Implications of Substrate Independence

Physicalism is a metaphysical theory that claims that minds and consciousness are products of physical brains. In other words, minds are the result of ultimately mechanical structures and interactions. Minds are conscious computers.

This leads to an idea called substrate independence (or substrate neutrality) which asserts that minds can be produced by anything simulating a brain regardless of the materials used. Computer simulations have become the most popular example of this idea, particularly in the field of artificial intelligence. Prominent philosophers such as Daniel Dennett support substrate independence and the corresponding ability for conscious machines.


One of the more intriguing applications of substrate independence is a mind composed of other minds, or what I call a macro-mind. Imagine that people are given jobs that simulate brain neurons. If together they simulate a brain, then according to substrate independence, they’re creating a mind that is present somehow among the group yet independent of the minds of the individuals.

Minds have senses and feelings. Minds have thoughts and free will. Minds have a sense of self. A macro-mind would be something capable of influencing itself and its environment that was greater than any individual mind within it.

This raises an important question: What if this is already happening? What if we’re already acting like neurons in a brain, and our technology is facilitating and thus waking up this larger mind?

What’s the least complex structure and set of behaviors needed to form a mind? Maybe there are hierarchies and layers. Institutions, businesses, governments, cultures, industries, nations—could these organizations and groups literally have minds of their own? Minds with their own personalities, beliefs, and agendas?

It sounds bizarre, but it’s entirely plausible if substrate independence is true.


Equally bizarre is the idea that what we call our unconscious mind could itself be a conscious mind—one that we only have partial access to. Given substrate independence, having more than one mind in a brain is possible. If the brain can create consciousness in one part, why not another? The fact that people can retain a mind after a hemispherectomy is evidence that only half a brain is sufficient to produce a conscious mind.

Suggesting the possibility of micro-minds, as I call them, is a condition called alien hand syndrome, where an entire appendage seems to have a mind of its own.

Dissociative identity disorder (DID)—formerly known as multiple personality disorder in the US—is another example. The alter egos (or alters) of people with DID each have all the qualities of being independent minds. These alters can have different personalities, memories, behaviors, knowledge, speech patterns, handwriting, moods, food preferences, and so forth.

Another example is patients with a “split brain.” These are people whose corpus callosum is severed, causing an inability for the left and right cerebral hemispheres to communicate with each other. There are numerous cases of split-brain patients displaying conflicts resembling differences of interests between two minds.

Identifying minds

If these micro-minds exist, how might we test to see if macro-minds exist as well?

Clues can be found in our communication. We already see groups as individual identities, e.g., “Google buys Motorola Mobility.” And we often personify groups, like when US political parties are depicted as the anthropomorphized elephant and donkey, or when an over-excited crowd is said to have a “mob mentality,” or when a news article reads “The Catholic Church believes …” What other than a mind possesses beliefs?

Psychology is sometimes called a “black box” science because it can’t actually see the internal mind, so it develops theories based solely on observing people’s external behaviors. Are social groups external minds? Can studying their structures and interactions reveal how internal minds function?

In sociology, a social organism is a theoretical concept in which multiple organisms act collectively as a single organism. How might we differentiate between the body and mind of a social organism?

The concept of the macro-mind can be taken to the cosmological level. Models of the universe appear to resemble brain slices to an almost uncanny degree as depicted in this image from a New York Times article. The implications of substrate independence are literally astronomical.

Determining whether micro- and macro-minds exist is a matter of defining what a mind is. And that, unfortunately, is a matter that’s been debated for thousands of years.


Is pornography degrading?

Last week I attended a presentation on pornography at New College Florida. During the discussion, a student voiced her opinion that pornography is degrading to sexuality and the people taking part. I disagree. Does filming a couple kissing degrade the act of kissing? Does filming someone bicycling degrade bicyclists? It seems irrational to think that putting something to video automatically objectifies, degrades, exploits, or trivializes the act or the actors.

Pornography typically depicts frivolous sex acts outside of conventional standards such as monogamy, privacy, and romance. It is that casual and unconstrained attitude that most people tend to object to. But regardless of one’s specific reasons for protest, disagreeing with how sexuality is portrayed does not constitute an absolute moral judgment. Such judgments are merely personal.

One might argue that pornography cheapens and objectifies physical intimacy. But I’d respond that it only has that effect if the observer unrealistically generalizes what he or she is watching. It is the viewer in this case, not pornography, that is objectifying sexuality. Sex is not a solitary phenomenon. It is a collective name for a large variety of similar behaviors and instances existing exclusively from one another. The manner in which others have sex is separate from one’s personal sexual affairs. Every consenting adult is afforded the right to define and engage in sex as they see fit for their own purposes. No more. No less.

In that vein, opponents of same sex marriage claim that marrying gays violates the sanctity of marriage. The sanctity of whose marriage?, I ask. If a homosexual couple gets married, how does that affect the marriages of heterosexual couples? Will husbands and wives turn to each other and say, “Our marriage doesn’t mean as much now that gays are doing it?” Again, the reasoning seems irrational. Likewise, pornography may depict sexual relations that deviate from critics’ personal ideals, but it needn’t have any effect on their own sex lives.

It appears that opponents of pornography, like those against gay marriage, are disapproving in order to prop themselves up on high moral ground. Anything can appear offensive or depraved from such a self-serving viewpoint. Having a particular idea of what sex (or marriage, for that matter) should or shouldn’t be doesn’t mean everyone else must abide by one’s personal preference. What gives someone the authority to be a moral dictator? I think contempt towards others for having different opinions or lifestyles is degrading.

