There’s a modern parable about a man whose rowing boat loses its oars and is swept out to sea. Onlookers at the shore’s edge call out to the man. He shouts back that they are not to worry because God will save him. The onlookers alert the coastguard who send a helicopter which lowers a rescuer down to the man. The man refuses to take the rescuer’s hand and reassures the rescuer that God will save him. Eventually, as the boat drifts further out into open water, a large wave causes it to capsize and the man drowns. On entering heaven, the man asks God why he didn’t save him. In frustration, God replies, “What more could I have done? I sent you a helicopter!”
In the summer of 1994, I was sent a reading list to prepare me for university life. All of the books were interesting, but two altered my view of the world more than anything I had read before or I have read since. The first of these was, “The Blind Watchmaker,” by Richard Dawkins. It is a book that explains evolution, and it explains it with the common objections of a sceptic in mind. As such, it is a act of great teaching because it anticipates its audience.
Dawkins takes apart the case made by creationists under the guise of ‘intelligent design’. He shows that organs such as the eye are not irreducibly complex, as creationists suggest, but can evolve, tiny step by tiny step, with each new move conferring an advantage on the organism that possesses it. As a rebuttal of silly, religiously motivated ideas, The Blind Watchmaker is a masterpiece. However, I also think Dawkins overreaches in this book and in his other works, when he argues that evolution demonstrates the nonexistence of God. You cannot really demonstrate such a thing. To many believers, evolution is God’s helicopter; the physical, rational manifestation of the higher truth that they believe in. God is, was and always will be unfalsifiable.
The second book that changed me was, “The Emperor’s New Mind,” by Roger Penrose. This is an argument against the idea that the brain works like a computer. Central to the case is a theorem published in 1931 by the mathematician, Kurt Godel. Godel’s theorem shows that any formal system of logic that we develop will not be able to express all mathematical truths. Penrose demonstrates that a computer is equivalent to a formal system and therefore no computer can apprehend all mathematical truths. Assuming that human mathematicians can apprehend these truths, the mind of a human mathematician cannot be a computer. Indeed, human mathematicians tend to switch between different formal systems for different purposes.
Penrose doesn’t explain exactly what he thinks the human mind is, although he does put forward a few ideas. Critics may wonder whether Penrose is indulging in a spot of mysticism because if we deny that human brains are like computers then what are they? Are we suggesting that humans have a spirit or a soul? I don’t think Penrose suggests any such thing, he merely claims that we need a better mechanism to explain human cognition than that of a computer. The fact that he could not describe this mechanism does not invalidate his criticism of the human-as-computer concept.
So Penrose popped into my mind when I read a piece by Robert Epstein, a research psychologist, for the digital magazine, Aeon. And I was reminded of this when I saw Dylan Wiliam recently return to this article on Twitter.
Epstein believes that cognitive scientists are wrong to view the human mind as an information processing system and to talk about it using terms borrowed from computer science. He suggests that every epoch has developed a model of the mind based upon their own preoccupations, from spirit to hydraulics to clockwork mechanisms to chemistry and now to computers. And the computer analogy is sticky, with cognitive scientists unable to talk about the mind without resorting to it. He rightly cautions us against the errors we will make if we start to think that brains are literally like computers.
For instance, there is no reason to believe that we will soon be able to model human minds or download our brains to the internet.
Like Penrose, Epstein doesn’t really develop an alternative model, beyond a few hints. Instead, his view strikes me as a mix of behaviourism and some of the cognitive science that he criticises. Humans, he believes, respond to external stimuli such as rewards and punishments. Specifically, their brains are changed in an orderly way by experience. To me, I can’t see how that is so much different from suggesting that they store information. I can even point to the cognitive science concept of a limited working memory as a possible mechanism for ensuring the orderliness of these changes.
I share Epstein’s scepticism about the idea that human brains literally are computers but I’m much more relaxed about using computers as a model, especially if this model makes testable predictions. That’s probably the key difference between the computer model and those of previous eras. The hydraulic model, as far as I know, did not have much predictive power. Yet the computer model does, and some of these predictions stand up. Which is the best you can hope for in science.
I am also keen to hear more about Epstein’s take on behaviourism. If this has greater predictive power in some areas then it might help us edge closer to the truth of what is actually going on in our heads.
However, I would caution against ever thinking we’ve nailed it, whatever we come up with. Some arguments are intrinsically philosophical and cannot be answered by understanding the underlying mechanisms. And these arguments are not esoteric details; they affect how we live our everyday lives and even the way we might frame education policy.
For instance, the concept of ‘free will’ is critical to how we view human behaviour. I am in favour of emphasising human choice and agency because I believe it leads to a healthier society than one where everything is pathologised. And, ironically, this is clearly a choice. Am I free to choose free will? Yes, I am free to choose free will.
Why? Well, there are those who would argue that scans of brains show us that parts of them light up when we make a decision, even before we are consciously aware of the decision we have made. But you can’t disprove my belief in free will in this way, just like you can’t disprove someone’s belief in God by pointing to the process of evolution. Just as God’s helicopter is the mechanism by which he attempts to save the man, these electrical pulses in the brain, whatever they are, represent the mechanism by which free will works. They are a description.
Instead, to challenge the existence of God or free will requires moral reasoning, something we are all capable of engaging in and something that is notably absent in the logic of computers.