“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

The brain is not a computer, and thinking is not information-processing.

Sharing an email response to a question I received about the possibility of explaining human consciousness computationally, and whether such explanations might be compatible with Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual science.

I do not think the computational paradigm has much to teach us about the sort of Sophianic consciousness Steiner attempted to unveil. I summarized my thoughts on this in an essay back in 2012: https://footnotes2plato.com/2012/03/15/thinking-with-steiner-beyond-the-brain-reflections-on-my-bildung-and-the-philosophy-of-freedom/

The computational paradigm does have something to teach us, but it is not what proponents of computationalism may intend. What it teaches us, I think, is that human consciousness and the thinking activity at its root cannot possibly be understood as a merely computational or algorithmic operation, or as information-processing. If our consciousness was explainable as computation, then we would not be here to understand the explanation. We’d be robots who only talk as if they are conscious, as neuroscientist Michael Graziano suggests (I address his views and the computational paradigm more generally in my recent journal article on the place of consciousness in the physical world). 

Thinking is a spiritual activity, an intuitive and transformational process, not merely the rearrangement or exchange of information between fixed transistor nodes in a finite network architecture. In other words, thinking is something we know from the inside and freely, not something that can be measured, objectified, or programmed. Even self-programming computers/machine learning algorithms cannot reproduce human consciousness. Human consciousness gives rise to such insights as Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, Heidegger’s Dasein, and Berkeley philosopher Hubert Dreyfus’ brilliant refutation of computational cognitive science in light of existential phenomenology (See his famous book What Computers Can’t Do, as well as the follow up, What Computers Still Cannot Do).

Human consciousness or Anthroposophia, like all spiritual entities, is an animate, intelligent, compassionate presence striving to participate in the further evolution of the world-process. Computers might be able to (re)program themselves, but they will never be conscious or be capable of thinking, never have aims other than those given them by their programmers. Computers are a product of thinking, not the other way around.

That said, the more we surround ourselves by screens and computer algorithms, the more our thinking becomes machine-like, the more we begin to imagine ourselves and other people as mere automatons. Thinking is not easy. Emerson as well as Steiner agreed that thinking is the hardest task in the world. But it is the task of our age. 




10 responses to “The brain is not a computer, and thinking is not information-processing.”

  1. Sam Mickey Avatar

    I wonder if it would be helpful to disambiguate the computational theory of mind from the metaphor that mind is a computer. While the former is not compatible with Steiner’s vision, maybe the latter is. People say things like, “I don’t have the bandwidth to hear about the news today”; or, “That’s a lot of information to process.” That seems fine, unless Steiner is particularly authoritarian about controlling vernacular expressions. If our proximity to computers is so dangerous that even mind-as-computer metaphors need to be avoided, then we should probably be deleting our blogs and social media accounts.

    I think of how people like Deleuze/Guattari and Edgar Morin talk about machinic (not mechanistic) processes. In fact, it was Morin who rephrased Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” as “computo ergo sum.” I don’t think computation is entirely antithetical to thinking. Doesn’t Steiner have some way for us to include (while transcending) our computational entanglements in our thinking?

    1. Matthew D. Segall Avatar

      There is certainly a lot of computer-talk these days… It’s very useful language for navigating an increasingly digitized life! I wonder if by “that seems fine” you mean to invoke that poor dog in a neck tie calmly trying to sip his coffee in a burning room?
      I don’t know What Steiner Would Do, but I do sense an authoritarian streak in the anthroposophical society and in Waldorf education when it comes to technology. It is not universal among Waldorf teachers and anthroposophists, but especially in the context of childhood education there does seem to be a flat out rejection of iPads in favor of felt, wood, and chalk.
      Maybe keeping screens away from kids isn’t a horrible idea. But personally I am more Stieglerian on the question concerning technology. We cannot escape it, we’ve never been separate from it, and so talk about whether or not to engage evermore intimately with computers is pretty late to the party. We are already cyborgs.

      1. Sam Mickey Avatar

        I wasn’t thinking of that meme, but that’s very funny. I’m really just sticking up for metaphors. If computational explanations of consciousness are incompatible with Steiner’s vision, maybe computational metaphors are, at least insofar as they help spark the imagination. Reducing technology in early childhood ed makes sense, but reducing metaphors sounds anti-imagination, and that doesn’t sound like Steiner (although I barely know the guy).

