Jun 01, 2011 | By

Knowledge and Freedom: Two Questions for Human Brains

By Justin Junge

Note: For a recording of Dr. Junge’s presentation on June 6, 2011, please visit the New Church audio website at this link.>

Imagine that a scientist could acquire a detailed map of every atom in your brain at a given point in time, clustering these atoms into active chemicals, cells (neurons), connections, and other groups of matter relevant to brain function.

1) Could this hypothetical scientist know your mind better than you do?

A first reply is to address the limit of a single point in time. Minds and brains are not stationary targets. The Greek Heraclites cleverly observed that “you cannot step into the same river twice” — the second time the river has changed, and likewise you have changed. Your brain and conscious experience are essentially dynamic.

So let us scale up our imaginary omni-scientist who knows so much about your brain, and let her also map all the physical details as they change over time. While we are scaling up, a second question is in order:

2) Would this scientist be able to predict your future decisions with perfect precision?

The first question concerns the relationship between subjective and objective knowledge. The second question is important for understanding free will in light of scientific progress on the inner workings of living brains. In all its detail, our imaginary scenario is not possible in practice — we can not come close to mapping all the atoms in brains, or even a fraction of them — however, some people believe the scenario is possible in principle (maybe in the very distant future?), and it illustrates a potential upper limit for science. Thinking about an example at the logical limit can help us make sense of the intermediate cases. Neuroscience is rapidly accumulating physical knowledge about how our brains function, and often drawing strong inferences and early conclusions.

We will be discussing evidence about how brains function, along with the 2 questions above, in the next session of our talk series, on June 6. I will offer several answers, informed by modern neuroscience and philosophy, and consider multiple levels for understanding human minds, ranging from cells to souls. However, being given answers to philosophical questions is rarely as enjoyable or educational without first wrestling with the questions yourself.

I invite you to post possible replies to the 2 questions above, or additional questions, in the comments section below. I will select some of these comments to address in my talk, and also post a follow-up summary after our live and hopefully lively discussion.

2 Responses to “Knowledge and Freedom: Two Questions for Human Brains”

  1. […] human mind is, as Justin Junge pointed out in his talk on June 6th, the most complex and sophisticated object in the universe. It is capable of remarkable feats of […]

  2. George Gantz says:

    Justin – one question you did not ask is this: Even assuming you could answer the first two questions in the affirmative, would the scientist (perhaps, actually, a very advanced computer) have any understanding of what it feels like to be you? Or to ask it another way, what is the relevance of scientific knowledge as in Q1 to the direct experiential knowledge one has of being conscious?

    My intuition (e.g. certain subtle and flexible brain states derived from multiple sources of experience, memory, reasoning and perhaps other unknown influences) is that the experience of consciousness is beyond quantification and therefore inaccessible to science. Perhaps it can be modeled, or mimicked, with scientific tools, but that is not the same as the experience itself. Correspondence of a model with reality is NOT the reality itself.

    I look forward to the conversation on Monday!

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