This essay by Robert Epstein is a solid pointer at an important blind spot in our understanding of our brains.
We’re humans, not robots. Of course. Of course.
We don’t “process data.” Of course. We don’t have modems, we don’t process data. We experience.
A bigger message here is that the “fish-in-water” principle is really strong. It’s hard to begin to know what we don’t know. That means that we tend to become blind to our context over time, whatever the field or the context.
A large part of our current context is that of circuits and data pipes. It’s easiest to form all our solutions (and metaphors) from the closest current context – in this case, we might come up with answers using the wrong metaphor. In explaining ourselves to ourselves, have we become too reliant on the current narrative of technology to explain our unknowns?
One of the less obvious connections here is the upcoming quantum computing paradigm: quantum computers are just machines that solve problems. Machines, Canadian Justin Trudeau explained, which don’t expect binary data and don’t give you only yes/no answers. They experience data as a set of probabilities, and internalize the answer in that same language.
Language is our main tool to understand the world. We share our experiences of reality to each other through words. When the metaphors and language we use to describe the universe start to shift, is it because our understanding has changed? Or does it cause our understanding to change?
Propelled by subsequent advances in both computer technology and brain research, an ambitious multidisciplinary effort to understand human intelligence gradually developed, firmly rooted in the idea that humans are, like computers, information processors. This effort now involves thousands of researchers, consumes billions of dollars in funding, and has generated a vast literature consisting of both technical and mainstream articles and books. Ray Kurzweil’s book How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed (2013), exemplifies this perspective, speculating about the ‘algorithms’ of the brain, how the brain ‘processes data’, and even how it superficially resembles integrated circuits in its structure.
The information processing (IP) metaphor of human intelligence now dominates human thinking, both on the street and in the sciences. There is virtually no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour that proceeds without employing this metaphor, just as no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour could proceed in certain eras and cultures without reference to a spirit or deity. The validity of the IP metaphor in today’s world is generally assumed without question.
But the IP metaphor is, after all, just another metaphor – a story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand. And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast aside at some point – either replaced by another metaphor or, in the end, replaced by actual knowledge.