Is the human brain just a biological computer?

Human Brain - overview
Wow... this is a big question! Different people would tend to answer it in conflicting ways, depending on their own beliefs and academic training. A biologist's viewpoint is likely to differ greatly from a computer programmer's one - and both would differ from the perceptions and views of someone with strong religious beliefs. One thing is for certain, the human brain is the control centre for all our bodily functions. Most of its operation is very automated: heart rate, growth, immune system, external senses, balance, etc., are not accessible to us by an act of will power. Breathing is both automatic and voluntary.

The concept underlying a computer's capacity to compare, analyse, and output information is encapsulated by a model  conceived by Alan Turing (1912-1954, British mathematician). In 1936, while a graduate student, Turing published a paper called 'On Computable Numbers.' This gave birth to the concept of a theoretical computing device, now known as a 'Turing machine', which became an important concept during the time of developing modern computers.

In essence a Turin machine (computer) will only ever compare data coming in from an external source, re-model it, and output decisions, concepts,  and results based on rearranging the data fed in. Put simply: the computer can not add any new truth to the output that was not already there in the input - albeit, the complexity of the input data might have made it difficult to realize the discovered result.

If the human brain is unable to add anything new to data received via its own associated senses, then - yes, it is just a biological computer! The critical question therefore is: can the human brain add information/data to its output from a source other than what is fed in via its senses or innate programming - the latter being the product of inheriting genetic properties through an evolutionary chain? If concepts and ideas are manifested in the brain which are not the result of analysing information received through the human senses, then the brain is more than a biological computer!

Roger Penrose, the celebrated English Mathmatician, set out to write a book to prove the human brain was just a Turin Machine. In the course of researching and producing his book, he began to doubt his original premise. Although inclusive, Penrose's book - 'The Emperor's New Mind' opens debate, with some very powerful arguments, for proposing the human brain to be something quite different from a Turing Machine (computer). We recommend you read this book to explore these arguments in detail (ISBN 0-09-977170-5).

Let's explore a few ideas here on the subject:-

Mind buried in matter?
When we talk of 'brain', we also - possibly mistakenly - mean 'mind'. It is better to separate these two terms: the brain being the biological control centre of our organic form, and 'mind' being that elusive state and abstraction that we have come to use to describe our awareness. 'Mind' is certainly associated with 'brain', for damage within its critical areas can also lead to deterioration in awareness;  for precision:  a 'mind' as an entity or physical thing, appears to be bound with matter (brain tissue in our case) yet not neccessarily completely constrained by it!

How can this be?
Traditionally, we define our Universe and all its processes (including us) in classical terms. Different branches of science use varying descriptive  models to structure and encapsulate any single field of study. Biologists determine their observations by taking of 'living' processes which can all be reduced and shown to be dependent on the activities of cells - the fundemental building blocks of animal and plant forms; cosmologists talk of stars, black-holes, galaxies, gravity, mass, and motion, and require mathematics to relate their subjects' interaction and behaviour; chemists talk of molecules, nuclear physicists paint a model of reality based on atoms, quarks, and quantum effects. But the truth is that none of the Universe's processes, especially living forms, can be described without applying knowlege from all disciplines at the same time: life is constructed from cells which themselves can be reduced to chemicals, molecules, nuclear particles, all working to universal  laws  -and if you take time to read about study at at the frontiers of scientific research - the basic rules of the cosmos appear very strange and uncertain indeed.

From Big Bang to Brain in a few simple hops

If the universe began within what is so called the 'big-bang' then the seeding material of everything there is today was born in the first instant: not only material and energy - but abstracts too. If  there is 'awareness' in living forms, it is because that 'awareness' has developed as a direct result what began with the big-bang. High states of energy became galaxies, suns, and space-time. Suns generate material, planets materialize out of their debris, chemicals and atoms work to organise themselves - driven by the inherent properties of all energy and matter to achieve a steady state, and as part of this chain of events - living tissue is generated! It doesn't appear by magic - it has developed because the sub-atomic framework of the universe, and the matter and energy it contains, contains characteristics and properties which would ultimately enable it to happen once certain local conditions were met.

A brain develops  to manage the increasing  complexity of biological processes required to maintain living forms... or does it?!
The basic 'blue-print' for matter to organize itself into a self-aware structure is written and encoded into the raw material itself, deep inside the sub-atomic level... within the framework of how matter and energy are described into a physical reality. There are two ways at looking at this development - not one: either matter organises itself into living structures and develops a brain (thus mind - as a consequence of increasing processing power) in order to manage the orderly working of the living structure... or - matter organises itself into mind and awareness (driven by inherent properties), and builds living structures with brains on which it can present its awareness in an organised and physical way.

In both cases, and in general terms, the creation of mind and brain is the result of information processing at a sub-atomic scale. There is nothing to suggest that such fundemental processing should stop within a living brain. A human brain may be receiving data about the universe both through its connected biological senses and through the more abstract, and as yet ill-defined processes, underlying the nature of matter - encoded in the tiniest pinpoints of reality, which we have come to call sub-atomic particles, from which it is constructed. The brain itself  may be a quantum engine!  If this is true, the human brain is more than a computer: it is a place where the universe can pass abstract ideas into reality, a place where original thought and conceptions can become manifest -  and through human interaction -   is a place where the universe can begin to understand itself .

The human brain is a  place where 'mind'  forms a bridge between a non-physical state and a physical one. The universe may well be using  aware living forms as a set of mirrors to  hold up high and perceive itself a million different ways before deciding what it will ultimately become.

Such speculative argument is unacceptable in a scientific world without proof. However, science is not the only only tool we have to describe and define our collective experiences. Philosophy, art, music, poetry, and self-introspection, are other methods for examining the 'truth'. These areas of human awareness and perception more readily aid understanding of 'abstractions' without waiting for the pain-staking logic of science to record our experiences so that they can be demonstrated again to all.

Most people, even without social conditioning, seem to retain a sense that our short lives are part of a monumental purpose. As children, we constantly ask about why we are here and query everything about our existence. You might find one such personal account on the web, exploring this aspect, interesting to see? Maybe our early attitudes, before we cease to ask questions due to receiving unsatisfactory answers,  reflects the natural state of the universe?

It would be an advantage to remember that at any point in the history of scientific endeavour and research, a truth today, is only true until a better one replaces it. Without doubt, the human mind is one of the universe's greatest achievements, and I suspect, as I write, that if I can perceive it as something more than a biological computer, then this thought itself is the result of introspection and the detection of a few abstracts as they flicker onto my neural network - rather than from any proof realized by analysing external data.

Comments to the author sent via our contacts page quoting page url plus : ('micuk','')">Maurice Smith 1997.

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