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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Glands and Computers

Curiously enough, it seems that Giulio Prisco really objects to my claim that “the brain is more gland than computer.”
Now Dale, I don’t know on which New Age book you found this apparently profound statement, but it is just nonsense because:

A gland is a computer

A gland is a computer because it:
a) Is a physical object that obeys the laws of physics;
b) Reacts to inputs generated from its environment and produces a corresponding output;
c) Stores and executes electro-chemically coded programs that determine its dynamical responses to its inputs;
d) Its behavior can be fully understood in terms of physical laws;
e) Once its behavior is fully understood, it is possible to design another mechanical device to reproduce the same behavior, or a different behavior considered “better” according to appropriate criteria.

Note that it is "e)" that bears all the weight of superlative hope and conviction in this formulation, and that all the rest are just initial throat clearing gestures in a more or less conventional materialist mode, although, granted, skewed in a rather "cybernetic totalist" way.

Presumably, once something is "fully understood" (notice that "fully"), then it is "possible" (remember, as always, the difference that makes a difference betweem "possible" and "likely") to design "another mechanical device" (somehow once a thing is "understood" it becomes through that understanding a devised thing, perhaps Prisco is a closeted advocate of "Intelligent Design" or something since he keeps flogging this point so interminably -- and, yes, I'm joking), and once one can replace an understood thing one is also assured that it can be replaced with a better thing (no reason why is offered), although "better" is thankfully qualified at least with "according to appropriate criteria" (who specifies and polices these criteria is left as an exercise for the reader).

Hey, far be it from me to deny that when scientists understand stuff they enable greater powers of prediction and control, (some of) which palpably improve our capacities and enrich (some of) our lives.

But I still don't see how any of this justifies going off on a Robot Cultist tear handwaving about imminent superintelligent post-biological Robot Gods ending human history, imminent precisely-controlled self-replicating nanoscale robots delivering superabundance and ending human stakeholder politics, or imminent genetic and prosthetic medical techniques or brain-scanning techniques delivering superlongevity and ending human mortality.

Let's keep our eyes on the ball here. One can easily admit the world is susceptible of scientific analysis, and admit that warranted scientific belief delivers powers of prediction and control, and admit that fantastic capacities are at any rate compatible with logic whatever their remoteness from practical realization all without ever once feeling the slightest transcendental temptation to embrace Singularitarian, Nanosantalogical, or Technological Immortalist nonsense.

Be that as it may, Prisco continues:
Apparently profound but actually nonsensical statements like “the brain is more gland than computer” are frequently used by religious fundamentalists in support of their delusional belief that living organisms are characterized by some nebulous, ineffable “vital spirit” forever beyond the domain of science.

Quite apart from my utter bewilderment at Prisco's apparent perception that saying something as simple and obvious as "the brain is more gland than computer" is some kind of effort at woo-woo mystical pseudo-profundity (I would class it with statements like "dirt is more brown than purple," frankly), I can't for the life of me understand why this observation launches him into a diatribe about "vital spirits" and so on. What's so mystical about a gland? It seems to me that glands are perfectly concrete, technoscientifically intelligible sorts of things. So, I really am curious about Prisco's attribution of this kind of statement to religious fundamentalists.

My challenge? Name one. Name one single religious fundamentalist who has said “the brain is more gland than computer” to make some kind of anti-science point. Name just one, how hard can that be, since you claim it is so frequent?

As for Prisco insisting that glands are computers, that everything caught up in intelligible causality is a computer… I can follow this move easily enough, as it happens. Prisco wants to describe as a “computer” any complex system susceptible of scientific analysis. OK. I think it probably is more useful to distinguish computers from non-computers, inasmuch as it seems to me in common parlance there are plenty of intelligible non-computers in the world, but, hey, I get functionalism, I’m down with it.

I don’t honestly think that's what Prisco is really up to here, though. I think he's just uncritically flinging fetishized terms around and not getting my critique particularly. For Plato the mind was a mirror, for Nietzsche it was a stylus inscribing a surface, for Freud it was a steamworks, now people fetishize the computer as our quintessential tech and now inevitably enough the mind is computer, or more of a neurocomputational network as the popular focus nudges that way.

But all that, I suppose, is neither here nor there.

Am I the only one for whom this latest exchange really seems weird?

