Part 3: Strategies of Control

I’ve spoken at a high level about the functional drivers that caused life, minds, humans, and civilization to arise, and I have implied that where there is a will, there is a way, which suggests a certain inevitability of this progression. But that isn’t really true. Function does drive form, but actually, where there is a will and a way, there is a way. Functions require both a physical and logical strategy to arise. Since we already exist, we know we are both physically and logically possible, so all we have to do is figure out the mechanisms. For most evolved functions, the logical requirements of the function can be readily worked out, and the physical mechanism that supports it can then be studied in detail to give us a fairly complete picture. However, because the functions of the mind are so indirectly connected to physical behavior, we haven’t really been able to work out the logical requirements to much detail, and we can only speak very approximately about what the brain is doing. In this part of the book, I am going to try to unravel the logical strategies the mind uses to achieve the functions we observe. Our current physical knowledge of the brain its chemistry provides only rough hints, so I am going to approach this almost entirely with arguments from functionality we observe and evolutionary needs.

The most celebrated and significant capacity of the mind is neuroplasticity, the ability neural connections to self-organize to develop competence at tasks in response to training with feedback. We do know from physical studies that however plastic any given area of the brain could be, many areas perform the same kinds of work in all people. Most notably, the sensory cortex is prewired to receive neurons from sense organs to specific regions, most notably for sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Touch maps each part of the body to corresponding areas of the primary somatosensory cortex1 The retina maps to corresponding areas of the visual cortex. The right hemisphere controls sight and touch for the left side of the body and vice versa. We don’t really know how neuroplasticity works, but we do from many studies of injuries that many functions localize in small areas or sets of areas and that other parts of the brain can develop these functions if the original areas are damaged. The areas of the brain that receive and send signals to the body tend to be the same areas where specialized control of those areas develops. Adjacent to primary sensory areas are secondary or higher-order sensory areas that integrate the information further. The rest of the cerebral cortex is sometimes called the association cortex to highlight its role in drawing more abstract associations, including memory and thought.

While we don’t know much about the physical mechanics of neuroplasticity, to a rough approximation we believe they detect and reinforce patterns, allowing them to create and process information in a general way that takes patterns into account at any level in proportion to their relevance. I have said from the beginning that the intuitive mind uses this basic approach. I am also saying that everything from sensory perception to high-level deduction is based principally on this strategy. On the plus side, we can use this idea to explain how all the functions of the mind arise: they develop a deeply intricate network of checks and balances that tends to produce useful results. But on the minus side, this perspective blocks us from being able to develop a more granular perspective on what is happening. Sure, the functionality near the input and output nerves specializes for the relevant senses, but everything else quickly develops into a gray mass of overlapping functionality. The truth is, to a large degree, all of brain functionality is a gray area and I won’t be able to explain it because it varies in everybody for innumerable reasons tied to our specific experiences. In other words, the wiring diagrams for the neurons of any two people will be wildly different and you could study them till the end of time and not be able to correlate them to each other. But there are macropatterns, which are strategies of control that have operated from a high level to create both natural and cultural techniques now used by all people. Because these macrostrategies all have microdifferences, we have to expect to find limits to how granular we can get, but we do need to know these broad strategies. We need to know because they are what make us tick.

Before I get into the strategies of control used by minds, let’s dial back to the concept of control itself. Unlike rocks, which are subject to the vagaries of the elements, living things maintain their integrity to persist indefinitely by exercising control. They don’t persist by retaining the same atoms indefinitely. The ship of Theseus is a thought experiment that asks whether a ship in which every piece has been replaced is still the same ship. Physically, it is not the same, but it has maintained its integrity functionally. A functional entity exists based on our expectations of it. It is fair to label any collection of matter, whether living or dead, as a persistent entity if it only undergoes small, incremental changes. Maintenance results in physical changes while upgrades and downgrades also produce functional changes. The maintenance of metabolism replaces about 98% of the atoms in the human body every year, and nearly everything every five years.23 Nearly all of this maintenance has no functional effect, however, over their lifespan organisms mature and then decline with appropriate functional transitions. Minds, and especially human minds, can learn continuously, effectively producing nonstop functional upgrades. We also forget a lot, resulting in functional downgrades.

