(Copyright © 2000 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
The Danish mathematician Tor Norretranders has an important thesis: that mind is more than we see. And he has an intriguing sub-thesis: that this is a ubiquitous property in nature. He starts by introducing entropy, and its relationship to information.
James Maxwell showed a flaw in the law of entropy with his imaginary "demon", an intelligent being who manages to separate fast molecules and slow molecules in two separate rooms and therefore create a temperature differential without doing any real work. Maxwell's demon was meant to prove that the law of entropy is valid only "statistically". And it seems to refer more to our intellectual limitations (we are not as smart as the demon) than to a property of the universe. Leon Brillouin started solving the paradox when he discovered that information is a material quantity: information comes from a physical measurement. Wojcieh Zurek finished solving the paradox in 1990 by linking entropy, algorithmic complexity and Turing's machine.
Norretranders then gives a quick overview of the development of mathematical thought in our century: Hilbert, Goedel, Turing, all the way to contemporary algorithmic complexity.
The concept that captures his imagination is "exformation": what is discarded during communication of information.
This concept applies as well to our mind. The senses process huge amount of information but conscioussness contains amost no information at all. Most mental life is not conscious. Large quantities of information are discarded before consciousness occurs. The discarded information, nonetheless, has an influence on our behavior. There is a nonconscious aspect of man that we are not familiar with because we cannot "feel" it.
Consciousness is mostly about what happens inside us, not what happens outside. Sense data are processed according to our brain structure and matched with data in memory, and processed again, and then a conscious feeling arises. Very little of the original sense data is present when the feeling arises. Sense data are filtered by countless neural processes in the brain before they become conscious sensations: we cannot experience the sense data, the original. We can only experience the finished product, never the raw material. We only experience a bit of what our body experiences and even that "bit" is not exactly what the body experienced but a "doctored" version of it. The paradox is that our mind knows more than our consciousness does. There is self-deception on the part of consciousness ("the user illusion" of the title): before we experience it, the content of consciousness has been processed and transformed from its original format. Consciousness presents us with an altered, subjective, tampered with view of reality but doesn't tell us so.
Norretranders separates the conscious (thinking) "I" from the acting (instinctive) "me" (the "I" is responsible for the "me") and draws a (far-fetched) parallel with existentialism.
To locate our place in the universe Norretranders analyzes the relationship between the "me" and Gaia, and resorts to Margulis' theory of evolution through endosymbiosis: each "me" is made of other "me's".
The last part of the book is very speculative and not always plausible, but the core idea (that a lot of data processed by the brain never surfaces in our consciousness and we don't really know what that is) is powerful.