Is the Brain Like a Computer?



IN THE OLD DAYS,
IN THE 1960S, IT WAS VERY POPULAR TO LIKEN
THE BRAIN TO A COMPUTER. THAT WAS THE SO-CALLED
ERA OF CYBERNETICS. AND PEOPLE, I THINK,
WERE JUST DISCOVERING COMPUTERS IN THEIR
EVERYDAY LIFE, AND THEREFORE, GOT VERY EXCITED
ABOUT HOW THE BRAIN MUST BE LIKE THIS VERY COMPLEX
AND DIFFICULT AND CHALLENGING MACHINE THAT WAS
BEING DEVELOPED. THE REASONS FOR SAYING
THIS, I THINK NOW REALLY HAVE BEEN OVERTAKEN BY
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE BRAIN. WE THINK OF COMPUTERS AS
THINGS THAT YOU FEED INPUT IN, AND IT PROCESSES IT, AND
INFORMATION COMES OUT. AND TO A CERTAIN EXTENT, THE
BRAIN CAN DO THAT, OF COURSE. BUT WHAT THE BRAIN DOES,
ITS SPECIAL PROPERTIES, ARE SO DIFFERENT AND SO
MUCH MORE– FOR EXAMPLE, BEING CONSCIOUS,
GENERATING AND INNER STATE. AND THERE'S A FAMOUS
QUOTE BY SOMEONE CALLED STUART SUTHERLAND, NOW
DEAD, A BRITISH PSYCHOLOGIST. HE SAID HE'D BELIEVE A
COMPUTER WAS CONSCIOUS WHEN IT RAN OFF WITH HIS WIFE. AND AS YET, THERE'S BEEN
NO PHILANDERING COMPUTERS AS FAR AS I KNOW. MOREOVER, WE KNOW THAT COMPUTERS
DOES SEEM TO HAVE, IN GENERAL, EMOTIONS. HOW WOULD YOU PROVE A
COMPUTER FELT AN INNER STATE, HAS AN INNER STATE? AND AS THE PHILOSOPHER
JOHN SEARLE HAS SHOWN, JUST BECAUSE
YOU CAN LOOK AT BEHAVIORS, AND THESE BEHAVIORS
CAN BE MODIFIED, DOES NOT MEAN TO SAY
THERE IS AN INNER STATE. SO THAT THE MOST SOPHISTICATED
LEVEL OF CONSCIOUSNESS, IT'S VERY HARD TO LIKEN
COMPUTERS TO BRAINS. EVEN NOW, THE LEVEL, THE
MORE MECHANICAL LEVEL, OF HOW THEY WORK, PEOPLE
USED TO SAY, OH YES. THE PHYSICAL BRAIN IS
THE HARDWARE AND SORTS OF THE SOFTWARE. AND I THINK THAT'S REALLY
OUTDATED DISTINCTION NOW. BECAUSE UNLIKE A
COMPUTER, IN THE BRAIN THE HARDWARE IS THE SOFTWARE. THE PROCESSES WILL BE
DETERMINED BY THE MORPHOLOGY, THE ORGANIZATION, THE
CHEMICAL PROCESSES, WHICH ALSO COULD BE
CALLED– IF YOU LIKE– THE ANATOMY OF THE BRAIN. SO THERE'S NO DISTINCTION
BETWEEN HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE IN THE BRAIN. AND MOREOVER, COMPUTERS WORK
WITH SPECIFIC CIRCUITS, MODULES THAT COULD BE PUT IN
AND TAKEN OUT AGAIN. THE BRAIN DOESN'T
WORK LIKE THAT AT ALL. THE BRAIN WORKS HOLISTICALLY. IT'S MORE LIKE A KALEIDOSCOPE,
THAT IF ONE PART CHANGES, EVERYTHING WILL CHANGE. IT'S LIKE THE CHAOS MODEL OF THE
BIRD FLAPPING ITS WINGS ON ONE SIDE OF THE WORLD, AND
WEATHER CHANGING ON THE OTHER. SO EVEN AT THE MOST MECHANISTIC
LEVEL, THE MOST PROCESSED LEVEL– LEAVING
ASIDE THE FUNCTIONS SUCH AS CONSCIOUSNESS–
IT'S VERY HARD NOW TO DRAW PARALLELS
BETWEEN COMPUTERS AND BRAINS. YOU DO SOMETHING TO BRAINS,
AND BRAINS WILL ADJUST. THAT'S ONE OF THE
MAIN THINGS THAT MAKES BRAINS DIFFERENT
FROM MACHINES. THERE ARE VERY FEW BIG, FANCY,
THINKING MACHINES, COMPUTERS. YOU KNOW, YOU HIT
THEM WITH A HAMMER, AND THEY DON'T GET BETTER. BUT BRAINS GET
BETTER, ALMOST ALWAYS. WHEN PEOPLE HAVE STROKES,
THEY ALMOST ALWAYS IMPROVE. THEY DON'T GO BACK 100%, BUT
THEY GET BACK PRETTY WELL.

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