Is the Brain / Mind a Computer?

Richard Stanley

Well-Known Member
This aeon blog post asserts that the contemporary scientific paradigm that the brain is in effect a form of information processing (IP) computer that can be synthetically reproduced by man's technology is bunkum. Therefore most of the hoopla about von Neumann based Transhumanism and the Singularity may be bunkum as well.

Besides the apparent bad functional equivalence as an operating analogue, the shear complexity involved in how human consciousness (and subconsciousness) works may likely overwhelm digital attempts to do so, it seems to me. At least to the level to achieve the threshold perfection criteria of the Singularity.

Neurologists are now able to locate the precise brain neuron responsible for a respective discrete function, but this is a long way off from thinking and behaving - like a human. The linked post discusses some reasons why. It also provides a summary of the historiography of the paradigms that have evolved over time regarding how the human mind works.

Contrary to the impression left by the author, Epstein, brain imaging does give an impression that all brains are the same as to where gross behavioral activity appears in the brain. But, this approach likely breaks down when trying to get more granular in find exact neurons and their complex connectivity applied to 'thoughts' - especially disconnected from bodily motor control and sensory perceptions.

The information processing (IP) metaphor of human intelligence now dominates human thinking, both on the street and in the sciences. There is virtually no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour that proceeds without employing this metaphor, just as no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour could proceed in certain eras and cultures without reference to a spirit or deity. The validity of the IP metaphor in today’s world is generally assumed without question.

But the IP metaphor is, after all, just another metaphor – a story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand. And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast aside at some point – either replaced by another metaphor or, in the end, replaced by actual knowledge.

Just over a year ago, on a visit to one of the world’s most prestigious research institutes, I challenged researchers there to account for intelligent human behaviour without reference to any aspect of the IP metaphor. They couldn’t do it, and when I politely raised the issue in subsequent email communications, they still had nothing to offer months later. They saw the problem. They didn’t dismiss the challenge as trivial. But they couldn’t offer an alternative. In other words, the IP metaphor is ‘sticky’. It encumbers our thinking with language and ideas that are so powerful we have trouble thinking around them.

The faulty logic of the IP metaphor is easy enough to state. It is based on a faulty syllogism – one with two reasonable premises and a faulty conclusion. Reasonable premise #1: all computers are capable of behaving intelligently. Reasonable premise #2: all computers are information processors. Faulty conclusion: all entities that are capable of behaving intelligently are information processors.

Setting aside the formal language, the idea that humans must be information processors just because computers are information processors is just plain silly, and when, some day, the IP metaphor is finally abandoned, it will almost certainly be seen that way by historians, just as we now view the hydraulic and mechanical metaphors to be silly.

If the IP metaphor is so silly, why is it so sticky? What is stopping us from brushing it aside, just as we might brush aside a branch that was blocking our path? Is there a way to understand human intelligence without leaning on a flimsy intellectual crutch? And what price have we paid for leaning so heavily on this particular crutch for so long? The IP metaphor, after all, has been guiding the writing and thinking of a large number of researchers in multiple fields for decades. At what cost?

It seems that this IP metaphor has been adopted strongly into parts of our culture, and this creates its own inherent 'stickiness'.

Not discussed is one possible alternative, one that involves the claims of quantum physics effects within the neurons' various tubules. This might imply some type of complex interaction with such as extra-dimensions implied by theoretical physics research today, and things like quantum entanglement, Einstein's complaint of "Spooky Action at a Distance".
Epstein's biography indicates that he's more of a behavioral or humanistic psychologist, than a neural computation specialist. See:

I think part of the reason he's so uncomfortable with the "IP metaphor" is that he doesn't fully appreciate it. It's not that his article doesn't make a great many good points, and it's true that brains are very different from computers as we know them today. But Epstein's know-nothing-ism, as well as the pessimism expressed in a linked article by Kenneth Miller at the NY Times, strikes me as a misdirection. It's premature to declare victory for the 'IP metaphor' as an explanation of the brain, but premature to declare defeat, either. Contrary to Epstein's conclusion "The IP metaphor has had a half-century run, producing few, if any, insights along the way," there has been amazing progress coming out of the AI labs, and it's only accelerating.

The theory that the brain processes information by QP effects in the tubules, known as orch-OR theory, hasn't won much support. (Yes, I know, that doesn't prove it's wrong.) The basic objection is that quantum decoherence effects, rather than preservation of entanglements over long distances, should be the prevailing situation in 'wetware'.

The arguments pro and con are summarized on the Wiki page:

and there's a lively discussion on the talk page.
Ha, I tricked you. As the thread title strongly implies, I'm only suggesting that this applies to the minds of people named Brian.
My PhD thesis was a computer simulation known as the Bayesian Reentrant Inter-Active Neural network. Or something like that. Anyway my advisor thought I was something right out of The Life of BRIAN. I figured, somehow, you must have known the backstory.

Just ran across this 2010 production, Science of the Soul. It is pretty wide ranging as to whether the mind resides souly (sic) in the brain (or brian) or whether it is a separate entity, perhaps a feature of extra-dimensionality via quantum entanglements and such. This latter making the brain's circuitry a portal, or perhaps a sophisticated antenna / interface as I had suggested.

It presents some evidence for such as reincarnation, and Near Death Experiences, and discusses that the Classical Greeks believed in reincarnation. This latter making them much like the Hindus and Buddhists. The show discusses the differences in 'soul' thinking brought on by Xianity, and even briefly touches on the reason that I think Xianity is a tragically neurotic devolution in this regard. Imagine the difference in motivations to make the world a better place if you understood would repeatedly have to come back here, rather than Earthly life being a one-off experience.

Especially interesting was the segment on ayahuasca and EEGs. Take that Jerry.

I watched the full docu on Amazon, the following is the trailer: