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Brains as computers: metaphor, analogy, theory or fact?

Brette, Romain (2022) Brains as computers: metaphor, analogy, theory or fact? [Preprint]

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Abstract

Whether electronic, analog or quantum, a computer is a programmable machine. Wilder Penfield held that the brain is literally a computer, because he was a dualist: the mind programs the brain. If this type of dualism is rejected, then identifying the brain to a computer requires defining what a brain “program” might mean and who gets to “program” the brain. If the brain “programs” itself when it learns, then this is a metaphor. If evolution “programs” the brain, then this is a metaphor. Indeed, in the neuroscience literature, the brain-computer is typically not used as an analogy, i.e., as an explicit comparison, but metaphorically, by importing terms from the field of computers into neuroscientific discourse: we assert that brains compute the location of sounds, we wonder how perceptual algorithms are implemented in the brain. Considerable difficulties arise when attempting to give a precise biological description of these terms, which is the sign that we are indeed dealing with a metaphor. Metaphors can be both useful and misleading. The appeal of the brain-computer metaphor is that it promises to bridge physiological and mental domains. But it is misleading because the basis of this promise is that computer terms are themselves imported from the mental domain (calculation, memory, information). In other words, the brain-computer metaphor offers a reductionist view of cognition (all cognition is calculation) rather than a naturalistic theory of cognition, hidden behind a metaphoric blanket.


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Item Type: Preprint
Creators:
CreatorsEmailORCID
Brette, Romainromain.brette@inserm.fr0000-0003-0110-1623
Keywords: brain-computer metaphor; algorithms; programs; philosophy; metaphors
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Computation/Information
Specific Sciences > Neuroscience
Depositing User: Dr Romain Brette
Date Deposited: 11 Mar 2022 02:10
Last Modified: 11 Mar 2022 02:10
Item ID: 20232
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Computation/Information
Specific Sciences > Neuroscience
Date: 18 February 2022
URI: https://philsci-archive-dev.library.pitt.edu/id/eprint/20232

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