On Mind, Brain, and Computers
the very dawn of thought, humans have had a deep desire to
solve the mystery of the mind. The mind is said to be the
agent of thought. It is therefore but natural and fit that
it should itself become the subject of inquiry. Humans wish
to grasp their own nature, their essence: that which makes
them different from other entities - both sentient and insentient
- from beings, from automatons, from other machines. What
is it that really makes for the difference? It is the ability
to think consciously and reason deliberately that distinguishes
humans from other forms of existence. This is what makes them
human beings are rational is a truism; the ability to reason
formally and in an abstract manner seems to be completely
lacking in all other living beings. There are certainly many
other human capabilities, but the ability which most marks
an individual out as truly human is this ability to think,
deliberate upon, analyse and categorize facts, formulate ideas,
and decide on a course of action. These are truly the results
of a developed mind.
the advent of modern science there was a clear demarcation
between the mind and the brain. This distinction has become
blurred with the passage of time. But the study of the brain
as a neural machine and the development of computers as automata
have enabled us to make equally bold statements about both
- about what could possibly be done by them and what limits
are impossible for them to overstep.
the present article, we shall discuss the nature of mind vis-a-vis
the brain and computers. Such a comparison presumes a general
equivalence of brains and computers and models the brain as
a huge biological computer, with perhaps consciousness added.
the singular ability to think is generally attributed to the
human mind - this is what is meant when we say that mind is
the agent of thought - there is a lot of debate in the cognitive
sciences on the nature of this term: does a separate entity
termed СmindТ exist, or is this just a linguistic convenience,
some brain functions being traditionally confused with mind?
Though divided in its opinion, the scientific community generally
prefers to think that mind may not exist as a separate entity.
There are two reasons for this thinking: one, the principle
of simplicity makes the mind a redundant entity if brain function
can explain it, and two, there is no definite sensory proof
for the existence of mind; we have instead only certain beliefs
and mundane evidence that is circumstantial
in its psychology, accepts the existence of mind as a separate
material entity. Western philosophers and theologians, in
contrast, believe that the mind, if it exists, is nonmaterial.
According to them, all that is material belongs to the physical
body. The mind, on the other hand, is considered to be part
and parcel of the soul, or even to be the soul itself; and
it definitely has a non-material existence. But if we agree
to this view of mind being non-material, then several problems
Mind Cannot Be Non-material
problem, traceable to Greek psychology, science, and theatre
is that of deus ex machina, God playing the machine,
whereby a supernatural intervention saves a hopeless situation.
But in the ultimate analysis only a machine can work on another
machine. Thus, if the m ind is not itself a physical machine
in one way or another, then it cannot in any way work on the
body, which is undoubtedly a machine, to get sensible results.
for instance, the mundane desire to stand up or sit down.
When this desire arises in the mind, it can have no way to
get transformed into a suitable action. How can a mind that
is non-material, that it not physically linked to the body,
drive it in any way to make it eigther stand up or sit down?
By what means could it be tied to the body so as to be able
to exercise its pull or push?
second problem with mind being non-material is that it cannot
then store anything of the nature of information. In nature,
wherever any information is stored, it is always stored in
two ways: as different states of physical entities, or as
variations in their arrangement or spatial order. Now, if
mind does not have any matter in it, then it naturally follows
that it cannot contain any information of the nature of samskaras
(past impressions), as it will always be in the same state,
and there is no possible arangement of matter or energy that
one can think of in an immaterial object.
third objection, which is raised by Vedanta, is that any non-material
thing is without form. This makes a non-material mind eighter
infinite in dimention or merely a single point. Both possibilities
give rise to serious conceptual problems. There are very few
"really real" entities in the world which are eighter
infinite or merely points. I can only think of two: time and
space. There might be a few other such entities, but mind
surely does not seem to be one of them.
if Mind is Material?
mind is material, then we have a host of other related questions
to answer. Can the mind have an existence seperate from the
body? How does it function? How is it formed? Of what material
is it made? Why is it not observed when it comes out of the
body? In which part of the body does it reside? How is it
connected with a brain, that is, how do thoughts translate
into actions? To answer each of these questions, earnest and
sincere scientific and philosophical inqury is required. I
very much doubt if there is even a semblance of unanimity
on these issues as yet, even after several millenia of unbroken
extreme position is taken by empirical scientists. They are
of tehe view that mind is just a function of the brain, that
it does not have a separate existence, and that it dies its
ignoble death with the death of the body. Needless to say,
Vedanta does not subscribe to this view, even though neither
the hypothesis nor its converse has been provided in any scientific
fashion. We shall touch upon this topic again in another section
thinkers classify mental functions into four basic categories:
samkalpa-vikalpa (cogitation, in the mode of manas),
niscaya (ascertainment or determination, in the buddhi
mode), ahamkara (ego), and smrti (memory as
chitta). Thus, apart from the faculty of thought, the
mind is supposed to have a sense of identity, an ego or I-sense.
