Inspired by Reality & Emergence, a dialogue w/ Gregg Henriques & Tim Adalin
Blurring Computation, Perception, Dialogos, and the Like As All “Computation”
How everything in the universe isn’t just “like a computer,” but “computation” is still the term we tend to use almost exclusively these days, because technologies shape and “capture” our metaphors.
Does our brain work like a computer? That language is often employed, but computers don’t exist in nature, so how could the human mind work like one? It doesn’t seem like it could, and yet it has become natural for us to think of our minds like computers, and frankly to refer to all “methods of thinking” as “computation.” Why is that a problem? Well, because metaphors shape our thinking profoundly (as explored in “Meaningful and Metaphoric Tendencies” by O.G. Rose), and also we might be “closing ourselves off” from identifying key differences and nuances between different ways of thinking and understanding the world. If there are big differences between say what John Vervaeke calls “Dialogos” and “computation,” then believing “it’s all computation,” we won’t think we’re missing out on anything by skipping Dialogos, when really we’ll be skipping out on a lot (worse yet, we won’t even know we’re missing anything, “truly ignorant”).
The essay “Representing Beauty” by O.G. Rose argued that technology always influences our “towardness”: once cameras are invented, everything we see becomes “a potential picture”; once Twitter is developed, every witty line is “a potent Tweet”; and so on. Technology expands horizons and hermeneutical possibilities — or so it could. Really, what practically ends up happening is that whatever is the most paradigm-shifting technology that came out most recently usually ends up “capturing” (Deleuze) our language, and how we speak always influences how we see. In our case, that technology would be the computer, and isn’t it amazing how quickly “computer language” has spread? We now refer to the universe being “made of information,” of brains “processing” — “computation” is the dominate metaphoric structure of our time.
Now, please don’t mistake me as saying that there is no truth to the idea that “in the beginner, there was information,” for if there was no truth to it, the idea wouldn’t stick. Rather, my concern is that “computer language” is being “overfit” today, resulting in us over-considering the brain as “like a computer,” when the brain might entail a whole lot more (a mind, for example, which perhaps operates more like an artist than it does a machine). Perhaps not, but if we’re not even aware of how “technological language” is “capturing” our thinking, the likelihood we’ll discern our situation accurately will be low.
It’s easy to understand why we let “computer language” dominate, for computers are awesome. They work well and open many possibilities — they just must to provide revelation about how the universe works, yes? I mean, the universe “arose” to computers (through us), so surely there is something about computers that unveils something about the universe. Well, possibly — that’s a fair thought. It’s true that computers can help provide us with a language to understand parts of the universe, but the danger is that we begin using “computer language” almost exclusively at the expense of other metaphoric complexes (like “Dialogos”). This is a mistake similar to “monotheorism,” where we use a “single theory” by which to understand the universe. Here, we become “monometaphoric,” per se — we use a single set of terms or images to understand life — in a world that requires something more akin to being “polymetaphoric,” which is to use different metaphors for different situations. But then that requires discernment to determine which metaphors should be used for when (and according to the right standards), all of which is difficult to discern: hence why we naturally prefer being “monometaphoric.”
Alright, how should we understand the brain then if not according to “computers?” A great question, and please don’t mistake me as saying that brains “are nothing like computers”: parts of brains certainly are “computer-like” (perhaps computers are made “in the image and likeness” of our brains, per se?). But, to the point, let’s explore three “functions of the brain” and describe them in hopes of discovering new metaphors beyond “computation.”
This is elaborated on in “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose, but basically it is a state where we “thoughtlessly” look at an object and just look at it (similar to meditation). We quiet our thinking and simply “take in” the world. This mental act is not like “computation,” but more like “being a sponge” — we’re primarily “absorbing” and not calculating. Could it be said that we’re “downloading” sensory experiences? I don’t think so: our thinking is off. Personally, I think “perception” is critical to our personal and phenomenological development, and without it our development will be stifled. If this is the case, then thinking of ourselves as “like computers” will hurt our aesthetic development: we won’t grasp the need to “absorb” or even “meditate.”
We don’t always know what we’re going to think next, and yet thoughts and ideas can pop into our heads almost magically. We don’t will them, and yet they appear. This is described in “Experiencing Thinking,” but our minds seem mysteriously able to produce thoughts that we don’t always will. Generally, computers work by us plugging in certain inputs and receiving corresponding outputs, but that isn’t what happens with daydreaming. Yes, often our daydreaming entails things we’ve experienced, thoughts we’ve had, images that have flashed before our eyes — but we don’t “input” or “code” for these things to “come together” like they do in daydreaming. Instead, it feels more like an “organic growth,” something more akin to a garden. We create the conditions that make the growth possible, but the seeds cannot be considered “equivalent” to the greenhouse (even if the greenhouse plays a necessary role).
Inspired by John Vervaeke, this is generally a philosophical conversation that gives rise to ideas that no single participate in the conversation could have arisen to on their own. It’s a form of brainstorming, but the process highlights the power of “emergence” and “the surprising.” This is like a jazz performance: nobody “calculates” or “computes” the outcomes of the discussion ahead of time, and yet “something just happens” all the same. It’s not random, and it certainly involves skill, but it’s hard to explain: “getting it” requires “doing it” — phrases that don’t readily map onto computation.
Sponges, greenhouses, jazz improvisations — all three of these are metaphoric structures that are just as useful as “computers’ if not more useful and accurate in certain situations. But because of how computers “capture” our thinking, we tend not to use them. As a result, we think of perception, daydreaming, and dialogos all as examples of “computation,” which can train us to think that all we need to focus on is developing our analytical and “left-brain” thinking. After all, if all acts of the brain are “computation,” seeing as “left-brain thinking” is most like a computer, that is what we will emphasize. And, as a result, our “right-brains” will go underdeveloped, hurting our capacity to perceive, daydream, and “emerge,” all while we think we’re improving in these areas (for it’s all “computation,” after all).
Our brains and minds should not be understood “monometaphorically”: we must be “polymetaphoric” or pay a high price. “Computation” is a useful term that does seem to describe “analytical thinking” well, but “computers” should not be “overfit” and used exclusively. If we make this mistake, we will at the same time hinder our ability to think and realize that we made this mistake. The mistake hides itself, and in the process hides us from ourselves.
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