Is The Brain More Than A Thinking Machine?
by Ian R Thorpe
You may not have heard of Hilary Putnam, his is not a household name. In view of certain arguments raging between fans of science and devotees of religion and between different branches of the sciences about the composition of our universe and the questions of how we relate to it, the Harvard philosopher's work on the nature of reality and human perceptions of it we may be due for a revival of interest in his work. To date Putnam's fame has not extended far beyond the academic community but one of his thought experiments is familiar to millions of people: What it would be like to be a brain in a laboratory jar?
Putnam first presented the ideas in a book,Reason, Truth, and History (google books) published in 1981: (free download of Reason, truth and history, Kindle, Epub, PDF)
"Imagine that a human being has been subjected to an operation by an evil scientist. The person's brain has been removed from the body and placed in a vat of nutrients which keeps the brain alive. The nerve endings have been connected to a super-scientific computer which causes the person whose brain it is to have the illusion that everything is perfectly normal. There seem to be people, objects, the sky, etc.; but really, all the person is experiencing is the result of electronic impulses travelling from the computer to the nerve endings.
Philosophers have considered for thousands of years how we can be sure that what we're experiencing is a common reality or some shadowy deception. Plato imagined people looking at shadows cast by a fire in a cave. Descartes imagined a satanic genius. Starting in the 1960s, philosophers began to muse about what it would be like to be a brain in a vat, with reality supplied by a computer. The story circulated in obscure philosophy journals for over a decade before Putnam laid it out in his book and has also featured in novels and movies. Different versions of the brain in a bottle theme featured in star Trek and Doctor Who episodes.
To examine the evolution of the "brain in a vat" idea, an indispensable aid is the Google Ngram Viewer, a web site that can search for any word or phrase you supply in Google's digital library of millions of books and magazines. Results show that Putnam' speculative account of the life of a brain in a bottle certainly resonated in the mindset of the late twentieth century, the story exploded, the number of times the theme appeared rising like a rocket into orbit. Hollywood made billions from the idea by making it the basis of he Matrix franchise.
To digress for a moment, the aim of this article is to provide a history of our understanding of the relationship betyween brain and body as a backdrop to a subsequent articleon how recent research has shown some amazing evidence of the existence and nature of the soul. When I post that I will not be preaching, I do not myself either believe or disbelieve what has been reported, but I do find it interesting and hope others will too.
The most important aspect about the success of the brain in a vat and its many derivatives is that the idea only makes sense if the organ involved is a brain. If Putnam had suggested you imagine an evil scientist had removed your heart, rather than your brain. He put your heart in a vat, and connected its veins and arteries to a computer, causing you to have the illusion that everything is perfectly normal. This would strike a reader or viewer listener as remarkable. There is no reason at all why anybody would think a living heart driven by technology was interesting, indeed such devices are already being experimented with as I write.
Of course, given the current state of technology, it's also absurd to think that a human brain could be kept alive in a vat the brain is the most complex and least understood organ. And yet the idea that a scientist could create a full-fledged experience for someone in their brain remains plausible. It accords with how we think about the brain and with the misconception that the brain and the mind are the same thing. We all know that the brain is where we receive a sensory and process sensory information and generate commands to the limbs and organs, where the body's chemical messengers, the hormones maintain subconscious lines of communication and manage responses to changing conditions. The conventional wisdom also suggests it is where we store memories, experience emotions and where creative impulses arise although more advanced medical thinking recognises there is much evidence to suggest the brain and the mind are different things. This article does not intend to journey to the outer limits however, for now we will work on the basis that all those sensations, memories, and emotions are encoded in electrical impulses in the brain and therefore it is the body's control room. Were it possible then to keep a brain in a bottle alive, and if it could receive the right electrical impulses, then logically the person whose brain had been removed would go on having the same experiences as before.
Although we have no direct evidence from experience of how the brain works, most of us can agree it is the center of our world. After all we live in a world where the death of the brain is equivalent to death itself, when the patient is pronounced brain dead the life support system can be switched off.
We did not always think of the brain in this way. Henry More, an English enlightenment philosopher wrote in 1652 that the brain "shows no more capacity for thought than a cake of suet or a bowl of curds."
This may seem crazy now but More was not an idiot. Given the philosophical and medical traditions in which he was educated, such a low view of the brain was eminently sensible. For all the cognitive power we now assume the human brain contains, it also made up largely of fat and water as is suet. It also has the consistency of custard. When an ancient anatomist decided to investigate the organs of a cadaver, he would have had no trouble pulling out the heart and manipulating its rugged chambers and valves. But after death, the brain's enzymes demolish its exquisite delicacy quickly almost as if some higher power had decreed that humans were not permitted to decode its working processes (you can argue among yourselves over what I mean by that.). By the time the anatomist had sawed open the skull, he might well be looking at nothing but pink goo. Who could ever think that in that goo could be found anything having to do with the complex and highly individual psyche that makes us who we are?
