Some dream of a time when we will achieve immortality by downloading the contents of the brain into a computer. But is this truly possible?…
I have just read a fascinating and, to my mind, cheerful article, by the research psychologist Robert Epstein, on why your brain is not a computer—for the simple reason that your brain does not store memories in the way that a computer does, nor does it function according to algorithms. We are not computers but organisms, says Dr. Epstein, and we ought to “get over it,” meaning that we ought to stop dreaming of a time when we will achieve “immortality” by downloading the contents of the brain into a computer. Even if we could know what is strictly impossible to know, and we could describe at one moment the quantum states of every electron zipping along every synapse of every neuron in a human brain—a task that would require bigger numbers than if we could chart every star in the universe—we would still, absent the person to tell us these things, not be any the wiser as to what the person had experienced or was thinking.
“Misleading headlines notwithstanding,” says Dr. Epstein, “no one really has the slightest idea how the brain changes after we have learned to sing a song or recite a poem. But neither the song nor the poem has been ‘stored’ in it. The brain has simply changed in an orderly way that now allows us to sing the song or recite the poem under certain conditions. When called on to perform, neither the song nor the poem is in any sense ‘retrieved’ from anywhere in the brain, any more than my finger movements are ‘retrieved’ when I tap my finger on my desk. We simply sing or recite—no retrieval necessary.”
This, I think, makes what human beings do appear all the more wondrous. We have trained our dog, Jasper, to do upwards of seventy tricks. He jumps through a hoop, he rings a bell, he bangs the keys on his toy piano, and he flops to the ground and rolls over when I point my finger at him and say, “Bang!” What happens is that he has learned, as a whole dog—the whole canine organism from silky ears to plume-like tail—to interact with the world in a certain way that brings pleasure to him, in the form of praise and fun and treats. If we could ‘download’ a human brain into a computer, then surely, a fortiori, we could do so with a dog—but here we see the analogy break down. What on earth could a dog’s brain in a computer possibly signify? Where is the dog himself, the creature interacting with the world, being changed by the world and changing the world in turn, as when he comes upon a telephone pole and sagaciously divines the message of a previous dog?
A computer, it appears to me, is a really sophisticated card catalog, as robots are sophisticated puppets. The dog does not compute, and the computer does not prick up its ears and twitch its nose because a fox has been in the neighborhood. The dog does not download files, and the computer has no life experience. When it comes to human beings, then, Dr. Epstein says quite shrewdly that we really are unique, because no two people will react in the same way to the same things: I can hear Beethoven’s Fifth, and you can hear it, and yet in neither of us is the symphony simply imprinted on the memory for future retrieval, as when I download a file onto my computer, and it is there in the computer’s crystal, the same as if you had downloaded it, or the same as if I had downloaded it onto a different computer. We can have duplicate card catalogs, just as we used to have many thousands of telephone books with the same information in each, but not duplicate organisms, and therefore not duplicate human beings.
Dr. Epstein says that we are being misled by a model, a mere metaphor, one that we will need to discard, just as we discarded the mechanical model of gears and wheels that prevailed after Descartes, and just as we discarded the model “preserved in the Bible,” whereby men “were formed from clay or dirt, which an intelligent god [sic] then infused with its [sic] spirit.” I am guessing that Dr. Epstein the scientist brings up the Bible only to suggest that the current model of the brain as computer is as inadequate as this outdated explanation. He ought to reconsider what the verse from the Bible means. He has not taken it seriously. It is not meant to be a mechanical description of what goes on in the human organism: it has nothing to do with humors (bodily fluids such as bile or blood, which were thought to determine personality), gears and wheels, galvanic forces, or computer algorithms. It has instead to do with persons: the Creator and man.
There is a qualitative difference, as wide as the gap between nonexistence and existence, between the computer and any living organism, and indeed the more we learn about even the most elementary organisms, e.g., those of a single cell, the more the mind boggles at the sheer complexity of an amoeba or a paramecium—or of an organelle inside the paramecium, like the mitochondria. It is as if we might dive into reality, and find what looks like a new universe awaiting us at each level, so to speak. Yet even this does not do justice to the organism.
