AAC lecture series continues with student presenters

On Wednesday Nov. 30 and Thursday Dec. 1, seniors Spencer Mehr and Jesse Goldberg presented the third and fourth lectures sponsored by the Academic Affairs Committee as a part of the "The Brain in Four Parts."

Mehr's lecture, titled "The Meaning of the Mind: Understanding Cerebral Cybernetics" focused on the concept of the brain as a system that parallels the universe as a system.

In his introduction, he explained that the lecture would "talk about how computers function and how brains function." According to Mehr, cybernetics is related to the understanding of systems within machines as well as within living things.

Mehr's lecture addressed the question of what it means to understand something and he illustrated this through the lens of how computers process information. He asked how understanding "understanding" helps humans comprehend how the brain works and explained that we use our mind – a system – to consider other systems. According to Mehr, humans think of things computationally, similar to the way in which a computer interprets information.

Beginning with computer systems, Mehr explained that computers interpret data using Boolean circuits, which are mathematical models of computation. They work by pulling together one piece of data at a time.

Mehr then moved on to the brain, explaining that the brain functions using binary circuits to construct mental maps for different concepts. The brain creates these maps based on which nerves fire in reaction to a piece of information.

"Nerves that fire together, wire together," he said.

Mehr went on to discuss theories of logic and the views of different philosophers. He explained the concept of sets in logic, which are collections of objects. In the conclusion of his lecture, he argued that all logics are alike in that they belong to the same set, but differ in individual ways. Understanding the set of all logics, he said, will allow us to understand all that is understandable in the universe.

Goldberg's lecture, titled "The Ghost in the Machine: The Brain, The Mind, & Free Will" explored the debate between physicalism and dualism in philosophy of mind, concluding with his own arguments and ideas in favor of dualism.

Goldberg began by introducing idealism, the theory that "everything is fundamentally mental … you can't conceive of it without conceiving it." The stronger ontological claim is that the physical is only an illusion.

In contrast, the other monistic view physicalism purports that there is nothing but physical substance. Thus there are no souls – no nonphysical minds.

"There is nature – that's all there is," Goldberg said. "This seems weird to some of us."

Physicalism generally receives more support because, in scientific terms, it's simpler. An action can be traced through neurons, chemicals, etc. It can even account for our feeling of free will as an evolutionary necessity.

"It's in our genes, our neurology … that we will have this feeling," Goldberg said.

Goldberg, however, said he believes that the feeling of free will is an intuition about something genuine, not merely an evolutionary necessity.

"I raise my hand because I chose to do so," he said.

According to Goldberg, there's a lot of contempt toward dualism, the biggest con being that it "inflates our ontology."

"There's something in addition to the physical," he said. "There's the experience … the ghost within the machine."