Pornography is said to “lack the moral standards and values of our Judeo-Christian heritage” in the 1965 anti-pornography propaganda film posted below. The vacuous notion that sex and nudity are almost inherently immoral and “dirty” continues to impose on our culture today. That oppressive idea is sadly self-validating. Current laws force people to hide their breasts, buttocks, and genitals, thereby turning those body parts into objects of indecency. A two-piece bathing suit not only hides a woman’s unmentionables, it also draws attention to those distinct parts of her anatomy by the very act of covering them up!

Sexual behavior is obscured by the same irony. Aren’t our laws and standards explicit evidence that society itself is objectifying and degrading sexuality while helping to create an atmosphere of suppressed sexual curiosity and impulsion? Perhaps pornography’s extremes might be explained as a retaliation against—and even a reflection of—society’s stubborn disgust and condemnation of one of life’s most fundamental and natural activities.

Evolution does not infer amorality

Christian evangelists Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron have challenged two atheists to a debate over the existence of God that will air live at ABC’s website on May 5. What caught my eye in the article that introduced me to the debate was this quote by Cameron:

Atheism has become very popular in universities – where it’s taught that we evolved from animals and that there are no moral absolutes. So we shouldn’t be surprised when there are school shootings.

Teaching evolution is responsible for school violence? Perhaps if no one had ever committed a wrong in the name of religion there might be some inkling of reason to consider his proposition (which also presumes that evolution and religion are mutually exclusive). But people commit crimes regardless of spiritual belief. And when religion is involved, the criminal always points to dogma, not it’s absence, as justification for his acts. No one has ever hurt another human being out of atheist fanaticism.

The Bible is not the only source of morality. And I’m grateful for that. If we all lived by it’s exact words we’d be stoning our children, keeping slaves, and offering our underage daughters to house guests for non-consensual copulation. Where might an atheist, then, get his or her moral sense? I agree with Albert Sweigart:

[…] I don’t think we have a moral mandate because God said so. I think we have a moral mandate because our actions, nevertheless what we think, make a difference. We affect the people around us in material and emotional terms, and our actions set an example for others to follow.

We have a moral mandate to take responsibility because we are in the rare position among life forms on earth to think, reflect, and take consideration of consequence. I think to fail to excogitate on our actions with our unique mental capabilities is tragic. And we see the problems that arise out of this failure, both in problems of hurt emotions and damaged relationships, and in problems of brutal violence and conflict.

Our ancestry from millions of years ago doesn’t limit our intellectual capability to find solutions to these problems today. It doesn’t impede our moral imperative to heal ourselves.

From what I can tell, most atheists take the ethical position of humanism. While humanism may not contain moral absolutes, it certainly objects to murder and other forms or cruelty and injustice. If there’s anything immoral suggested by Kirk Cameron’s statement, it’s that blaming science courses for deadly violence without sound reason is intellectually, socially, and ethically irresponsible.

There is no connection whatsoever between the teaching of evolution and school shootings. There does however seem to be a link between the promotion of creationism and a delusional cognizance of one of the greatest achievements of science.

Observations of time

Time is especially peculiar. Mathematically, it’s a dimension just like space. But time is perceived far differently. There is no direct evidence for the past or future, for instance. They cannot be observed. There is also the unexplained ‘velocity’ of time. It passes all on its own. What accounts for these profound differences between time and space?

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Still reading

I finally finished The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and have moved on to The Mind & The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D., and Sharon Begley. Schwartz is a neuropsychiatrist who studied philosophy premed and has a special interest in Buddhism. I bought the book primarily to gain a better understanding of the inner workings and deliberate changeability of the mind and brain (precisely what the title suggests). Little did I know when I grabbed it rather whimsically off the shelves at Books-A-Million that the authors would also be delving into philosophical and spiritual matters such as free will and Buddhist mindfulness, attempting to explain them within a neuroscientific context. How uncannily appropriate is this reading considering recent discussions in this blog?

I haven’t been writing as much because I’d prefer to continue my self-education a bit further before relaying or debating ideas. Though I’ve noticed there’s plenty of conversation going on here without me! (154 views today: another record high!)

Truth is relative

Earlier today I was perusing refutations to atheistic claims and discovered the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry’s website. Their article, Why believe in Christianity over all other religions?, professes an epistemological notion that appears to be a common misunderstanding among many religious apologetics: “If truth is relative, then the statement that truth is relative is an absolute truth and would be self defeating statement by proving that truth is not relative.”

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Knowledge vs. utility

Gary Wolf’s article describing the New Atheism movement and Khalid Mir’s post on the value of intuition have prompted me to consider the difference between a belief system’s validity and usefulness.

One such ‘use’ is morality. Is morality superior to knowledge? To make an extreme case: I’d rather live among friendly and fun imbeciles than I would mean and murderous intellectuals. Or as Trey Parker explained it in Reason Magazine’s article, South Park Libertarians:

If a religion’s going to take over the world, and the one that really believes “just be super nice to everyone” takes over, that’s all right with me. Even if it’s all bullshit, that’s OK.

Parker is forgetting all the other things that come attached to religion. Though some beliefs in themselves might be useful or even true, the beliefs in the remainder of a belief system might not be.

[to be continued]