The Brain is Like a Computer.
“Eventually, I believe, current attempts to understand the mind by analogy with man-made computers that can perform superbly some of the same external tasks as conscious beings will be recognized as a gigantic waste of time.” – Thomas Nagel
What is at the heart of Nagel’s dislike? Is it that you cannot be benefited by a comparison that is intrinsic to the way something is made? A computer was intentionally made to work in the same way the brain does. If we say that a brain works like a computer, maybe we are not helping ourselves because we are stating the obvious.
If this is Nagel’s hang-up—and if this is why he thinks it is an unfruitful comparison—then why was a similar comparison made earlier in the history of science so fruitful? I am referring to the movement in the Scientific Revolution from conceptualizing the universe as an organism in favor of a machine metaphor. Man-made machines. I don’t know if Nagel will see, like me, how obvious this broad cultural turn was in the minds of those doing science. We might even disagree if it was a fruitful turn. But, wouldn’t we both agree that the universe does work like a machine?
But, isn’t this comparison between the universe and a machine a similarly strange reverse-engineered comparison? Machine is quite a broad species of objects, but we could potentially define it (if you’ll allow me) as: those inventions of man designed to replicate willful actions of natural organisms found in creation. For example, we all know that an airplane was in fact inspired by the bird. Or, in a different way, we know that a waterwheel only works because the same rules of how to move liquid apply to any process of moving liquid, whether it be in nature or made by man. Both what man makes and what is found in creation are governed by the same set of rules, laws. And what man makes is always inspired by what is found in creation and there is nothing made by man that does not find its root in something found in nature.
And the fact of the matter is that imagining the universe as a machine implies that there is someone who crafted the machine to work as it does.
The point I want to make is that I think Thomas Nagel is wrong about the fruitlessness of comparisons between computers and brains. I think it could be a very helpful comparison, because in times past it has always been helpful to imagine different facets of creation as if they were made by man (or some other rational creature). Speaking broadly, when scientists in the Scientific Revolution imagined the universe as a machine, one of the assumptions that came with it was that the universe works according to a set of understandable rules. Those rules can be discovered, if you analytically break down the processes you see. By imagining the universe as a mechanical machine, scientists could look favorably upon experimenting and breaking down creation. And conceptualizing the universe as a machine has aided in bringing the physical sciences to where they are today. Anyone who sees where they are now would be hard-pressed to say, “Yeah, that is just totally an unfruitful way to think about the universe.” They wouldn’t say that even if we disagreed that the logical implication of a crafted universe (which heretofore (a useful word) has worked splendidly for us) is a crafter.
I don’t know where the conceptualization of brains as computers could take us, but I think we should for the time being embrace this conceptualization (sorry for nominalizing). The danger of mechanizing the brain is not intrinsic. Yet, if it is paired with an atheism that denies the existence of the soul we could be led down some very dark paths. And the denial of the existence of the soul might seem like a strange thing to choose here. For, wouldn’t the danger of atheism in the study of the brain be the denial of a crafter? I would say, “Yes, of course.” It is dangerous to deny that there is no inventor of the machine for epistemological inconsistencies. But, the assumption of an inventor of the machine is not a faceless, black-box foundation for trust. If we are to assume an inventor of the machine, we must assume that this inventor comes with his set of preferences and rules he plays by. And when most people believe in an inventor of the human machine, they believe there is a function of that machine distinct from the brain. That is the soul.
I won’t go into why it is reasonable to think there is a soul, assuming an inventor. I will say that if you assume an inventor, you are inclined to believe in a soul—and are further inclined to think that the work of the soul is not found exclusively in the brain. Someone that denies an inventor places all the function of the soul in the brain. And the danger is that if there is in fact a soul, those studying the brain atheistically will mistreat the souls of man. When they study the brain as if it was a machine, they will come across those functions of the soul that work in concert with the brain, but will nevertheless fail to distinguish them. And instead of imagining the soul mechanistically according to the rules appropriate to it as a crafted part of the human being, atheistic scientists will inappropriately treat the soul. And for someone who believes in the soul of man, that is a frightening prospect.
Even though I believe the brain might very well work quite like a computer, I do not believe that anyone can use this conceptualization fruitfully. It is only the person that believes in the existence of the soul who can rightly study the brain as an amazing craft. Anyone else would doom the dynamic functions of the human will to minimalist rules.
I believe in the value of human invention as a gift and a gift so naturally desired that it lies in secret for those with eyes to see the revelation of God himself. He is in our inventions as much as he is in nature; he is in what we make because he is in us. And the way we make is God’s gift for helping us to understand how he make and why we are here. I affirm this is not a reverse-engineering, for he made us to look back at him and for him to see himself in us.
God intended for us to compare our efforts to his. That is the one true glory of the accomplishments for man: we reach to be like gods and we do not attain. We do not attain and we marvel at God himself and we marvel at God and we become like him, for he marvels at us and says to us, “These are my beloved sons in whom I am well-pleased.” It is when we reach not to be like gods, but for our limits, that we feel not where we are in prison, but where we are designed to be. And we ought not to try to go to those places where we are not designed to go, since we cannot get outside ourselves. The space outside ourselves is not for us and this should lead us into the joy of trusting the God outside us. We are designed to be inside ourselves and for God to enter into us and for the eternal word to tabernacle within our bodies, so that God himself can sustain us within our natural boundaries. We reason, we make, we labor to discover these creaturely boundaries and we discover these creaturely boundaries, so that we can marvel at God as the creatures we are: we are worshipful creatures and worship by creating like him.
Caleb Joseph Warner