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The (misguided) comparisons between brain and computer usually begin by stating that the brain is massively parallel, working into multiple threads of thought at the same time.

But it just isn’t.

The brain is not a massively parallel processor. It does not process more than one symbol-chain at the same time. The brain deals with only one thing at a time, and it can’t even vary this one thing: the brain is always dealing with the person’s immediate circumstance.

There might be symbolic elements to the circumstance. For example, if the person’s soccer team is losing this symbol {insert favourite soccer team here} is a direct, immediate part of his present circumstance. More direct, even, than how many ml of water are raining over his head at the stadium.

If he wishes to be an astronaut in the future, this is part of his circumstance, this wish. This is NOT to say that his future state as an astronaut (or not) is important to his immediate circumstance. But the wish is here, present, directly.

The dichotomy between realists (that insist it is the outside world that determine truth) and the idealists (that insist that truths are more important than fleeting perceptions) is, like most badly formulated questions, irrelevant. There is no truth, and at the same time there is no idea disconnected from the direct experience of the brain.

Science, by the way, does not deal with either truth nor direct experience. Science is an independent activity, with emphasis on abstraction, organized by a specific and unique (that is to say, not general) set of methods. Science is about what scientists say (or write) to each other. Science is about the laboratory and about making the lab as big as the whole world (as Latour says).

Thinking about the brain as a thinking machine can shed much light into our epistemology. But a thinking machine is not a computer or a calculator. It is not either a symbol-comprehension tool. And it is not reason itself. A thinking machine is just a system that, when connected to another system, can confer to this second system the property of intelligence.

Without defining precisely what is intelligence, we can say that the connected system adapts to his circumstances in more complex ways. (Though any mention of intentionality here would raise more issues than i would like).

The brain does not care about truth, reality, abstraction, elegance, mathematics, the nature of existence or anything like it. None of those is necessarily part of the circumstance. They can be made part of it, but they are by default not. This system, the brain, does not need truth to work.

It also does not show any clear or measurable difference between “emotion” and “reason”.

This brain-as-thinking-machine framework puts strict limits on reflexivity, as the brain itself is part of it’s own circumstance but only in an external sense: that is, the brain does not need to know how it works to work.

So, for example, you are not more certain about “i want to eat an orange” than you are about “the Higgs boson does confer to matter the property of mass”. Both ideas are indirect evaluations of your circumstance. What you know about yourself is not guaranteed to be correct.

The brain actually is unable to understand it’s own workings beyond certain limits, just because that would leave us with an infinite loop of understanding — and that is just foolish!

Finally, this shows why the method is so important — as there is no direct connection between brain and “external reality”, but only the mediated connection provided by the self, the method is the only part of the whole system that is actually concerned about the connection itself. It is the only part of any idea that is truly not based on interpretation. (And this is my justification for never writing in the third person, but let’s leave this one for another day).


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  2. By starts with my ass « Truth of the Lesser Men on 17 Oct 2010 at 8:42 pm

    […] around the corner you should ask for normal or spicy mortadella — if we call it just “brain activity” then almost everything can fit there, like emotions and mathematical formulas all dumped […]

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