Computing the Mind: A Scientific Approach to the Philosophy of Mind and Brain

Article excerpt

For centuries, philosophers have puzzled over the mind-body problem -- the captivating enigma that asks how subjective mental states are connected to our objective physical biology. In this century, neuroscientists have made spectacular achievements in describing the cellular and molecular actions of the nervous system, while cognitive psychologists have indirectly observed and measured mental and psychological functions, sometimes with ingenious experimental methodology and often borrowing brain-imaging techniques from neuroscience.

The most recent contributors to the mind-body topic are computer network experts who study how individual elements interact in a systematic way, producing computational processes which give rise to information processing and artificial intelligence. Pioneers such as Alan Turing, John von Neumann, Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts, and, more recently, Patricia Churchland an Terrence Sejnowski have provided an analysis of systems at a higher level than the typical biomedical approaches of neuroscience and at a lower level than the macro states and behaviors favored by psychologists. By examining neural networks, these researchers hope to uncover just how individual cells combine to create emergent phenomena which are more than the sum of their parts.

Of course, in each cast the attention is on the human brain as the locus of mental and psychological functions. Computer guru Marvin Minsky has called the brain a "meat machine" and a machine that "clanks softly." Viewing the brain as a soft computational machine allows an interesting commentary on the recent chess match lost by Garry Kasparov to the IBM computer sometimes called Deeper Blue (because it is an improved version of Deep Blue beaten by Kasparov the previous year). in this view, it was not man against machine as much as it was one type of machine -- or process, if you prefer -- against another. As was shown, one process happened to be better at chess than the other.

Critics complain that a digital computer lacks awareness or understanding, that it is just making unconscious computations. But a brain is a type of computer and it has awareness and understanding. A brain also just makes subconscious computations-by neurons creating electrical current and squirting transmitter chemicals. This, of course, is the essential mystery: how can these singularly objective cellular brain events transform into psychological states, moods, and behaviors? The consciousness we experience is apparently achieved via the interaction of billions of unconscious computational events, which in themselves have no awareness or understanding.

Certainly Deeper Blue was made and programmed by humans, but so was Kasparov! If we're giving credit to Deeper Blue's programmers, then let's give credit to the programmers of Kasparov: his parents, teachers, previous opponents, authors of books he read, and so forth. Also, some machines today are made by other machines, and someday computers will likely be made and programmed by other computers. So what? None of these truths diminishes human integrity, dignity, worth, goals, values, or self-actualization. There is no threat. Brains are better at some things, while silicon digital computers excel at others.


Years ago we were told that a human brain functions like a telephone switchboard. I still remember the scratchy 16mm movie that illustrated brain activity as a sequence of switchboard plugs being methodically pulled from and inserted into an impressive array of holes. This analogy was readily embraced throughout society, in and out of schools, and it even sprouted in pedestrian places such as the silly 1972 Woody Allen movie Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. Allen depicts the brain as a command center for body actions (sex, in this case), which are initiated and regulated via telephone communication.

The days when a brain was likened to a telephone switchboard are thankfully long gone. …