Living things functionally persist because they are regulated by a control mechanism. Simple machines like levers, pulleys, and mathematical formulas use feed-forward control, in which a control signal that has been sent cannot be further adjusted. Locally, most physical forces usually operate by feed-forward control. Their effects cascade like dominoes with implications that cannot be stopped once set in motion. But some forces double back. A billiard ball struck on an infinite table produces feed-forward effects, but once balls can carom off bumpers then they come back to knock other balls. These knock-on effects are feedback, and feedback makes regulation possible. Regulation or true control uses feedback to keep a system operating within certain patterns of behavior without spiraling out of control. A regulating system monitors a signal and applies negative feedback to diminish it and positive feedback to amplify it.

We tend to think of control as changing the future; it doesn’t actually do that. All natural causes are deterministic and so must happen exactly the way they do at each point in space. Billiard balls are still just knocking into each other, even if some bounce back. Choices, if they exist, cannot not be creating an alternate future. So what is happening? Feedback-based selection events are just using information from past patterns to regulate future patterns. Physically, the patterns, and hence the information, don’t exist. They are mathematical constructs that characterize similarity (actually they are functional constructs that could be represented mathematically, but the mechanisms used by living things are hard to reduce to math). Both the creation of information and its application back to the physical world are indirect, so no amount of physical understanding of the mechanism will ever reveal how the system will behave. Despite this, it remains completely deterministic. Internally, the information processor (IP) follows feed-forward logic using physical parts, just like everything else in the universe. The fact that much is fed back through the hopper again doesn’t change that. But because the IP has separated the control components (the information and information processing) from what is being controlled using layers of indirection, physical laws have lost their opportunity to explain how the system will behave; we need a different way to connect cause to effect.

This is why I have proposed functional existence. Physical and functional existence are not about what is noumenally present, although we can talk about their noumena. What they are really about is providing explanatory power. Physical laws are a practical way to explain phenomena that are subject to feed-forward control at a macro level, and functional laws are a practical way to explain phenomena that are subject to feedback control at a macro level. At a micro level, billions of gas particles bounce off each other, with many feedback effects, but because their behavior is uniform, macro-level gas laws explain their behavior quite adequately. Gas laws don’t actually make any physical sense; “pressure” is a statistical, informational phenomenon. But because of their uniformity, we can treat them as physical laws at the macro level. Conversely, at a micro level, genes encode proteins which may catalyze specific chemical reactions, all feed-forward phenomena. But knowing this sequence tells you nothing about why it happens; at the macro level you need to invoke natural selection to develop any explanatory power, and natural selection speaks to the function of genes and proteins.

It is a lucky thing for us that feedback control systems are not only possible in this universe, but that they can also self-organize and evolve under the right conditions. Living things are holistic feedback systems that refine themselves through a functional ratchet. Life didn’t have to choose to evolve; it just followed naturally from the way feedback loops developed into IPs that could refine their own development. While we don’t know in how many places life has evolved in the universe, it may have been inevitable given the environmental conditions on Earth. Quantum uncertainty creates the possibility that any given atomic or molecular interaction could play out differently despite adhering to physical laws, and this means that life may have depended on some “lucky breaks”. While I know we can’t predict quantum events, I don’t think the multiverse interpretation that every quantum event goes both ways, splitting the universe, is correct. It goes beyond the scope of this book, of my knowledge, and probably of anyone’s knowledge, to say what is correct, but all the evidence above the quantum level supports the idea of a strictly deterministic universe that precisely follows physical laws. If quantum events could always go both ways, I don’t think any of our macro-level physical laws would work because they depend on probabilities that are not equally likely. For example, it is very unlikely that a proton will decay (nearly all will outlive the universe), but the multiverse hypothesis forces us to split the universe every nanosecond for every proton to account for its possible decay. Perhaps a probabilistic multiverse hypothesis that splits universes “unevenly”, resulting in both likely and highly unlikely universes, could make sense if we could wrap our heads around the idea that one universe could exist “more” than another. In any case, we live in an extremely certain universe where our macro-level physical laws always hold, and in that universe, we can probably conclude that life was inevitable. That said, how it evolved could not be predicted without a computer bigger than the universe itself.4 The exact conditions at each moment contributed to the tree of life that emerged, which would be quite different on every other planet where life evolved (barring some universal supersymmetry not yet observed).

