What might brain implants do to humanity?

I wrote this in February 2016, before I knew of Neuralink’s existence. It was in response to the following question:

What are the biggest ways in which the world 20 years from now will probably be different from today? What are the biggest “X factors” (changes that are not probable, but are possible and could be huge)?

Implants + Internet = ImplanTelepathy™!

Batman Forever' (1995) and the Brain Drain Moment | That Moment In
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Neural correlates of consciousness – how exactly can we find them?

This is a slightly edited version of an answer I wrote on Quora: What is the best way to understand consciousness?

File:Digesting Duck.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

This emoticon captures my attitude towards questions about consciousness:


Consciousness seems to be invisible to scientific methods. The only way to incorporate consciousness into science is to change the definition of science so it includes subjective experience. I am not really comfortable with doing this, because it waters down science to the point where it becomes indistinguishable from introspective philosophy. Science is useful because of what makes it different from philosophy: it makes predictions that can be tested objectively. Truly subjective experiences seem to be ruled out by definition.

My favorite way to think about consciousness is inspired by Indian philosophy, though the general idea crops up all over the place:

Consciousness is not a phenomenon: it is the precondition for the appearance of phenomena. The mind is not a thing to be observed, but the medium by which things are observed.

This is emphatically not a scientific statement, but that’s okay: science is only one of many ways to look at the universe.

So let’s examine the scientific approach to consciousness in detail!

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Science does not disprove free will

Someone contacted me through Quora recently because they were having an existential crisis — it was stimulated by the ostensibly scientific notion that humans do not have free well.

Any theory that insists that we do not actually make choices is going to causes distress among many people who valorize academic thinking. Many hard-nosed metaphysicians simply don’t care about the mental well-being of the general public. I find this attitude simultaneously patronizing and irresponsible.

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Is thinking conscious or unconscious?

Sherlock Holmes smokes his pipe reclining on cushions and wearing a roomy overcoatThere are two ways to define thinking: each leads to a different answer to the question of whether thinking is conscious or not.

  1. Thinking as a subjective experience. If someone asks you what you are thinking about, you can introspect, and describe your thought process. You can also say that you weren’t really thinking at all.
  2. Thinking as the cause of ideas and thoughts. If you discover a thought, then you can infer that the process that led up to the thought was a form of thinking, even if there was no subjective experience associated with the process.

We can test our preference for definition 1 or definition 2 by considering an example.

Sherlock Holmes was a good chemist. When he found himself stuck while attempting to solve a mystery, he would sometimes distract himself by doing a chemistry experiment. At the end of such an experiment, he often found that a solution simply popped into his head.

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To participate in this Consciousness Survey, you’ll need to find the answer to a very easy question

Interested in participating in a (totally unscientific) survey on consciousness and related questions? The link is in the preceding post. Once you complete the survey, you’ll be able to see the results. It should take between 20 and 45 minutes to complete, and will hopefully be stimulating, at least somewhat.

The password for the post is the last name of the philosopher who coined the term “Hard Problem of Consciousness”. It is very easy to google the answer. Capitalize in the standard way.



“Psychic cells” were silly in 1909. And they are still silly, regardless of what you call them.


Here is Korbinian Brodmann (of cortical Brodmann area fame) writing about a trend towards assigning functional roles to single neurons based on anatomical type, back in 1909:

“There has been occasional talk of “sensory cells” located in particular regions, or of sensitive or sensorial “special cells”. People have invented acoustic or optic special cells and even a “memory” (*12) cell, and have not shied away from the fantastic “psychic cell”. Apart from the fact that such so-called “special cells” have only been described in young or foetal brain with the Golgi method and mainly only in animals, and therefore lack confirmation in the adult human brain, and quite apart from the fact that no attempt has been made to determine the precise regional location of the zone within which such cells appear exclusively, it seems to me that to pose this problem is wrong.” [emphasis added]

And here is a news item from a couple of years ago:


Psychic cells indeed! Or perhaps we should call them zombie cells.

(Zombie concepts keep coming back from the dead to eat our brains. Other examples include ‘selfish genes’ and ‘pleasure molecules’.)

Is the mind a machine?

My latest 3QD essay explores the “mind as machine” metaphor, and metaphors in general.

