Brain Breakthrough! It's Made of Neurons!


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Eliezer_Yudkowsky

In an amazing breakthrough, a multinational team of scientists led by Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal announced that the brain is composed of a ridiculously complicated network of tiny cells connected to each other by infinitesimal threads and branches.

The multinational team—which also includes the famous technician Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and possibly Imhotep, promoted to the Egyptian god of medicine—issued this statement:

"The present discovery culminates years of research indicating that the convoluted squishy thing inside our skulls is even more complicated than it looks.  Thanks to Cajal's application of a new staining technique invented by Camillo Golgi, we have learned that this structure is not a continuous network like the blood vessels of the body, but is actually composed of many tiny cells, or "neurons", connected to one another by even more tiny filaments.

"Other extensive evidence, beginning from Greek medical researcher Alcmaeon and continuing through Paul Broca's research on speech deficits, indicates that the brain is the seat of reason.

"Nemesius, the Bishop of Emesia, has previously argued that brain tissue is too earthy to act as an intermediary between the body and soul, and so the mental faculties are located in the ventricles of the brain.  However, if this is correct, there is no reason why this organ should turn out to have an immensely complicated internal composition.

"Charles Babbage has independently suggested that many small mechanical devices could be collected into an 'Analytical Engine', capable of performing activities, such as arithmetic, which are widely believed to require thought.  The work of Luigi Galvani and Hermann von Helmholtz suggests that the activities of neurons are electrochemical in nature, rather than mechanical pressures as previously believed.  Nonetheless, we think an analogy with Babbage's 'Analytical Engine' suggests that a vastly complicated network of neurons could similarly exhibit thoughtful properties.

"We have found an enormously complicated material system located where the mind should be.  The implications are shocking, and must be squarely faced.  We believe that the present research offers strong experimental evidence that Benedictus Spinoza was correct, and René Descartes wrong:  Mind and body are of one substance.

"In combination with the work of Charles Darwin showing how such a complicated organ could, in principle, have arisen as the result of processes not themselves intelligent, the bulk of scientific evidence now seems to indicate that intelligence is ontologically non-fundamental and has an extended origin in time.  This strongly weighs against theories which assign mental entities an ontologically fundamental or causally primal status, including all religions ever invented.

"Much work remains to be done on discovering the specific identities between electrochemical interactions between neurons, and thoughts.  Nonetheless, we believe our discovery offers the promise, though not yet the realization, of a full scientific account of thought.  The problem may now be declared, if not solved, then solvable."

We regret that Cajal and most of the other researchers involved on the Project are no longer available for comment.

 

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