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Behold, the titanic clash of the
World Hypotheses
! Whose Root Metaphor will prevail this week... or this century? Next: Heidegger rises from the Black Forest and casts the magic of Sein-zum-Tode on a gang of technophiliacs who reduce the glands to mere industrial technology. Can technoethical pluralism save the day?

Dale Carrico said...

I think the table would assign me to its contextualist quadrant.

Anonymous said...

You really prefer Jamesian pragmatism over Platonic, Lockean, and Hegelian metaphysics? What a pity.

Dale Carrico said...

A pity? What a very odd thing to say! There are things to like in all of them (I forgive even Plato's Republic in light of his Symposium), but James gets the kiss.

jfehlinger said...

Dale wrote:

> For Plato the mind was a mirror, for Nietzsche it was a
> stylus inscribing a surface, for Freud it was a steamworks,
> now people fetishize the computer as our quintessential tech
> and now inevitably enough the mind is computer, or more
> of a neurocomputational network as the popular focus nudges
> that way.

From my archive:

We do get attached to our toys. . .

"Shiny toys--right on time
Shiny toys--right on time
Shiny toys. . .

Shiny toys, when it's over
Don't you hate to have to put your toys away? ..."

-- Joni Mitchell, "Shiny Toys", in _Dog Eat Dog_

In the SF novel _The Multiplex Man_ by James P. Hogan (1992)
a character makes the following speech on p. 174:

"It's funny how people are always finding that the mind
works like their latest technology. It never does, of
course, but it shows how they always think that the
latest technology must be the ultimate. At one time the
brain was an elaborate telephone exchange of nerves going
in and out. Then, after servomechanisms were developed,
it worked by feedback loops and error signals. And then
after that, naturally, it had to be a computer."
-----------------------

I've since encountered essentially the same observation
in two other places. First, in the article
"Ethics of Human Speciation: Sapience, Intolerance and Volitional Freedom",
by Reilly Jones ( http://home.comcast.net/~reillyjones/speciation.html ):

"Humans-as-Computer Metaphor is Appearance not Reality

The idea that we are hepped-up computers is strictly fashion.
The scientific community has a long and somewhat vain history of
picking whatever technological marvels are current to be the model
of human consciousness; from clocks to heat engines to cybernetic
feedback loops to powerful CPUs. The more historical overview you
can achieve of the Western scientific enterprise, the more silly
this tendency looks."
-----------------------

And finally, in a post by Usenet curmudgeon Mikhail Zeleny,
replying to Fiona Oceanstar, in
http://groups.google.com/groups?selm=1991Nov15.160741.5495%40husc3.harvard.edu

From: Mikhail Zeleny (zeleny@walsh.harvard.edu)
Subject: Re: Daniel Dennett (was Re: Commenting on the posting
Newsgroups: rec.arts.books, sci.philosophy.tech, comp.ai.philosophy
Date: 1991-11-15 14:16:41 PST

> I read enough mind-brain books, that I'd like to
> hear other people's guidelines for telling the wheat
> from the chaff.

My guideline is very simple: if you see someone offer a reductive argument
purporting to explain the properties of mind, such as consciousness,
cognition, and intentionality, in terms of the alleged computational
properties of the brain, you may conclude that he is a charlatan or an
ignoramus. This conclusion might be justified historically, by observing
the earlier attempts to explain the functioning of human mind by reference
to the capabilities of the dominant contemporary technology (e.g. clockwork
mechanisms, chemistry, steam engines, etc.). . .
-----------------------

I wonder if there's a single (famous) source for
this observation.

Found another one:

"> But computers are not just another technology; they are a new paradigm, a new
> way about thinking about the relationship between humans and nature.

No, actually, they're just another technology.

Comparing minds to computers is a metaphor. In the 18th century, they used to
compare human beings to clockwork. That was a metaphor, too.

SF often 'literalizes metaphors'; however, one should avoid doing this in real
life as it leads to misunderstanding."

