frank_wilczek's picture
Physicist, MIT; Recipient, 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics; Author, Fundamentals
Mind Versus Matter

The distinction between Mind and Matter is embedded in everyday language and thinking, and even more deeply in philosophy and theology The great philosopher/theologian George Berkeley, who famously grounded Matter in the Mind of God, summed it up in a witticism:

What is mind? No matter.
What is matter? Never mind.

Science has long found it useful to accept this duality, as a methodology if not as a doctrine. In modern physics, matter obeys its own mathematical laws, independent of what anyone—even, or maybe especially, God—thinks.

But the distinction is doomed, and its passing will change our view of everything—everything, that is, which is mind/matter.

Already the walls of separation are crumbling. Three developments have irreversibly undermined them:

  • We have learned what matter is. And our new matter, informed over the course of the twentieth century by the revelations of relativity, quantum mechanics, and transformational symmetry, is far stranger and richer in potential than anything our ancestors could have dreamed of. It can dance in intricate, dynamic patterns; it can exploit environmental resources, to self-organize and export entropy.
  • We have learned, theoretically through Turing's vision, and practically through the rise of ubiquitous computing, that many accomplishments once viewed as prerogatives of Mind—from playing chess, to planning itineraries, to suggesting friends and sharing interests—are things that machines (whose design hides no secrets), by pure computation, can do quite well.
  • We have learned a lot about how the human mind works, as a special capacity of matter. We now know that many aspects of perception begin as specific molecular events. Great challenges remain to bring understanding of memory, emotion, and ultimately creative thought to the same level; but there is every reason to think they too will come into focus. At least, no show-stoppers have  yet appeared. 

The eternal, ever vague "problems" of free will and consciousness will be retired, with due respect, as mechanistic understanding of how human minds actually work brings in more powerful, less nebulous concepts (as has already happened for computation).

More interesting is the question of consequences. Here is a relevant thought experiment: Imagine an artificial intelligence, with human-like insight, contemplating her own blueprint. What would she make of it? I think it's overwhelmingly likely that among her first thoughts would be how to begin making improvements. This processor could be faster, that memory more capacious—and, above all, the reward system more rewarding!

Our heroine would surely be inspired, as I am, by William Blake's prophecy

If the doors of perception were cleansed
Man would see things as they are, Infinite

In bad science fiction, androids are sometimes horrified to learn that they are "mere machines". Following the instruction of the Delphic oracle, to "Know Thyself", we find ourselves making a similar discovery. The wise and mature reaction to the realization that mind and matter are mind/matter, is to take joy in what a wonderful thing mind/matter can be, and is.