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Rewriting Life

Reading the Mind

A 1961 essay speculated on where research into the physical basis of thinking and communication might eventually lead.

  • June 17, 2014

“Biologists of my generation have dealt effectively with two major problems: 1) the search for physical and mental health and the conquest of disease and aging; 2) the search for an understanding of the biochemical foundations of life. We are now beginning a third: the search for the physical basis of mind.

Technology Review cover from July 1961

To communicate with his fellows, man now transduces his thoughts to spoken or written symbols. These are reasonably satisfactory for simple messages, but inadequate for conveying complex conceptual ideas, human emotion, and spirit. Will biophysical research on mind pave the way for bypassing sensory mechanisms? It may not be unreasonable to imagine that this might eventually occur, perhaps at first requiring instrumental prosthetic aids. Pooling the diversity of individuals’ learning and endowments by such interpersonal communication could inaugurate a new hierarchy of intelligence and a new kind of science. Other implications of human interthinking as a new advance in evolution have been projected by Teilhard de Chardin and by other speculative thinkers.

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All advances in our understanding of mental processes, as of other natural phenomena, are made through science, and therefore do not directly touch the ontological problem of the nature of the inner self. Implied here is no attempt by research or sheer intellectual genius to grasp reality by its quantized forelock, no suggestion that man’s mind is no more than a quantum mechanical automaton. On the contrary, even such revolutionary discoveries as are here projected would still be science, therefore susceptible, like all scientific endeavor, to beneficent application—but also to ultimate desecration!”

Excerpted from “Life, Science, and Inner Commitment,” by Francis O. Schmitt, in the July 1961 issue of Technology Review.

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