The Mind of A Virus (COVID-19): Watson, Turing and Searle

Does the virus have a mind? Is it thinking? Is it scheming how it can inflict maximum damage?  From how we describe it (we have not attributed a gender yet), it would seem that not only does it have a mind, but it has a very devious and highly calculating one.  Consider a recent interview of a famous virologist who tested positive and had a severe life-threatening illness.  In the interview, he says – “they (the viruses) got me, I sometimes thought.  I have devoted my life to fighting viruses, and finally, they get their revenge”.  Or from an article in the journal Nature– “ once the invader’s genetic material gets inside the cell, the virus commandeers the host molecular machinery to produce new viral particles.  Then, the progeny exit the cell to go and infect others.” Besides invader, other references to the virus are – the invisible enemy and the enemy with which we are at war.

One could attribute these descriptions of the virus to our tendency for personification and animism. It may sound ridiculous to think that a virus has a mind.  But that depends on what we call a mind.  And as it turns out, it is not easy to define what is a ‘mind’ as it remains a debated subject in a field of philosophy called the ‘Philosophy of Mind.’  Starting from Descartes, whose cogito ergo sum divided the brain and the mind, philosophers and neuroscientists have been debating the nature of what is called the mind and how it relates to the physical aspect of the organism.  The debate is mostly about the human mind, but arguments to support or deny a mind in other animals such as a cat or a dog, which appear to possess a mind, are also proposed.  The argument however, has never stretched to the earliest living entities – the viruses. Viruses are so ancient and rudimentary that even their status as living organisms is questionable.  But currently, in the middle of a pandemic, COVID19 has proven to be not only a formidable problem, but it also appears to be highly intelligent.  It has spread over the whole world in the space of a few months.  It has infected and killed hundreds of thousands of humans, a species which prided itself on having a monopoly over an intelligent mind. It has many ways of spreading and surviving on all sorts of objects for several days.  Once inside a human, there is widespread damage within cells of lungs, heart, and kidney, while the immune response is either too little or too much. All this time, the virus replicates relentlessly.  Though humans may be projecting their own thoughts when they describe the virus’s intentional behavior, it becomes more and more difficult not to think that there is a ‘mind’ of the virus, which creates the havoc.  In fact,  some theories of philosophy-of-mind are compatible with the notion that the virus has a mind.

Behaviorism, as conceptualized in psychology (Watson, Skinner) or within the field of philosophy-of-mind terms, postulates that mental states are just descriptions of behavior or dispositions to behave in certain ways made by third parties to explain and predict another’s behavior (Glibert Ryle 1949).  In such a formulation, we do not have to postulate the existence of mental states even in humans. And if survival behavior is the sole description needed for a seemingly intentional mental state, then the virus’s behavior can be used to conceptualize the  ‘mind’ of the virus.  Attachment to specific receptors, cleaving of the human cell wall, replication by hijacking the host’s resources, bursting out of the cell to infect other cells, and spreading in the blood could all be labeled as intentional and intelligent behavior. Furthermore,  maneuvers to escape the host’s immune mechanisms and change the host’s response (e.g., cough or seek the comfort of other humans which could serve as hosts) so that further spread could occur, could be taken as evidence of an intelligent mind.  After all, these behaviors have ensured survival for millions of years of the virus or its ancestors.  Under behaviorism, for the presence of a ‘mind’, the actions of the virus are all that matter.   Under this theory, the personification of the virus attributing to it intent, purpose, and even intelligence are not absurd or off the mark.

Cognitivism is another theory about what constitutes a mind. It attributes the working of the brain to be similar to a computer.  The brain’s operations are thought to be similar to computer processes or computer states carried out by the brain’s hardware.  A separate consciousness or mind is not required.  If a computer’s behavior is indistinguishable from that of a human,  then according to the famous ‘Turing Test‘ it could be said that a computer has a mind. The virus RNA can be thought of as hardware on which the computer program of the arrangement of the genetic code runs. One could perceive the ensuing behavior of the virus in terms of survival, deception of the host, and hijacking the host’s resources as very human-like behavior.   In this respect, the virus can very much be thought of as having a ‘mind’ and working intelligently and with intent to infect hosts and host-cells and replicating itself.

Objections to both behaviorism and cognitivism and similar monistic philosophies of the mind have been raised by many.  Searle’s Chinese Room argument showed that even though all computations can be carried out by a computer, it still does not know what it is doing devoid as it is of any semantic meaning.  Other objections relate to the absence of the so-called ‘qualia’ – the something else which makes us conscious and have intent and possibly free will.  It is hard to ascribe consciousness and subjective experience to a virus.

So if consciousness, behaviorism, and cognitivism are rejected, then what are we left with?  How do we explain the mindless virus, which is proving to be a formidable match for the superior intelligence that we are so proud of?  What we are left with is the randomness of nature, which has helped the virus survive possibly for 300 million years once it was formed.  Once, millions of years back, when a random piece of RNA bumped into a cell and got inside, chance had it that some proteins were formed, which enveloped the RNA and preserved it.  By chance, at some point in a long time, it came in contact with other cells and was able to repeat the cycle, and the more efficient processes survived.   Then again, by chance over millions of years, the virus’s spreading properties increased. Still, it remained hidden in wild animals such as bats with a limited random spread. Until, one day, it got exposed to organisms with large organs full of air and studded with proteins that it had perfected attaching to.  As it spread, the only constraint to its randomness was the non-random concentration of these living beings with large aerated organs and a tendency to be in close approximation.  The non-random or intelligent behavior attributed to it is actually the non-randomness in its environment constructed by humans.  In that sense, our own intelligence is reflected in the virus, our own manipulation of the environment.

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