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Alien Scientist: Mind Made Up by the Cognitive Committee

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: November 2007, Topic: Alien Scientist, Science

In Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams, Mitchel Resnick poses the question "How can a mind emerge from a collection of mindless parts? It seems clear that no one part is 'in charge of the mind' (or else it too would be a mind)."

However the mind is made up, a definite sense of consciousness appears to exist at a certain level: we feel consciously in control of our bodies as if our conscious mind is captain of the ship.

But while the captain is concerned with strategic decisions, like where to go, and why, it is other agents lower down the chain of command that will take local decisions about things like which particular motor functions to use to achieve the end result. Within ourselves, what goes on 'below decks', as it were, is sub-conscious or unconscious - or at least, inaccessible to the conscious mind.

It is sufficient for the captain to issue the order "Full Steam Ahead!" without knowing exactly how the engine-room operatives get the turbines or propellors to work in any detailed sense. Indeed, it hardly matters to the captain if the lower level functions are themselves self-aware operatives, like galley oarsmen, or are overseers of inert machines.

That said, our mental chain of command is not as absolute as in the case of a ship. Although my conscious mind feels itself to be in control, I cannot directly instruct my heart to beat, or stop beating. If a ship were really run like a body, then the captain would be unable to personally intervene in the engine-room to directly order a particular turbine to be started or stopped. Conversely, within our bodies, the internal workings of organs are effectively insulated from direct interference by our conscious minds.

But what is the nature of the decision-making entity at the top? How to fathom the mind of the Captain? What alternatives might be possible?

We could imagine some alien intelligence where the conscious mind was able - like a captain of the ship - to go below decks at any time and order things around. Such an alien mind might be equipped, like the bridge of a ship, with a fully comprehensive array of controls and monitors. The mind's eye would see displays showing all the readings of blood pressure, heart-rate, blink rate, and suchlike; and the mind's executive arms would be able to pull levers to directly micro-manage the minutest details of lower order bodily functions. The mind could, if it chose, set heart-beat or blinking to 'manual', and take control from there.

Alternatively, instead of having an all-seeing all-powerful Captain at the top of the decision-making hierarchy, imagine an alien intelligence with a collective of individuals convening as a Cognitive Committee. Here, one member of the committee might report back on external temperature; another might report on internal stocks of fuel, and so on.

With this structure, the individual members might be rather mechanistically reporting on what is reported to them from elsewhere. But the collective decision-making of the committee itself could also be mechanistic, through some systematic algorithm, depending on the combined set of inputs from all the committee members. In this case, there would be no need for a special decision-making supremo; there would be simply a Chair, who need not be a special 'mind-making' agency, but could be just as mechanistic as the individual members - who might each mindlessly chair their own subconscious sub-committees, all the way down to the lowest levels of the unconscious.

In this 'alien' model of consciousness, there is no independently acting captain of the ship: decisions are simply the emergent resultants of inputs from lower-level committees, and the Chair of the top-level Cognitive Committee is no more 'wilfully in charge' than the decision-making mechanisms at any other level.

In fact, we could imagine an alien mind that was not even chairing the committee, but was simply conscious of the ongoing decisions as taken. Here, the mind would not be a proactive contributor to the decision-making process, but just a by-product of it. The minutes of decisions taken would be arranged to make the conscious mind appear to be in control.

Of course, this model could apply to us as much as any alien intelligence. Our own consciousness is still mysterious to us. While we may have the illusion of being the captain in charge, our minds could yet just be 'made up' as a by-product of the workings of our own Cognitive Committee. But, if so, how would we know?

<< Mind the Gap: October 2007 | Master Index | For A Woman's Hour of Greatest Need >>


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