Furthermore, it has the capasity for introspection, which
computers are said not to have. In the case of the brain it
is difficult to say whether it is able to introspect or not.
is the contention of the artificial-intelligence community
that the abiluty of one part of the brain to observe the thought
processes of the rest can be termed introspection. Moreover,
at most times, this ability manifests itself not as true self-observation
from a detached (or outsider's)standpoint but as a sort of
recollection of the past or as planning for the future.
is also said to be a reservoir of samskaras, a technical term
for inherent tendencies, which define human character, one's
fate or destiny. According to Vedanta, the mind comes to possess
these samskaras as a result of every good or evil action performed
through the innumerable births that transmigrating living
beings undergo. Sometimes the mind is also said to be the
sum total of all samskaras. When a person dies, the mind,
as part of subtle body, takes these samskaras away with it
in order to create a new body with the character of the original
person at a suitable time. The fact that the mind is separated
from the body at the time of death also makes the mind, along
with the subtle body, an almost autonomous entity. It can
have an existence independent from the body.
in contrast to mind, is easier to explain. It is aliving mass
of neurons, interconnected by its many dendrites, passing
signals from one nerve to the other all the time. Of course,
believers in holistic science argue that the brain when taken
as a "whole" becomes something else, that it is
more than the sum total of its neurons.
and this is just to counter naive holism, Sri Ramakrishna
advocated judicious reductionism. One may recall his observations
regarding how to have detachment through a reductionist analysis
of the nature of sense objects. The Sankhya philosophy also
refutes the possibility of sat, existence, emerging
from asat, non-existence. Nothing extra comes out of
a combination. This is in contrast to the Charvaka position
where quantitative changes can have qualitative effects.
of the Brain
brain is exceptionally good at vision, audition, pattern matching,
and speech recognition. It is also skilled in making run-of-the-mill
generalizations. It is very curious that even though it is
well-known that any inductive inference based on a finite
number of facts in a non-finite logical system (such as second-order
formal logic) is surely no deductive logic, yet people are
known to generalize on as much as a single fact!
human brains are also exceptionally brilliant when it comes
to constructing models of reality. These models are obviously
much more systematic than the world outside, which is but
a jumble of objects and places, isolated facts, and unrelated
incidents. The outside world is interpreted in the light of
one's own model, which, for the brain that constructed it,
corresponds to the outside world in its details.
is to be understood that this model, since it is constructed
by the brain, is not static. It is a dynamic model, and whenever
a jarring event which cannot be explained by the existing
model occurs in the external world, the model is systematically
modified by the brain in such a way as to agree with the new
more than one way, brain process is similar to the trichotomy
of sabda (the word), artha (the referent), and
jnana (knowledge). The model in the brain corresponds
to the world, the external world to referent objects, and
knowledge to the many interpretations of the model, or in
other words, to the relation between the model and the objective
world. It is worth nothing that this is not a one-to-one relationship.
This is why each person has his or her own personal model
of the world and his or her own private interpretations of
the events therein, no one model or interpretation being identical
a logical consequence of the discussion above, one question
naturally arises. Are all brains equal in their capabilities?
Do the brains of lower species have similar capabilities as
those of Homo sapiens? Surprisingly, any brain is theoretically
capable of doing as much as any other brain, only the brains
of lower species do not have the necessary tools at their
disposal. Their situation is similar to the case of mentally
challenged person who has neigther a fine aesthetic sense
not the disposition to master the sciences.
Mind and Brain the Same?
to Vedanta, anything other than the Self, which is considered
real, is made of matter, however subtle. In making this statement
(and in all matters concerning matter), licence must be provided
to wave-particle duality and matter-energy conversion. Hence,
mind, which is non-Self, is also made of matter. And as a
matter of general agreement this material of the mind is taken
to be subtle matter. And as a matter of general agreement
this material of the mind is taken to be subtle matter. The
brain, on the other hand, is made of gross matter and is a
part of the body. This is the chief difference between mind
if the mind were just a function of the body, then we cannot
explain with any clarity the four different states of mind:
jagrat, svapna, susupti, and turiya - the waking state, dream,
deep sleep, and superconsciousness. For example, if the ego
is the primary by-product of the workings of the brain, then
what happens to it during deep sleep (when the brain is still
working but the ego appears to be dissolved), and how does
it suddenly resurface when one wakes up?
Between Mind and Brain
further problem is raised by a scientific-minded. Any stimulus
requires that some energy be expended. Thus, for thinking,
the mind requires some energy. Where does this energy comes
from? The mind must have some energy source of its own for
its multifarious activities.If that be so, then there also
must be transfer of energy from mind to brain all the time.
