Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Why The Brain Is Like A Wheel

In recent decades, it has been fashionable to talk about the brain as though it were some kind of computer. I say fashionable, because the most complex current technology has always been used a metaphor for the brain. Because of the computer’s amazing power, it has also become fashionable to talk of using computers to simulate the brain. And more. There’s talk of uploading the brain, i.e., having a computer become a brain.

Before computers, it was fashionable to compare the brain to a telephone switchboard. Today, most people have no idea what a telephone switchboard is; I suggest you look up images on the Internet. Then, you can wonder why anyone ever made this comparison. As I said, in its day it was the most complex technology and therefore become the metaphor for the brain. If that seems silly to us, try to imagine using the wheel (the complex technology of its day) as a metaphor for the brain.

Metaphors, if you recall, are only representations. They help us better understand things or thoughts by comparing them to other things or thoughts already in our grasp. However, metaphors require leaps, because the things (or thoughts) compared are not obviously similar in any way. Analogies are different; they explicitly connect two particulars, e.g., ravens and writing desks.

Problems arise when we mistake a metaphor for an analogy. The computer is not remotely analogous to a brain. Although there is electrical activity in the brain, it is nothing like the electrical activity in a computer. One reason is that the electrical activity we can observe in the brain is caused by chemical processes. You might as well compare the electrical activity of a building to a brain.

Fashion, for good or bad, doesn’t ever stop, continually changing over time. Currently, there are people saying the Internet is becoming a giant brain, becoming conscious, so on and so forth. It’s only a small step to using the Internet as a metaphor for the brain. And once again, it will be a poor representation. To find a good metaphor, one must first understand both concepts. Few people do. But that doesn’t prevent some from mistaking the current metaphor for an analogy and believing the representation (wheel, telephone switchboard, computer, Internet) can actually be transformed, that it can become a brain.

You may laugh at the idea of comparing a brain to a wheel. Perhaps someday your metaphors will be the source of laughter.


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