Long before the era of european trans-oceanic exploration, polynesians in wooden canoes were successfully traveling vast distances between the tiny islands which dot the pacific. It is said that they could sense, by the effect of the ocean swell on their canoes and hence on their bodies, the location of islands over the horizon. This is not the kind of thinking valorized in the western intellectual tradition (and hence in computer science), this is not calculation or deduction. They certainly had no sextant, compass or chronometer. It is a kind of intelligence inseparable from the body.
Hubert Dreyfus argued many years ago that the fault at the root of what he called Good Old Fashioned Artificial Intelligence is that we understand the world by virtue of having bodies and a machine without a body would never understand the world the way we do. If Hubert Dreyfus maintained that we have a human mind by virtue of having a human body, I want to argue more radically that any attempt to separate mind from body is flawed and that the presumed location of the mind in the brain is inaccurate. Why is it that we believe that consciousness is located exclusively in the brain.? Why is it that we equate mind with brain? Why does this location fly in the face of folk wisdoms? Why do we put so much faith in 'gut feelings', why do we describe some responses as 'visceral'? Why do the thousand year old chinese martial traditions locate the center of will in the belly (the 'dan tien')? Why is there similar knowledge in yogic tradition?
I want in all seriousness to argue that I think with my arms and I think with my stomach. To maintain that the activity which we call "thinking" is isolated to a subsection of the body, is folly. Why am I pursuing this line of thought? Because firstly, the re-definition of human capability in terms of the computer resoundingly reinforces the separation of mind and body. And secondly, because dance, sculpture, painting and the variety of other fine and performing arts are premised on bodily training, bodily knowledge which implicitly deny the mind/body duality. We believe that we think with our brains, because we have been taught that this is the case. What if we believed otherwise? How differently would we live our lives?
I want now to cite four sets of recent neurological research to support my argument. It has been observed that in certain manual activities of high skill, such as playing violin, the action is so fast that the nerve signals could not travel up the arm, into the spine and brain, and back again. Motor 'decisions' have been shown not to pass through the brain, but to remain in the limb. A neural closed circuit: the hand is thinking by itself!
Sten Grillner has proven, at least in the case of a simple fish, that the muscle coordination which results in locomotion arises not in the brain proper, but in entirely in the spinal chord and the adjacent muscles. He notes: "Some mammals (such as the common laboratory rat) can have their entire forebrain excised and are still able to walk, run and even maintain their balance to some extent"
Recent research has revealed that the human stomach is neurally far more complex than western science has supposed. It is feasible that the stomach might make some decisions 'by itself'. If the stomach is thinking, then why not the liver and the kidney? And if the arm can function as a neural closed circuit, then perhaps the organs are chatting amongst themselves. This kind of 'bodily democracy' is antithetical to the top-down model of panoptical control common to the engineering-inspired disciplines.
Acceptance of this condition is not only in line with ideas of distributed processing and emergent complexity, but also lends new credibility to 'pre-scientific' physiological theories such as the 'doctrine of the humors' in the west. Early in embryogenesis, a formation called the 'neural crest' splits. Half forms the brain and the spinal chord. The other half becomes the nervous system of the gut. It was presumed in medical science, under the strong influence of Cartesian thought, that the gut, like all the rest of the body, was a kind of meat puppet, a slave of the master brain. It transpires that the gut has over 100 million neurons (more than the spinal chord). The entire intestine is sheathed in two concentric sleeves of neural tissue, isolated with an equivalent to the blood/brain barrier. Given that an adult has many metres of gut, all folded up in the belly, the structure begins to look pretty complex, given that its processing food as well! Just exactly what the gut is thinking we don't quite know, but I'm willing to wager that if you wired up the gut to a PET scan machine, you'd find that the gut partook in consciousness. IÕm arguing that consciousness is physiologically a distributed bodily thing, and this is one really good reason why the backwards logic of Cognitivism in which the brain, consciousness etc are discussed using the analogy of a computer, is doomed to failure.
In the sixties, Watson and Crick explicitly described DNA in computer terms as the genetic 'code', comparing the egg cell to a computer tape. This school of thought is perpetuated in the more extreme versions of Artificial Life, Chris Langton talks of separating the 'informational content' of life from its 'material substrate'. This is still the dominant paradigm, though there is a trend away from reductive and dualistic thinking which is occurring at every (biological) level. New embryological research indicates that the self organising behavior of large molecules provides (at least) a structural armature upon which the DNA can do its work. Alvaro Moreno argues for a 'deeply entangled' relationship between explicit genetic information and the implicit self organising capacity of organisms.