This energy must surely be enough to exite at least one neuron,
if not more. This makes the mind not so subtle after all.
this natural interaction between the subtle and the gross
does not create any difficulty for staunchly non-dualist Vedantins.
The domain of maya is not always amenable to deductive logic,
and moreover, no scientific system has been able to explain
all known phenomena. According to Vedantins, the phenomenal
world is a superimposition of the Self, and so does not affect
the intrinsic nature of the latter. As a matter of fact, if
in the future computers are shown to have intelligence, that
would not detract from the Vedantic position, for the mind,
being material, is at par with any other material object in
us now make a bold leap into the symbiotic world of computers
and brains. A few questions need to be articulated at the
very beginning: Can a computer be intelligent? Is it capable
of thought? Can it have emotions? Can it be moral or could
it have a conscience? Can it be self-conscience?
Is a Computer?
formal model of a computer is a Turing machine: "a mathematical
model of a hypothetical computing machine which can use a
predefined set of rules to determine a result from a set of
input variables". It is provable that all computers presently
known can be modelled on Turing machines. This is equivalent
to saying, loosely, that given enough time and space a Turing
machine can do anything that any present day computer can
Turing machine as a formal construct is very simple to understand.
It can be depicted by a reading and writing tape-head moving
on a beginningless and endless tape made of discrete cells
which are eigther blank or have one of a finite set of symbols
printed within. the head is controlled by a program which
tells it to read each cell, depending on the entry in the
scanned cell and the internal state of the machine, which
itself can be changed based on the data on the tape. Every
part of the Turing machine is finite; it is the potentially
unlimited amount of tape that gives it an unbounded storage
a Turing machine models human computing ability in several
ways. Our brain is finite, just as the control program for
the head is finite. The processing, the program, and the information
of states all have correspondence with the various aspects
of human memory and thought process. Furthermore, in doing
arithmetic one does not have to do the whole computation in
the mind. One can use paper and pen to note down the intermediate
steps; and there is obviously no theoretical limit to the
amount of paper and ink one can use. This corresponds to the
beginningless and endless tape that the Turing machine uses.
Universal Turing Machine
there is an interesting corollary. The tape can also be thought
of as some kind of memory. So the program controlling the
head can also be written on the tape itself. This makes possible
the construction of what is called the "universal Turing
machine". This conceptual automation need have only one
program, which is capable of modifying itseld ti suit the
needs of the problem under consideration. These problems can
be presented as other programs written as coded instructions
on the tape. At can be shown mathematically that such a machine
with only a single versatile program is capable of computing
in exactly the same way as the earlier Turing machine. This
leads to the important conclusion that all computers are inherently
equal. Here we have a series of automata, constructed in a
single pattern, but which can do a wide variety of tasks and
have as varied a behaviour as possible.
Is Artificial Intelligence?
Turing (1912-54), who formalized mathematical computation,
thus laying the foundation of modern computer science, was
of the opinion that before the turn of the twentieth century
computers would be able to think as humans think. But how
can we know of a computer is thinking? Turing suggested a
very simple test (called the Turing test) to ascertain if
computers have "real intelligence": Place the computer
which is to be tested for intelligence in a closed room and
place a person in another similar closed room. Now allow a
tester, who does not know which room contains what, to ask
questions of both and receive answers. This exchange, however,
must be through a neutral transmission medium. The interrogator
should not get a clue to the identity of the replier from
the medium of interaction (the person answerign through a
microphone and the computer through a terminal, for instance).
The human replier is expected to try to convince the judge
through the answers given that he or she is really human,
whereas the computer is to be so programmed that the judge
cannot discern it to be a machine. To make matters more complicated,
the computer is "allowed" to give wrong answers
similar to humans, feign ignorance, and also give delayed
answers, giving the impression that it is thinking.
himself suggested several objections that could be raised
against this test; but all these objections can be adequately
addressed. As matter stand, no computer till date has passed
the Turing test satisfactory, although there was an instance
when a computer was able to succesfully fool three judges
out of a panel of five by wrongly answering some questions.
are good in repetitive tasks. This is both their strength
as well as their weakness. If you ask a computer to do a tediously
monotonous task over and over again, it will keep on doing
it without tiring or without ever following the "human"
way and doing things on its own. It does not undertake "meta-thinking",
that is, thinking as an outside observer or as a witness,
as the mind does. Nor is it able to generalize and find out
the general pattern of the task assigned to it as the brain
readily does. However, computers are good at specialised tasks.
