Tricyclic Differential Engine - Recursive (TDE-R)

Hardware vs Software - is the brain really a computer?

Atheists ("There is no such thing as god") are usually also monists ("There is only one reality, one kind of stuff"). Both types are quick to condemn those who believe otherwise. Generally speaking, the scientific position agrees with both of these philosophical belief systems. TDE theory adopts a strict physicalist stance, ie it is both atheist and monist. 

Having to talk about such nonsense as 'monism' and 'dualism' makes me sad. The fact that it is academically advisable to do so is itself an indication of how much psychology has become degraded as a science. SCIENCE IS PHYSICALISM, a fact which we cognitive scientists seem to have conveniently forgotten.  

Mind you, it is not hard to believe why some people believe that body (matter) and mind (spirit) belong in entirely separate worlds. At times, it really does seem as if there are two kinds of stuff. This mistaken belief arises from two different causes, both of them quite unusual and interesting.

The first cause for dualist beliefs is the nature of software itself. Like many other kinds of information, it behaves like a kind of fluid. For example, it 'fills up' RAM like water fills a glass. At any one time, the exact location in the memory chip of a given software instruction or data pattern cannot be calculated. It is often indeterministic and sometimes stochastic. Scientists and engineers know, of course, that software is a mixture of languages, each one consisting solely of patterns of information (syntax) which form meaningful representations of subjective and objective reality (semntics). They know this because, after all, they are the ones who made (designed and wrote) it in the first place.

Also, the software programs which produce a given functionality in conjunction with a particular hardware platform can be changed for other ones, different ones, which nevertheless yield similar or identical results. The software acts just like a 'ghost' or 'spirit' which is separate from the 'body' and without which the body is functionally dead. Like consciousness, the operating system software (the 'OS') of a given brand of computer is essential for that computer to do anthing useful. Conversely, by 'porting' the OS from one 'platform' to another (ie using different hardware but keeping the same software) gives a machine which is functionally almost identical to the original.

In fact, the working metaphors between mind and body, and also between software and hardware, are as close a comparison as one could wish for. The more the matter is examined, even by the very skeptical, the more striking the parallel is. After a while, commonsense (a mode of logic formerly called 'abduction'*) 'kicks in', and they find themselves thinking -"This can't just be a fortunate coincidence, perhaps the brain really is a computer after all!".

Part of the problem is that philosophers are not normal people, at least as far as the artificial and highly stylized way they use everyday terms. A common example of this is when someone says that "the mind must be more than mechanism". It pays to examine just what they are adding to the discussion - shedding light, or casting shadows. What exactly is a mechanism? It is any arrangement of component parts whose interaction achieves the desired effect, or purpose. The brain is certainly composed of parts (neurons, lobes, Brodmann areas, white and grey matter, molecules, atoms,etc..), and their interaction just a certainly results in the phenomenon of mind, no matter what particular part-whole subdivision is chosen. Clearly, just saying that a process has an underlying mechanism really doesn't add any useful insight at all. It just means there are some parts, they interact.

What is commonly (even widely) believed is that the mechanism by which brains create minds is of an unknown type. There are others who wish to take this belief further- they believe the mechanism is not just unknown, but unknowable. Science, of course, is based upon precisely the opposite viewpoint- it relies upon the premise that everything real is discoverable.

The second cause is best described indirectly, by asking the following question- did human cultures such as the ancient Greeks perceive the world just as we do. The ancient Greeks, it seems, may not have had a word for the color blue, though they were genetically (and therefore physiologically) identical to us, and so could clearly sense light of those wavelengths. The mediterranean sky and sea was then, as it is today, intensely vividly blue, yet in the extensive body of ancient Greek literature, the color blue never appears.

Here is the current explanation. If a people does not produce a blue dye, so that they cannot make blue things, it appears that they also do not develop a matching concept. A quantitative motor practice must first exist before a qualitative sensory percept can arise. Bringing this idea to bear on the current question, we might ask if a person must first program a computer, ie write some software, for them to be able to believe that software of a certain type can be ultimately responsible for their very existence. Perhaps being able to view your mind as a software image and your brain as a hardware platform is not an absolute but depends on how you are raised, and what words you learned from your parents and teachers in order to be able to talk and reason about your world.

So what is hardware, and software- what do you see if some kind of microscope is used to look at a computer under higher and higher zoom? The answer is both surprising and boring at the same time. All that you see is a field of tiny electronic switches, each of which can either be in one position ("off" or '0' or 'false') or the other ("on" or '1' or 'true'). And that's it, in purely physical terms.It is not just what is physically there (the '1's and '0's) that guide the decisions which run the computer, but what significance is placed upon those binary symbols

Some teachers prefer a mathematical explanation. Using maths, all those binary digits ("bits") can be grouped into larger numbers which are then used to store words, or make pictures that describe real things. But that ignores another, less comprehensive, but more intuitive explanation - deixis. The word means 'to point'.  Pointing is what you do with your index finger, when you want to show something to somebody else. By grouping some of the bits together, it is possible to form an 'address' of some pattern of data in memory. This address is nothing more than a digital version of that pointing index finger. 

There is, of course, the explanation of computer operation based on language. Everyone is familiar with the power of language- it runs our world. Yet it is just a selection of symbols, one of 26 or so, which form 'strings' called words. The same argument applies to computer memory- it may just look like a bunch of '1's and '0', but when strung together, it is a code which can be read by any suitably programmed machine. TDE theory points to an undeniable universal truth- everything complex is a kind of Universal Language Machine, or ULM.

In the end, the truth is 'out there'. Is a block of text, say a few paragraphs copied from a best-selling novel, conscious? When you read them to yourself, it is as if the author, using your own voice, has suddenly appeared in your head, and is reading to you (silently) in perfect synchrony to your own reading of the words on the page. A book may not be alive, but a case can be made for the text to somehow embody the disembodied voice of its author. That's as close to a ghost from beyond the grave as modern science will permit.

* - the spelling is unfortunate, its nothing to do with kidnapping. Together with 'deduction', and 'induction', 'abduction' is one of the common forms of reasoning with Boolean (truth) values

 ------------------------------ Copyright 2013 Charles Dyer------------------------------