Models of thought as "full physical process"

10 October 2008

Carl Pabo
Protean Futures LLC


There is an important unsolved challenge in trying to understand whether/how one might connect the models of modern neuroscience with issues arising as we try to analyze processes of human "thought". Essentially, one wonders: does our new knowledge about the function of the brain give us any new perspective that might help us to somehow more carefully evaluate the "ideas" that we encounter in every other area of inquiry and discourse? If so, how? If not, why not?

I discuss some of the fundamental difficulties at this neuroscience/thought interface, and then propose a new strategy and new set of models that 1) try to consider "thought as physical process" but that 2) do not immediately try to describe these events via the standard models of modern neuroscience. Essentially, my strategy involves shifting scales/frames and reconsidering how one chooses the set of conceptual "objects" and "processes" that one uses when trying to work at this interface.

The dozen or so conceptual tools that I develop all respect the atomic/molecular/neural/synaptic foundation of "thought" (often referring to this as the level of the "full physical process"). However, these new models work on a relatively "large-scale" level and focus first on carefully blocking out the relevant spatial/temporal domains within which these sets of neurophysiological events occur.

Using these tools while working at the neuroscience/thought interface gives new insight into relationships among events, experiments, computations and ideas. We can see how complex patterns of physical/chemical events are "projected" into different parameter spaces as we perform experiments or as our brains proceed with various processes of "pattern recognition".

When combined with other quite ordinary and readily accessible levels of human reason, judgment, and knowledge, these models can give fresh informational/computational perspectives that are relevant as we work to evaluate the content and meaning of ideas that arise across a wide variety of disciplines. In the later parts of my talk, I thus consider examples of how these "dual-level strategie" (i.e., considering both ideas "per se" and considering ideas with respect to their plausible neurophysiological origins) can be applied in a way that helps give a better understanding of myriad modern problems in systems biology, neurobiology, economics, mathematics, philosophy and many other areas of thought. Careful attention to issues of "how we think" may eventually help us learn how to think more clearly.

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