God is dead and you have no soul


In their 2011 book, John Sweller, Slava Kalyuga and Paul Ayres argue that the brain does not require a central executive to coordinate cognitive processes. This places them at odds with Baddeley’s model of working memory in an intriguing and curious way.

In part, they argue by analogy. They compare the model of the brain as an information processing system with the process of biological evolution which is also an information processing system. In evolution, information is encoded in genes. This information can be borrowed and reorganised from one organism to the next. This process of reorganisation may lead to novel applications and this is one element in the creativity exhibited by evolution.

However, this does not explain all of the creativity of evolution. At some point in the fossil record, there were no backbones and then, at a later point, there were backbones. That information must have come from somewhere. The theory of evolution by natural selection suggests a process of random mutation. Most of these mutations have either no effect or a damaging effect on the organism that possesses them, but some provide partial solutions to unsolved problems. Due to the advantage they bestow upon their host, these mutations are passed on and built upon through time and become part of the information that is borrowed and reorganised between individuals.

There is no need for a separate system directing the process of evolution and coming up with the new information. As Sweller, Kalyuga and Ayres put it, ‘randomness is genesis,’ and, ‘evolution does not require a central executive to function.’

This is what upsets people about evolution. It does not require an intelligence directing it. It does not require a God.

Sweller, Kalyuga and Ayres argue that we may think of the mind as a similar information processing system. We may borrow and reorganise information from other people. In fact, we are primed to do this and the process of reorganisation is partly responsible for our creativity, just as it is in evolution.

In the widest sense, all human experience can be thought of as problem-solving, from cooking a steak to making a new friend to creating a work or art. When we are faced with a new problem to solve for which we possess no relevant knowledge, we are faced with generating random solution steps and then testing them to see if they move us closer to a solution. Most steps do not move us closer and this makes the process slow. However, the solution steps we generate that really are helpful represent new information and this is the other component of creativity.

As Sir Ken Robinson suggests, creativity is, “…the process of having original ideas that have value.”

Knowledge is critical to this process. Firstly, it transports you to the edge of what is already known and, secondly, it enables you to recognise the value of the new information. If you are inexpert, you are likely to use guesswork to generate solutions to problems that have already been solved. Which is pointless. If you are inexpert and you do manage to come up with something truly unique and valuable, you will have nothing to measure it against to confirm that this is the case.

I have struggled with the idea of randomness as genesis. Surely, when faced with a novel problem, we can do better than generate random solution steps? However, I cannot think of a way of doing this which does not rely on having relevant knowledge to enable us to narrow down the number of possible moves. Even heuristics like, ‘look for the simplest solution,’ break down because you cannot know how simple or complicated a solution is when you are still at the stage of generating steps in that solution. Once you reach the limit of your knowledge, you really do have to just guess-and-check. Perhaps this seems counter-intuitive because we are not conscious of when we are using our knowledge and when we are guessing. Perhaps we all have an inner Trump.

Sweller, Kalyuga and Ayres address the idea of reasoning by analogy (which is, of course, exactly what they are doing). Is this not a way of looking for solutions without generating random steps? No. “When we try to solve the target problem by analogy to a source problem, there is an inevitable random generate and test aspect. The analogy may be perfect but it also may be totally useless – a dead end.”

In the model proposed by cognitive load theory, the model that Sweller, Kalyuga and Ayres are writing about, it is knowledge held in long-term memory that is acting to direct and select solutions. There is no need for a separate central executive. In fact, such an executive is worse than redundant. As Sweller, Kalyuga and Ayres point out, “An independent central executive dissociated from knowledge held in long-term memory results in an infinite regress of central executives.” How does the central executive know what to do? Oh, there must be another central executive telling it what to do… It is similar to imagining a little person in your head, sat behind a dashboard and controlling your movements: Who or what is controlling the little person?

If evolution has killed God then has cognitive load theory managed to kill our souls? Maybe. Then again, these are just useful models. I have written before about God’s helicopter and the idea that, if you believe in God, then evolution may just be the way that God acts. Maybe this is also true of our minds.

But it is interesting.

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8 thoughts on “God is dead and you have no soul

  1. Hi Greg CLT versus the soul seems an odd conclusion. Don’t most people think of the soul as something that persists beyond their body. Evidence against that comes from cases of brain injury The consequences of information theory apply whether a memory or information processing function is biological or something else.

    I thought it amusing that some dismiss CLT because the brain is not a computer (you mentioned this recently). It seems it would be very hard to define learning without information theory and information theory was born out of a need to handle communication between people not computers.

    1. You would have to mean something other than the usual definition of soul as something that allows some form of our self to outlive our brain. Brain injury cases suggest the self doesn’t do well when the brain stops or is damaged. Memory, personality, moral behaviour all can be changed by physical damage to the brain. That doesn’t leave much for a soul that is something other than the workings of the stuff inside your head.

      1. I guess I defer to your superior expertise on all things where there is no evidence to prove or disprove their existence. By definition for any of these things it does not matter if they exist or not – if it did matter we would have some way to decide if they exist.

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