The Brain Is NOT Like a Computer…duh


“Problems with theories that equate consciousness with information or information processing
Susan Pockett*

Attempts to augment the function of the human brain inevitably involve in some way what Block (1995) calls phenomenal consciousness—bodily sensations and perceptual experiences—the redness of a strawberry, the smell of newly-baked bread.  At present there is no consensus among scientists about what such sensory experiences are.  This Opinion piece points out some problems with one of the major theatrical viewpoints on that question…

What’s The Problem?

There are several problems with all of this.

  • First, since information is explicitly defined by everyone except process theorists as an objective entity, it is not clear how process theorists can reasonably claim either that information in general, or that any subset or variety of information in particular, is subjective.

    No entity can logically be both mind-independent and the very essence of mind.  Therefore, when process theorists use the word “information” they must be talking about something quite different from what everyone else means by that word.  Exactly what they are talking about needs clarification.

  • Second, since information is specifically defined by everybody as an abstract entity, any particular physical realization of information does not count as information at all.  A “physical realization of an information space” like James Joyce’s copy of Dante’s Inferno may carry information, but it is not itself information—it’s just an arrangement of paper and ink.  A “physical realization of an information space” like Joe Bloggs’ brain when he looks at an octopus may encode information, but it is not itself information—it’s just an arrangement of neurons, glia and ions.

    Of course, it is certainly possible to claim that particular arrangements of neurons, glia and ions are conscious—indeed some remarkably eminent people have done so.  But that claim no longer represents a dualist/process theory.  It now represents a physicalist/vehicle theory. Since at least Chalmers specifically identifies his theory as dualist, it is far from clear how he (or others) can claim even information status, never mind consciousness, for any particular kind of “physically realized information space.”

  • Third, it is a problem at least for scientists that process theories are untestable. The hypothesis that a particular brain process correlates with consciousness can certainly be tested empirically.  But the only potentially testable prediction of theories that claim identity between consciousness and a particular kind of information or information processing is that this kind of information or information processing will be conscious no matter how it is physically instantiated.

    This is a feature of process theories that makes them very attractive to those who would like to build a conscious artifact out of hardware….The unspoken prediction is that all one has to do to create artificial consciousness is emulate the computations done by the brain in some manner—any physical instantiation will do.  But suppose it were possible to build a piece of hardware that adequately reproduced the brain computations underlying a particular sensory experience.  How could we know whether the result was conscious?

    Consciousness is such a private phenomenon that nobody can be 100% sure even that their human neighbors are conscious at any given moment.  We know we are conscious.  Other humans look and act more or less like us, so when they tell us they have a particular conscious experience, we give them the benefit of the doubt.  But what about a bit of hardware?  Even a novice software writer could produce a piece of code that typed “I feel hot” whenever a thermostat registered a high temperature, but not many people would believe the appearance of this message meant the thermostat was experiencing hotness.  Hence, neither the idea that information or information processing is conscious, nor its logical extension panpsychism (the idea that everything is conscious), is in any obvious way testable.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean these ideas are untrue. It just means they are unscientific. It may be fine for philosophers to play with the idea that thermostats and computer networks are conscious, but scientists are usually constrained to dealing in testable hypotheses.”


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