Academic Studies of Human Consciousness

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Consciousness Concepts of Eric Baum

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Mind is an evolved program that exploits the compact structure of the world to make decisions advancing the interest of the genes. Once one looks at it in these terms, it is straightforward to explain the qualitative nature of experience, the meaning of self, the nature of awareness, free will, and all that.  Once one makes the ansatz that every thought is simply the execution of computer code and understands how that code is evolved to deal with semantics, a self-consistent, compact, and meaningful picture of consciousness and soul will follow as naturally as thoughts follow from the constraints of meaning.

(Eric Baum, What is Thought, Page 5)

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Eric B. Baum (born 1957) received his B.A. and M.A. degrees in 1978 from Harvard University.  In 1982, he obtained a Ph.D. in Physics from Princeton University; his doctoral thesis topic was on quantum gravity.  At various times he has been on the faculties of the University of California at Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology, M.I.T., Princeton University and the NEC Research Institute.  Dr. Baum has published extensively in the fields of theoretical physics, machine reasoning, cognitive science and DNA computing.  His current research effort involves developing algorithms for cognitive computing.

His most recent book is a best seller entitled What is Thought? (published 2004).  My understanding of Dr. Baum's ideas pertaining to consciousness are essentially based upon my reading of this book.

Baum tells us that his choice of book title was inspired by Erwin Schrödinger’s What is Life?, published in 1944, about nine years before the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953. Schrödinger, a co-inventor of quantum mechanics, felt that organic life must be fully explainable by the sciences of physics and chemistry. Baum’s thesis is that just as physics and chemistry are able to answer the question What is life?, they are also able to answer the question, What is thought?

Dr. Baum proposes that the underlying structure of human thought or consciousness is a complex but compact system of computer-like programs that are analogous to the compact rules of modern physics and chemistry that explain the underlying structure of the physical universe.  Baum argues that the basic structure of the mind is essentially programmed by the DNA that creates the brain.  Humans learn more rapidly than computer scientists have so far been able to explain because the DNA code has programmed the thinking of the brain to deal only with meaningful possibilities. The brain understands by exploiting semantics, or meaningful relationships.  For the purposes of computation, constraints are built in so that, although there are myriad possibilities, only a few make sense.  Evolution has also developed supporting subroutines or shortcuts to speed up mental processes; these subroutines help to prolong the life of organisms whose survival depends on being able to make the right choices quickly. The structure and nature of thought, meaning, sensation, and consciousness arise naturally from the evolution of these computer-like programs that exploit the compact structure of the world.

Although present-day computer science cannot adequately explain human thought and meaning, this is no reason to doubt that such an explanation really exists.  The complexity of the human mind is the outcome of evolution, which has built algorithmic thought processes that act in a manner similar to the standard algorithms of computer science.  To understand the mind we need only to understand these thought processes and the evolutionary processes that produced them in computational terms.

I note that much of Baum's thinking is consistent with that of the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who is discussed elsewhere in this web site.  Dennett, in his 1995 book entitled Darwin's Dangerous Idea (at page 51) tells us that:

What Darwin discovered was not really one algorithm but rather a large class of related algorithms that he had no clear way to distinguish.  We can now reformulate his fundamental law as follows:

Life on earth has been generated over billions of years in a single branching tree--the Tree of Life--by one algorithmic process or another.

Perhaps due to my computer science background, my overall impression of Baum's thinking is highly favorable. In that I am not alone. Probably the most comprehensive review of What is Thought? was provided by Gary Marcus for the 04 June 2004 issue of Science Magazine; Marcus was also very favorably impressed.  But perhaps the most significant opinion regarding this book comes from the renowned mathematical physicist and Fields Medal winner Edward Witten.  Witten posted the following comments about the book at

Why can humans rapidly carry out tasks, such as learning to talk or recognizing an object, that seem intractable for computers?  According to Eric Baum, the human brain is much like a computer, but it runs programs that are different from the ones usually written by human computer programmers. The programs run by the brain are insightful or "compressed''; they have built in a good deal of knowledge or "understanding'' about the nature of the world.  Human programmers have difficulty generating such efficient or compressed programs (except for limited special purposes), because to do so requires vast computing resources, far beyond what one can accomplish with pencil and paper or even with presently available computer assistance.

The key to understanding intelligence, according to Baum, is the theory of evolution; in the process that brought humans into being, evolution cycled through many billions of generations of organisms, in the course of which, in effect, vast computational resources were brought to bear on the problem of generating useful algorithms. The real secret to thought is thus stored in our DNA, which preprograms us with algorithms that are more efficient and powerful than the ones usually available to computer scientists.

With this starting point, Baum proposes answers to many old riddles. Our sense of "self'' reflects our origin in an evolutionary struggle for survival toward which all components of our biology are directed.  "Free will'' is a useful approximation because of the great complexity of our brains (and our limited knowledge about them) and the concomitant difficulty of predicting a person's behavior.  Baum illustrates his arguments with numerous examples drawn from biology, psychology, and computer science; the material is generally quite interesting, though at times perhaps too detailed for a casual reader. His arguments are surprisingly persuasive, and, while certainly no expert, I suspect that Baum is closer to the mark than most of the old and new classic writers on these problems.

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