Is the Brain Just a ‘Wet Computer’? – Part two

Edi Bilimoria – UK

The Master Analogy: Its Fatal Flaws

Medley Brain 2 Just a Wet Computer
The author, an excellent pianist, playing the grand-piano

Let us first cite an actual example before moving on to consider medical and philosophical issues and finally a summary of the main arguments that entirely repudiate the master analogy.


Hearing and Seeing Without Ears and Eyes

Helen Keller, the great American author, political activist, and lecturer was rendered blind and deaf from the age of nineteen months through contracting scarlet fever or meningitis. According to the theories of functionalism and brain states as stated above, she could not possibly experience any emotion associated with a complete lack of eyesight and hearing. However in 1932 she wrote an evocative letter describing the view from the top of the Empire State Building seeing ‘New York spread out like a marvellous tapestry beneath us. There was the Hudson – more like the flash of a sword-blade than a noble river. The little island of Manhattan, set like a jewel in its nest of rainbow waters, stared up into my face, and the solar system circled about my head!’i Note her depiction of colour, shapes and forms.

Even more moving than this was her letter eight years previously to the New York Symphony Orchestra after ‘hearing’ the radio broadcast of their performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall in New York, conducted by Walter Damrosch on 1st February, 1924.ii Here she described ‘the joy of being able to tell you that, though deaf and blind, I spent a glorious hour last night listening over the radio to Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony." I put my hand on the receiver [to] see if I could get any of the vibrations. What was my amazement to discover that I could feel, not only the vibrations, but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music! The intertwined and intermingling vibrations from different instruments enchanted me. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roll of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. When the human voice leaped up trilling from the surge of harmony, I recognized them instantly as voices. I felt the chorus grow more exultant, more ecstatic, upcurving swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still. As I listened, with darkness and melody, shadow and sound filling all the room, I could not help remembering that the great composer who poured forth such a flood of sweetness into the world was deaf like myself. I marvelled at the power of his quenchless spirit by which out of his pain he wrought such joy for others’.iii Notice in this instance how she is able to discern pitch, different instruments, the human voice, melody and rhythm.

And talking of the great Beethoven, his legendary stone deafness is well known, but how many people bother to enquire as to how this can be, or whether there is a subtle sense corresponding to a subtle body that makes inner hearing possible?

Medley Brain 3 Just a Wet Computer
Hellen Keller

Helen Keller was able, apparently, to ‘hear’ by touch. The photograph shows her left hand touching the loudspeaker of the radio. Human beings have a subtle non-physical counterpart to their senses: for hearing it is known in popular terms as listening with the inner ear. But robot-man is not allowed subtle bodies or senses as he is supposed to be just physical, so presumably he could not compose when deafened – assuming that he could compose anything at all beforehand – mindless electronic muzak, otherwise known as aural pornography not counting as music. Would a robot be moved to his physical tears by such cacophony – perhaps he would if he were programmed to do so. Programmed to do so? Enter the human programmer!

At this juncture one is entitled to ask two deeper question. Human beings vary enormously in the subtlety of their emotional responses and in their capacity for such response. Some people may be disaffected by music, but are drawn to tears by great poetry, others by lofty literature, or by witnessing acts of great compassion, or as in the case of Helen Keller, by great music. Even within a particular art form emotional responses vary widely; for example, some musicians are highly affected by Bach, but less so by Chopin; with others it is very much the converse. So how would the tear-and emotion-producing software in robot-man man be programmed so as to cater for the infinite variety of robotic-responses to various art forms; furthermore to the equally infinite shades of response within a single art form itself as in the human examples just cited? In other words, how would the software decide, for a particular robot-man amongst millions of other robot-men, whether to produce tears upon hearing say, Schubert’s music, but not William Blake’s poetry for this specific robot-man in question; and even for for this particular robot-man, whether Schubert’s songs would be more moving than say, his Death and Maiden String Quartet?

Secondly, one presumes that the ‘hearing’ of robot-man is produced by the appropriate acoustic software linked to his robot-brain. If this specific piece of software were removed, would our robot-man – now rendered completely ‘deaf’ – be able to compose music like the great Beethoven who composed the titanic Hammerklavier Sonata and the Choral Symphony when absolutely stone dead?