When ancient anatomists examined the heart, the brain, and the rest of the body, they came up with explanations for what each organ did. Many of their explanations feel weirdly alien today. Aristotle, for example, believed that the heart was responsible for perceptions and actions and the brain was something like a refrigerator. It was made of phlegm, which was cold by nature, and so its coldness could flow down to balance out the raging heat of the heart. How could the man hailed as the founder of Western biology misunderstood the brain so completely? Aristotle was working from what was known at the time, and what he could see for himself. There were no microscopes that could reveal to him the intricate latticework of neurons in the brain and the nervous system. No one knew that nerves existed.
Others in ancient Greece took a more sympathetic view of the brain. Instead of seeing it as an air conditioner, they viewed it more like a pump. The body, they believed, was set in motion by animal spirits, which coursed through the nervous system, inflating them like string-shaped balloons (not all that far removed from modern String theory - they're both totally bonkers). The spirits flowed through cavities in the head, and it was the job of the brain to squeeze down and push them along.
Christian thinkers in medieval Europe demonstrated the danger of too much thinking and not enough empiricism, they brought together the Bible with ancient Greek philosophy including this view of the brain. In their books on anatomy, they drew absurd atlases of the insides of the head, dominated by three ventricles linked by channels in a row. It somehow didn't matter that no one could ever see such chambers in the brains of cadavers. Anatomists had an explanation at the ready: Post mortem, the animal spirits departed the body, leaving the ventricles to collapse like a ship's sails on a windless day.
This vision of how the brain worked held sway over many great minds. Even Leonardo da Vinci was in its thrall. Whereas previous generations of anatomists might simply consult the work of an ancient Greek writer, Leonardo wanted to see for himself. He filled notebooks with revelatory sketches of bone, muscle and organs. And to understand the structure of the brain, he devised a brilliant experiment. After having an ox slaughtered, Leonardo injected hot wax into its skull. He waited for the wax to cool, and then opened up the ox's skull. The wax, having filled the ventricles of the brain, would preserve their structure.
In one of his notebooks we can see what Leonardo observed in his wax impression of an ox's brain; that the ventricles looked nothing like the medieval chambers. They swept up through the brain like hollow horns or wriggled between the hemispheres. But we can also see how Leonardo grafted onto that anatomical discovery his medieval ideas about how the brain worked (Baysean inference 300 years before Rev. Bayes? What a genius Da Vinci was). He created links between the ventricles where none existed, so that they could remain a channel for the animal spirits that he assumed gave life to the body.
Various distractions prevented Leonardo from completing his work and it was not until a younger anatomist, Andreas Vesalius, picked up on the discoveries and published an account in his 1543 masterpiece,De Humani Corporis Fabrica that the true anatomy of the brain was finally understood.
Vesalius pushed anatomy in a new direction, even going so far as to question Leonardo's assumptions about how the ventricles workings worked. However he stopped short of proposing an alternative explanation. In the sixteenth century, with the Inquisition very active, such a proposal could have raised the ire of the church and led to an early and very unpleasant death.
Other anatomists who followed him gradually began to publish their own research, not just on the structure of the body, but also on its function. The scientific revolution replaced the four humours of the body with atoms and molecules, subject to the laws of physics and chemistry. Natural philosophers recognized that the same kinds of chemical reactions that turned grape juice into wine were operating inside the human body.
The term natural philosophers may seem unfamiliar now but we must remember the terms "science" and "scientists" is a modern and very inadequate word to describe the cast range of subjects and methods of studying them that were formerly grouped under the umbrella of philosophy. Science, like all dogmas, can be learned by rote, philosophy is a lifelong and all consuming quest for understanding.
The philosophical revolution of the enlightenment era went on at an ever quickening pace in many areas, not least in the quest to understand the human brain and mind. In 1664 the English physician Thomas Willis published the first book dedicated to the organ: 'The Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves.' It was the first book to contain accurate anatomical drawings of the brain in full.
Willis' success was to some extent due to the company he kept. His assistant Richard Lower (later the pioneer of blood transfusions) was able to dissect brains that had been completely removed from the cadavers skull. Willis' friend Robert Boyle, often thought of as the father of modern chemistry, discovered how to preserve delicate organs like brains in alcohol. Willis now had the luxury of time to examine the brain in detail and with another friend, Christopher Wren to take care of the intricate illustrations of the brain knowledge and understanding of the organ's physical properties advanced vastly.
Willis and his friends and colleagues combined their insights with observations of thousands of patients, as well as careful experiments in which he injected ink into the cerebral arteries to trace their paths. This synthesis led Willis to a radically new picture of the brain and its functions. The ventricles, which had once been assumed to channel the animal spirits, were mere infoldings. Willis argued that energies travelled through paths inside the brain to carry out different functions. Damage to different parts of the brain, he argued, led to different kinds of disorders.
