Guest Post: The Computational Theory of Mind by Jason Resch


According to the computational theory of mind, the conscious state must be identified not with any particular physical manifestation (body), but rather, with some abstract informational/computational pattern. At first glance, this seems like a trivial distinction, but on a deeper inspection we see that it yields many properties which religions typically ascribe to souls:
  • It has no definitive physical location, no associated mass or energy. In a sense, it is immaterial.
  • Moreover, none of the states of an abstract computation bear any dependence on physical properties, so in this sense it might also be called non-physical.
  • It can survive the death of the body (just as a story can survive the death of a book containing it), and be resurrectedinto new bodies via a transfer of this "immaterial" pattern, e.g. mind uploading.
  • By replicating the pattern of one's mind, we recover the consciousness (the imagined teletransporters of science fiction exploit this) but it also leads to an interesting consequence: we must also then reincarnate into a new body, when for example the final state of a dying brain becomes identical with the initial state of a developing brain. The transfer and survival of the consciousness takes place for the same reasons and in the same way it occurs in a "teletransporter".
  • One's consciousness (or "soul"), not being tied to any physical incarnation or material properties of this universe, can then also be realized in wholly different universes having very different laws. Specifically, it could be realized in any universe where it is possible to build a Turing machine. In this sense, one's "soul" can transmigrate to wholly different realms. For example, an alien civilization or Jupiter brain in another universe that simulates our universe, could choose to "copy & paste" a being it discovers in our universe into theirs. Would this be a type of afterlife?
Explaining the mechanics of the soul does not imply it no longer exists, it just provides us with a little better understanding of it and of ourselves. If denial of the soul is a reason you have rejected the computational theory of mind, you should know this theory might be the support science offers for the idea of the soul.

Others have recognized the apparent connection between computationalism and ideas associated with souls:

When the body dies, the ‘mechanism’ of the body, holding the spirit is gone and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later, perhaps immediately.
-- Alan Turing in a letter to Christopher Morcam's mother (~1930)

And if you were a pearl of material substance, some spectacularly special group of atoms in your brain, your mortality would depend on the physical forces holding them together (we might ask the physicists what the "half-life" of a self is). If you think of yourself as a center of narrative gravity, on the other hand, your existence depends on the persistence of that narrative (rather like the Thousand and One Arabian Nights, but all a single tale), which could theoretically survive indefinitely many switches of medium, be teleported as readily (in principle) as the evening news, and stored indefinitely as sheer information. If what you are is that organization of information that has structured your body's control system (or, to put it in its more usual provocative for, if what you are is the program that runs your brain's computer), then you could in principle survive the death of your body as intact as a program can survive the destruction of the computer on which it was created and first run.
– Daniel Dennett in “Consciousness Explained” (1991)

There is actually an astonishing similarity between the mind-as-computer-program idea and the medieval Christian idea of the “soul.” Both are fundamentally “immaterial”
-- Frank Tipler in "The Physics of Immortality" (1994)

Two main conclusions will be presented, both of which are remarkable and both
of which, were it not for the force of evidence supporting them, might seem
entirely beyond belief. The first is that a form of reincarnation is logically
inescapable. There must be life after death. And there must, moreover, be a
continuity of consciousness, so that no sooner have you died in this life than you
begin again in some other.
-- David Darling in "Zen Physics - The Science of Death, The Logic of Reincarnation" (1996)

Do we find ourselves in a new body, or no body? It probably depends more on the details of our own consciousness than did the original physical life. Perhaps we are most likely to find ourselves reconstituted in the minds of superintelligent successors, or perhaps in dreamlike worlds (or AI programs) where psychological rather than physical rules dominate.
-- Hans Moavec in "Simulation, Consciousness, Existence" 1998

Recent cosmological data indicate that our universe is quite likely infinite and contains an infinite number of galaxies and planets. Moreover, there are many local stochastic processes, each one of which has a nonzero probability of resulting in the creation of a human brain in any particular possible state. Therefore, if the universe is indeed infinite then on our current best physical theories all possible human brain-states would, with probability one, be instantiated somewhere, independently of what we do.
-- Nick Bostrom in "Quantity of experience" (2006)

This led to the idea, much later popular among analytic philosophers of mind, that the mental is a set of functions that operate through the body. Such an approach supports the idea that there is a place for the self within nature, that a self — even one that exists over time in different bodies — need be not a supernatural phenomenon.
-- Jonardon Ganeri in nytimes (2014)

Jason Resch is working on a book, The Science of the Soul.

You can find out more on his website, Always Asking.