The Divided Brain

Iain McGilchrist rose to prominence after the publication of his seminal book The Master and His Emissary, subtitled The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Thrice elected a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, McGilchrist is a literary scholar and taught English literature whilst pursuing interests in philosophy and psychology. He then trained in medicine becoming a Consultant Psychiatrist of the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley Hospital in London, where he was Clinical Director of their southern sector Acute Mental Health Services. He is a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and is specially approved by the Secretary of State under Section 12(2) of the Mental Health Act, 1983. He also worked as a Research Fellow in neuroimaging at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, USA. His wide ranging clinical experience includes epilepsy, eating disorders, depression, psychosis, personality disorders (especially borderline cases), anxiety disorders, chronic low self-esteem, phobias, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as neuropsychiatry.

With his eminent qualifications in the literary, philosophical, medical and psychiatric fields, he is uniquely qualified to inform about the wider, global and cultural issues about mind and brain as well as giving detailed information about mental functions and brain processes. His work has attracted international acclaim (often in hyperboles) and a list over seventy five tributes to his work is given in come from world authorities in clinical psychology, brain and cognition, medicine, psychiatry, cognitive science, neurology, neuroscience, neuropsychiatry, sociology and philosophy. They include professors at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and California universities a Fellow of the Royal Society and editors of leading newspapers and academic journals. Why such world-wide acclaim?

His book argues that the division of the brain into two hemispheres whilst being essential to human existence, gives possible incompatible versions of the world, with quite different priorities and values. There are significant differences between the structure and function of the two hemispheres. However to apportion specific brain functions exclusively to one or other hemisphere is an erroneous concept as we now know that every type of function – including reason, emotion, language and imagery – is sub served not by one hemisphere alone, but by both. In other words the brain acts as a whole and not in a compartmentalised fashion. Notwithstanding this, the differences in hemisphere function lie not, as has been supposed, in the ‘what’, but in the ‘how’, i.e. not which skills each hemisphere possesses, but the way in which each uses them, and to what end. The book examines the relation between the two brain hemispheres, not just in terms of neurology and structure, which has been already been done in several erudite medical books, but most importantly, in the light of the complexity of the connection between the two hemispheres leading to the divided nature of thought that has been a decisive factor in moulding our culture. McGilchrist shows that, the relationship between the hemispheres is not symmetrical. In simple terms, it is as if the left hemisphere, though unaware of its dependence, could be thought of as an ‘emissary’ of the right hemisphere, valuable for taking on a role that the right hemisphere – the ‘Master’ – cannot itself afford to undertake. However it turns out that the emissary has his own will, so to say, and secretly believes himself to be superior to his Master. And he has the means to betray him. What he does not realize is that in doing so he will also betray himself. Crucially important it shows the hemispheres as no mere machines with functions like computers, but underwriting whole, self-consistent, versions of the world. Through an examination of Western philosophy, art and literature, it reveals the uneasy relationship of the hemispheres being played out in the history of ideas, from ancient times until the present.

McGilchrist's suggestion is that the encouragement of precise, categorical thinking at the expense of background vision and experience – an encouragement which, from Plato's time on, has flourished to such impressive effect in European thought – has now reached a point where it is seriously distorting both our lives and our thoughts. As underscored by Professor Mary Midgley in her excellent reviewiv, the drive towards precision (and we may add that precision is often confused with or taken to mean rigour) encourages an ever narrowing of perspective towards the microcosm of details at the expense of looking outwards to appreciate the wider picture, the macrocosm, or not even to bother about its presence or relevance. So a weakness of specialization is not knowing when to consult the generalist possessing a higher viewpoint. However we do have some control over this shift between detailed and general thinking, a tendency that can be helped or hindered by the ethic that prevails in the culture around it.

Our whole idea of what counts as scientific or professional has shifted towards literal precision – towards elevating quantity over quality, theory over experience, accuracy over truth – in a way that would have astonished even the 17th-century founders of modern science, though they were already far advanced on that path. (So as Midgley recounts a shocked nurse lately told her that it is proposed that all nurses must have university degrees. Who, she asked, will actually do the nursing?) And the ideal of objectivity has developed in a way that would have surprised those sages still more.

Science in the main now values accuracy over truth, precision over meaning, quantity over quality, theory over experience, respectability over validity and evidence.

