Our grand business undoubtedly is, not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.” -Thomas Carlyle “Signs of the Times”
There has been an interesting conversation going on at New Cool Thang concerning the nature of God’s brain. Among the issues being discussed is whether God’s brain stores memory — or whether any brain stores memory at all. The idea that information is “stored” in the brain is very prevalent in Western culture and likely owes its origins to the advent of computer technology and theories of memory storage coming out of cognitive psychology.
The basic idea in memory storage theories is that information comes into the brain through the five senses and is either immediately discarded, stored in short-term memory, or stored in long-term memory. Information in short and long term memory is then available for retrieval, short term being accessible for moments, long term for years.
Two of the most essential terms, information, and retrieval, aren’t usually well defined. This is a problem! I will discuss retrieval as I find it especially problematic, leaving the discussion of information for another time.
On retrieval: What mechanism accounts for the retrieval of memories? Where am I (my conscious self) during the retrieval process? If all my memories are stored somewhere in my brain, how would I remember “where” I filed a particular memory so that I might retrieve it later? Indeed, how would I remember whether I had even stored any memories at all without having some sort of constant “at hand” memory? Of course there are ways of explaining the phenomenon of retrieval (by hypothesizing more mental constructs), but I simply find no reason to do so. Why assume that my ability to recall past experience requires any further hypothetical constructs? Remembering, as even B.F. Skinner would say, is the behavior of an entire organism–not of a disconnected mind or brain. Perhaps we remember what we do because of who we are in the present moment. Perhaps in some ways what we remember is inseparable from who we are. I don’t share these last remarks as a necessary alternative to information storage theories of memory, but as a viable, possible alternative to them. (In other words, I’m striving to maintain an open folk belief system)
The metaphysical speculation on the application of information theory to God’s brain reminds me of “Signs of the Times” written by Thomas Carlyle in 1829. “Signs of the Times” was written, in part, to criticize rampant metaphysical theorizing by members of the scientific community in those times. Criticizing Pierre Cabanis (“as the liver secretes bile, so does the brain secrete thought”) he says,
The metaphysical philosophy of this last inquirer is certainly no shadowy or unsubstantial one. He fairly lays open our moral structure with his dissecting-knives and real metal probes; and exhibits it to the inspection of mankind, by Leuwenhoek microscopes, and inflation with the anatomical blowpipe. Thought, he is inclined to hold, is still secreted by the brain; but then Poetry and Religion (and it is really worth knowing) are “a product of the smaller intestines!” We have the greatest admiration for this learned doctor: with what scientific stoicism he walks through the land of wonders, unwondering; like a wise man through some huge, gaudy, imposing Vauxhall, whose fire-works, cascades and symphonies, the vulgar may enjoy and believe in.
This issue remains more or less intact today. Cognitive psychologists theorize about “constructs” or “structures of the mind” which set forth the limits of memory, emotion, and attitude formation, the nature of consciousness or the self, free will, and even religion. This metaphysical speculation persists despite the past 200 years of criticisms similar to Carlyle’s and, perhaps more telling, it persists despite the lack of empirical evidence or rational arguments for such speculation. Within science and scientific publications–that area of human interest which prides itself on the accumulation and support of empirical evidence–such speculation (masquerading as science and appearing without any kind of rationale) is a problem.
What application might this have for readers of this blog? Remember that metaphors can be fun and educational. They can help to direct our thoughts and sometimes allow for the generation of unique insights. But remember also that we have no cause to make metaphysics out of our metaphors. To say that everything on the earth acts as if some kind of force were dragging it down towards the center of the earth is not the same as saying that there IS such a force IN REALITY. Indeed, informed scientists will understand that gravity is merely a description of a relatively uniform observation. Similarly, the concept of memory storage might be useful in some ways. However, we shouldn’t jump from the useful metaphor to the absolute metaphysic without, at the very least, making a clear rationale for doing so. This is especially important in areas which may impact faith (i.e. the nature of God). We have as much reason to believe that brains operate through means of information theory as we have to believe that “as the liver secretes bile, so does the brain secrete thought” or any other metaphor-turned-metaphysic. Tread with care.