      2. Matthew D. Segall Avatar

        I appreciate that distinction between explanation and metaphor. Who doesn’t love a good metaphor? “Let a thousand flowers bloom!”

        But I also wonder whether even the most scientific of explanations would make any sense without relying on metaphor. Even in mathematics, the “=” sign is a sort of copula asking us to consider the relationship between things that are simultaneously different and the same. Yes, 1 + 1 = 2, but clearly the entity “2” is not simply identical in every way to the entities “1” and “1” that are said to be equal to it when combined. So it seems like even in the most rigorous explanations, we still need metaphorical imagination to understand what is being said.

        In the context of the mythopoeics of anthroposophy, there’s an association between modern culture’s technophilia and the evil spirit Ahriman. Ahriman is the polar opposite of another evil spirit, Lucifer. Steiner says (https://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/AhrDec_index.html):

        “Lucifer is the power that stirs up in man all fanatical, all falsely mystical forces, all that physiologically tends to bring the blood into disorder and so lift man above and outside himself. Ahriman is the power that makes man dry, prosaic, philistine — that ossifies him and brings him to the superstition of materialism.”

        Christ is said to act as a mediator between these opposites. His mission is to redeem these evil spirits in service of human transformation. Steiner warned that one of Ahriman’s temptations is the mechanistic conception of the world. So he would likely be suspicious of today’s prolific blooming of computer-mind metaphors.

        Speaking of blooming, I’m reminded of the source of that metaphor: Mao Zedong’s call to “let a hundred flowers blossom” when he invited Chinese intellectuals to offer criticisms of the new communist government.

        “Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.”

        Of course, after flushing them out, Mao apparently had these critics executed for treason.

      3. Sam Mickey Avatar

        That’s helpful. Thanks, Matt. I can see where Stiegler’s love of pharmacological ambiguity contrasts sharply with Steiner.

    2. dltooley Avatar

      I believe part of the answer will come from an understanding of integral computation.

      It is curious that the suspension of thought allows one to expand the breadth of it – this would include the ah ha moments in science which are definitely not algorithmic applications of the scientific method.

      A related question would be what differences there are in the neural correlates of consciousness between a scientist and an experienced meditator.

  2. Herman Greene Avatar
    Herman Greene

    I love this topic, Matt.

    I have heard that Bohm wrote about the limits of computation. Are you familiar with his work on this?

    I’m attaching two short articles that I think are interesting on this topic.


  3. Caroline Hitch Avatar
    Caroline Hitch

    Biological life appears to me to be an environment explorer and niche exploiter in service of its continued survival—where continued “existence” pertains to nonbiological existants. (This is not a trivial activity to me but expresses the highest value of the Cosmos). This is its activity at all scales where “exploring” entails the search aspect of activity and “exploitation” entails the find aspect. It’s true that computation seems more a necessary tool of this activity but not sufficient to explain the experiencer or selector of its products. But if one follows the whole chain of relational perceivables down to the quantum level, from which everything emerged, we wouldn’t need to add consciousness as some God of the gaps to explain it. I’m actually very partial towards the panpsychist view but see the term “consciousness” as non-helpful in trying to understand all this in nondual terms. Unless one could say, body is consciousness, atom is consciousness, events are consciousness, however finite.

    1. Algonquin J. Calhoun Avatar
      Algonquin J. Calhoun

      Do you refer to the Now Essence as an extension of the Cosmic Whole, or as a subset of the totality of Oneness?

  4. Tom Avatar

    I’m not sure it’s right to conflate consciousness with thinking? Thinking is something that we are conscious of. Is it something we do, or is it something done that we feel intimately involved with? In which case a computational explanation of thinking does not run up against the ‘hard problem’.

    Many spiritual traditions claim awareness to be a more fundamental aspect of consciousness than thinking. For example it seems popular in modern spiritual circles to consider awareness as like the ‘sky’, and thoughts as the ‘clouds’ that pass through. Some of humanity’s greatest thinkers seem to have had their insights ‘come to them’ out of the blue, the seeds germinating out of sight. Even Christ claimed to be saying and doing nothing of his own volition, but only what originated with the Father.

    Self-consciously aware thought seems to me to take inspiration from sources that are beyond itself, but even when a good flow has begun and we feel thoroughly engaged, what is the element that we can claim to be ‘us’? What part of us is not in the flow, such that it could be directing the flow? Or is it all part of a greater flow?

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