Aptly, and with unerring insight, McGilchrist’s conclusion is entitled ‘The Master Betrayed’. He suggests ‘that we may be about to witness the final triumph of the left hemisphere – at the expense of us all’. The current left-brain-driven frenzy to convince us that we, thinking-feeling human beings are just computing machines and nothing more (‘lumbering robots’, referring again to Richard Dawkins’s egregious epithet about humanity) is fitting proof of the author’s predictions. No surprise then as Mary Midgley points out, that some reviewers of this remarkable work see no more in it than just another glorification of feeling at the expense of thought. Such a work cannot be apprehended by a reviewer using just his left hemisphere! Unlike the computationalist who regard mind and brain in terms of just software and hardware, McGilchrist shows us that the mind and brain can be understood only by seeing them in the broadest possible context of our whole existence, and of the wider human culture in which they arise – the cyclical process of the culture which helps to mould, and in turn is moulded by, our minds and brains. Note carefully that the whole of our existence includes our spiritual and of course our physical existence, however the former cannot be explained away by reduction to a mere subset of the latter, even though the latter be subsumed in the former.

The Philosophical Background

The philosophical origin of this situation is the dualist notion of a complete separation between spirit and matter, or soul and body. It is a tragedy both for science and for humanity that the science of polymaths such as Leonardo da Vinci has not managed to influence the ideas of later generations of thinkers or to stem the tide of the mechanistic science that emerged some two hundred years later. For Leonardo, as with the great sages and philosophers of both east and west, nature was always vital and alive, so his science was a science of living forms.v Of course the mechanisms of nature could be scrutinised and studied empirically as he did in his drawings of the anatomy of the human body or the structure of the wings of birds, but he never reduced nature to just a mechanism or a machine. Do we understand flight by observing the living bird in flight, or by viewing its lifeless wings under a microscope? Both aspects are necessary for a complete understanding, the first to understand the living form, the second to study the mechanisms it uses. Capra shows that, besides inventing the empirical scientific method over a century before Galileo and Francis Bacon, Leonardo was what we would call nowadays a systemic thinker, believing that a true understanding of the world lay in perceiving the connections between phenomena and the larger patterns formed by those relationships. So in the tradition of the great sages he worked on the principle of the Hermetic philosophy, so whenever exploring the forms of nature in the macrocosm he looked for similar principles, patterns and processes in the human body – the microcosm. But then came the radically different mechanistic science of the followers of Descartes, Galileo and also Newton but see below. As a necessary diversion, we insist in saying ‘followers of’ because such great thinkers as Descartes and Galileo were absolutely right in pioneering the age the rationalism to counter the superstitions and dogmas subsisting in the name of religion (meaning the church, not true religion, of course) . But their followers have taken their ideas to fanatical extremes, formed their own cult of rationalism and arbitrarily excised the spiritual components, however imperfectly these may have expressed in their times. A case in point is Newton to whom the idea of the clockwork universe is attributed. But this just shows the crass ignorance and blind prejudice of those scientists and scholars who have chosen to ignore Newton’s colossal writings on alchemy and theology (far more than his works on mathematics and physics). With unmistakable clarity and force Newton proclaims that nature is a living being and his writings glow with a love and reverence for deity, nature and man considered as an organic unity. Newton’s is one of the finest translations of the Hermetic philosophy, where again, in the tradition of the sages and occultists, he saw the law of analogy operating on all planes of nature: that which operates in the microcosm is a reflection of a similar higher principle in the macrocosm.

Now reverting to Descartes, in his Passions of the Soul and The Description of the Human Body he suggested that the body works like a machine, that it has material properties. But the mind (or soul), on the other hand, was described as nonmaterial not following the (mechanical) laws of nature, which alludes to an occult truth. This idea of matter being dead or inertless and the body a machine has persisted even to this day, especially so given the ever increasing supremacy of science in the world of matter, whereas the spirit and soul aspects (which Descartes also considered at length) have been conveniently ignored or explained away in terms of matter. So the root cause of the current malaise in thinking epitomised by the computationalist cult is this notion, which now involves seeing everything natural as an object, inert, senseless and detached from us. Whereas quantum physics has repeatedly shown with such impressive theory backed by sophisticated experimental evidence about the interconnectedness of things in the world, the non-materiality of so-called physical matter and the role of consciousness in any consideration of quantum behaviour, yet the psyche of the vast majority of mainstream scientists, especially biologists, has not progressed from the outworn paradigm of the billiard ball notion of dead matter behaving mechanically, and therefore, life reduced to the mechanical laws of classical (meaning, pre-quantum) physics without any higher informing principle, by whatever name. Indeed it is the avowed aim of mainstream biology, especially molecular biology to reduce all things to physics and chemistry, meaning to explain everything and all life as the action and product of inertless matter in motion.

