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Levels of Abstraction and Minds

Grounding minds in reality

Many years ago I came upon the idea that one important aspect of reality is that it's a structure of levels.
I first came upon the idea in Gregory Bateson's Steps Toward an Ecology of Mind.
But many people have expressed equivalent ideas.
Russell touched on the idea with his theory of logical types.

I have for years expressed this as levels of abstraction.

I approach it by example.
Say we look at reality from the perspective of sub-atomic particles - electrons and protons and neutrons say.
Those particles have a very clear set of properties and they interact with each other in very well established ways.
Let's stipulate that this is a level of abstraction.

When the sub-atomic particles interact they form stable structures - atoms.
Atoms have properties not seen among sub-atomic properties.
Atoms are at a different level of abstraction from the sub-atomic particles.

The atoms couldn't exist without the sub-atomic particles and the possibilities of atoms are created by the properties of the sub-atomic particles.
The properties of atoms are said to emerge from the properties of subatomic particles.

The properties of matter emerge from the properties of atoms. Matter can be solid or liquid or gas. Matter can be hard or soft. Those are not properties of atoms.

Each of these represents a level of abstraction and it is fairly easy to see that reality is a structure of such levels of abstraction.

Let's be clear about the metaphor involved in this emergence - it is not like something emerging into sight as it rises from the depths of the ocean. It is not something that was there all the time revealing itself. In this context emergence refers to the creation of properties at higher levels of abstraction from the properties of things at lower levels. When I talk of levels of abstraction they clearly form a hierarchy with higher levels emerging from lower ones - but I want to point out an essential point about that hierarchy. No level is no more fundamental than any other. They all exist together at once - they are all the same thing.

To illustrate this let me jump to a very high level of abstraction.
Bear with me a bit here. Let's say that a mind like me is best thought of a very high level of abstraction of physical reality. Minds manifestly have properties that atoms don't but it's pretty clear that minds are made of atoms.

So - to illustrate how no level is more fundamental - imagine that I want to have a sip of coffee and reach for my cup. When I do that at the level of atoms trillions of atoms go through all sorts of reactions and physically move across space an enormous distance from an atomic perspective.
Why all this action at the atomic level?
You won't find the reason by examining the properties of atoms.
You have to go the level of abstraction where you can see that I want a sip of coffee.

It's not that any of the atoms want a sip of coffee. It's not even that my muscles want a sip of coffee. It is that I want a cup of coffee.

The whole concept of wanting is not something that applies at the lower levels.

So the point here is that no level is fundamental - they all exist at once and causality can run up or down through the levels. Sometimes it's a mind wanting something that causes a physical change to happen. Sometimes a physical change can have an effect on a mind.

Let's narrow our focus a bit to what we know about minds. We know that minds emerge from bodies - in particular from our brains. In the last 20 years there has been a huge increase in what we know about how brains actually work. We have all sorts of tools that do brain imaging and they help us a lot - but more important we are learning about the physical neural structures from which mental properties emerge. If you recognize your mother then a particular region of your brain says to the rest of the brain "that's Mom" It's ability to that emerges from the particular structure of neurons in that region and the connection that region has with many other parts of the brain.

But there is more to it than that. If the physical connection between that region and another region from which our emotions emerge is broken a strange thing happens.
Since you recognize your mother but don't get the emotional feeling that your mother is expected to stimulate in you think the person in front of you is an impostor - looks a lot like Mom but isn't. This is Capgras Syndrome - it's quite well studied.

But here's the thing - the mental property of recognition of Mom as Mom emerges from the interaction of those modules (and much else besides). So the point here is that a mental property (recognition of Mom) emerges from the properties of lower level structures that do not in themselves recognize Mom. This is like how an atom isn't either liquid or solid or gas - the properties of solidity just do not apply to atoms.

Similarly - the property of recognition just does not apply to neurons - recognition is a mental property that emerges from neurons.

So here's the conclusion I have from this - what we call minds are very real - and they are in no way detachable from physical reality.

Though real and influential it is plain that minds are pretty different from rocks.
Minds and rocks both have weight and are made of atoms - but it's a mind that can walk around.

Sherlock Holmes often admonished Watson to not theorize too much before having the facts. Philosophers have theorized about minds for a long time - but only recently have we been even begun to gather the relevant facts. And the ideas emerging from what we are learning take us down very different paths than the ones the ancients thought 'necessary'.

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.