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The Great Debate: Human Nature

From the Great Humpty Dumpty Disaster to the Emperor’s New Meme

by Hugh Deasy, B.A., M.Sc., Ph.D.

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As Malik (2001) points out, according to one way of looking at things, there are essentially three ways of treating the study of mind or consciousness - namely mechanistic, mysterian and materialist. But even this breakdown implies a bias on the mechanistic-materialist side, as many would view these as relatively limited aspects of thought, with essentially the same agenda, whilst the term 'mysterian' is at once limited and dismissive of a broad spectrum of thought in the camp opposed to strict "mechanistic-materialism". The so-called 'mysterian' embraces idealism, interactionism, pan-psychism, dualism, and several other branches of philosophy with a long and illustrious tradition. For most of the 20th century, the "mechanistic- materialist" philosophy was the dominant one, and to a certain extent still is the default philosophy of mechanistic, reductionist science. This is so much the case that it is usually only present as an invisible, implicit assumption. It is seldom that it is explicitly stated in papers in different areas of science (genetics, chemistry, biology etc.) that this philosophical theory is being used. It is simply taken for granted. Yet it is just that, a theory, for which the proof is no longer all embracing.

In the last decade or two of the last millennium, new evidence began to emerge that contradicted the old Newtonian mechanistic determinism, based essentially on interesting observations in 3 areas:

  • Physics - Quantum Mechanics showed that matter is not composed of 'Newtonian billiard balls'
  • Psychology / Philosophy / Neuroscience - Are we really just machines?
  • Genetics - is there enough information in the genome to specify ‘the machine’ and the simple view of Darwinism?

The first observation, in physics, actually started at the beginning of the 20th century and the other two at its end. Before the 20th century physicists had modelled matter as hard, concrete stuff. Quantum mechanics, however, showed that it was nothing of the sort - it was a web of ghostly probabilities, the ‘wave functions’ of ‘particles’ such as atoms, protons and electrons. We are literally such stuff as dreams are made of. Experiments toward the end of the century showed that even objects as large as atoms, which can be photographed with electron or tunnelling microscopes, can ‘interfere’ with themselves as if they were just ghost like probabilities of being in two different positions at the same time (Horgan, 1996, Choi, 2003).

Secondly, developments in neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence implied a failure to fulfil the promise of the computer model of the human brain/mind. This model grew out of the mechanistic view of reality whose modern form started with Rene Descartes. The latter had divided the world into a Res Cognitans (thought stuff), i.e. the mind ('I think, therefore I am') and everything else (Res Extensa). Thus in this view animals and plants were nothing but mechanistic machines. Only man was an exception, with his reasoning intellect. Later, even man’s intellect or mind would be swallowed up by the machine theory. Especially Artificial Intelligence (AI) compared the mind/brain to a computer and predicted that computers would soon become conscious. The date for this great event was originally set for 1970 and was later pushed back to 1990 and then 2000, but here we are years after that and no sign of computers with the same cognitive capacities as the human subject. Roger Penrose’s book 'The Emperor’s new Mind' made the comparison with the fairy tale of the naked king: no scientist dared to point out that the ruling AI theory was devoid of any strong proof. In this particular case Penrose points to the fact that although computers are very good at certain repetitive tasks, they are far from being able to replace or reproduce the activity of human brain/mind subjects. And this is not merely a question of computing power, as suggested by Malik - it is more like comparing chalk with cheese. A good example of this was the artificial chess problem posed to Deep Blue, cited in Penrose’s ‘Shadows of the Mind’ (2000). To any human novice in chess, it was obvious at a glance how to achieve a draw. Deep Blue, however, after much deep CPU thought, took the obvious bait and lost. Thus its victory over Kasparov was due to a different form of brilliance to that of humans - namely brute algorithmic computing power, as opposed to the non algorithmic insights of the human brain/mind. That is, computers simply don’t understand the meaning of what they see, which is a feature of intuitive subjective intelligence. A similar point was made by Searle (1980) with his Chinese Room analogy, in which a westerner, knowing no Chinese, blindly followed a set of rules to always give the right answer in Chinese to questions posed in that language.

