Consciousness: Algorithm or Soul?

February 25th, 2010

Body, Soul and Spirit

A few days ago during a conversation, the topic of the difference between body-soul-spirit came up. On that occasion I replied that the body was the biological engine that keeps the soul and the spirit together. But what is a soul? I have heard the soul defined as mind, the seat of intellect, heart, the center of emotion, and will, the throne of decision. But then, what is the spirit? I spit out my learned-by-heart definition that the spirit was that which allowed us to communicate with God. Someone else who was there said the Spirit was God himself present in human beings.

Is the soul the same as consciousness?

This morning I was musing about the difficulty in enforcing mental hygiene, i.e. keeping my mind clear of destructive thoughts. It struck me that all I can truly control is my will. My mind seems to bring up destructive and counterproductive thoughts almost randomly. My emotions are almost completely impossible to control, except by patient mental discipline enforced by willpower.

All I can control is my will. I can’t stop the endless flood of sensory data entering my mind through my eyes, ears, smell, taste, and touch. But by my decisions I can move away from unpleasant or unwanted sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations. I can’t stop my mind from bringing back memories, but I can choose whether to let them remain in my conscious thought. I can also choose which thought I can express as words or deeds.

Is the human essence a matter of will alone?

I was reading last night about the work of David Cope, an emeritus professor of music at the University of California. His lifelong goal, to produce a musical composition that would move a young person to the awe and love of music he himself experienced when he heard Tchaikovski’s Romeo and Juliet.

He had produced highly regarded music, and his works have been performed worldwide. But during a severe episode of creative block, he decided to examine the creative process itself. He dove into the study of Mozart, and Bach, and was surprised to discover that their music was very much based on rules.

So he taught himself how to program computers, so he could create a program to compose music using the rules he synthesized from Bach. He named his program EMI, and nicknamed it Emmy. But, the initial resulting music was uninspiring and mechanical. He then realized that Bach intuitively knew when to break his own rules. He modified Emmy to break the rules occasionally, in exactly the same ways that Bach did. The result was thousands of compositions that many musicologists were unable to distinguish from authentic Bach creations.

Many composers were aghast. Their opinion of the very same compositions were drastically changed once they realized that a computer algorithm had created them. They wanted music with soul. The professor decided to renounce his experiment, and even went as far as deleting his databases.

But the rejection of his colleagues challenged him, and a few years later he created a new computer program, that he named Emily Howell, an improvement of his earlier work. Emily uses the earlier algorithm to suggest musical themes, and responds to the criticism of a human, who decides whether a particular set of notes is accepted into the finished composition, or rejected.

The continual acceptance and rejection of musical themes trains the program and makes it better at creating music that is pleasing to its trainer. The result is brilliant; my experience of listening to some of Emily’s compositions is truly awe-inspiring. I wish I could compose music like that.

Is the mind a complex computer, and thus “only” a machine?

In my musings about the will and the mind, I found a parallel with professor Cope’s painstaking study and research of music, and the role of the will in shaping our minds. Professor Cope unraveled the rules that made Bach’s music so timeless and poignant, and taught a computer algorithm to follow them to a degree of perfection almost undistinguishable from Bach himself. Once this was done, Cope coached the algorithm, teaching it what was good and wasn’t.

This is very similar to the training we receive as children and continue in our own minds day by day. We receive a synthesized set of rules to establish what is good and what is isn’t. Then we train our minds to reward thoughts we consider pleasing, and punish or reject those that are unpleasant.

The soul could easily be seen as an interface between the hardware of the physical brain,  a vast storage and interconnected network of neurons with emotions as its language, the mind, which would be the algorithm or software running inside it, and finally, the will, the “trainer”, who through continual grooming of thought can control the entire system.

Practicing Hope

This would give hope of the mind being guided to challenge its most basic tenets, and after a great deal of dissonance, be transformed into a new creation. This is the process theologians call “conversion”.

If we believe in the training the Spirit of God gives us, we can change our minds to a degree where they will be “prepared for every good work” , but not so completely that they would be free of what the apostle Paul called “the sin in me”. To me there are many unanswered questions in this, and great hope.

  • Mary

    So many variations on a theme. There is indeed a quickening. I see it being blogged all over the www. Encouraging that others are interested in taking the rutting elephant (uncontrolled mind) and transforming her into the white elephant (controlled mind). When those unwanted thoughts enter I am quite clear that “I do not want to go there” and that takes care of it. Amazing how powerful a willful mind is. I know where I want to ‘live’. Sounds like you travelling the same road. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks Mary, I had never heard about these…what’s a rutting elephant?

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