3:AM's Richard Marshall Interviews Pete Mandik

Pretty interesting interview. Marshall and Mandik discuss consciousness, philosophy of mind, science fiction, the matrix, and a variety of other issues. I was struck by this remark in particular by Mandik:

“All those early contemplations of jacking into the matrix and jockeying around in cyberspace have made me permanently allergic to stuff like direct realism and the embodied cognition movement. I can’t shake the conviction that brain in a vat that is a perfect intrinsic duplicate of my brain is going to be a perfect mental duplicate.”

This remark puzzles me. For surely the “vat” of the brain can be understood as a kind of body, supplying nutrients to the brain. So the possibility of a brain in a vat doesn’t undercut the thesis that all cognition is embodied. As for the brain-in-a-vat being a “perfect mental duplicate”, wouldn’t a more plausible claim be that the brain-in-a-vat would fairly similar but not identical? “Perfect mental duplicate” seems like a stretch. But let’s suppose that every input to the brain was simulated perfectly. Wouldn’t it then be a perfect duplicate? Well, those simulated inputs would have to mimic the ways in which diffuse clouds of chemicals influence the brain, as well as simulate patterns of astrocytal modulation. I don’t think a perfect duplicate would be merely a simulation of neuronal firing rates with electrical brain interfacing. That would be an imperfect but close simulation. And if you could achieve a perfect simulation of diffuse chemical input, astrocytal modulation, and all other subtle but non negligible modulatory influences,  then it seems like the chemical-input generator and host of modulators would just be a kind of artificial body. So I’m not sure the embodied cognition thesis is really threatened by brains-in-vats. Sure, there might be some overly strong forms of the embodied cognition thesis (thinking of Alva Noe) that don’t support even the idea of an imperfect simulation being minded in a similar way to normals. But we shouldn’t always think in terms of the strongest forms of any given thesis. Moreover, I have been developing this idea about organisms without nervous systems having primitive mental states. If this is right, then there is a mindedness intrinsic to the activities of cellular organisms, not just organizations of neural cells. Accordingly, the brain-in-a-vat will be missing all of that nonneural mindedness, and would thus be a similar but imperfect duplicate.


1 Comment

Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy

One response to “3:AM's Richard Marshall Interviews Pete Mandik

  1. Lyndon

    Hi Gary, I have very much enjoyed what I have read on your blog so far.

    I have never quite understood the embodied cognition structure and so Mandik’s claims make sense to me. Whatever nerve stimulation and structure that is being produced in my knee seems like something that could be stimulated ‘higher up’ by the right kind of stimulation (at least certainly by something like stimulating the spine nerves in the right way). The brain-in-a-vat will have to have the correct representational structure to represent the body in those stimulations in the same way that it happens to an individual not in a vat (in other words, the way that the brain-in-the-vat becomes structured so as to represent the stimulation of a nerve in the knee will be different than how it was formed in the creation of an everyday brain/individual), but, in the end, your brain/mind structures do not require that you possess a real knee—it only has to represent such and to represent the normality of the interaction of the world on that knee, which I assume we could create virtually.

    Similarly to some Zombie over-reaching, it seems ridiculously complicated to create your brain and your interactions with the world in a vat/virtual system and have it behave (and feel) exactly like you do in real life, but it seems plausible that a vat/virtual system that is cognitively as rich as our brain/mind/world could be created.

    Anyways, maybe I am just saying that we may have to include, e.g., glia cells and neuro-regulators (or some duplicate) in our vatted-brains but we can virtualize the stimulations of the entirety of the knee. If your embodied cognition comes from the “soup” of the vat instead of the normal structures of the “body,” which we normally extend as more than just chemicals structuring the brain in certain ways, then something significant has changed, I would say. I would agree that many embodied cognition claims may hold true under such structures, though.

    When I read of brains-in-vats I normally think of our “wet” brains, but if we instead think about silicon-brains-in-vats I think some of this separation between brain-and-body-and-world would have a different kind of configuration as well.

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