Malik also emphasises that fact that humans are subjects, as well as objects. Subjects are characterised by free will and sentience as well as more fundamental aspects of perception such as 'qualia'. Examples of the latter are the redness of a red rose, the ineffable sound of Mozart or U2, the smell of Chanel Nr. 5 etc. These features of perception are the first indication that many aspects of mind are two sided, possessing a 'subjective' and 'objective' aspect. As Chalmers (1995) points out:

"When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Nagel (1974) has put it, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience."

As Malik says, the normal bottom up approaches of reductionist science such as are used in chemistry and physics will not work when applied to subjects, or subjective consciousness. Here, we need a top down approach. Even in the apparently simple process of seeing, the old bottom up approach began to break down during the ‘decade of the brain’ (the 1990s). An example often used is the ‘Grandmother cell’ - a bottom up approach said that to recognise your grandmother’s face, the image first forms on the retina and then is converted to nerve signals which are then fed to the brain where successively refined pattern recognition processes channel the impulses to a very small region of the brain, even as far as boiling down to a single neuron, the ‘Grandmother cell’. What neuroscientists actually discovered, however, was in a way reminiscent of the ‘great ultra-violet disaster’ in physics a century before that, which led to the invention of Quantum Mechanics. One might call the brain equivalent the ‘great Grandmother Cell disaster’, as precisely the opposite happened to that expected by simple reductionist bottom up theories - after some preliminary processing, the image is split up into its components: In one brain area horizontal lines are processed, in another colour, in another motion etc. Part of the evidence for this comes from patients with brain injuries who can no longer process motion etc. Those reports usually focus on the negative aspects of such injuries. What they fail to mention, though, is the amazing aspect of the brain when everything functions perfectly: The granny’s face is processed in modules all over the brain, with no idea of how to put Humpty Dumpty together again into a clear image - so we might refer to the ‘great Humpty Dumpty disaster’.

This ‘great Grandmother Cell disaster’ led to one of the modern problems in the philosophy of mind or consciousness, namely the binding problem: how do the data from these distributed brain modules come together again to form a coherent image in the mind? How does the Humpty Dumpty of the different image features knit together into a seamless whole in our internal TV screen? The hard core mechanist/materialist school thinks with horror of the implication here - namely of a little man within the brain watching the internal TV screen: the so-called homunculus. Despite energetic attempts to ‘exorcise’ the homunculus, he has refused to go away. See for example Sutherland’s (1997) discussion on ‘Homuphobia’.

The need for a top down approach in neuroscience and related fields is acknowledged by a growing number of neuroscientists. As mentioned in McCrone (1997):

"Traditional thinking held that the brain was some kind of computer, crunching its way through billions of inputs each second, outputting consciousness. But, said Friston, a theoretical neurobiologist at London's Institute of Neurology, it is more as if the arrival of those inputs provokes a widespread disturbance in the brain. Look, Friston told his Harvard friend, the brain is like this pond. You throw in a pebble - the sensory input - and you get ripples. That's the neurons responding.
Sure, the pattern says something about the way the pebble hit the surface. But the pond is already covered in ripples caused by other pebbles, so the pattern appears a little chaotic. And then once the ripples spread out far enough to begin bouncing off the sides, he continued, the shape of the pond begins to affect what is going on. The whole thing keeps evolving and becoming more complex. Yes, replied his friend, nodding furiously, and as we throw more and more pebbles - or rather experiences - into the pond, we change the kind of patterns it produces, and even the shape of the pond itself. This system has a memory! In the early 90s, in hundreds of private conversations like this, mind scientists were groping their way towards a fresh view of the brain - one based on the idea that mental states are dynamically evolved rather than clinically computed. Back then, the arguments were little more than hand waving exercises. People were familiar with the new ideas about chaos, complexity and non- linear systems coming out of places like the Santa Fe Institute, but unsure how they applied to the brain. Today, however, the dynamic revolution is beginning to roll. At workshops and meetings around the world, researchers like Friston are talking publicly about dynamic models of the brain, and the evidence to support the new theories that is beginning to fall into place. A replacement for the brain-as-computer model certainly seems overdue."