If you give a computer a general rule and ask it to work out
all the complex details, it will happily apply the rule to
each and every special circumstance and get the required results.
surprisingly, as a result of their inability to generalize,
computers are notoriusly bad at pattern-matching. Within the
time constraints allowed to them they can only do very basic
analysis of speech and visual images. They can synthesize
speech or images without much difficulty, but when it comes
to analysing speech and vision they have a very hard time
doing it. On the other hand, computers can do arithmetic as
no human can. A typical computer can add or multiply numbers
consisting of tens of digits, at a rate of around a million
operations per second. Moreover, computers can keep time with
great accuracy. All their operations can be accomplished through
a number of very accurately defined steps. Hence it is possible
to ask computers to perform periodical tasks with great accuracy.
A human being, in contrast, is forgetful and has to depend
on external timepieces to know the time. It is very strange
that despite its intricacy the brain has only a rudimentary
sense of space and time.
Differences between Computers and the Brain
brain is a biological structure made of organic molecules,
whereas computer chips are inorganic objects manufactured
by etching circuits on the surface of silica chips. Thus the
human brain, occupying volume, is a volumetric entity whereas
a computer, as electronic circuitry on the surface of silica
chip, is an areal entity. This explains the vast processing
power and exceptional capabilities of the human brain.
though the human brain has got billions of neurons, each neuron
has only a very basic processing power. Thus a brain can be
thought of as a multiprocessor parallel computer where each
processor is only capable of only few rudimentary operations,
like checking if some signal is received or not. An average
computer, on the other hand, consists of a single but powerful
processing unit capacle of doing hundreds of thousands of
arithmetic computations in a fraction of a second.
the Brain a Computer?
have noted the architectural similarities between brains and
computers. So is there really nodifference between them? Are
these two similar in all respects? Is the brain just a natural
computer and a computer just an artificial brain?
Turing is the co-proponent of another controversial thesis,
the Church-Turing thesis, which states that anything that
can possibly be computable physically, can be computed by
a Turing machine. This has the far-reaching implication that
the human brain may also be modelled on the Turing machine.
Fortunately or unfortunately - depending on one's standpoint
- no one has proved (or disproved) this hypothesis as yet.
But it is a tribute to Church and Turing's genius that we
have no better model for computation than a Turing machine
is true that, as a consequence of Godel's famous "incompleteness
theorem", there exist true statements which cannot be
proven eigther true or false in any logical system. It is
also true, from Turing's equally famous "halting problem",
that there exist problems which cannot be solved by any algorithm
(program) used by Turing machines. But the same can be said
for the brain too, human or otherwise. There is not a single
theorem ever proved by any mathematician which is not potentially
provable by a Turing Machine.
might be tempted to say that it is humans who have proved
the incompleteness of logical systems and are therefore superior
to these systems. Detractors would argue that one system of
logic can also prove the incompleteness of another logical
system. Only if a brain can prove its own consistency after
formalizing itself or handle infinite calculations in finite
time can it be said to be superior to Turing machines, not
to Vedanta, mind has existence seperate from the body. But
we must be careful to note that it may not have any special
abilities which pertain only to itself and which are not materially
replicable. In fact, Mother Nature regularly replicates the
mind-machine in one form or another. The only special or unique
(vilaksana) entity posited by Vedanta is the Atman
or Self, which is existence, knowledge, and bliss absolute.
And this is unique to the Atman.
one were to contend that the light of the Atman is shining
behind the mind then it can also be said that the same light
is present behind computers. For the Upanishads say: "Tameva
bhantam-anubhati sarvam, tasya bhasa sarvamidam vibhati;
That shining, everything else shines; by that Light is lit
up this objective world in its entirety". If we say that
there is a difference in the intensity, that there is greater
expression of this light in the mind than in gross matter,
then this is exactly the point, there is only a difference
in degree but not in kind.
theory will not be challenged if in future computers come
up with real intelligence, originality, or "brilliance".
Only a few years back it was thought that computers could
not play chess, and now computers have decisively proved this
wrong. The Vedantic model of the mind would however be shaken
if evidence can be brought to show that the mind is but a
shadow of brain function and that there is no transmigration
of the mental apparatus.
though the mind is in all likelihood separate from the brain,
it still seems logical to assume that it may not be in a position
intrinsically superior to computers. This assertion, in all
frankness, is open-ended. In all probability it is superior,
but we may discover in the future that it is not quite so.
For instance, it might be possible in future for computers
to show practical intelligence and even to effectively simulate
a person identity or human emotions.
does that in any way decrease the glory of the Atman that
shines behind the mind? Not at all, for the Atman is ever
the witness, ever the subject, transcending thought, intelligence,
and emotions, and is consciousness itself. Thought, intelligence,
and emotions are in the realm of mayaand therefore within
the purview of matter. If computers are material, so is the
mind. Theoretically, there is nothing to stop computers from
taking a quantum leap and developing themselves into something
which is at par with the mental aspect of living beings. If
the mind, despite being material, is capable of thought, as
well as moral and aesthetic appreciation, then so could be
computers in some foreseeable future. This much could be said
for sure, given the lack of conclusive evidence to the contrary.