The Blue Brain project is a mammoth scientific undertaking that aims to “build a biologically detailed digital reconstruction of the rodent, and ultimately the human brain.” Historically, the project has the potential to stand beside other major achievements in neuroscience and advance our understanding of the brain in giant leaps.
But, what exactly will these new discoveries tell us about minds? About humans and our experiences? This is where I think a bit of philosophy comes into play, whether anyone likes it or not. Some recent pieces illustrate this nicely.
From the brilliant Conscious Entities blog:
“Information about the brain is not the same as information in the brain; yet in discussions of mind uploading, brain simulation, and mind reading the two are quite often conflated or confused. Equivocating between the two makes the task seem far easier than it really is. Scanners of various kinds exist, after all, and have greatly improved in recent years; technology usually goes on improving over time. If all we need is to get a really good scan of the brain in order to understand it, then surely it can only be a matter of time? Alas, information about the brain is an inadequate proxy for the information in the brain that we really need.” (emphasis added)
And this from The New York Times opinion section
Will You Ever Be Able to Upload Your Brain?
“Much of the current hope of reconstructing a functioning brain rests on connectomics: the ambition to construct a complete wiring diagram, or “connectome,” of all the synaptic connections between neurons in the mammalian brain. Unfortunately connectomics, while an important part of basic research, falls far short of the goal of reconstructing a mind, in two ways.
First, we are far from constructing a connectome. The current best achievement was determining the connections in a tiny piece of brain tissue containing 1,700 synapses; the human brain has more than a hundred billion times that number of synapses. While progress is swift, no one has any realistic estimate of how long it will take to arrive at brain-size connectomes. (My wild guess: centuries.)
Second, even if this goal were achieved, it would be only a first step toward the goal of describing the brain sufficiently to capture a mind…”
Philosophers have been arguing for centuries about issues of brains, bodies, minds, and subjective experience, and as some, such as Alva Noë and Evan Thompson, have stated, modern neuroscience has rather taken for granted that understanding brains will equate to understanding minds.
So what would it mean to duplicate or upload a brain? Could we ever ‘backup’ a brain to the cloud like we do with a laptop, or ‘update’ a brain as easily as we update an iPhone to the latest iOS? What might this ‘about’ information capture and enable us to manipulate? Could chronic pain be simply a ‘bug’ that can be fixed by deleting and re-installing an app? Science Fiction has attempted to answer these questions, but I don’t think any one has even the first clue as to what an answer might even look like.
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Lots of juicy thoughts in that post Tim! For now, just as I am about to teach, the reminder that “information about the brain is not the same as information in the brain” is very helpful.
We can observe the activity of thinking on a brain scanner but until we can see a thought I think we are stuck on that one Tim……