PLAYING DARPA: “THE EMERGENT CONNECTOME”October 4, 2012
This one was brought to my attention by a friend, Ms. P.H., who sent it to me in an email, and it suggests all sorts of things, some good, some bad:
Now, before we get to the one specific statement in this article that still leaves me breathless, let me lay some of my philosophical cards on the table, and make a few comments about the general Gestalt of this article and its implications. First, the philosophical cards: I am not a materialist, nor, for that matter, am I a 'non-materialist', in that I do not believe on the one hand that all the functions of consciousness or mind can be explained along solely materialist lines, nor, for that matter, do I believe that any philosophy of mind or consciousness can be adequately elaborated without some reference to the material world and to the human brain. I've said many times, as examples of this type of approach, that I believe the individual mind, or consciousness, or person if one will, is a non-local phenomenon, not encapsulated by the body, nor more particularly by the brain, but, as it were,is transduced by them, or, if one prefer the terminology of a more religious and metaphysical age (with apologies to Anglican friends for the rampant borrowing and mangling from their Book of Common Prayer and Thirty-Nine Articles here): the brain is the outward and visible sign of the inward spiritual mind, by the which the latter enters into the material world of the former.
Now that said, permit me to move along to the generalized implications of the discovery outlined in the above article. The ability to map the development of neural networks implied by this study holds enormous potential, not the least for medicine. Imagine being able to see the normal development of an individual brain, to predict it with such physiological accuracy. One could, on this basis, make neural maps of the damages to such networks caused by stroke, or perhaps even get a neuron-by-neuron glimpse of the process of Alzheimers and other dementia, and on that basis, begin to work offset those by developing or stimulating different neural pathways to such an extent that the damage is offset or overcome. In short, the development outlined in this paper holds enormous promise for good.
And then there is of course the Viktor Frankenstein mentality of madness prevailing in places like DARPA.
The sentence that caught my eye, and made me shudder for the enormous portent that it contained, was this one:
"The goal of the BBP is to integrate knowledge from all the specialised branches of neuroscience, to derive from it the fundamental principles that govern brain structure and function, and ultimately, to reconstruct the brains of different species – including the human brain – in silico." (Italicized and boldface emphasis added)
The Latin "in silico" made me freeze, for literally it is a phrase that I think was deliberately chosen to be ambiguous. Literally "in silico" means "on the rock", i.e., on silicon, on a chip. The transhumanist singularity of recording an entire neural net of an individual brain on a chip just took a step closer folks.
Does this mean, therefore, that the mind, the individual would be so recorded? Possibly, but I have my doubts, and my doubts stem from the transductive approach outlined initially. If it be true that (1) the sum total of emotions, memories, choices, etc, does not constitute the individual person, but rather, are (2) a sign of it, a transducer (to use the physics term) of it, then it remains a non-local phenomenon of a particular topological signature, that is accessed by a particular material genetic composition, but never exhausted by it. The real speculative fun begins when one contemplates the possibility of creating many such transducers "in silico" of that wonderfully non-local and elusive thing that we call the person.
So where does all this speculation leave us? Well, one place it leaves us is this: technologies are forcing us, at every turn, to reexamine many of the assumptions we have taken for granted in our society, and with this, we approach the most basic assumption of Western culture: the human person itself. We must begin, now, to have that discussion.
See you on the flip side.