Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Virtual Machine

This probably isn't a unique or original observation but it strikes me that the mind, that metaphysical entity separate from the brain, could be viewed as a virtual machine that runs on the hardware of the brain.

In computing technology a virtual machine is a piece of software that simulates hardware and is in turn ran on hardware (or theoretically on another virtual machine) in order for other software to run on it without knowing that it really isn't natively running directly on the hardware. Java works this way so that any application written in Java only has to have the virtual machine written for any particular hardware/OS platform and the code is almost completely independent of the hardware (sometimes you have to deal more directly with the hardware or with idiosyncrasies of the OS that don't translate).

Lately, hosting multiple virtual servers on a single real machine has been all the rage in the IT field. It certainly makes a lot of things easier. Hardware malfunction? Restart the same server on another physical machine. Configuration also becomes much easier when you can simply duplicate a machine and all its settings by copying a file. Plus you can get multiple servers running on a single piece of hardware.

The point here, is that I'm thinking this is a good metaphor for the whole brain/mind issue. Philosophers and scientists are always talking about what makes a mind and is there any difference from the brain. We all can pretty much agree that the brain is the collection of neurons and tissues, etc. in biological organisms that controls a lot of what goes on within those organisms, including, ultimately, thought. But there's a lot of debate about whether the brain and the mind are the same thing. Is there a soul and does that affect anything? Is the mind an emergent property that cannot be completely described by the hardware it runs on? Is the word quantum involved in here anywhere? Because if it is, things will surely get difficult.

I'm not even going to enter into the debate of soul and spirit and what have you, because I frankly don't think you need them to explain anything. Even if there are unknown properties of the brain there is no indication that we will ever need to stoop to the explanation of a soul to explain it.

So if the brain is the hardware then perhaps the mind is simply the program that is running on that hardware. Except it's not any old program, it's a meta-program and can host other programs. Thinking of the brain in this way then, we have certain applications running natively on the hardware of the brain such as our metabolism and other involuntary processes. Since I'm not a brainologist I won't stumble into this territory any further. And since I'm lazy, I won't do any research about it either. Suffice it to say there are some things your brain is doing of which you are not aware. I think any brain scientist would probably agree with that.

These then would be the system applications and not running around in user or interactive land such that we know nothing about them consciously. But what about a thought or a fantasy or conversation? All of these things we agree happen in the brain, but we are aware of them and exert some form of control over them. Yet we don't know what happens in the hardware when we say the word, "nonsense" for instance. Now of course, we can scan the brain with some device and have someone say "nonsense" and see which parts light up, but we don't know that within ourselves and more important and to the point, we don't have to know it to do it.

So we have this level above the system or kernel space where we sort of know what's going on. This is what people generally refer to when they refer to the mind, I believe. Synonymous with consciousness. Within this mind or consciousness we have the thoughts and processes of which we are aware. Walk down the street. Eat that cookie. Compose this thought. These are all finite processes running on the virtual machine that is the mind.

Why then must this be a virtual machine instead of simply processes running along side each other in the same address space? In our conscious mind we really have no way of knowing just what else is going on, so we are effectively isolated in a higher-level abstraction where we now somewhat know what is going on.

Virtualization is itself, in effect, the process of wrapping up a set of functionality and representing it on the platform at a higher level of abstraction where it can't access anything else running on the physical system. Considering this is only an analogy, I think it works pretty well from this point of view.

So what does this say for science fiction fans? Can we then run the mind of one person on the brain of another. I would say that that is taking the metaphor too far. You are, inasmuch as you can contemplate the concept of you, your hardware. Your brain is you, so it doesn't really make sense to try this operation. If you were in someway able to run your mind on another brain, you would have effectively converted that brain into you in the process. So I am saying nothing about the impossibility of copying a brain, except that if you do such a thing it wouldn't be a transfer of consciousness, it would be a copy of consciousness. There would be two of you.

Of course this whole concept, much like the mind, is merely an abstraction there to help us picture what is going on.

1 comment:

Josh said...

Well, when my mind is taxed, I do suffer from reduced performance due to thrashing. I can only cache so much, I'm afraid.