Many thanks to CM who sent a link to me for the online version of the WSJ article I referred to right before I left for the LYC Teen Camp.
Like Mr. Lee Gomes, the writer of the article, I am frequently annoyed by the common comparisons made between the human brain and a computer, as if there really were any comparison. Mr. Gomes dubs it the Synapse Equivalency Fallacy. I am equally nauseated by the related claim that we have dispelled the mystery of the human brain, that we have it essentially nailed down… After all, they say, we now know that the “mind” is but an illusion and that what we think of as consciousness and will is merely a mixing of chemical and electrical impulses.
It’s nauseating because it’s just not true, and I’ve never heard or read a study or article that could truly be extrapolated to such an extreme conclusion. After decades of mapping and analysis, the brain and its relationship to consciousness and will is still an incredible mystery. I’ve commented on this topic before (here, here, and here), and the nature of the brain and mind are favorite interests of mine.
[FWIW: Personally, I believe that the human mind arises from the combination of the human brain and the human spirit (e.g., Job 32:8 ) as two essential ingredients. That the mind is not purely a product of the brain alone is what I believe helps to explain so-called “downward causation” and phenomena such as discussed here.]
But the focus of the WSJ article focuses narrowly on annoyance number one: the idea that if we simply pack in enough computing power we will have the equivalent of a human brain. As the article says, the comparison between brains and computers is simply apples to oranges: there really is no good correlation beyond the simplest of analogies. In fact, even the simplest of animal brains still confounds us. I found this particular paragraph in Mr. Gomes’ article just delightful (emphasis mine):
Dr. [Christof] Koch [a professor of biology and engineering at CalTech] tells a cautionary tale involving Caenorhabditis elegans, a tiny, soil-dwelling worm famous in science for being one of the best-understood animals on the planet. The brain and nervous system of C. elegans contain only a few hundred neurons, and by now all of them, along with all of their interconnections with one another, have been charted out in great detail. “We have a complete wiring diagram,” he said, “But we still have no idea of how it works; no overall view of how the animal functions.”
Dr. Koch then says this is “even truer” with the human mind and that there aren’t “any good theories” on how the physical brain is able to do all the we know the brain does, “including keeping us conscious” — causing me to think that the next time I hear someone speak as if we really understand something about the human brain or mind, I may declare as a battle cry: “Remember C. elegans!”
The final few paragraphs are a worthwhile summary of the article’s thrust:
But isn’t Moore’s Law on technology’s consistent doubling of capacity going to give us, in not very much time, computers with so many transistors they’ll have the same processing power as the brain?
Yes, said Dr. Koch, but absent a better understanding of the brain, that hardware will be of little use.
“With bigger computers, all we are going to get is more junk. It would be like someone in 1900 saying, ‘Give us more slide rules and we will understand the universe.’ But they would have been saying that without knowing of Planck or Einstein or Heisenberg. And they would have had no idea of what they were talking about.”
(Any day slide rules are mentioned in the newspaper is a good day…)
The entire article is worth a read, and includes a video of the article’s author, WSJ columnist Lee Gomes. Check it out: “Linking Brains, Computers”.