Every Brain is a Universe: Ontology, Neurotechnology, and Simulation

Originally published on Serious Wonder.

Neurotechnology is the last frontier. Mind-machine interfaces will initially offer ways to simulate, enhance, and stimulate. In conjunction with quantum computers, however, these interfaces will lead to the resolution of the problem of freewill through a proof of its impossibility or through the painstaking design of a being geniunely endowed with this elusive property, the invention of true artificial intelligence (as well as the mentally directed programming environment needed to make it), and assist in the exploration of some largely forgotten debates in ontology. This line of thought ties in strongly with the simulation hypothesis, since these technologies will, ultimately, allow us to create unique and logically contingent universes we can explore as single entities or, as their creators, revel in the totality of what we have wrought.

Try to remember a time you were without consciousness. Go ahead. I hope you almost immediately realized this is a fool’s errand.

battle of lights brain
JOSEPH STELLA, BATTLE OF LIGHTS, CONEY ISLAND, 1913, OIL ON CANVAS, 195.6 × 215.3 CM (77 × 84.75 IN), YALE UNIVERSITY ART GALLERY, NEW HAVEN, CT

Since the evolution of what is widely considered sentience human beings have searched for ways to augment or alter their perception and cognition. By observation alone one should realize the last word in the preceding sentence, reviled for years thanks to the Skinnerian stranglehold on the discipline, is the cornerstone of psychology. To dismiss it was foolish, though less foolish than it is to dismiss it now. Consciousness should be of great concern to all because it sets the pace and tone for every moment of our lives. For all intents and purposes, it is our life. It is our morning oatmeal, the joy of rumination, the ecstasy of victory, the caress of another’s lips, the source of sensations even poets struggle to describe. It does not faithfully store our memories; it actively remodels them depending on how and when they are retrieved. Ontology is a subfield of both philosophy and information science. Although seemingly dissimilar, the latter lends a tangible framework to analyzing the former.The human brain is a small organ capable of receiving and generating an infinite number of unique experiences. Yet as phenomenal as this may seem, our inner worlds, as rich and varied as they are, all arise from similar hardware. Hardware we largely share with birds, reptiles, other mammals, fish, and, to a significantly lesser extent, invertebrates. In spite of the seemingly limitlessness of what a brain can do, stemming from mundane combinatorics, there are fleshy ceilings imposed by biology. Moreover, many of the things it can do, like rendering a dancing 8 bit Santa Claus sliding down a hyperrealistic mound of writhing rectangular raccoons, are not particularly profound or prized. Here I am not referring to anything quantative, not to the brain’s seemingly impoverished calculating faculties when compared to an ordinary desktop computer, but to the qualitative properties of the nervous system when it is functioning “normally.” While it is almost impossible at this time to conceive of nervous systems radically different than our own, it is likely they will, at some point, be invented by augmented humans or by artificial intelligence. By throwing a wrench into the machine, in the form of an exogenous molecule or endogenous chemical changes induced by an activity,dasein changes rapidly. While a pint of stout will probably not lead to any personal revelations, a modest dose of LSD may.

Yes, there are countless similar, as well as very different, physical configurations, including ones bereft of carbon, that could give birth to consciousness, but let us forego that intimidating train of thought for a paragraph or two. Phantom limbs illustrate an important, undeniable, but unfortunately counterintuitive fact about existence. When a body part is lost it may not vanish from the nervous system’s master map. The amputated arm or leg continues to sweat, itch, writhe, and rest.  As any thoughtful person should see, this is more than a tidbit of medical trivia. Although measurement can tell us about an object’s mass, density, etc, the way they feel to their owners is entirely in their brain. In Gestalt and Ericksonian therapies a patient may be asked to identify with an inanimate object. Far from an eccentric technique spawned from the excesses of the sixties, it can occasionally lead to dramatic breakthroughs. It should not be hard to see how major departures from the familiar can facilitate creative resolutions. A little bit of reflection should lead one to conclude time, space, and all other categories of perception are highly unstable. Our bodily awareness is attached to reality by a slender thread.

On a warm Florida night a lad of sixteen smoked a sizeable dose of salvia divinorum on his friend’s back porch before transforming into a dinosaur-rocking chair-man viewing himself from the outside, all while becoming intimately acquainted with what it means to be wooden. At once he was the object and the subject, observer and the observed! With this same entheogen others have reported spending years as articles of furniture or, even more mind-numbingly, as completely ordinary people. I once spoke to a fellow who spent nearly a decade as a blue collar worker in contemporary Texas over the course of fifteen of our earthly minutes. Identity is synonymous with a locus of control. When someone mentions their own consciousness they are usually referring to this place of illusory agency. What is generally called the self is thought of as a static entity. It is a mutable thing that holds together an arbitrary collection of preferences and opinions.The locus defines consciousness. It is the mark that assigns other marks to all our behaviors in order to maintain the image it keeps of itself in relation to its contents, which is why it is so prone to retroactively justifying impulse buys.

At this time there is no proof anyone has free will. Some highly regarded academics, like the physicist Roger Penrose, have tried to debunk determinism. Given the preponderance of fixed action patterns one finds in our species, this seems like a silly assertion. Even if microtubules give higher animals some freedom, on a practical level it is obvious this freedom could be enhanced. Conceptual blending offers endless amusement and discovery. When we think of an angry desk, a feeling, likely different than any other we have had before, is elicited. What about an angry desk made of Ibsen-reading chocolate pudding wombats? There is no limit to the subtlety of our contemplations, besides our almost obsolete wetware. From the refinement of our minds and the acceleration in our communications will come an intellectual explosion unlike any other. We do not, and will not, need to process only one or two thoughts at a time. The mechanisms of the unconscious can be augmented. Access to a collective unconscious in the form of a quantum mainframe or global neuronetwork would be one way of exponentially expediting this process. Such an enhanced being could create a universe populated by other self-aware agents endowed with freewill. It could materialize itself as a single resident within its artificial world or, having no limits on how many sensations it could take in or thoughts it could put out, experience its expanding creation in its entirety. Although I am not a strong proponent of the simulation hypothesis, it is possible all of what is called reality is the toy of such a being. It is even more likely we will become the progenitors of such systems.

A sufficiently advanced civilization could manipulate matter at the most infinitesimal of scales. This means our universe may not be a simulation, but a blob on the table of a physics laboratory. Even with these wonders it is likely humans will never completely lose themselves. Their sense of “I” will be greatly enlarged, but it will not vanish. Even with total automation, people will have lives outside of their mind-enhancing toys. It is disturbing to wonder if a superdimensional entity experimenting with a series of procedural generation algorithms could be responsible for our balanced but amoral cosmos. It would require genius of the highest order to design the initial cosmic egg or framework that would give birth in turn to physics, chemistry, and biology. As astonishing and bizarre as it sounds, this sort of unfathomable brilliance is not far away.

Works CitedBaars, Bernard J. In the Theater of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.

Erickson, Milton H., Ernest Lawrence Rossi, and Sheila I. Rossi. Hypnotic Realities: The Induction of Clinical Hypnosis and Forms of Indirect Suggestion. New York: Irvington, 1976. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. New York: Harper, 1962. Print.

Jacquette, Dale. Ontology. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2002. Print.

Perls, Frederick S. Gestalt Therapy; Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. New York: Julian, 1951. Print.

Photo Credit: Joseph Stella

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