Evaluate computationalism, as an account of the mind.
Let me acquaint you with an incontrovertible fact:
The mind is not a computer.
Strictly speaking, that's the end of the evaluation. However, it is probably not unimportant to add that
claims to the contrary require the burden of proof to be shifted onto the shoulders of those who make
them; but to date no-one has put together an even half-way convincing case.
I'll put a couple of idea into your head further below, but le me finish the present train of thought first.
Fifty years ago, similar notions were touted about the mind being a like a telephone exchange, and
fifty years before that it was a more sophisticated variety of electromotor. And so on. You can see
from this that whatever the present pinnacle of human invention happens to be immediately suggests
itself as an analogue of the mind. But the mind (need I remind you!?) is neither an electromotor nor a
telephone exchange (nor even remotely like either of these): and the case for computers is not a jot
better or more plausible. For not only is the mind not a computer, but it is not software either; and
calling the brain and its contents "hardware" is just as far-fetched.
Now I'm not saying all these negative things to scare you away (fat chance!). Nor is it my intention to
belittle the truly worthwhile research done by hundreds and perhaps thousands of earnest scientists
into artificial intelligence — after all, the benefits are all around us and they are meaningful. But one
has to draw a line somewhere between research and the broadcasting of ideas that, inadequate as
they are, still harbour the possibility of dehumanising the idea of human intelligenceand to do so from
a basis of utterly inadequate evidence. That's my point; and I'm not the only one making it; and I wish
people would start to listen before it is too late. There is a sinister joke around about computers, that
the greatest danger for us is not that computers might begin to think like us, but that we will begin to
think like computers.
In the end the truth about computational theories of the mind is that neurologists and biologists, i.e.
the people who study life "in the raw", not on a computer screen, would hardly lend their support to it.
These people know too much about bodies and brains and nerves and all that to be taken in by fancy
electronic gismoes. So to end, I'll toss a couple of ideas your way that you might really like to think
1. The brain is made up of cells. Cells are living things, just like you and I; and this means they're
neither logic gates nor chips nor wires etc etc. They are living things that make a living out of
constructing bodies and brains and lungs and skin. Now being alive means, of course, that they are
vulnerable to disease, to shortages of food, to tiredness and all the other problems that beset life
forms; and eventually they grow old and die. Ask yourself: what happens to a computer when the
algorithm looks for a memory address and can't find it? HANG UP! In the brain, some 10,000 cells die
every day. Would you like to write a program for a computer where you are not allowed to define a
certain cell as memory X, for fear that it might be dead tomorrow? With the rate of fatality I've just
noted, how many times do you suppose your brain/ computer would hang up on an average day? Do
you think you or any of us would be around today to discuss this problem?
2. Okay, you might want to answer, surely there's got to be a way. After all the brain doeswork as a
sort of information processing device, even if our terminology is a bit nave. Now I might be inclined to
accept that point, but again with considerable reservations. Because it is commonly accepted theory
that the brain as an intelligence device,works by parallel distributed processing. Computers, as you
know, work by digital processing. These two methods are as different as chalk and cheese; and while
we do understand a great deal about the way the brain does its parallel processing, it is not a theory
that is easily portable into machines. With all our sophistication, we are stuck on the problem that the
only truly parallel distributing intelligence system is, in fact, the brain. What we can simulate by means
of batteries of CPUs strung up together is a very poor substitute and in any case a bit of a cheat.
But this being the case, we are back to where we started. If the brain is a parallel processing
information device, if the only truly parallel processing system known to us is the brain, and if the
brain is part of the biological partition of the universe, then there is no warrant for holding that
computationalism as an account of the mind has a hope in Hades of being a true account.
I don't know what age you are, and so it is a little difficult to recommend something for you to read. A
great deal of the literature devoted to these subject matters is a damned hard slog unless you have
some prior training, for without it, you're just as likely to be bowled over by one or the other argument
and left without that proper resource we call "independent thinking". Still, you might like to sample on
the "pro" side books like After Thought,written by supercomputer expert James Bailey; or Paul
Churchland's Engine of Reason, Seat of the Souland if you want a mind-spinning yarn try
Consciousness Explainedby Daniel Dennett. But especially in regard to the last-named, be warned:
this is a chrome-coated phantasmagoria that takes one hell of an effort to keep at arm's length. On
the "contra" side, John Searle has written two smallish, but very accessible books, and his Discovery
of the Mindis on the way to becoming a classic for the "no" case. The well-known mathematician Ian
Stewart has written several books in which the mind is a prominent "character" (e.g. The Collapse of
Chaosand Figments of Reality,with co-author Jack Cohen). But if you choose not to read any of
these, inform yourself at least about the reasons behind the pro and con arguments, and for this you
can do no better than Gerald Edelman's popular account of his decades of research into the brain
itself: Bright Air, Brilliant Fire.This book, I think, should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants
to be in possession of a sound opinion on matters related to the human brain — including the
question on how credible (or not) computationalism is as a theory of the mind.