Part 3: Strategies of Control

Now I’m going to start to explain the strategies the mind uses to control the body. This sounds at first to be very speculative territory. After all, we can’t see what the mind is doing or inspect it using any form of physical monitoring. We know that it arises in the brain, but only direct evidence comes from first-hand reports. We could guess at what the strategies might be, but if first-hand reports are the only direct evidence, what is to prevent any guess from being entirely subjective? The short answer is that it is ok if we guess or hypothesize strategies based on subjective evidence provided we devise objective ways of testing them. After all, all hypotheses start out as subjective guesses. Still, there are an infinite variety of guesses we might make, so we need a strategy to suggest likely hypotheses. In this part of the book, I will devote some time to exploring how we can be objective about the mind, given that the mind is fundamentally subjective. But for now, let’s just assume that we can be objective. The first question we need to consider in our hunt for strategies of control is the question of what control itself is.

Living things persist indefinitely by exercising control. Rocks, on the other hand, are subject to the vagaries of the elements and can’t act so as to preserve themselves. The persistence of life is not entirely physical; it doesn’t simply depend on the same atoms maintaining the same bonds to other 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 its functional integrity has been maintained. A functional entity exists based on our expectations of it. It is fair to label any collection of matter, whether a person or a ship, as a persistent entity if it only undergoes small, incremental changes. However, we can interpret those changes either physically or functionally. We can then track the degree of change to report on net persistence. Physical changes always decrease net persistence. Once every piece of the ship has been replaced, it is physically a completely different ship. Functional changes can be functionally equivalent, resulting in no decrease in net persistence. So once every piece of the ship has been replaced by parts with functionally-equivalent parts, the ship is functionally the same. The replacement parts may also be functional upgrades or downgrades, which can result in a net shift in the functionality of the ship. For example, if all the wooden parts are gradually replaced with relatively indestructible synthetic parts, the ship will perform identically but will no longer require any further maintenance of parts. Metabolism replaces about 98% of the atoms in the human body every year, and nearly everything every five years.12 Nearly all of this maintenance has no functional effect, so even though we are physically almost completely different, nearly all our functionality remains the same. Of course, over their lifespans organisms mature and then decline with corresponding functional changes. Minds, and especially human minds, learn continuously, effectively causing nonstop functional upgrades. We also forget a lot, resulting in continuous functional downgrades. But these ongoing changes tend to be minor relative to overall personality characteristics, so we tend to think of people as being pretty stable. We can conclude that living things have only very temporary physical persistence because of continuous metabolic maintenance, but very good functional persistence over their lifetimes. Living things are thus primarily functional entities and only secondarily physical entities. They need a physical form to achieve functions, but as information processors, their focus is on preserving their functions and not their physical form.

Living things achieve this functional persistence 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 only feed-forward effects, but once balls can carom off bumpers, then they can come back and knock balls that have been knocked before. These knock-on effects are feedback, and feedback makes regulation possible. Regulation, also called true control, uses feedback to keep a system operating within certain patterns of behavior without spiraling out of control. The way such a regulating system does this is by monitoring a signal and applying negative feedback to reduce that signal and positive feedback to amplify it. Living things monitor many signals simultaneously. Perhaps most notably, animals use feedback to eat when they need more energy and to sense their environment as they move to direct further movement. The mind is an intermediary in both cases; using appetite in the first case and body senses in the second.

We tend to think of control as changing the future, but it doesn’t actually do that. All natural causes are deterministic, and this includes the control mechanisms in minds. Much like billiard balls, minds just do what they are going to do based on their inputs and current configuration. Like computer algorithms, they would produce the same output given the same inputs, but the same inputs never happen twice. No time and place is identical to anything that came before, and this is particularly true with animals because they carry unique memories reflecting their entire experience. We think we encounter things and situations we have seen before, but they are really only similar to what we have seen before, and we make predictions based on that similarity. So although minds are technically deterministic, they don’t use knee-jerk, preprogrammed responses but instead develop strategies from higher-order interpretations based on general similarities. These higher-order interpretations are information (functional entities) that is indirectly abstracted from the underlying situation. This information from past patterns is used to regulate future patterns. Physically, the patterns, and hence the information, don’t exist. They are functional constructs that characterize similarity using a physical mechanism. Both the creation of the 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. This doesn’t mean the system isn’t ultimately deterministic. At the lowest level, the physical parts of the information processor (IP) only use feed-forward logic, just like everything else in the universe. But this predictive capacity that derives from the uniformity of nature allows patterns to leverage other patterns to “self-organize” schemes that would otherwise not naturally arise. There is nothing physically “feeding back” — the universe doesn’t repeat itself — but a new capacity called function based on information arises. The IP has separated the components of control (information and information processing) from what is being controlled (ultimately physical entities) using indirection. This is why I say that physical laws can’t explain how the system will behave; we need a theory of function for explanations, i.e. to connect causes to effects.