Like any scientist, Willis was still enmeshed in his age. He knew nothing about electricity, and so he could not guess that the phenomenon he witnessed in a lightning storm was taking place in his own head. It was not until a century after his death that Luigi Galvani discover that electric current could travel down nerves, finally banishing animal spirits from neurology.
In the time of Galvani and his rival Alessandro Volta, electricity was an amusement, the stuff of parlor tricks. No one imagined that it would power industrial civilisation. Nor could they imagine that electricity could deliver messages over great distances nearly instantaneously. In 1844 Samuel Morse launched the first commercial telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore. At first people refused to believe that a message could fly down a wire. Doubters would travel by the first available train to the destination interrogate recipients and independent witnesses in person to confirm messages had arrived.
Consider how those doubters might have reacted had they been told their experience of the telegraph was made possible by similar pulses of electricity traveling through their nerves and brains.
The telegraph's dribble of binary pulses was the origin of today's torrents of Internet communication. It may come as a surprise to the babbling science fans who insist that "the internet was invented by "scientists" in the 1970s or 80s that it's origins go back to 1844 but people who believe the universe was created in seven thought experiments by Albert Einstein in 1905 are really never going to have much chance of getting a grip on reality are they?
The first true store and forward systems which can be said to be the true ancestor of the internet were the Telex systems which originated in the UK and USA in the 1930s. Messages transmitted from teletypewriters were automatically routed, stored if necessary and eventually delivered to another teletypewriter in a remote location. By 1962 the telex network was global, systems had been developed for using a digital system of ones and zeroes to carry out computations on data enabling the electro - mechanical telex switches to be replaced by computers. Transistors sent signals to one another, combining flows of information to produce new outputs.
Many of the special non printing control characters incorporated in the telex code are still used today, deeply embedded in internet datagram packets. And for the pompous bell end who informed me not long ago that 'a computer scientist named Vint Cerf invented the internet, what Cerf did (or to be correct was part of the team that did it) was develop a digital version of the analogue RS232 or CCITT V24 flow control protocol which also evolved from Telex technology.
It should be remembered here, because a lot of science freaks labour under the misapprehension that digital communications works by sending streams of 1s and 0s that in fact the digits 1 and 0 are simply the way we conveniently represent the positive (+) and negative (-) electrical pulses of binary information.
As computers and digital technology developed it became increasingly clear that brains and electronics had a lot in common. However the brain does not send digital pulses down our nerve channels, in fact experiments suggest we all have our own individual code for commanding our physical organs.
To philosophers like Hilary Putnam, this must have been a thrilling development. Putnam was developing a computational theory of mind, in which sensations traveled into the brain as input, and the brain then functioned like a computer to produce output commands. Putnam was no neuroscientist and didn't care much about the details of how one neuron connected to another. Instead, he argued that the structure of thought itself showed signs of being the product of computation. It didn't much matter what carried out those computations, neurons or transistors could do the job equally well in his view. It was this totally erronious line of thinking (but one that many science freaks cling to because they are so alienated from their own humanity and enamoured with the idea of humans being nothing more than programmable biological computers) that made the brain in a vat such an attractive idea for people to absorb. If experiments had shown, electronics and the brain were seamless, then surely it should be possible for "scientists" (but not natural philosophers who are much smarter) to have his wish and turn us all into unthinking droids they could control.
These are entertaining ideas to play with, the stuff of science fiction and horror fiction, but they are still and infinity away from being real possibilities. The mind, as recent discoveries have shown, is not computational, we are not machines, instinct and emotion play a far bigger part in forming our thoughts and decisions than reason and logic. But if we humour the scientists who cling to the science of the 1950s for a moment, suppose our minds did behave like computers, that does not mean they resembles any computer humans have built or will ever prove capable of building. It processes information in a massively parallel fashion, rather than doing so sequentially, as manmade computers do. Human memory (data) does not exist like bits and bytes in a USB memory stick, how our memories are stored is one of the greatest mysteries of the human mind. Our mental computations are just as mysterious, the brain does not create for us a mathematical model of reality of the world, but only useful predictions based on input from the senses and memories plucked at random from a store we do not understand , which allow us to control our and make conscious decisions.
Nor do our brains as computers do, there is no personalised desktop waiting to serve us when we boot up. Brains are embedded in bodies, and have evolved to depend on a continual interaction via the central nervous system between themselves and the muscles, organs, endocrine system and other bits (I'm not a biologists, OK.) Out of all that barely understood stuff and another human mystery, consciousness, we manage to cobble together enough information to navigate our way through the daily battle for survival. While many scientists are exploring the nature of consciousness and the human mind in sometimes inventive, sometimes just plain whacky ways, no one has as yet come up with a theory that makes any sense.
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