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    Quote Originally Posted by k0rpsy View Post
    No.
    Awesome! So... I'm a grower not a shower... if everyone could just look at some other corner that would be great.
    Easy Day

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    Considering the brain to be a dynamic process and that these then dynamic inputs have to also be interpreted by the brain, I wonder if the brain could manipulate the inputs through interpretation, making this more complex then it is conceived to be.

    Ergo, how can you be sure the inputs stay as inputs? And if they become outputs as well, the computer becomes an extension of the brain. And if that happens, it just becomes a body for another world.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JWC3 View Post
    Nonsense. Descartes who is clearly the most insightful man in history has defined consciousness as existence.

    Therefore, We know exactly what consciousness is.


    Please think about this; he recognized that through questioning our experiences, we have the capability to meta relate the world and then verify or change our beliefs about the world. A rock, for instance, does not deal with ideas about the world and how it is or should be and it does not then react to such abstractions; but consciousness does - or at least human consciousness seems to.

    And I get the fact that consciousness could be argued as superimposed on a causal world and then is still deterministic from the right causally exclusive perspective; but that doesn't change the fact that we all seem to recognize the problem of interpreting and understanding our existence; it is this problem, once could say, that makes us uniquely conscious.

    And I get the fact that Descartes believed in perception as misleading and thought deduction was a way to gain a "truthful" understanding of reality, but it doesn't change his original idea about consciousness.

    With that being said, can anyone offer constructive criticism against it, since I am unaware of any?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tackk View Post


    Please think about this; he recognized that through questioning our experiences, we have the capability to meta relate the world and then verify or change our beliefs about the world. A rock, for instance, does not deal with ideas about the world and how it is or should be and it does not then react to such abstractions; but consciousness does - or at least human consciousness seems to.

    And I get the fact that consciousness could be argued as superimposed on a causal world and then is still deterministic from the right causally exclusive perspective; but that doesn't change the fact that we all seem to recognize the problem of interpreting and understanding our existence; it is this problem, once could say, that makes us uniquely conscious.

    And I get the fact that Descartes believed in perception as misleading and thought deduction was a way to gain a "truthful" understanding of reality, but it doesn't change his original idea about consciousness.

    With that being said, can anyone offer constructive criticism against it, since I am unaware of any?
    I was playing the fool for my own amusement. Descartes is not a role model of mine.
    Easy Day

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