Is the “brain as computer” metaphor dying?
Yesterday, Edge.org published a long and depth-filled conversation with Daniel C. Dennett — he of Consciousness Explained and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea fame — and it shows the renowned philosopher of mind and consciousness saying some things about the now-ubiquitous model and metaphor of the brain as a kind of computing machine that casts a whole new and, as it so happens, doubtful light on the matter:
The vision of the brain as a computer, which I still champion, is changing so fast. The brain’s a computer, but it’s so different from any computer that you’re used to. It’s not like your desktop or your laptop at all, and it’s not like your iPhone except in some ways. It’s a much more interesting phenomenon … We’re getting away from the rigidity of that model, which was worth trying for all it was worth. You go for the low-hanging fruit first. First, you try to make minds as simple as possible. You make them as much like digital computers, as much like von Neumann machines, as possible. It doesn’t work.
– “The Normal Well-Tempered Mind: A Conversation with Daniel C. Dennett,” Edge, January 8, 2013
This is embedded in a much longer series of reflections and analyses on the current state of research into mind, brain, and consciousness, but Nicholas Carr — he of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains fame — culls out the above-quoted portions and holds them up for closer inspection at his blog, and what he finds is that the unspoken subtext shows the entire edifice of the brain-as-computer metaphor crumbling (or, as he puts it, melting):
As someone who has a deep distrust of the popular metaphor that portrays the brain as a computer, I was struck by [Dennett’s words] … Normally, the explanatory power of a metaphor comes from describing a thing we don’t understand in terms of a thing we do understand. But this brain-as-computer metaphor now seems to be diverging from that model. The computer in the metaphor seems to be something very different from what we mean when we talk about a “computer.” The part of the metaphor that is supposed to be concrete has turned into a mystery fluid.
— Nicholas Carr, “Do I smell a metaphor melting?” Rough Type, January 8, 2013
Carr envisions a brief and semi-satirical dialogue that brings out the point:
The brain is like a computer!
Cool. What kind of computer is the brain like?
It’s not actually like any computer that’s ever been invented.
So what kind of computer is it like?
It’s like the unique form of a computer that we call a brain.
So the brain is like a brain?
It sounds like it’s time for a new metaphor.
He closes by point out, evocatively, that “Our understanding of complex, mysterious things always proceeds from metaphor to metaphor. The moment a metaphor changes is an exciting moment because it opens new perspectives that the old metaphor foreclosed” (emphasis added).
The takeaway would seem to be a combined message of “stay tuned” and “brace yourself,” since the death or substantial mutation or revision of the metaphor in question would constitute an epochal shift in the way we’ve all been conditioned to think about our minds and selves on a very deep, very unconscious, very reflexive level for a couple of generations. And if a culture-wide opening of those “new perspectives that the old metaphor foreclosed” should happen to link up with the resurgent consciousness revolution currently taking place in the realms of religion, spirituality, parapsychology, art, music, literature, and psychedelics research, then watch out.