Consider again the card catalog. Information in it is organized according to variations upon a simple algorithm: alphabetical order. It is also organized by kind: author, title, and topic. The computer is vastly more efficient and far-reaching in its capacity to deliver this information in a variety of ways and by a variety of commands. It functions, to give an obvious and powerful instance, as a big concordance, finding where words or strings of words are used here and there and everywhere. This is all fine, for human use. But it is not a living thing, nor is it close to a living thing. A very large dictionary is no closer to having life than is a small dictionary. A library is no closer to having life than is a postage stamp.
I may be giving too little credit here to the power of the algorithms whereby a computer does its sorting and filtering and locating, but I do not believe I have misunderstood the principle. It is not that a computer is less complex than is an amoeba, but that the complexity of a computer is that of a machine, and not that of an organism. We need a new term, perhaps, one that will bring into play the intimacy of the interrelationships among the parts of the organism. “All for one, and one for all,” cried the Three Musketeers. Socioplex, perhaps?
Every identifiable part of an organism is related to the others in an intimate way, working as a whole; the part is what it is only by virtue of its participation in and of the whole. The whole is present in each part. An organism is not a funny kind of machine. Rather, a machine, as Etienne Gilson once noted, is a mock-organism, with interchangeable parts that work by means of contiguity and efficient causality alone. Think of a wheel on a car. If you take the wheel off the car, you can still use it as a wheel for a different kind of machine entirely, one that also rolls. The wheel is indifferent. The car is not ‘in’ the wheel. The wheelbarrow is not in the handle.
I am, however, in my flesh and blood. We know now that the instructions for the building up of my whole body lie in each cell of mine. The cell is not mere stuff, a mere jelly to which an electric charge is imparted, as the materialists of the Enlightenment wanted to believe. To press an analogy, we might turn to Saint Paul: Christ, and not just an extrinsic jolt of divinity, is present in each member of the body of Christ. The bodies of organisms are organized as it were pneumatically, from within, infused throughout by the Spirit of life, which is personal, intentional, artistic, and creative: “You send forth your Spirit, and they are created,” says the Psalmist. If it was God’s intention from the beginning to build up the Body of Christ that is the Church, then it seems fit that bodies themselves should bear witness to this kind of organization, to a degree that Saint Paul himself could not have imagined.
To go from amoebas to my dog Jasper is, I think, to cross another gap as wide as a universe. He trembles on the verge of personality, as C.S. Lewis puts it. And then there is personality itself, the real thing. Here we come to the final choice, the one that atheists with good hearts want to delay or avoid. It is the choice between seeing the human person as reducible to a machine—a thing, even if the thing is a brute like an amoeba, or seeing him as a being capable of a relationship with God, because he is made as a person, by a Person, for knowledge and love.
The person, endowed as he is with reason and intellect, is as Thomas Aquinas says, capax omnium, i.e., capable of knowing (though in a manner proper to himself, and not as God knows) anything there is to be known, and not just as one detail after another, but as wholes to be grasped in their peculiar beauty. The telephone book does not know anything. For to know is to come into a relationship with the thing known, and if we are talking about intellectual knowledge, knowledge implies not just a brain, but a knowing person. If I say, “I know John,” I am not talking about anything that can be measured, such as John’s height and weight and age, all of which may be logged by a mechanical device. I am not even talking about biographical data, such as where John was born and where he lives now. I mean something for which the word “know” seems equivocal. I mean that John has entered into my life in some way, and that he, the person, means something to me that no collection of data can mean, nor any set of robotic instructions that might mimic the actions of a living being.
We really do come to the crux here, and this explains why a consistent materialist like Daniel Dennett must hold that our very consciousness is but an illusion. He knows that to take the person as an irreducible datum of human knowing and being known is to depart from materialism, which he takes as a given. It is then also to turn toward the Person from whom all personhood derives. David Hart once jested that it was the dream of all young materialists someday to grow up to be robots. We may say, in the same spirit, that the dream of such Christian grubs as we are is to grow in the Lord Jesus Christ, and become persons at last indeed.
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (June 2018).
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 “The Empty Brain,” by Robert Epstein, in Aeon (May 2016).