The magnificent discoveries of physics have not penetrated into the thinking and outlook of other than a handful of scientists. The machine paradigm still prevails amongst most of them.

Summary of the Flaws

In summary, here is a comprehensive but by no means exhaustive list of the fatal flaws in the master analogy: that brain and mind are analogous to (wet) computer and software:

  1. Minds cannot be totally erased as computers can.

  2. Minds cannot be made to operate precisely as we choose, as computers can.

  3. Minds are ordinarily impenetrable (but see below), but software is transparent in that the entire state of the program can be read at any time.

  4. Telepathy between minds (as between humans and animals) has been proven; computers cannot read each other’s software unless programmed to do so.

  5. Only one ‘program’ operates or can ever operate on any one human brain, whereas any number of different programs can be run on a computer at will.

  6. Mind cannot be transferred from one brain to another (even if brain transplants were ever feasible), whereas software programs can easily be transferred from one computer to another.

  7. Near death experiences have shown that consciousness seems to operate apart from the physical brain, and also when the brain is clinically declared to be ‘brain-dead’; a software program can never run with the accompanying computer hardware removed or totally inoperative.

  8. The latest developments in brain research involving stroke victims have shown what is known as brain plasticity in that the brain displays a holistic or plastic function, such that if one part of the brain is damaged, other parts of the brain take over the function of the damaged portion (this is in contrast to the previously held compartmentalised notion that specific portions of the brain perform specific tasks). If part of a computer is damaged, or the software corrupted, there is no way that other parts of the computer or software will automatically of its own accord compensate for the damaged or corrupted portions.

  9. Human minds want to know all about such things as consciousness and when such minds are those of computationalists, seem frantic to try and convince the world that humans are merely computers; however real computers are never concerned about knowing about themselves or convincing other computers about what they are.

  10. The human brain has evolved intrinsically over aeons caused by both the stimulus from the external environment and the innate propensities of the organism (nature and nurture); computers only evolve, or develop extrinsically, as a result of human intervention.

  11. The human brain grows in size and capacity over a lifetime. Computers do not grow automatically of themselves unless another component is added to it.

  12. The human mind matures and increases in power and capacity over a lifetime. Software does not improve itself without human programmer intervention.

  13. The common term ‘body language’ indicates that both brain and body are intimately involved in expressing our state of mind and inner, subjective feelings and experience. Mind is embodied by both brain and body, not just brain.

  14. Computers are in essence data processing machines transferring one batch of data into another (see Part I). That data becomes information when something meaningful is ascribed to it by a human. But the mind is neither a data processor nor an information processor. States of mind or feelings are states of being, not information – for example, there is no data or informational content in feeling delighted. The whole subjective realm of experience, feelings and consciousness is incompatible with the ideology that we are just machines. Experience is a state of being, not of doing, such as information processing.

One asks then: given the world we live in, would computers – unless human-programmed to do so – inform their robotic bodies to fight over territory and slaughter one another (whatever slaughter may mean to a computer-informed robot)? It is no good arguing that in point of fact robots regularly kill humans; for example in Japan which has the highest proportion of robots used in industry for repetitive tasks, assembly line robots are known to turn on their human operators. But that is solely because of malfunctioning of the software, sensing mechanisms or hardware that was human designed and installed in them, or error on the part of the human

What then, does death mean to a computer? Obviously a loss of power to its components or the natural degrading and ultimate failure of the latter over time as indeed with humans. But when humans approach death many humans mature and become wiser with age. At this stage of life, great artists are known to produce their finest works or achieve an understanding of life not known earlier. Would a computer know when its death is nigh? Quite easily done, by monitoring the condition of its components, hence predicting the machine life ahead. However would a computer’s performance mature with age as with so many humans when the shadow of death becomes our tutor? Would a computer of its own volition write, say, sublime music like Schubert did in the last months and weeks of his short life, or would that also have to be human programmed into it? It could not be pre-programmed because the last works of genius are a summation of their entire, rich inner life experience, a commentary on humanity and divinity, and intimations of immortality for the soul.


iii The Auricle, Vol. II, No. 6, March 1924. American Foundation for the Blind, Helen Keller Archives.

v One of the best books is by Fritjof Capra, Learning from Leonardo – Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, 2013.

vi Shimon Y., ed., Handbook of Industrial Robotics, Nof , Technology & Engineering, 1999.

To be continued

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