Putting the “cog” in “cognitive”: on the “mind as machine” metaphor

Here’s an excerpt:

People who study the mind and brain often confront the limits of metaphor. In the essay ‘Brain Metaphor and Brain Theory‘, the vision scientist John Daugman draws our attention to the fact that thinkers throughout history have used the latest material technology as a model for the mind and body. In the Katha Upanishad (which Daugman doesn’t mention), the body is a chariot and the mind is the reins. For the pre-Socratic Greeks, hydraulic metaphors for the psyche were popular: imbalances in the four humors produced particular moods and dispositions. By the 18th and 19th centuries, mechanical metaphors predominated in western thinking: the mind worked like clockwork. The machine metaphor has remained with us in some form or the other since the industrial revolution: for many contemporary scientists and philosophers, the only debate seems to be about what sort of machine the mind really is. Is it an electrical circuit? A cybernetic feedback device? A computing machine that manipulates abstract symbols? Some thinkers so convinced that the mind is a computer that they invite us to abandon the notion that the idea is a metaphor. Daugman quotes the cogntive scientist Zenon Pylyshyn, who claimed that “there is no reason why computation ought to be treated merely as a metaphor for cognition, as opposed to the literal nature of cognition”.

Daugman reacts to this Whiggish attitude with a confession of incredulity that many of us can relate to: “who among us finds any recognizable strand of their personhood or of their experience of others and of the world and its passions, to be significantly illuminated by, or distilled in, the metaphor of computation?.” He concludes his essay with the suggestion that “[w]e should remember than the enthusiastically embraced metaphors of each “new era” can become, like their predecessors, as much the prisonhouse of thought as they at first appeared to represent its liberation.”

Read the rest at 3 Quarks Daily:

Putting the “cog” in “cognitive”: on the “mind as machine” metaphor

Could the brain be a radio for receiving consciousness?


bradio.pngHere’s an answer I wrote a while ago to the following question:

 Is there any conclusive proof that the brain produces consciousness? What rules out the case that brain acts as receptor antennae for consciousness?

This is actually a fun question! Taken in the right spirit, it can be a good way to learn about what science is, and also what the limitations of science are. Continue reading

“Conscious realism”: a new way to think about reality (or the lack thereof?)


Interesting interview in the Atlantic with cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman:

The Case Against Reality

“I call it conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view. Interestingly, I can take two conscious agents and have them interact, and the mathematical structure of that interaction also satisfies the definition of a conscious agent. This mathematics is telling me something. I can take two minds, and they can generate a new, unified single mind. Here’s a concrete example. We have two hemispheres in our brain. But when you do a split-brain operation, a complete transection of the corpus callosum, you get clear evidence of two separate consciousnesses. Before that slicing happened, it seemed there was a single unified consciousness. So it’s not implausible that there is a single conscious agent. And yet it’s also the case that there are two conscious agents there, and you can see that when they’re split. I didn’t expect that, the mathematics forced me to recognize this. It suggests that I can take separate observers, put them together and create new observers, and keep doing this ad infinitum. It’s conscious agents all the way down.”


Here’s the striking thing about that. I can pull the W out of the model and stick a conscious agent in its place and get a circuit of conscious agents. In fact, you can have whole networks of arbitrary complexity. And that’s the world.


“As a conscious realist, I am postulating conscious experiences as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredients of the world. I’m claiming that experiences are the real coin of the realm. The experiences of everyday life—my real feeling of a headache, my real taste of chocolate—that really is the ultimate nature of reality.”

I don’t agree with everything in the article (especially the quantum stuff) but I think many people interested in consciousness and metaphysics will find plenty of food for thought here:

The Case Against Reality

Also, the “conscious agents all the way down” is the exact position I was criticizing in a recent 3QD essay:

3quarksdaily: Persons all the way down: On viewing the scientific conception of the self from the inside out

The diagram above is from a science fiction story I was working on, back when I was a callow youth. It closely related to the idea of a network of conscious agents. Here’s another ‘version’ of it.


Not sure why I made it look so morbid. 🙂

Is it possible for the Internet to one day gain consciousness?

A recent Quora answer I wrote:

Sometimes I wonder if Quora bots are conscious! 🙂
I often think about whether the internet could become sentient… and also whether it is already! But the most important question is this: how would we tell one way or the other? Perhaps each of us is like a neuron in the internet’s hive brain.
Neurons and brains are separated by a gulf of scale, structure, and complexity. How could a neuron ‘know’ that the brain it is part of is conscious? How could a brain know if a neuron (or group of neurons) is conscious? It may be an unbridgeable gap. And the same sort of gap may exist between humans and the internet. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, if the internet could talk we would not understand it.
In any case, the internet doesn’t even have a ‘mouth’ or a central communication device. How do we decide what the internet is ‘saying’? I could imagine a future in which ‘analysts’ read into the internet’s dynamic trajectories in the way astrologers read into the stars’ trajectories.
Sometimes I think of consciousness as an irreducibly social phenomenon. Consciousness may be the ‘fire’ produced by the ‘friction’ between different intelligent agents that each have partial knowledge of the world. Perhaps the test of whether the internet is conscious involves encountering an alien internet. Perhaps when civilizations from two different planets interact, their ‘planetary consciousnesses’ (or internets) interact in a way that their inhabitants only have a dim awareness of.


Is it possible for the Internet to one day gain consciousness?