Friday, March 24, 2017

'The brain as a computer' - I

I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people. - Isaac Newton

In Geek Nation, Angela Saini describes her visit to the Directorate of Forensic Science Laboratory in Kalina, Mumbai where people are experimenting with a truth machine. She meets Sunny Joseph, who works as a psychologist and one of the operators of the truth machine. He has a creepy level of faith in technology and thinks the brain is like a computer where information is stored and can be retrieved.

In Gandhinagar, she meets Champadi Raman Mukundan, the inventor of the Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature software which is used by the truth machine. He is another who thinks the brain is like a computer and thinks he can break it down 'to its nuts and bolts like the machines in laboratory.' He is in no doubt at all that that his technology is totally reliable (a clear warning sign) although towards the end of the meeting he thankfully expresses some doubt about his ability to duplicate the brain.

Champadi Raman Mukundan is a Physics guy, an electronics buff who tinkers with machines. Physicists work with inanimate particles which have invariant laws throughout the known universe but that is not the case with biology or sociology which are more messy and they tend to get impatient with it. The Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann said, 'Think how hard physics would be if particles could think.'   There is an oft-told story  about how physicists go about their task of trying to understand the world.

A physicist, an engineer, and a psychologist are called in as consultants to a dairy farm whose production has been below par. Each is given time to inspect the details of the operation before making a report. The first to be called is the engineer, who states: “The size of the stalls for the cattle should be decreased. Efficiency could be improved if the cows were more closely packed, with a net allotment of 275 cubic feet per cow. Also, the diameter of the milking tubes should be increased by 4 percent to allow for a greater average flow rate during the milking periods”.

The next to report is the psychologist, who proposes: “The inside of the barn should be painted green. This is a more mellow colour than brown and should help induce greater milk flow. Also, more trees should be planted in the fields to add diversity to the scenery for the cattle during grazing, to reduce boredom”. Finally, the physicist is called upon. He asks for a blackboard and then draws a circle. He begins: “Assume the cow is a sphere....”.

Such simplification often produces good results when you are working with inanimate particles with universal laws but when working with thinking and feeling biological entities, this strategy often doesn't produce good results. The impatience of physicists is illustrated by a comment I heard by the cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, 'All of psychology is crap.' It reminded me of an observation by Peter Drucker, 'Far too many people — especially those with great expertise in one area — are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas, or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge. But taking pride in their ignorance is self-defeating.'

From the time of  Enlightenment in Europe, a mechanistic view of the world became popular. A person was viewed as a sophisticated machine. The mind was viewed as just a calculating machine - a sort of computer. The body was just a system of  jointed limbs moved by the strings and pulleys of muscles and nerves. Human beings were thought of as puppets whose strings were pulled by the forces at play in the world. Although today such a model is regarded as crude and simplistic, it is still adopted by many materialist scientists and philosophers.

In Metaphors We Live By, Geeorge Lakoff gives some example sentences of 'the mind is a machine' metaphor that are commonly used: We are still trying to 'grind out' the solution to this equation. My mind just isn 't  'operating' today. Boy, the 'wheels are turning today'! I'm 'a little rusty' today. We've been working on this problem all day and now we're 'running out of steam'.

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