Friday philosophy: mind/body dualism

Paul Raven @ 27-08-2010

Thinking caps on, folks. Using a science fictional premise as a framing device, philosopher Daniel Dennett ponders the question “if your mind and body were separated, which one would be ‘you’?” [via MetaFilter]

“Yorick,” I said aloud to my brain, “you are my brain.  The rest of my body, seated in this chair, I dub ‘Hamlet.’”  So here we all are:  Yorick’s my brain, Hamlet’s my body, and I am Dennett.  Now, where am I?  And when I think “where am I?”, where’s that thought tokened?  Is it tokened in my brain, lounging about in the vat, or right here between my ears where it seems to be tokened?  Or nowhere?  Its temporal coordinates give me no trouble; must it not have spatial coordinates as well?  I began making a list of the alternatives.

It’s a seventies-vintage essay, so the frame plot is a bit hokey, but the philosophical conundrum still packs a mean punch. Don’t read it if you’ve got anything complicated you’re meant to think about for the rest of the day. 🙂


The mind re-maps the body: learning to live with your cybernetic centaur legs

Paul Raven @ 24-06-2009

Good news for wannabe cyborgs and transhumans! New Scientist reports on another manifestation of plasticity in the human mind; it turns out that tool use results in a remapping of the mind’s perception of the body, which in turn suggests that adapting to artificial prosthetics or cyborg bolt-ons is within the capability of our baseline brains.

The brain maintains a physical map of the body, with different areas in charge of different body parts. Researchers have suggested that when we use tools, our brains incorporate them into this map.

To test the idea, Alessandro Farné of the University of Claude Bernard in Lyon, France, and colleagues attached a mechanical grabber to the arms of 14 volunteers. The modified subjects then used the grabber to pick up out-of-reach objects.

Shortly afterwards, the volunteers perceived touches on their elbow and fingertip as further apart than they really were, and took longer to point to or grasp objects with their hand than prior to using the tool.

The explanation, say the team, is that their brains had adjusted the brain areas that normally control the arm to account for the tool and not yet adjusted back to normal.

“This is the first evidence that tool use alters the body [map],” says Farné.

Farné says the same kind of brain “plasticity” might be involved in regaining control of a transplanted hand or a prosthetic limb when the original has been lost. The brain might also readily incorporate cyborg additions – a cyborg arm or other body part – into its body schema, says Farné, “and possibly new body parts differing in shape and/or number, for example four arms.”

So, good news should you decide that you want to become a permanent cyber-centaur by wearing these things:


Your transhuman future: 24/7 body monitoring

Paul Raven @ 25-03-2009

medical monitoring tagsCutting-edge medical hardware can scan and analyse our bodies with incredible accuracy, allowing doctors to diagnose and treat many of the illnesses that come as part of our mortal meatware. But these things can only be seen if we’re looking for them; we’d catch many more diseases and defects if we could be monitored constantly, rather than just when we visit a doctor or clinic.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) we’re a long way off from having nanotech swarming through our bloodstreams, but there are companies and research groups working to build realtime medical monitoring systems for the human body. SingularityHub rounds up a handful of them and takes a look at their current projects; here’s a description of one from Proteus Biomedical:

Proteus ingestible event markers (IEMs) are tiny, digestible sensors… Once activated, the IEM sends an ultra low-power, private, digital signal through the body to a microelectronic receiver that is either a small bandage style skin patch or a tiny device insert under the skin. The receiver date- and time-stamps, decodes, and records information such as the type of drug, the dose, and the place of manufacture, as well as measures and reports physiologic measures such as heart rate, activity, and respiratory rate.

So, till pretty crude by science fictional standards, but surely an improvement on being wired up to a room-full of medical monitors to record the same data. As nanotech and molecular genetic engineering converge, we’ll doubtless see systems like this become more powerful and more prevalent, at least in the richer countries.

SingularityHub points out one of the big benefits of this sort of monitoring, namely the vast tranches of data it would supply to medical researchers. But there’s a flip-side that need to be considered, namely privacy. Futurismic‘s own Sven Johnson reported back earlier this month from a possible future where biometric body scans of millions of US citizens was leaked to the public; think of the repurcussions of even more intimate data being exposed. [image by HouseOfSims]

And how about insurance? Once this sort of detailed medical data is available, it’ll become a mandatory part of your application for health coverage, and you can bet your boots that the insurance houses will use every little warning indicator as an excuse to bump up your premium… or deny you a policy completely.