Another mysterious aspect of consciousness is its subjective sense of the flow of time. Most popular discussions on time are unsatisfying in getting to the nub of the matter. Usually all that is discussed is Einstein's relativity and how it can expand and contract perceived time for an observer moving relative to another. But these discussions, though they show how the subjective sense of time may be distorted in the measurement of objective entities such as a meter rule or the click spacing of a clock, say nothing of the essentially subjective perception of the flow of time. Shallow dismissals of time as an illusion, often beloved of ultra-mechanistic physicists (e.g. Barbour (1999), Hawking (1998)), also fail to come to terms with time as perceived. No amount of trying to sweep it under an objective carpet can provide an insight to time as perceived by subjective consciousness. In fact the two are intimately related: without the subject, time would boil down to the trivial objective time of the physicists: just another coordinate axis plotted against a space axis. In relativity time is objectively equivalent to a space coordinate multiplied by the square root of -1. Yet subjective time is implicit everywhere, even in perceiving a picture or a graph of space versus time: The physicist could not look at that graph if there were no perceptual binding of the image, which also takes subjective perception processes and subjective time sense to form. Philosophers such as Husserl and Heidegger (1997) do make tentative inroads on the mystery of subjective time, but basically get no further than describing a sort of extended `now` out of which flows the past and into which flows the future.

Free will is often challenged by writers in neuroscience and related areas of philosophy (e.g. Rita Carter, Tomas Metzinger). Of particular interest here is Benjamin Libet’s experiment which showed that for 500 milliseconds prior to a conscious action subconscious activity (e.g. commands to move an arm) is building up. Libet himself (e.g. Libet, 2003), however, does not interpret his experiment as evidence of the inefficacy of consciousness - he points out that although the tendency to press a button may be building up for 500 milliseconds, the conscious will retains a right to veto that action in the last few milliseconds. A good comparison made is with a golfer, who may swing the club several times before striking the ball. Also, James (1890) viewed consciousness as a continuum, reaching from the peak of full directed waking consciousness down through layers of lower awareness: thus to say that ‘subconscious’ processes determine our actions could also be stated otherwise: The action simply starts at a lower level of awareness, coming to fruition only when it has risen up to the peak of conscious awareness. In this view, the action simply gets, as it were, a rubber stamp of approval at the last millisecond. In this view the thought was never fully disjoint from consciousness (‘sub conscious’), but was always rising through successive layers of awareness. Also, for planning tomorrow’s activities or those in an hour millisecond offsets are insignificant.

Another interesting idea that connects free will to quantum processes comes from Stapp (1993), who implies that we could have superpositions of different wave functions corresponding to different choices in our brains, with free will ‘collapsing’ to one of the alternatives, not through a random process but because there is an element of free will in quantum transitions, even at the level of sub atomic wave function collapses. From outside, an arbitrary free decision would appear random, and on average the quantum mechanical interpretation of a probabilistic processes gives accurate results. Now this theory is a form of pan psychism, as is Chalmer’s idea that every time information is processed, a proto conscious event takes place.