-- S. M. Stirling, on Usenet
http://www.google.com/groups?selm=20000330040451.03525.00005408%40ng-cm1.aol.com
-----------------------

Maybe Norbert Wiener is the original source of the observation:

"At every stage of technique since Daedalus or
Hero of Alexandria, the ability of the artificer
to produce a working simulacrum of a living
organism has always intrigued people. This desire
to produce and to study automata has always been
expressed in terms of the living technique of
the age. In the days of magic, we have the bizarre
and sinister concept of the Golem, that figure of
clay into which the Rabbi of Prague breathed in
life with the blasphemy of the Ineffable Name of
God. In the time of Newton, the automaton becomes
the clockwork music box, with the little effigies
pirouetting stiffly on top. In the nineteenth
century, the automaton is a glorified heat engine,
burning some combustible fuel instead of the glycogen
of the human muscles. Finally, the present automaton
opens doors by means of photocells, or points guns
to the place at which a radar beam picks up an
airplane, or computes the solution of a differential
equation.

Neither the Greek nor the magical automaton lies
along the main lines of...development of the modern machine,
nor do they seem to have had much of an influence on
serious philosophic thought. It is far different
with the clockwork automaton...."

-- Norbert Wiener, _Cybernetics_ (1948)

jfehlinger said...

(via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Brain ):

http://sc07.supercomp.org/schedule/pdf/pap402.pdf
----------------------------------------------------------------
Anatomy of a Cortical Simulator
Rajagopal Ananthanarayanan, Dharmendra S. Modha
IBM Almaden Research Center
650 Harry Road
San Jose, CA

(paper given at SC07 November 10-16, 2007, Reno, Nevada, USA )

. . .

We have built a cortical simulator, C2, incorporating several
algorithmic enhancements to optimize the simulation scale
and time. . .

The cortex is an analog, asynchronous,
parallel, biophysical, fault-tolerant, and distributed
memory machine. C2 represents one logical abstraction of
the cortex that is suitable for simulation on modern distributed
memory multiprocessors. Computation and memory
are fully distributed in the cortex, whereas in C2 each
processor houses and processes several neurons and synapses.
Communication is implemented in the cortex via targeted
physical wiring, whereas in C2 it is implemented in software
by message passing on top of an underlying general-purpose
communication infrastructure. Unlike the cortex, C2 uses
discrete simulation time steps and synchronizes all processors
at every step. In light of these observations, the search
for new types of (perhaps non-von Neumann) computer architecture
to truly mimic the brain remains an open question
[29]. . .

[29] J. von Neumann. _The Computer and The Brain_. Yale
University Press, 1958.
----------------------------------------------------------------

jfehlinger said...

Dale wrote:

> As for Prisco insisting that glands are computers, that everything
> caught up in intelligible causality is a computer… I can follow
> this move easily enough, as it happens. Prisco wants to describe
> as a “computer” any complex system susceptible of scientific analysis.
> OK. I think it probably is more useful to distinguish computers from
> non-computers, inasmuch as it seems to me in common parlance there are
> plenty of intelligible non-computers in the world, but, hey, I get
> functionalism, I’m down with it.

Yes, there are a number of unexplicit assumptions about the nature of reality
bound up in Prisco's reaction, which >Hists are by-and-large too
ignorant, or too arrogant, or too defensive, to sit still long
enough to analyze in detail.

1. The notion that the "real world" is fully, or fully for a given
purpose, reducible to mathematical models and/or mathematical
formalisms.

Only a fool would deny the uncanny, and uncannily fruitful, "fit" so
far between mathematics and science, but it is nevertheless no more
than a heuristic, or a rule of thumb, or (to satisfy more urgent
metaphysical needs) an act of faith to assume that this correspondence
holds arbitrarily broadly and deeply.

2. The notion that even given (1), the mathematics can be fully,
or fully for a given purpose, "computed" by a digital computer,
a la David Deutch's _The Fabric of Reality_.

3. The notion that even given (2), the computations can ever be
fully, or fully for a given purpose, be instantiated on any
physically realizable machine.

I'm all for the Blue Brain project ( http://bluebrain.epfl.ch/ ),
but there's still a huge gap between the real science going on
there and the (however entertaining) SFnal shenanigans going
on in a Greg Egan "polis". Cheerleading on a blog isn't going
to bridge that gap.

jfehlinger said...

It's interesting to see and hear these people in the flesh:

Online videos of philosophical lectures
http://broodsphilosophy.wordpress.com/2006/06/15/online-videos-of-philosophical-lectures/

The videos from IBM Research’s Almaden Institute Conference on Cognitive Computing
look especially interesting. I've never see a video of Gerald Edelman before.