Post No.: 0568
It isn’t unscientific to view organic brains as essentially physical, biological machines. Computer software is also ultimately material when you break it down. Programming – whether via computers or DNA – is a physical process involving physical matter with physical results. So we’re biological machines but machines nonetheless. Organics and synthetics – all are ultimately made from old material bits of stars.
DNA is just code but instead of 0s and 1s (usually represented by low and high voltage states in practice) for a binary digital computer, it uses adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine. DNA (or something even smaller) has even been explored as a basis for a data storage medium.
Hormones are physical objects, and taking hormone therapies can potentially change our personalities and therefore attitudes and behaviours. But don’t be alarmed that our very personalities can be manipulated by physical means because that’s how life works and has always worked – it’s physical at every level, from our thoughts to our actions and outcomes. It’s not literal magic yet it’s still pretty magical!
Viruses, DNA, RNA, proteins, hormones, neurotransmitters, etc. and how they work are literally like minute locks and keys and other mechanisms, but mechanisms nonetheless. Elastin, which is a protein that gives skin its elastic quality, is literally like a bunch of tiny, coiled springs! Cells are basically small-scale machines too – nanotechnology isn’t really that novel a concept. Mitochondria are like dainty power stations for eukaryotic cells. It’s easier to see that internal organs are machines, such as the heart as a pump and the kidneys as filters. And arms, legs, fingers and other joints are very obviously mechanical. We are fundamentally mechanical machines, or really – we’re made from a collection of miniscule machines working within larger machines (who live in even larger machines like cities and the planet and the solar system and galaxy!)
Emotions are chemical reactions. Medicines work by altering the chemical balance of our bodies and brains. The body’s nervous system is essentially a circuit board with conductors and insulators, and electrical signal-to-noise ratios are important for the biological brain too (e.g. multiple sclerosis is related to the degeneration of myelin sheaths, which are like the insulation around electrical cables). Our senses usually work together to a certain degree to create our perceptual experiences (e.g. taste and smell), but sensory signals can ‘crosstalk’ in some people to create synaesthesia. It’s amazing that even some conditions like pregnancy, epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease give off certain distinctive smells that some animals (like dogs – woof) can pick up; where odours are down to physical particles released into the air.
Brain imaging reveals that every thought or behaviour has a physical correlate, and in fact the physical activation of a thought precedes the conscious awareness of that thought. Whenever we recall/reconstruct a memory, feel pain, hunger, an emotion, etc. – it’s all the result of electrical messages or ‘action potentials’ in the central nervous system. (A big question in neuroscience currently is how this same action potential results in all the variety of perceived emotions, feelings and thoughts just by occurring in different parts in the brain?) We’re again biological but nonetheless electrochemical physical machines, and we interact with and are fully interconnected and integrated with a wider physical world.
Therefore psychology is ultimately a science that’s about material matter too because our brains are completely material and operate in a completely material world; albeit we don’t yet understand enough via neuroscience to directly tap into this highly complex machine to gain much of the detail about how we work, hence we generally try to decipher it indirectly via analysing behaviours – particularly when anyone exhibits abnormal behaviours (e.g. someone behaving differently after they sustain some physical brain damage).
This all isn’t to denigrate human life or any other form of natural, organic life – it’s to be ready to elevate the status of intelligent and sentient robots or artificial machines in the future!
Consciousness somehow arises from a certain highly complex arrangement of physical matter that we call a brain, in conjunction with a certain highly complex activation of connections in that brain. Consciousness perhaps results from a certain complex rhythm of neurons firing in a brain, as they interact to become something greater than the mere sum of their parts (an emergent property)? Whilst in deep sleep, our neurons become more synchronised so that a complex rhythm isn’t possible hence one lacks any consciousness during deep sleep. Meanwhile, REM sleep involves a complex rhythm just as if we were fully awake, even though we’re not, and this is when we normally dream. (A flaw with this explanation of how consciousness arises though is that we can have non-REM sleep dreams too.)
If one brain is physically different to another brain in any way then those two brains will logically exhibit different capabilities or behaviours to some degree or another; just like if two aeroplanes are physically different to each other in any way then they’ll both carve through the air differently, even if these differences are imperceptibly small. So if one person behaves differently to another then their brains will logically be materially different in some way. There are no immaterial functional parts to a person i.e. souls, from a scientific perspective. There’ll be a 1:1 mapping between a behaviour and a brain in a given environment. (Perhaps the real question is whether a particular brain difference is the cause of a particular behaviour, or is there a bi-directional relationship between repeated behaviours and identifiable physical brain changes?)
One could view an organic brain as a highly sensitive, fragile (it’ll degrade extremely quickly without oxygen, unlike non-biological machines) and complex arrangement of ‘wires’. And although more sophisticated and adaptable than any existing artificial machine – a bunch of ‘wires’ that are damaged or connected differently will make a difference to an individual (although ‘different’ doesn’t itself mean better or worse); just as you’d imagine it would for an artificial machine.
