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  • Meat Computers

    October 17, 2022

    Wilder Penfield, in his book The Mystery of the Mind, published at the end of his career as a very successful neurosurgeon, described the brain as very similar to a computer. He went into a bit more detail on that, but people tend to take what he said out of context, and liken the human brain to "nothing but a meat computer." Typically this is used with the implication that there is no soul or mind; that our thoughts and actions are purely the product of the material brain; a computer, carrying out operations one after another and nothing more.

    As a computer enthusiast, and someone that has studied the human brain rather thoroughly, I think at least a little more than the average person, I can't help but jump all over this comparison, and as a Christian, I think it's a really important thing to address because it carries a lot of serious implications on one's worldview. I think practically, most people believe that they have some sort of free will, or some sort of control over their bodies. We don't instinctively tend to think that we're just a product of some electrical currents in our head. And yet, that is the view that many take to. I think the story goes that, sometime in the last few billion years of the brain's evolution, it somehow gained the ability to do all the things it can do now on its own. Somehow, the arrangement of the cells is able to produce chemical and electrical currents in such a way that a larger organism can be driven.

    Setting aside the origin story for just a moment, which I personally find flawed on a number of levels—many of which are fundamental and thus fatal 1—I do think the analogy of the brain to a computer is a fascinating one. In fact, in my studies of both, I've been absolutely astonished at just how similar the brain is to the computers we have today. Remarkably, long before we even scratched the surface of the brain, we created the computer, and as we theorize about them both now, they happen to be very similar indeed.

    I actually do fully take the view that our brains are meat computers. In fact I take it much more literally than I think most people do. By this I mean that we're not just meat computers as the naturalists would have us believe. Just as a newly constructed laptop or smartphone must be programmed with code written by a software engineer, the brain too must be somehow programmed to actually function. From what we know of the brain, it simply takes in inputs, processes them, and produces outputs, just like any computer. But as far as how it actually knows what to do, we really aren't quite sure. In other words, we know what the hardware looks like, but we know little about the software. However, the software is most certainly implied, and is absolutely necessary to complete our image of the brain. The fact of the matter is that no matter how extensively we study the brain, we are no closer to uncovering the essence of consciousness than we were before we knew the brain controlled the body and not the heart. The truth is, the brain needs a programmer, because no other explanation would make sense.

    To get back to the origin story briefly, suppose that, given billions of years, a computer could eventually come into existence unaided by any intelligent designer. Even if you could get a correct and capable computer this way, it would still be missing something very important: an operating system. Now, the chances of a computer popping out of nature are slim to none as it is, but imagine that not only did evolution produce a computer, it did so with a hard drive that had just the right bits flipped to have an operating system on it. That sounds pretty impossible, right? And yet this is exactly how I see the naturalist position on the brain. It is obvious that, even granting the impossible assumption that evolution could produce the physical brain, there's no way for evolution to program it correctly. The odds are just too great. So, it is clear to me that some sort of intelligence is required to program the brain.

    If the brain needs a programmer, the next logical thing to do is ask who the programmer is. There are two possibilities. Either the programmer is God, or the programmer is the human mind—or the human soul, whichever you find more appropriate. I personally find the word "soul" fitting here. At this point, we pass from scientific knowledge entirely and into speculation about the nature of our souls, something which I don't think we will ever fully comprehend in this life. But I do think the soul is a scientific necessity, given that the brain is just hardware, in need of software. That much we have already proven. We are at the point of trying to figure out what the software is and how it works. With that in mind, I think I can pretty easily distinguish between the two views, and reach a theologically sound conclusion.

    I think the view that the brain is programmed by God is probably one of the more obscure ones. At least, I don't know of anyone that holds this view. It seems to place us in no better a position than if we believe that everything we do is merely the result of electrical signals in our brain. This is to say that, if God himself programs our brain, we have no room left for the notion of free will. I hold the position that we absolutely do have free will [2], otherwise society, and in fact reality as a whole as we know it would be rather absurd. Additionally, we would have no room for the soul. It would just be God and meat computer, with nothing in between. That seems problematic to me primarily because it makes humanity seem like a bunch of automatons; just simply pawns in God's hands and nothing more. It thus seems appropriate that we would have our own soul [1]. A soul that, while totally its own entity, can of course be under the influence of God.

    That brings me to the other view, and in my opinion this is the most logical view, which is that God has created our souls and imbued our bodies with them, and it is actually our souls that program our brains. This is precisely how Penfield describes the situation, and I would think that, being a renowned neurosurgeon, his opinion is worth considering. He says that the brain is a computer, and the mind is the programmer. By holding this view, we suddenly find a very logical and very plausible explanation for our nature.

    Under this explanation, we can think of the brain as an antenna, if you will, or the receptor of the signal of the soul. One of the arguments naturalists use to undermine the existence of the soul is that natural diseases are capable of totally disabling a person. Alzheimer's, and other forms of dementia, for example, are cited as reasons for there being no soul, because if consciousness consists of a soul, physical diseases of the brain would not affect it. Yet, by all accounts, the brain does very much affect consciousness.

    This makes sense; a computer only works correctly if all its components function properly. For example, if a hard drive fails in my server, my server would no longer be very functional. But, that would not make it any less a server in essence, and its programming would still be perfectly intact, it would just be unable to correctly carry out the instructions. This is how I view neurological diseases. The brain is the hardware, and obviously the hardware can be damaged, and that definitely does affect the whole system, but the soul can remain perfectly intact, just unable to effectively communicate with the body because the antenna is damaged.

    With this understanding, it becomes very easy to assert that the soul is eternal, and therefore our lives are a lot more consequential than most people realize, because when we die, our soul will go somewhere. Of course, this doesn't necessarily follow from the computer analogy; it is just as easy to say the code on a computer is destroyed when the computer is destroyed, even if it did have a programmer, but the interesting thing to note is that even if the code is destroyed, a transcendent programmer still exists, and that's something we have to deal with one way or another.

    Whether God or the soul programs the brain, we realize there is an external reality that influences the brain, and this is something that death does not solve. The soul is not perfectly analogous to code at all. In fact, as I alluded to above, it is more like a wireless signal. That signal has a source, and it is hard to believe that if the brain—the antenna which receives the signal—dies, the signal also stops. That would be like saying when your phone dies, the cell signal that was broadcast to it is no longer being transmitted.

    1. Perhaps I will address these in another post. 

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