Finally, turning to evolution and genetics, I want to make a few remarks that deviate somewhat from the interpretations of Dennet, Dawkins & co. While the consensus amongst scientists is that Darwin’s theory is basically correct, there remains some latitude in interpreting the details of the theory. For example, in a fascinating recent discussion of evolutionary convergence (Conway Morris (2003) ) some interesting points are made:

  • Only 20 of the possible 64 amino acids are used by living organisms. They are always left handed, just as are the majority of amino acids found in meteorites, whilst simple laboratory experiments produce equal numbers of right and left handed versions. This, coupled with the difficulty of the formation of DNA, suggests that the first stages of life may occur on comet surfaces or elsewhere in the galaxy, later seeding the Earth for life.
  • Certain proteins are constantly reused: Rhodopsins, for example, a key type of protein used in the light receptors in the eye, started out with a different function in bacterial metabolism and later was reused for vision in independently evolved visual systems such as those of mammals, insects or cephalopods (e.g. octopus). Thus although the size of ‘protein space’ is huge, only certain very narrow regions are actually used and reused, implying that there are only a very limited number of possible ‘solutions’ to life.
  • Many organisms are outwardly almost identical, but possess completely different genomes (e.g. the marsupial wolf and the Eurasian wolf, or the Praying Mantis and its look alikes). Other organisms are outwardly quite different, but possess almost identical genomes (e.g. humans and chimpanzees). Thus the correspondence between phenotype and genotype is not as simple as would be implied by a simple Darwinian selection process.

Subjective consciousness may also be an evolutionary driver. Llinas (2002), essentially a conventional analysis by a leading neuroscientist, makes a good case for this, showing how subjective consciousness may be an important survival factor (a zombie may not feel the same impetus to flee from a charging sabre toothed tiger). He even suggests that subjective consciousness may be present quite far down the evolutionary chain. Thus it may be necessary to have subjective consciousness, with its associated emotional drives, to power volition and reactions to danger, hunger, etc. Is it so incredible to think that flies have a sort of subjective awareness of danger? Try looking your cat in the eye and denying him that!

The latest estimates of the number of genes in the human genome is between 25,000 and 30,000. Now the number of base pairs in the genome is 3,000,000,000. From, e.g. http://home.austarnet.com.au/stear/case_against_perloff_ac.htm , we get the following estimate for the corresponding information content:

"Human beings are far more complicated than bacteria, with about 10 to 20 times the number of genes. The human genome is encoded in 3 billion base pairs - or 750 megabytes of ASCII. But human genes are coded in only about 1.5 % of our DNA - some 11.25 megabytes of ASCII." Recent attempts to add some non repetitive sequences such as non coding RNA to the tally of information carrying DNA did not increase the total information content by more than a megabyte or so. Thus the final total will almost certainly be still below 15 megabytes. This is not a lot of information. Many relatively trivial programs use more data storage. On its own it scarcely seems sufficient to specify the complexity of the body, let alone the brain/mind. In fact, if one were to reconstruct the body using a computer program and data files, one suspects that terabytes might be more appropriate, without ever touching the brain/mind complexity. Thus fields such as Sociobiology or evolutionary psychology, which assume that behaviour is to a large extent determined by the genes face a major challenge in the light of these findings. Take for example a new born gazelle - it is able to walk and then run within minutes of being born, a skill needed to flee prowling lions. Yet such skill requires sophisticated software, certainly many megabytes in size, to run on the latest robots from Honda or Soni. So the gazelle must have the equivalent of this sophisticated software, but if its genome is only tens of megabytes, then can it all come from the genes while allowing enough data to form the muscles and other bodily components? Can its neural network learn quickly enough to flee a charging lion? The latter is negated for example by the observations of a horse owner friend: "I can't remember how long it takes a foal to run after it's been born, but I think it stands up immediately after birth while the mother cleans it. It doesn't copy other running animals - in the case of the foal sired by our stallion, it was not just trotting an hour after being born, it was racing around the field with its body at an angle of about 45 degrees as it went round corners. In other words this is all wired in, like young cats' ability to see." The latter again begs the question of where all this hard wired behavior comes from in the presence of so few genes. Are we forced to reconsider mechanisms such as Jung’s collective unconscious?

