Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Ghost in the Machine

You may have seen photographs purporting to contain a ghost - as in visitors from the 'astral plane'. Maybe this photograph can claim to be the real thing. Certainly it is an expression of the actual thought processes, the "spirit of a thinking machine" as the website concerned describes it. You can 'see' its 'mind' in real time if you play a game of chess against it (just click on the photograph to try!).

So can 'pure thought' exist independently of its 'physical home' (whether corporeal body or man-made machine)? I would say that Descartes thought so - that mental activity carries on in parallel to physical action, but where their means of interaction are unknown or, at best, speculative. This is "mind-body dualism". Then came Gilbert Ryle who rejected Descartes’ theory of the relation between mind and body, on the grounds that it approaches the investigation of mental processes as if they could be isolated from physical processes. He says:

"The rationalist theory that the will is a faculty within the mind and that volitions are mental processes which the human body transforms into physical acts is therefore a misconception. This theory mistakenly assumes that mental acts are distinct from physical acts and that there is a mental world which is distinct from the physical world. This theory of the separability of mind and body is described by Ryle as "the dogma of the ghost in the machine." (Wiki).

Clearly this debate impinges on religious thought as part and parcel of the debate. Here is part of an interesting article where Adam Marczyk (his name according to the Tekton site) asks "Where is the Soul Hiding?"

"Central to many religions, both Eastern and Western, is the doctrine of dualism: that there is a non-material essence called the soul that inhabits and animates our bodies and is the cause and the source of consciousness, personality, free will, thoughts, ideas, feelings, emotions, memories, the sense of self - in short, everything a person thinks of as "I". Theists typically believe that the soul survives the physical death of the body and goes on to whatever comes after death, be it an afterlife in Heaven or Hell or reincarnation in a new body.

I am an atheist because I have found no evidence that leads me to believe that the supernatural claims of any religion are true, and the notion of the soul is no exception. In fact, as this essay will demonstrate, there is strong evidence against the existence of a soul in humans, pointing instead to the alternative of materialism - that the mind is not separate from the brain, but that it arises from and is produced by neural activity within the brain. Simply stated, the mind is what the brain does.

As a practical matter, it should be easy to judge between dualism and materialism, because unlike most religious doctrines, the notion of the soul is an idea that would seem to have testable consequences. Specifically, if the human mind is the product of a "ghost in the machine" and not the result of electrochemical interactions among neurons, then the mind should not be dependent on the configuration of the brain that houses it. In short, there should be aspects of the mind that owe nothing to the physical functioning of the brain.

Until recently, this prediction was difficult to test, but modern scientific innovations have thrown light on the subject. Medical techniques such as CAT scans (short for computed axial tomography), PET (positron emission topography), and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) allow the structure and function of the living brain to be studied. Scientists can see which areas of the brain "light up" with activity when a healthy person performs a mental task, or they can examine patients who have suffered injury or disease to see which parts of the brain, when damaged, correspond to which deficits of neural function.

And already, a disappointing result for theists has emerged. Some mental functions are localized, while others are more diffuse, but there is no aspect of the mind that does not correspond to any area of the brain. In fact, we know precisely which brain regions control many fundamental aspects of human consciousness.".

Now let us return to the chess 'mind' in the photograph - after all, it symbolises the 'materialism' proposed by Adam in the above text even if it cannot seriously be entered into the debate as serious evidence one way or the other  :)

According to the website:

"Thinking Machine 4 explores the invisible, elusive nature of thought. Play chess against a transparent intelligence, its evolving thought process visible on the board before you.

The artwork is an artificial intelligence program, ready to play chess with the viewer. If the viewer confronts the program, the computer's thought process is sketched on screen as it plays. A map is created from the traces of literally thousands of possible futures as the program tries to decide its best move. Those traces become a key to the invisible lines of force in the game as well as a window into the spirit of a thinking machine.".

What do the images mean?

When it is your (White's) turn to move, the chess board will gently pulse to show the influence of the various pieces. in the left image below, you can see waves over the squares around the king and (very lightly) over the squares where the pawns might capture. When the machine (Black) is thinking, a network of curves is overlaid on the board; see image at right. The curves show potential moves - often several turns in the future - considered by the computer. Orange curves are moves by black; green curves are ones by white. The brighter curves are thought by the program to be better for white.".

How strong is the program?

"The chess playing engine is designed to be at the same level as the average viewer. If you're a tournament chess player, you would clobber most casual players--and you'll clobber Thinking Machine 4 too. If you barely remember the rules of the game, the artwork may clobber you instead. The chess engine we built is simple and uses only basic algorithms from the 50s (alpha-beta pruning and quiescence search). The program's unconventional initial moves may raise eyebrows among experts: we did not give it an 'opening book' of standard lines since we wanted it to think through every position.". [Edward Tufte, September 9, 2005]

Would you like to play? Click here!

At least one chess player has an open mind about spiritual matters - I refer to Korchnoi. Here is an extract from an article at Sports Illustrated:

"His approach to chess continues to be highly spiritual. He's currently winning a game he has been playing for four years against the Hungarian grandmaster Goza Maroczy, who died 39 years ago. A Swiss mediator had asked Korchnoi, "If you could play anyone in the hereafter, who would it be?"

Korchnoi named Jose Raul Capablanca of Cuba (1888-1942), Paul Keres of Estonia (1916-75) and Maroczy. The mediator contacted a psychic who said he would see what he could do. A week later the mediator told Korchnoi the psychic "can't find Capablanca or Keres, but Maroczy is available."

Korchnoi and Maroczy play intermittently through the psychic, who doesn't even know chess. Korchnoi steered the game to a French defense, an opening with two main lines—one of which wasn't analyzed until after Maroczy's death in 1951.".

You may be interested in a serious evaluation of the game as evidence for the "survival of an intelligent component of human existence after bodily death". It essentially asks the question:
'At what level did Maroczy play the chess game?'.

Members of our chess-playing community have their say at 'ChessGames' (including a nice comment by David Moody - who says, tongue in cheek, "I find this very troubling. Here I always thought The Afterlife was a realm of eternal rest and peace. And now you're telling me I'll have to spend it studying opening theory?) :)

And here is the complete game!

STOP PRESS: Whilst David Moody (see above) is talking about the Afterlife as "a realm of eternal rest and peace" we see that the New York Times is telling us about "Bobby Fischer’s Body Ordered to Be Exhumed"!

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