On discovering you’re an android

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Deckard: She’s a replicant, isn’t she?
Tyrell: I’m impressed. How many questions does it usually take to spot them?
Deckard: I don’t get it, Tyrell.
Tyrell: How many questions?
Deckard: Twenty, thirty, cross-referenced.
Tyrell: It took more than a hundred for Rachael, didn’t it?
Deckard: [realizing Rachael believes she's human] She doesn’t know.
Tyrell: She’s beginning to suspect, I think.
Deckard: Suspect? How can it not know what it is?

A very discomfiting realisation, discovering you are an android. That all those thoughts and ideas and feelings you seem to be having are just electrical impulses zapping through your circuits. That you are merely a collection of physical parts, whirring away. What if some of them break and you begin to malfunction? What if they wear down with use and someday simply fail? The replicants in BladeRunner rail against their planned obsolescence, believing in the existence of their own selves, even with the knowledge that those selves are merely the products of machinery.

The idea that the self, or the conscious mind, emerges from the workings of the physical structures of the brain – with no need to invoke any supernatural spirit, essence or soul – is so fundamental to modern neuroscience that it almost goes unmentioned. It is the tacitly assumed starting point for discussions between neuroscientists, justified by the fact that all the data in neuroscience are consistent with it being true. Yet it is not an idea that the vast majority of the population is at all comfortable with or remotely convinced by. Its implications are profound and deeply unsettling, prompting us to question every aspect of our most deeply held beliefs and intuitions.

This idea has crept along with little fanfare – it did not emerge all at once like the theory of evolution by natural selection. There was no sudden revolution, no body of evidence proffered in a single moment that overturned the prevailing dogma. While the Creator was toppled with a single, momentous push, the Soul has been slowly chipped away at over a hundred years or more, with most people blissfully unaware of the ongoing assault. But its demolition has been no less complete.

If you are among those who is skeptical of this claim or who feels, as many do, that there must be something more than just the workings of the brain to explain the complexities of the human mind and the qualities of subjective experience (especially your own), then first ask yourself: what kind of evidence would it take to convince you that the function of the brain is sufficient to explain the emergence of the mind?

Imagine you came across a robot that performed all the functions a human can perform – that reported a subjective experience apparently as rich as yours. If you were able to observe that the activity of certain circuits was associated with the robot’s report of subjective experience, if you could drive that experience by activating particular circuits, if you could alter it by modifying the structure or function of different circuits, would there be any doubt that the experience arose from the activity of the circuits? Would there be anything left to explain?

The counter-argument to this thought experiment is that it would never be possible to create a robot that has human-like subjective experience (because robots don’t have souls). Well, all those kinds of experiments have, of course, been done on human beings, tens of thousands of times. Functional magnetic resonance imaging methods let us correlate the activity of particular brain circuits with particular behaviours, perceptions or reports of inward states. Direct activation of different brain areas with electrodes is sufficient to drive diverse subjective states. Lesion studies and pharmacological manipulations have allowed us to map which brain areas and circuits, neurotransmitters and neuromodulators are required for which functions, dissociating different aspects of the mind. Finally, differences in the structure or function of brain circuits account for differences in the spectrum of traits that make each of us who we are as individuals: personality, intelligence, cognitive style, perception, sexual orientation, handedness, empathy, sanity – effectively everything people view as defining characteristics of a person. (Even firm believers in a soul would be reluctant recipients of a brain transplant, knowing full well that their “self” would not survive the procedure).

The findings from all these kinds of approaches lead to the same broad conclusion: the mind arises from the activity of the brain – and nothing else. What neuroscience has done is correlated the activity of certain circuits with certain mental states, shown that this activity is required for these states to arise, shown that differences in these circuits affect the quality of these states and finally demonstrated that driving these circuits from the outside is sufficient to induce these states. That seems like a fairly complete scientific explanation of the phenomenon of mental states. If we had those data for our thought-experiment robot, we would be pretty satisfied that we understood how it worked (and could make useful predictions about how it would behave and what mental states it would report, given enough information of the activity of its circuits).

However, many philosophers (and probably a majority of people) would argue that there is something left to explain. After all, I don’t feel like an android – one made of biological rather than electronic materials, but a machine made solely of physical parts nonetheless. I feel like a person, with a rich mental life. How can the qualities of my subjective experience be produced by the activity of various brain circuits?

Many would claim, in fact, that subjective experience is essentially “ineffable” – it cannot be described in physical terms and cannot thus be said to be physical. It must therefore be non-physical, immaterial or even supernatural. However, the fact that we cannot conceive of how a mental state could arise from a brain state is a statement about our current knowledge and our powers of imagination and comprehension, not about the nature of the brain-mind relationship. As an argument, what we currently can or cannot conceive of has no bearing on the question. The strong intuition that the mind is more than just the activity of the brain is reinforced by an unfortunate linguistic accident – that the word “mind” is grammatically a noun, when really it should be a verb. At least, it does not describe an object or a substance, but a process or a state. It is not made of stuff but of the dynamic relations between bits of stuff.

When people argue that activity of some brain circuit is not identical to a subjective experience or sufficient to explain it, they are missing a crucial point – it is that activity in the context of the activity of the entire rest of the nervous system that generates the quality of the subjective experience at any moment. And those who dismiss this whole approach as scientific reductionism ad absurdum, claiming that the richness of human experience could not be explained merely by the activity of the brain should consider that there is nothing “mere” about it – with hundreds of billions of neurons making trillions of connections, the complexity of the human brain is almost incomprehensible to the human mind. (“If the brain were so simple that we could understand it, then we would be so simple that we couldn’t”).

