Philosopher Dr Pete Mandik has published an interesting thought on his blog that questions whether the common ‘computer metaphor’ used to describe the human mind is really a metaphor at all.
Cognitive psychology typically creates models of the mind based on information processing theories.
In other words, the mind and brain are considered to do their work by manipulating and transforming information, either from the senses, or from other parts in the system.
It is therefore common for scientists to talk about the mind and brain in computer metaphors, as if they are information processing machines.
Mandik questions whether this is really a metaphor at all:
There is a sense of the verb “compute” whereby many, if not all, people compute insofar as they calculate or figure stuff out. Insofar as they literally compute, they literally are computers. Further, the use of “compute”, “computing”, and “computer” as applied to non-human machines is derivative of the use as applied to humans.
It strikes me as a bit odd, then, to say that calling people or their minds “computational” is something metaphorical.
Indeed, the term ‘computer’ was originally a name for a person who did mathematical calculations for a company.
Calculating machines were then given the supposedly metaphorical name ‘computers’ as they did equivalent work to the human employees.
Mandik questions whether we should think of any of these examples as genuine metaphors, since they’re describing the same operations.
However, a key issue for cognitive science is whether there are reasonable limits in describing mind, brain and behaviour in mathematical terms.
The fact that we can adequately describe some things mathematically doesn’t solve this problem, because there may be things that are impossible to describe in this way which we simply don’t know about.
Often though, we just assume that we haven’t found the right maths yet, when the reality may be far more complex.
Link to Pete Mandik post with great discussion.