W(h)ither Metaphysical Speculation

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.

(Those interested in reading “Signs of the Times” can find it here on The Victorian Web.)

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7 Responses

  1. Very thoughtful post, Dan.

  2. Dan,

    Thanks for this follow on post. It is hard to argue with the overall message of “tread with care,” but you fail to address any of the interesting questions at hand.

    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?

    The reason for hypothesizing the original constructs you mentioned as well as the additional ones you suggested is obvious. The reason is that we are trying to account for what we experience with respect to memory and recall. We all have the experience of remembering things and of forgetting things. We sometimes try to remember things and have the experience of feeling that we know the person’s name who stared in Forest Gump but not being able to recall it at that moment. We have all had the experience of that name popping into our consciousness a short time later. We all have the experience of being able to “cram” for a test in such a way that we are able to get 100% tomorrow but we can’t remember any of the information 4 months later. We have all learned certain strategies for remembering things that we’ve forgotten (like mentally walking back through the events of the day in order to remember where we left something). I could go on with lots of other experiences of memory and recall that we would all identify with.

    How are we to account for these experiences? The explanation of Skinner that “Remembering is the behavior of an entire organism–not of a disconnected mind or brain” fails to explain or account for any of the features mentioned above. In fact, it doesn’t explain anything. Thus, it is not particularly useful.

    The computer analogy is widespread because it gives us concrete ways to explain all kinds of experiences we have. Saying that this analogy is untrustworthy just because it was not prevalent until the advent of the computer is totally illogical. Do we have any prima facie basis for arguing that brains do not share some commonalities with computer systems? If brains do have such commonalities, wouldn’t it be natural that we would recognize those commonalities as we started developing computers? Of course we would.

    The reason to create a speculative metaphysics around the computer analogy is directly related to how well that analogy can explain our experiences. It happens to do a very good job at providing constructs to explain our experience of memory. There are some obvious differences between brains and computers which we recognize as breakdowns in the computer analogy. So we are not just blindly assuming that we are all computers and succombing to epiphenominalism as Pierre Cabanis seems to be suggesting.

    If you want to reject the computer analogy, offer a better replacement. Dennis seemed to suggest over at NCT that he was prepared to do so, but he hasn’t had time to follow up. Maybe he will get time to post on it here at a later date. Give me an alternate theory which accounts for the phenomenons associated with memory and recall and I am ready to consider it. Until then I have a hard time taking these criticisms too seriously.

  3. By the way, I often make the mistake of coming into new forums with guns blazing. Sorry about that. Forgive my tone for being so confrontational.

  4. Jacob J,

    Thanks for commenting on my (mostly) unpopular post. I don’t mind if you want to take the current metaphor seriously, and you are correct to state that the historical development of the computer metaphor doesn’t make for a strong argument against it. It could even be that the metaphor is “true”.

    However, the overall message of “tread with care” is more relevant to this conversation than you might think. To me, it means that the burden of proof is on the speculator to provide a reason to take the metaphor seriously. Sure, the computer metaphor explains things, but so did Greek myths. If you want someone to take your metaphor seriously AS A METAPHYSICAL theory, you need to provide more than usefulness as an argument. Stated differently, the gap from “it is useful to think of memories as being stored in immediate, short-term, and long-term memory” to “Memories ARE IN FACT stored in such places (or ways?)” requires its own separate explanation.

    So, you are correct that I have not offered a replacement, but I don’t think that makes my criticisms less valid.

  5. No worries–you didn’t come across as being too confrontational. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Dan,

    Fair enough. It is true that my post at NCT didn’t give any arguments for why the computer metaphor should be taken seriously as a description of how brains really work. The reason for my failure to do so is that I had no idea it was a topic ripe for debate.

    Previously, Dennis suggested something about the possibility of supporting the theory by deleting selected memories. I responded to that here. I don’t suspect this will ever be possible. Probably there is some similar type of scientific experiment that could shed light on the issue, but I don’t think scientific proof is required to accept it as the best avaliable theory.

    Honestly, I am still unsure of what alternate theories there are that don’t rely on information taking up space in the physical world. Things, themselves, take up space. Trees, people, garbage cans. Our perception of these things relies on information about them being transmitted to us physically (by photons in the case of sight or particles in the case of smells). Optical information is transmitted to the brain via electrical signals over the optic nerve. So, we know that the information starts as something physical which takes up space and that we can’t perceive it without organs transmitting that information physically into the brain.

    Memory is the experience of being able to recall (an in some sense re-experience) those original experiences we have had seeing trees and smelling garbage cans. We are not able to remember things that we have not experienced. I don’t remember what it looks like to view the earth while standing on the moon, for example. So, the information is physical when it goes in and the most basic thing we can say about memory is that it allows us to hold on, in some sense, to the experience associated with receiving that information in the first place. The idea that the information is somehow stored in the brain seems to have a good prima facie case to make.

    We know that all these things that I am suggesting are stored in the brain are the kinds of things that can be stored as physical information. Photographs can be stored, for example. Even ideas can be stored physically and transmitted, just as I am converting ideas from my brain into letters and words and sending them to you through physical means. So, all these things are at least susceptible to physical storage.

    Then we get to the points I made about memory and recall in my previous comment. We sometimes know we have information in our brains somewhere even when we are unable to recall it at the moment. We know that we can experience things and truly forget them, so that even if we see a video of ourselves doing something in the past we cannot remember the occassion (say, a video of our first birthday). All of this suggests that our memories exist somewhere, certainly independent of our consciousness. Else, how do we explain the difference between the name we know, but can’t remember at the moment, and the birthday cake we’ve seen, but will never remember again?

  7. Jacob J,

    Again, sorry I haven’t said more on this issue. Not a professional blogger, so often times I simply let things go.

    But you’ve got me thinking about this issue, and I’d like to look into this more. I’ll say just a few things right now. First, there is a difference between memory storage (and all of the baggage that it entails) and the notion that memory “takes up space.” The former is easier to debunk, and it this model that I see as essential to a computer model. The latter notion, I will admit, is much more difficult to debunk, and I admit that I am not fully prepared to do so at this time (though I am still very suspicious). I will say, though, that we need to be careful about making “memory” and “information” synonymous. Also, I am much less invested in debunking the “space” argument than the computer metaphor one. In other words, even if we assume that memory must, in some way, take up space, this does not imply that we need to embrace a computer metaphor model (or really anything related to information theory, for that matter).

    I think that you and Dan have both brought up good points in the discussion here. For me, the issue is not what is REALLY true. Rather, the issue is what it is saying about humans (let alone God) to assume one way or the other. I take issue with the computer storage model because it assumes (and we can certainly debate this) that the environment is an efficient causal mechanism for storing the passive, tabula rasa minds of humans. It also assumes that information has some kind of acontextual and atomistic quality. My own philosophical and religious commitments make these assumptions unpalatable. I find a hard time finding a place for agency, intimacy, creativity, and “intelligence” (which is neither created or made). The best the computer analogy person can do is argue for some kind of mysterious emergence which, to me, sounds like an absurd way of trying to make two incompatible things compatible. Simply my opinion.

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