Review: “Why the mind is not a computer”

“Why the mind is not a computer: A pocket lexicon of neuromythology”
Raymond Tallis (2004, originally published 1994).

Neuromythology is the shibboleth of cognitive science that the mind is a machine, and that somehow our theories of information, complexity, patterns or representations are sufficient to explain consciousness. Tallis accuses cognitive scientists, and philosophers of cognitive science such as Chalmers, Churchland and Dennett, of the careless use of words which can apply both to thinking and to non-thinking systems (‘computing’, ‘goals’, ‘memory’, for example). This obfuscation “provides a framework within which the real problems can be by-passed and the illusion of progress maintained”. At his best Tallis is a useful reminder that many of the features of the brain which are evoked to ‘explain’ consciousness really only serve as expressions of faith, rather than true explanations. Does the mind arise from the brain because of the complexity of all those intertwined neurons? The processes inside a cell are equally complex, why aren’t cells conscious? Similarly for patterns, which depend on the subjective perspective (yes, the consciousness) of the observer rather than having an objective existence which is sufficient to generate consciousness; and for levels of description, which, with careless thinking are sometimes reified so that the mind can ‘act’ on the brain, when in fact, if you are physicalist, the mind and brain don’t have separate existences. Moments of the argument can appear willfully obstructive. Tallis maintains that there is no meaningful sense in which information can exist without someone being informed, any more, he says, than a watch can tell the time without someone looking at it. He’s right that we should be careful the word information, which has a very precise technical meaning and also colloquial meanings, but if you suppose that subjective consciousness is required to make information exist (and rule-following, representation and computation to pick a few other concepts about which he makes similar arguments) then you effectively disallow any attempts to use these concepts as part of your theory of consciousness. The disagreement between Tallis and many philosophers of cognitive science seems to me to be somewhat axiomatic — either you believe that our current models of reality can explain how matter can produce mind, or you don’t — but Tallis is right to remind us that the things we feel might eventually provide an answer don’t in themselves constitute an answer.

In essence what this book amounts to is a vigorous restatement of the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness — the stubborn inadequacy of our physical theories when faced with explaining how phenomenal experience might arise out of ordinary matter, or even with beginning to comprehend what form such an explanation might take.

Disclaimer: I bought this book with my own money, because I needed something to read at the Hay Festival after finishing Ahdaf Soueif’s wonderful ‘Map of Love’ (200) and because Raymond Tallis’s essay here was so good. I was not paid or otherwise encouraged to review it.

4 thoughts on “Review: “Why the mind is not a computer””

  1. Hello Tom,
    It is an interesting read. Quite amazingly, I am writing a new post in my blog about that we are in a new great transitional period. The link is at here:
    In the article, I have argued that human mind is unlike machines such as computers because humans have creativity. Although the reason of human creativity remains to be unknown, it is why an education child is definitely different from an educated (i.e. programmed) machine.
    Moreover, the article is a response to the coming Harmonious Age suggested by Adam Lindemann. Human society evolves from feudalism to capitalism and we have experienced from land is power to capital is power. With the new invention of World Wide Web, however, we are going to move into a new age in which mind is power. Mind becomes the key asset of the coming society. I think probably you would be interested in reading this one.

  2. Years ago (1972) I took a course in “Computability and Unsolvability” from Dr. Grant in the mathematics department of University of Florida. I found the course one of the most interesting I took in the four years I was there. I was working on a second degree in computer science while working for the administration as a programmer.
    In the course we reviewed the proofs of the halting problem and many more based on the Turing machine, the mathematical model for all non-analog, digital computers. The only problems that Turing machines could solve were recursive problems.
    There was a hypothesis (Chauchy?) that computers were limited to solving only recursive machines.
    It occurred to me that solving a non-recursive problem could be used to solve the Turing Test to determine if the “person” at the other side of the wall was a human or not. If the set of non-recursive problems is not a null set that would seem to be true. Unfortunately I have never had the opportunity to ask some mathematician whether there are non-recursive problems that cannot be expressed as recursive problems, making the set of non-recursive problem not a null set.
    If that set is not null then, yes, very definitely the human mind is not equivalent to a computer no matter how sophisticated and the dreams of artificial intelligence based on the model of a computer are in vain.
    I would love to get a response to this post that could verify and extend or refute my thoughts.

  3. I should add as a post post, that I’m now retired from the computer field after 36 years in that trade. So now I have some time to pursue the fascinating topics on Mind Hacks.
    I’m returning to my studies in cognitive sciences in Dr. Shaun Gallagher’s department of philosophy at University of Florida this Fall. If his two books have not been reviewed on Mind Hacks you might want to take a look at them. “How the Body Shapes the Mind” (2005) by Shaun Gallagher and “The Phenomenological Mind, an introduction to philosopy of mind and cognitive science” (2008) by Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi. Both are excellent texts.

  4. Von Neumann once said something like “define for me exactly what it is a computer can’t do and I’ll be able to make a computer do it!”. I think this applies to both creativity and ‘non-recursive problems’. I don’t know what the definition of either of these things is, but I suspect that producing an exact definition would go a long way towards being able to make a computer that did them. Tallis’s argument is not based on capacity exactly; that computers can’t do certain things. Rather he is saying that our physical and computational theories (as embedded in computers) don’t go any way to reducing the mystery of consciousness.

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