Are we computers, or are computers us?

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.

10 thoughts on “Are we computers, or are computers us?”

  1. I believe the reason that people still consider computers and human minds to be metaphorical rather than synonymous lies in the fact that mathematics provides are far too generalized interpretation of reality, and computers only facilitate mathematics.
    A bit is a quite arbitrary entity. It is either on or off. This scales extremely efficiently, but does not allow for life’s true values. Imagine trying take every variable into consideration for whether to pick vanilla or chocolate ice cream. Did you get chocolate ice cream before, did you like it, do you like the color brown, did a friend tell you it was “gross”, is it your husband’s favorite, on and on and on? Once you compile a list of all the factors, then calculate the weight of each factor, based of a perceived importance. This task would be tedious on a computer to say the least.
    Using chemicals as a reasoning medium accommodates for this, and is why as humans we are able to choose which ice cream we would like. When we think “ice cream”, our mind is able to “choose” a flavor. Chemicals allow for a more organic interpretation with varying degrees of accuracy and scope. This explains why “Mind Hack” means a whole blog worth of stuff to one person and only a cute phrase to another.

  2. I remember that I was taught in my HCI coursework in Cognitive Science that when computers were being developed, the terminology used to describe components and functionalities (such as memory) were based on humans as a reference point. The professor made the point as a matter of amusement considering that many people have recently taken to using the computer as a reference point for understanding or describing how human cognition works.

  3. Humans are not computer at all.
    Humans sight can be visually tricked with faster than eye “magic” tricks.
    Humans can see numerous optical illusion that can effect “reality”.
    Human reading “fi yuo cna raed tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid too Cna yuo raed tihs?”
    Humans hearing of word lyrics is random “The Archive of Misheard Lyrics” Jimi Hendrix Kiss this guy/Kiss the sky
    Humans sense of smell “the limbic system of the brain, which receives information from the chemoreceptors about a particular odor, not only mediates mood and emotion, but also serves as a memory storage area . This common junction, where memories, emotions and odors meet, explains why smell is often an intense trigger for distinct memories and potent emotions”
    Can computers selectively forget? Humans (and animals) do it all the time to forget horrible things such as the death of someone close.
    Humans can deny they are crazy, yet every one of is , and has to be crazy , to be able continue on working/living, knowing we are going to die one day, and that whatever work we have done during our life, will likely be forgotten soon after we are dead.

  4. Mark: I don’t see your point. Cameras can be tricked by faster-than-framerate magic too. Object recognition algorithms make errors all the time (at a much higher rate than the human visual system; we’re still trying hard to improve that). Reading strange sentences boils down to calculating the probabilty of a word with those letters to appear at this position…
    Have you ever selected a file on your computer and pressed Delete? There, your computer just selectively forgot something.
    I think the human mind is indeed a computer and can, in theory, be simulated by one. It’s just that our silicon chips are so architecturally different from neurons-and-chemicals processing that it’s a very hard task indeed (have you ever tried to simulate the capabilities of a modern processor using nothing but Lambda Abstractions?).

  5. aoeu
    It can’t be simulated at all realistically, a computer has no feelings and no motivation.
    Selective memory means remembering and forgeting it at the same time. A computer can’t do that.
    If a computer had the simulated sense of smell , its memory would suddenly be altered and it would “crash”. What would you do with the computer then?
    Do you remember one of the first computer movies called “wargames”?
    The computer learned in the end the pointlessness of nuclear war.
    Without feelings or motivation, if a computer understood the pointlessness of life, why would it continue to operate?
    script from the movie
    “- What’s it doing?|- It’s learning.
    Greetings, Professor Falken.
    Hello, Joshua.
    Strange game.
    The only winning move is not to play.”
    maybe it explains autism.

  6. Mark: Your point assumes, that emotions and motivation can intrinsically not be simulated. Although I’m not an expert on that matter, I believe the common consensus among scientists is, that emotions, motivation and pretty much everything else you can think of is the result of some sort of chemical and electric activity in your brain.
    I strongly believe that any physical object (excluding “the whole universe”), including the brain, can be simulated by a sufficiently powerfull computer (or in fact a Turing-Machine). Either through an abstraction, or in the corner case by simulating all the interactions between the atoms it’s composed of (that however would require a vast amount of memory).
    I think the only way you can argue that it’s impossible to simulate the brain is to assume that it has properties, that cannot be explained through natural phenomena, i.e. a soul. But then the argument slowly leaves the realm of science.
    You do realize that even while I type this my MacBook’s memory is constantly altered, without crash. Giving a computer a sense of smell is, from a programmer’s point of view, in now way different from attaching a microphone. To make any use from the data you’d need to translate it somehow in a form that can be easily understood in mathematical terms, but that’s only a minor problem. Then you could run all your familiar pattern recognition algorithms on a database of “remembered” smells to associate a smell with other “memories”.
    I do enjoy Hollywood’s interpretation of computer science, but, as with everything you see on the big screen, it has remarkably little to do with reality.
    Also I don’t see how feelings and motivation help you when you realized that life is meaningless.

  7. aoeu: “I don’t see how feelings and motivation help you when you realized that life is meaningless.”
    Your computer brain model won’t have religion it I see? Thats a major flaw, as religion is kind of big in humans.
    re:no feelings in the comp simulation.
    That would leave out the feeling of love and hate and the randomn effects from them in cognition as well?
    RE: inputs to the computer to simulate human senses.
    To my understanding, smells bypass the reasoning part of the human brain, in PTSD a smell can make a person remember a particular (bad)memory, that greatly upsets the person. Can you bypass reason and have random insanity on a computer?
    To be a healthy human being there is supposedly five aspects to it.EMOTIONAL, SPIRITUAL, PHYSICAL, SOCIAL,INTELLECTUAL.
    If we can not simulate 2 out of the 5 aspects, I do believe it will fail as a representation of the human mind.

  8. mark: you completely fail to understand my point. I say that in order to simulate the brain you can either find a working abstraction to simplify the task, or, in case no such abstraction exists, simply simulate in at the molecular level.
    Whatever the brain as a physical organ does would thus be emulated by the computer.
    Of course the computer won’t feel sad, or happy or religious, because unlike with biological brains there is a clear distinction between the hardware and the software.
    The only way you can argue that brains can’t be simulated by a sufficiently powerful computer is to say that they cannot be completely explained as real, physical objects. You may notice that even quantum mechanics, which would forbid us to do precise prediction of the whole system is not a valid argument as we don’t try to predict a specific brain (say yours or mine), but rather want to create something that acts exactly like we would a biological brain expect to.
    So unless you propose some kind of magic, with unpredictable effects (otherwise we could simply simulate that too) as an integral part of the brain, I don’t see how you want to defy my point.
    I do realize, that the idea of a computer running a simulation of a biological brain is quite strange and raises tons of philosophical questions (does the software go to heaven after we delete it?) but there are no sensible arguments against the possibility.

  9. I am not an expert in the human mind/brain and its many paradox’s. I just know there are many, I wish I had an expert to help me point out the flaws I know exist in the argument that the mind/brain is understandable. I do accept your conjecture that maybe we (our brain)are just a bunch of cells that can be simulated with a sufficiently powerful computer.
    re :magic
    Magic you say? Like turning sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen? You can do that? No, I don’t think so. We can observe and manipulate plants and things to our wishs, but we can’t really take credit for plants growing can we? We give the plants the will to live, to do the chemical reaction? Are plants just a mathmatical equation?
    Are we humans just a mathmatical sum of our cell and DNA parts?
    I doubt we will see the theory tested in our lifetimes. If it was done I would be very afraid of the mind in a computer (based on the insane human mind).

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