To be more properly scientific, we should ask: “what evidence would refute the hypothesis that the mind arises solely from the activity of the brain”? Perhaps there is positive evidence available that is inconsistent with this view (as opposed to arguments based merely on our current inability to explain everything about the mind-brain relationship). It is not that easy to imagine what form such positive evidence would take, however – it would require showing that some form of subjective experience either does not require the brain or requires more than just the brain.

With respect to whether subjective experience requires the brain, the idea that the mind is associated with an immaterial essence, spirit or soul has an extension, namely that this soul may somehow outlive the body and be said to be immortal. If there were strong evidence of some form of life after death then this would certainly argue strongly against the sufficiency of neuroscientific materialism. Rather depressingly, no such evidence exists. It would be lovely to think we could live on after our body dies and be reunited with loved ones who have died before us. Unfortunately, wishful thinking does not constitute evidence.

Of course, there is no scientific evidence that there is not life after death, but should we expect neuroscience to have to refute this alternative hypothesis? Actually, the idea that there is something non-physical at our essence is non-refutable – no matter how much evidence we get from neuroscience, it does not prove this hypothesis is wrong. What neuroscience does say is that it is not necessary and has no explanatory power – there is no need of that hypothesis.


  1. You are right that neuroscience explains why the human experience is rich. But it does not explain why there is any experience at all. We assume (perhaps wrongly) that matter like the tea in my cup and even the cells in my feet have no subjective experiences of their own. We also believe (probably rightly) that brain processes are just the same kind of stuff obeying the same physical laws. Yet my brain processes correspond to real, subjective experiences. I am concious. This particular(assumed) difference between tea and me is left unexplained by neuroscience.

    Neuroscience does explain why I am smarter than my cup of tea, as can be observed by looking at our external actions. That’s good, but it doesn’t make the question of internal experience go away. Perhaps this question is what you mean by “…we cannot conceive of how a mental state could arise from a brain state…”.

    Actually I don’t think this is so hard to conceive: my guess is that all physical process correspond to subjective experiences. Decartes had other ideas. The really hard thing is to put any such guesses to the test. Science, which strives to explain the objective phenomena might deal itself out of the game when it comes grappling with inherently subjective ones.

  2. Of course it is hard to prove that a cup of tea is not having a subjective experience but I don’t see any good reason to expect that it is. There is nothing about the cup of tea that a subjective experience would help explain. On the other hand, we clearly do have subjective experiences and, yes, neuroscience still cannot explain them. Some would argue that once we have explained all the bits and pieces and processes involved in generating them that, actually, there won’t be anything left to explain – I am not sure I buy that argument. It has been compared to “life” and you could say that once you explain all the molecular and cellular biology of, say, a bacterium, you have explained life (without ever really having defined it – in fact, the term becomes moot at a certain point).

    An interesting question, though, is considering whether things a little closer to us than inanimate objects have subjective experiences and what they are like. Do chimps, dogs, newborn babies, fish, flies have subjective experiences? They clearly encode information about the external world and internal states, including memories of past experience but do these constitute the same type of “felt” experience? Some would say our capacity for introspection and metacognition is what sets us apart – we not only have these signals encoding this information, we have signals telling us we have those signals and can think about them in an abstract way.

    While we do not yet know the answers to these questions, all of them are empirical questions – I see no convincing theoretical or philosophical reason to suggest they are not in principle answerable by scientific inquiry.

  3. Even among those who accept that the mind is just the activity of the brain, belief in free will seems pretty common. It seems to me that free will will be the last superstition to die.

  4. I wonder about that. I know all the arguments and they are intellectually fairly compelling, but I still have the feeling something has been missed. If we don’t have “real” free will we have something that seems like free will that needs to be explained. I don’t just mean the feeling that we (our conscious selves) are in control of our decisions – I agree that a lot of that is post hoc rationalisation of decisions that our subconscious brain has taken and then made us aware of. But the fact remains that we do take conscious decisions – there patently is some measure of conscious control that needs explaining. I do not believe this is simply always an illusion. I think free will is a real emergent property of the human brain, though I have not the foggiest idea how it could possibly emerge. I suppose it might be a semantic difficulty – if, by free will, we mean an incredibly sophisticated level of autonomous and reflective cognitive control over decision-making in any given context, emerging from a system that integrates all the information entailed in the complete current state of our nervous system, then I think we have it. I am not sure that would satisfy the full philosophical criteria for free will (where it could be argued that if you knew the complete current state of our nervous system it would be possible to accurately predict our behaviour – i.e., the system is completely deterministic), but it’s good enough for me.

  5. [...] Read all of it here. [...]

  6. Adrian, you have a brain, a teacup doesn’t. If you remove your brain, you’ll be as sentient as a teacup.


  7. IMHO we (as humans) cannot understand objectively what it is like to be humans. We are all ‘inside the box’ as humans together. it’s simply impossible for us to make any reasonable hypothesis of what is happening or how subjective conciousness works. The moment we loose our subjective conciousness we loose the ability to try and analyze it. The moment we gain it, we are bound by it’s limitations and unable to see out of it. A physical analog to this would be an insect born and raised in a cave trying to describe sunlight – it simply has no ability to formulate a way to describe it, because it’s to far away from it’s experience.

  8. Re: “If there were strong evidence of some form of life after death then this would certainly argue strongly against the sufficiency of neuroscientific materialism.”

    I would say it certainly would argue against materialism, but not necessarily against the materialist view of the brain. It would just require a God to re-image the previously extant brain model, much like installing software on a new computer.

  9. [...] at Gene Expressions, we learn this alarming fact: The idea that the self, or the conscious mind, emerges from the [...]

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