Thursday, 27 July 2017

Is Brain a Digital Computer?

John R. Searle, an effective critic of the materialist and dualist theories of the mind, conclusively refutes the idea of brain being a digital computer with his famous “Chinese Room” argument. But I think he offers stronger arguments on this subject in his paper, “Is the Brain a Digital Computer?”

According to the computer model of the mind, the mind is to the brain what a program is to hardware. This model argues that the human beings have a computational system in which the mind is the program and the brain is the hardware.

Here’s the logical structure of the argument that Searle uses (in his paper, “Is the Brain a Digital Computer?”) to refute the computer model of the mind:

1. On the standard textbook definition, computation is defined syntactically in terms of symbol manipulation. 


2. But syntax and symbols are not defined in terms of physics. Though symbol tokens are always physical tokens, "symbol" and "same symbol" are not defined in terms of physical features. Syntax, in short, is not intrinsic to physics. 


3. This has the consequence that computation is not discovered in the physics, it is assigned to it. Certain physical phenomena are assigned or used or programmed or interpreted syntactically. Syntax and symbols are observer relative. 


4. It follows that you could not discover that the brain or anything else was intrinsically a digital computer, although you could assign a computational interpretation to it as you could to anything else. The point is not that the claim "The brain is a digital computer" is false. Rather it does not get up to the level of falsehood. It does not have a clear sense. You will have misunderstood my account if you think that I am arguing that it is simply false that the brain is a digital computer. The question "Is the brain a digital computer?" is as ill defined as the questions "Is it an abacus?", "Is it a book?", or "Is it a set of symbols?", "Is it a set of mathematical formulae?"

5. Some physical systems facilitate the computational use much better than others. That is why we build, program, and use them. In such cases we are the homunculus in the system interpreting the physics in both syntactical and semantic terms. 


6. But the causal explanations we then give do not cite causal properties different from the physics of the implementation and the intentionality of the homunculus. 


7. The standard, though tacit, way out of this is to commit the homunculus fallacy. The humunculus fallacy is endemic to computational models of cognition and cannot be removed by the standard recursive decomposition arguments. They are addressed to a different question. 


8. We cannot avoid the foregoing results by supposing that the brain is doing "information processing". The brain, as far as its intrinsic operations are concerned, does no information processing. It is a specific biological organ and its specific neurobiological processes cause specific forms of intentionality. In the brain, intrinsically, there are neurobiological processes and sometimes they cause consciousness. But that is the end of the story.

Searle has also argued against the mind being a digital computer in the Chapter 9 of his famous book, The Rediscovery of the Mind

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