Whatever the laws of physics turn out to be (as we improve them over time), for all practical purposes, we can safely presume that both feed-forward and feedback control systems are entirely deterministic, meaning that physically the inputs completely determine the outputs. This is not the case functionally, because when we think about things functionally, the meaning of “the inputs” and “the outputs” changes. Specifically, they change from being exact conditions to being approximate conditions or descriptions of similar conditions. Instead, we would say that, with a given set of inputs, a functional system will choose between a variety of outputs. Because the inputs are interpreted functionally, this means they are generalized to describe a wide range of possible physical circumstances (if, indeed, they refer to physical circumstances at all), and that means that they can then connect those inputs to outputs using a choice algorithm. The choice never had anything to do with an exact physical situation; it was about degrees of similarity to physical situations. The algorithm itself is also entirely deterministic, but, interestingly, if it is running in a human brain, it has the potential to be continuously updated as new information, including information generated by the algorithm itself, arrives. You could say the result is the “illusion of free will”. Physically, it is an illusion because the physical outcome was essentially preordained. But functionally, the outcome was unpredictable and could only be said to be known once the algorithm reached a point where it had decided and acted. Before that point, it was essentially free, because it was subject only to its own internal algorithms, which can’t be superseded by external forces. A freely-operating mind identifies with and takes ownership of its own internal algorithms because that identity defines it. Dissociative identity disorders and natural limitations of the mind to manage its own algorithms place limits on the effective degree of this freedom. For example, people can easily be manipulated, which can undermine their free will.

Where physical systems work in a feed-forward way through a sequence of causes and effects that cascade, information feeds back through functional systems where it is interpreted, leading to decisions whose effect is to make things happen that are similar to things that have happened before. We call this decision-making or choice, but the only choices are relative to hypothetical situations leveraging the idea of similarity. In making such a choice, the desired effects then trigger causes that have produced similar effects. The cart pulls the horse. IPs predict; they know things about effects before they happen. Life does evolve by trial and error, but it is a mistake to think this means the trials are simply random. Yes, they must have been random at the start, and all received theories of evolution still hold that they remain entirely random, but I think this is naive. Just as inductive reasoning weighs prior evidence to make “educated” guesses, so too has evolution probably been tipping the scales in its favor almost from the beginning, becoming increasingly “educated” in ways that make useful mutations more likely to occur, an idea I discussed before. The key takeaway is that in both small and big ways, feedback can lead to “clever” behavior because it can “figure out” how to make a system do things that would never have happened by chance. No magic is necessary; life just has a knack for holding on to techniques that work in the hopes they will work again.

Living things manage information that impacts the long-term survival of the gene line using DNA, while minds manage information that impacts the survival of the individual through neurochemistry. Minds depend on gene-line information as well, so they integrate both kinds of information. The feedback of natural selection causes genes to evolve so as to improve the chances of survival of a gene line, most locally from the perspective of a direct line of descent of an organism, but also to lesser degrees to its tribe and symbiotes. Genes are kept, discarded, and used strictly on the basis of their value to survival. Every mind evolves over the course of its own lifetime using a natural selection of information which comes to use useful information more and harmful information less. Mental information is kept, discarded, and used based in part of its value to survival and in part on its value to the individual. Its value to survival is only relevant to the extent that a genetic trait that affects mental information management can be selected, but we have many innate mental talents which genetic natural selection created. Our capacity to keep, discard, and use mental information is itself mostly innate, but we have also developed manmade techniques. Manmade techniques are only found in the individuals and societies that created and shared them. In this book, I am only going to focus on innate information, i.e. on explanations of minds in general rather than specific minds.

  1. This creates a map of the body in the brain called the cortical homunculus. A high percentage of the area is dedicated to the hands and mouth.
  2. Turnover rate, Hmolpedia
  3. Many cells in the brain, heart, and pancreas stay with us our whole lives. Their DNA, at the least, is never replaced, so we know some molecules stay with us our whole lives
  4. A computer such as Laplace’s demon.

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