Although physical laws can’t explain functional systems, we need functional systems to explain anything, because explanation is a predictive product of information. Physical laws attach functional causes and effects to physical phenomena, not to reveal the underlying noumena but to help us predict what will likely happen. Some physical laws, such as those governing fundamental forces or chemical bonds, describe what will happen when particles meet. Other physical laws, like those that describe gases, create fictitious functional properties like pressure to describe how sextillions of gas particles behave when they bounce off each other. Physically, there is no pressure; it is purely a functional convenience that describes the approximate behavior of gases. At the chemical level, genes encode proteins which may catalyze specific chemical reactions, all feed-forward phenomena. But knowing this sequence doesn’t tell you why it exists. At a functional level, we need a theory like natural selection to explain why genes and proteins even exist.

It is lucky 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. We don’t yet have any idea how likely or unlikely it was for life to evolve on Earth. However probable or improbable relative to other places in the universe, all that matters to us is that conditions were right and it happened, needing nothing more than the same laws of physics that apply everywhere else in the universe. In other words, the output, life, resulted entirely and (with hindsight) predictably given the inputs. We can’t prove it was an inevitable outcome because quantum events can be uncertain, but we can say it was completely plausible based on causes and effects as we understand them from the laws of physics as we know them. The feed-forward and feedback control systems involved were deterministic, meaning that the outputs were within expectations given the inputs. Whether or not we can have complete certainty about physical outcomes is debatable, but we know we can’t have complete certainty about functional outcomes. The whole concept of functionality is based on similarity and approximate predictability, not certainty, so we should not have any illusions that it is completely knowable. The strategies of feedback loops can be very likely to work in future similar situations, and therein lies their power, but no future situation is exactly the same as the past situations which generated the information, so “past performance is no guarantee of future results”. But the uniformity of nature is so dependable that we often find that functional methods can achieve 51%, 90% , 99% or even 99.9999% effectiveness, and any success rate better than chance is helpful.

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 one is not choosing between two actual sequences of events, one is choosing between two hypothetical sequences, both of which are only similar to any actual sequence without being the same as it. In other words, our choices are only about simulations, so choice itself is a simulation or functional construction of our imagination with no physical corollary. In making a choice, we select causes that produce desired effects in our simulations and trust in the effectiveness rates of our methods will work in our favor. Our IPs predict the effects before they happen; the cart pulls the horse, in apparent violation of the laws of physics. But it is entirely natural because control just capitalizes on the uniformity of nature to make higher-order patterns.

Living things manage information in DNA to maximize multi-generational survival, while minds manage information neurochemically to maximize single-generational survival. Minds depend heavily on genetic mechanisms, so they can be said to use both kinds of information processing. Whether genes persist or are discarded depends on their functional contribution to survival. Physically, a gene may make a protein for which some cause-and-effect roles can be proposed, but such purposes can only be right to the extent their ultimate effect is to benefit survival because that is the only feedback that can shape them. While genetic success must correlate directly to survival one way or another, mental success does not have to. This is because the mind uses an additional layer of real-time information processing on top of genetic mechanisms. The genetic mechanisms establish strategies of control that are heuristic or open-form rather than algorithmic or closed-form. Closed-form means by deductive means, while open-form also includes inductive or intuitive means. Of course, this is no surprise, as I have already extensively discussed how the nonconscious parts of the brain are inductive and intuitive, while the conscious part adds a deductive layer that manipulates concepts. But it is important to note here that the mind is fundamentally open-form because it means the mind is not formally constrained to aid in our survival, it is only informally constrained to do so through heuristics. These genetic heuristics, which I call strategies of control, are the subject of this part of the book.

In principle, we could potentially “sit just quietly and smell the flowers” all day in the shade of a cork tree like the bull in The Story of Ferdinand. People or bulls who have made permanent provisions for all their survival needs can afford to live such a life of Riley, and those that have may seek such idle entertainments. But our minds are genetically predisposed to ensure our own survival and to propagate, and this is where strategies of control help out. Understanding our genetic predispositions is the first step to understanding our minds. The second step is understanding how real-time knowledge empowers our minds. Real-time knowledge spans all strategies and information we have learned from our own experience and that of our predecessors, both inductive and deductive. This second-order level of understanding of the mind is, most broadly, all knowledge, because all knowledge is power and thus powers the mind in its own way. By that measure, we all already understand the mind, and it is entirely fair to say we all already have a very broad and useful understanding of the mind for this reason. But the purpose of this book is to take a more narrow view by generalizing from that knowledge to organizing principles that create higher-order powers of the mind. Such a generalized framework, if laid out as a conceptual model and supported by prevailing scientific theories, will also constitute a scientific theory of the mind. I will attempt to construct such a second-order theory of mind in the last part of the book.

  1. Turnover rate, Hmolpedia
  2. 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

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