Or an organic brain could be regarded like software and hardware. Well non-biological computer software is essentially a collection and arrangement of physical states that must be recorded on and replayed from a physical medium (like a magnetic hard drive) and mechanically processed using physical hardware (like a CPU) too i.e. just like hardware, software isn’t immaterial either. And the thoughts, memories and other functions of organic brains are fundamentally about manipulated physical brain structures too. Consciousness, reason, pain, pleasure, belief – they’re all intrinsically material, mechanical processes or outputs. We utilise electrical signals too! (However, whilst a computer hard drive could have a corrupt file and one can physically wipe that file off clean and replace it with an uncorrupted file and it’ll be ‘as good as new’ – an organic brain doesn’t seem as simple to fix at all.)
Like non-biological computers are just networks of little computers (or integrated chips) – we’re biological computers made up from networks of little computers (or cells, and that’s how complex organisms ultimately evolved). And like non-biological computers connected to an intranet or internet – we’re connected to and communicate with and between other individuals in an ecosystem of other life (along with a network of non-biological computers and their connections too). Understand that wireless technologies use radio waves, the ‘cloud’ is physical too, going online has a carbon footprint, etc. – everything that’s real is physical even if invisible. This is the nature of the universe we’re all a part of. Many biological processes are quantum mechanical in nature, thus we’re arguably quantum mechanical machines ourselves (there’s a relatively new scientific field of ‘quantum biology’). Hence synthetic machines might need to take greater advantage of quantum mechanics before they can be more like organic life? Regardless, every atomic and subatomic particle in and of our bodies must obey the laws of physics; including quantum physics.
This means ‘mind over matter’ fundamentally means ‘matter over matter’, for the mind is the product of materials and material processes. Therefore, from this understanding – ‘mind over matter’ isn’t such an insightful statement after all(!) This understanding should reveal, though, that even though the mind can and does control matter, it doesn’t mean that a person can push a mountain over with just his/her own thoughts or anything else that counters the laws of physics. But someone who doesn’t have an allergy to (histamines are again chemicals) but hates them, can chew and swallow a perfectly safe Brussels sprout, for instance, if only they allowed their mind to do it!
Now there’s a myth that the heart also has a brain. The heart does contain some neurons but so do other parts of the body that contain nerves – a neuron is a nerve cell, and not all nerve cells are brain cells (and hardly all cells in the brain are neurons too). And it’d also need more than the presence of brain cells to form a cognitively functioning mind or consciousness – it’d need a particular organisation of brain cells like that as found in the organs located within people’s skulls. This isn’t to say that the heart has no connection to the brain or cannot affect the brain and vice-versa – our physiological symptoms will be interpreted by our brain and affect our emotions, and our emotions can affect our physiological responses too (e.g. feeling our heart or breathing rate decrease then feeling calm, or feeling calm then our heart or breathing rate decreases).
From all this understanding, we should also recognise that abusive comments (e.g. trolling) are basically acts of physical violence and abuse too. Brains are physical machines, and voices are heard via sound waves, written words are seen via light waves/particles, etc.. And these physical phenomena affect our brains through which neurons or synapses they trigger. Involuntary fear and anxiety responses involve physical hormones like corticosteroids, which if continually released in one’s body may indirectly cause major health problems like hypertension, which is a clear form of physical stress/damage. Each provocative comment affects us neurologically at some physical level. Well any memory of an event is essentially a mark on the brain – every new memory we acquire as we live our lives is a new/rearranged set of physical neuronal connections in the brain. And so if someone who has fragile bones should especially not be kicked – someone who is mentally vulnerable should especially not be psychologically bullied. Mental abuse or trauma is ultimately a form of physical abuse – and one subjected directly to the brain itself.
…Anyway, (soulless) machines have taken over this world for a long time. If we cannot fundamentally trust machines, we cannot trust ourselves either! We’re all bits of matter. Life is chemical reactions. ‘We are what we eat’ in terms of the chemical nutrients contained or converted from what we consume (so in an atoms, elements, molecules and compounds way rather than ‘becoming a plum if we eat a plum’(!)) We’re just another thing in the universe borne from physical beginnings and physical processes – a product of chance evolution. Every thought, feeling and memory is a product of mechanical processes – mental is ultimately physical too.
This also means that we’re ultimately finite, physical machines operating according to the deterministic and/or probabilistic laws of physics that are working without fail on each and every single molecule and quanta in our brains and somatic bodies, starting from our initial conditions of existence and then with our subsequent environments. Although we’d need to prove a negative to categorically prove that immaterial souls don’t exist – they’ve never been categorically proven to exist. Moreover, according to our growing scientific knowledge – physical stuff makes up and accounts for everything about us and there’s arguably no need for anything immaterial to explain any function about us. But this in turn means that we aren’t true drivers of our lives – we’re passengers with the illusion of control.
Woof. Whatever your understandings, please share what you think about all this by using the Twitter comment button below.