Brain Wars

We haven’t spilled much ink in here lately on the subject of the mind, but it is never far from my own. This evening I stumbled across the website of a marvelous organization: the Neukom Institute at Dartmouth, whose mission is “to foster collaborative research between computational science and other disciplines; educate future generations of interdisciplinary researchers; and develop new curricular, mentoring, and collaborative learning opportunities at Dartmouth.”

Back in May, the Institute hosted a symposium called The Human Algorithm, which it described as follows:

The Human Algorithm conference highlighted current investigations of the complex mechanisms underlying our humanity. It focused on state-of-the-art theories and controversies of our extant computational understanding of human cognition, human capabilities, and human limitations. The speakers included some of the most prominent scientists in their respective fields, each with expertise on the rules that govern our brains and behavior, the limitations of our cognitive abilities, their evolutionary origins, and the current state of the art in how we can come to understand brains and minds sufficiently well to build them.

Speakers at the conference included Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland, among others. Videos of their talks are available online, and I have begun watching them.

In Professor Dennett’s speech, he discusses the resistance in some quarters to viewing the brain as a computer, and describes an emerging paradigm that may not only answer the critics of the brain-as-computer view, but may also provide valuable new insights.

Dennett begins by asking: if the brain isn’t a computer, then what sort of organ is it? It isn’t a pump, or a factory, or a filter, like other organs; it doens’t seem to be making anything. No — what it does is consume information, and provide control; it is the body’s control system. That sounds an awful lot like what a computer does, no?

Dennett explains that the problem is that the brain is, however, a very different kind of computer from the ones we design. Instead of the various parts and modules participating cooperatively in a strict and obedient hierarchy, as happens inside man-made computers, the brain works in a very different way, with its smallest parts engaged in a freewheeling process of competition — and serious competition too, in which their very livelihood is at stake. He calls this paradigm “Brain Wars” (and if there isn’t, before long, a book by this title with his name on the cover, I’ll be very surprised).

You can watch Dennett’s hourlong keynote presentation here — it is Dennett at his brilliant and provocative best — and from there you will find links to the rest of the videos.

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