I just finished reading The Answer is Never Magic by Robert S. Porter and found it interesting. It is written as a continual conversation between an atheist and a variety of theists that seeks to examine subjects like faith, forgiveness and punishment by a forgiving God.


The conversations probe the Bible's contradictory nature, free will as well as science and evidence. The conversations a question and answer format with the atheist seeking or understanding about religious belief and in return answering a few questions from what might be considered a humanistic point of view. Despite the book's quirky style Porter is informationally on the mark and relevant. For me, the books last paragraph sums up the author's point of view.


"Of course, I'm not content with our limited understanding. And I think reverse engineering the brain's programming language to understand exactly how it does what it does is the scientific challenge of the 21st century.  Whoever does that will be Einstein, Watson and Crick and Hawking all rolled into one (though it's pretty likely to be a team not an individual). I don't know what that programing language will look like or what the ultimate explanation of self-awareness and conscious thought will be, but I'm certain of one thing. The answer will not be 'magic.'"


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Comment by Alan Perlman on January 20, 2013 at 8:05pm

Donald...So glad to hear someone else agrees with me.  Years ago I read Hubert Dreyfus' What Computers Can't Do and have been convinced ever since, by accumulating evidence.  In the same vein, Chomsky's supposed profundity that the brain is "hard-wired" for language means nothing at all.

Comment by Donald R Barbera on January 20, 2013 at 4:54pm
Alan, absolutely. Sam Harris's book Free Will destroys any comparison to computers despite the seeming similarity, as you rightly point out, computers are not self aware. The metaphor is especially weak when considering human free will, which makes a strong argument that it does not exist. Studies show that the brain actually makes decisions before we are award of making a choice. Porter also talked of this phenomenon.
Comment by Alan Perlman on January 20, 2013 at 12:58pm

I agree, the brain and consciousness are the ultimate mystery.  But I differ with a lot of people when I argue that the computer metaphor -- with all its accompanying metaphors (programming language, storage, input, processing, etc., etc.) -- is wrong, and pursuing it will lead us AWAY from understanding, since (i) no computer has consciousness, (ii) consciousness is the fundamental, distinctive activity of the human brain, and (iii) we have no idea how the brain produces consciousness.  Even as simple a phenomenon as "talking to myself" -- where neurons and synapses produce thoughts AND perceive them verbally -- is far beyond our understanding.  

Manipulation of brain/mind content is a frequent theme in SF (Brainstorm, Total Recall, Johnny Mnemonic), but as with time travel, no one has any idea how it would actually be done.



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