We are organisms, not computers. Get over it!

1 dollar billOver the years we have used different metaphors trying to explain human intelligence. Each metaphor reflected the most advanced thinking of the era that spawned it. Those metaphors are stories we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand. But metaphors condition our thinking, and therefore our action plans.

In “The Empty Brain” Robert Epstein asks how much the information processing (IP) metaphor of human intelligence that dominates human thinking since mid-20th century, is preventing us from making real progress towards understanding the brain.

With a simple exercise involving a dollar bill, he makes the case that our brains do not store memories that we can retrieve at will. Our brains have probably evolved to make the most of the “external memory” that surrounds us.

If the IP metaphor is so silly, why is it so sticky? What is stopping us from brushing it aside, just as we might brush aside a branch that was blocking our path? Is there a way to understand human intelligence without leaning on a flimsy intellectual crutch? And what price have we paid for leaning so heavily on this particular crutch for so long? The IP metaphor, after all, has been guiding the writing and thinking of a large number of researchers in multiple fields for decades. At what cost?

The IP metaphor has had a half-century run, producing few, if any, insights along the way. The time has come to hit the DELETE key.

2 comments

  1. Interesting post and interesting article from Epstein.

    However, we should not forget that, even if the IP metaphor may not be too good to understand how the mind works, it does not prevent to use it get interesting and very useful results: the famous Deep Blue example or the, more recent AlphaGo victory at Go. Not to speak about impressive results we get every time we use Google or any search machine or even a humble desktop calculator.

    Even the Watts’ centrifugal regulator has a certain “intelligence”, depending on your definition of the term intelligence. So the mechanical metaphor is not so far fetched either.

    I agree that it may not help the neurologist but do not discount IP as intelligence.

    • I am not sure about Epstein, bu I agree with you that the information processing paradigm will give us more and more “intelligence”, whatever it reasonably means. However, that may not necessaroly guide us towards a better understanding of ourselves (our brains), and maybe we are now blind to other more interesting research avenues… just a question mark.

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