The idea of memes [Dawkins 1989, Dennett 1995] arose in the heady days before the complete human genome sequencing, when it seemed that genes and natural selection were an all encompassing combination of causes. But memes are on even shakier ground than genes. The short comings of this ultramechanist attempt to strike at the core of ‘mysterian’ consciousness were pointed out in counterarguments in Scientific American ('Meme Theory Oversimplifies How Culture Changes,' Boyd and Richardson, p. 58 and 'People Do More Than Imitate,' Plotkin, p.60, October 2000). Indeed, as the above arguments on the nature of subjective consciousness and genes have shown, the question is still open as to whether the brain (objective) and mind (subjective) may be equated. Thus rather than considering such questionable concepts as Memes and similar ultra mechanist/materialist ideas, it might be appropriate to focus on the mysteries of subjectivity and top down, non linear approaches. Otherwise the 21st century may close with a book titled ‘The Emperor’s new Meme’ just as the 20th closed with ‘The Emperor’s new Mind’.

Dr. Hugh Deasy trained as a physicist and astronomer and is currently working as flight dynamics consultant at the European Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany.


Penrose, R., 1990, ‘The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and the Laws of Physics’, Vintage (Aug 1990)
Penrose, R., 1995. ‘Shadows of the Mind’, Vintage (Sep 1995)
Chalmers , D.,1995: ‘Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 2(3):200 - 19, 1995
Malik, K., 2001: ‘Man, Beast and Zombie’, Phoenix
Searle, J., 1980: "Minds, Brains, and Programs." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3, 417 - 424.
Nagel, T. 1974. What is it like to be a bat? Philosophical Review 4:435 - 50.
Sutherland , K., 1997, jcs-online thread: http://www.imprint.co.uk/online/homuphob.html.
Barbour, J., 1999: ‘The End of Time’, Weidenfeld & Nicholson
Hawking, S., 1996: ‘A Brief History of Time’, Bantam
Heidegger, M., 1997: ‘Being and Time’, State Univ of New York Pr; (October 1997)
Horgan, J. 1996: ‘Schroedinger's Cation’, Scientific American, June 17, 1996.
Choi, Charles, 2003, ‘Scaled up Superposition’, , Scientific American, February 2003
McCrone, J., 1997, ‘Wild Minds’, New Scientist, 13 December 1997 .
Libet, 2003: ‘Can Conscious Experience affect brain Activity? ‘, Journal of Consciousness Studies 10, nr. 12, pp 24 - 28.
Stapp , H.P., 1993: ‘Mind, Matter, and Quantum Mechanics’, Springer Verlag Berlin, Heidelberg
James , W., 1890, ’The Principles of Psychology’, New York, Henry Holt and Company
Conway Morris, S., 2003, ‘Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe’ , Cambridge University Press (Sept 2003)
Llinas, R., 2002, "I of the Vortex : From Neurons to Self ", MIT Press (Feb 2002)
Dawkins, R. (1989) 'The Selfish Gene' p 197 - 198 Oxford University Press, UK
Dennett, D.C. (1995) 'Darwin's Dangerous Idea' p 515 - 517, Penguin, UK

Book by Hugh Deasy

Humpty Dumpty Disaster: The Ghost or the Machine by Hugh Deasy
Humpty Dumpty Disaster: The Ghost or the Machine

Though there is no official stance on the brain-mind debate, in this era of secularised society a 'default philosophy' has crept up almost unnoticed and is now a sort of new bible for the media and western society as a whole. This 'default philosophy' holds that there is nothing but matter, that the equation mind=brain is true, that Newtonian/Calvinist pre-destination or determinism dominates the world and that artificial intelligence (AI) will soon produce a robot superior to humans in almost all areas.

The book challenges this unspoken consensus and shows how weak the cases are for AI, determinism and the mind=brain idea. Also, that other form of determinism, i.e. that we are genetically pre-determined, is examined in the light of the paucity of meaningful information in the human genome. It is shown that the genome information content is much less than similarly complex artificial systems. So some sort of epi-genetic or epi-physical agency must be at work. The truth or falsity of the cases examined have major bearings on our view of human nature, the dignity of the human being and our regard for the environment and nature. In a soulless world many of the old values and morals disappear. The future of our planet may depend on humanity (re)gaining its self-awareness.

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