Your Brain Is Not a Computer

Why being human means we must be embodied.
Your Brain Is Not a Computer
Image: Metamorworks / Getty

Human bodies married to metallic bodies—one complex system intertwining with another—happen with more frequency these days. Samsung revealed research this month on technology that would allow people with physical disabilities to control their TVs with their thoughts. Johnny Matheny became the first man to receive a robotically controlled arm earlier this year.

But in some ways, movement toward cyborg (cybernetic organism) applications sounds like a leap into dystopian science fiction. Businessman Elon Musk aims to connect the brain to computers, and one neurologist was even willing to hack his own brain to further research on human speech, hoping to one day attain life extension itself.

While recent advances in medical science have shown just how complex the human body is, and therefore how difficult this will be, computers continue to become more and more complex. The study of these two systems developing together over time is called cybernetics, a term coined by the mathematician-philosopher Norbert Wiener in an attempt to explain the newfound technological ability to “command and control” machines—including biological organisms.

Noreen Herzfeld, a professor who teaches at the intersection of life and tech at Saint John’s University and College of St. Benedict, spoke with CT recently about whether computers will one day control our human bodies, why embodiment matters, and how bodies and souls are a part of the human system. With degrees in both theology and computer science, she has written numerous books and articles, including In Our Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Spirit, Technology and Religion: Remaining Human in a Co-created World, and Religion and the New Technologies.

How does this idea of “system” speak to the near future with the closing of the gap between computer and human?

You could think of both the computer and the human as components of larger systems. You can also think of each of them, in and of themselves, as a system. We’re a system of blood and muscles and bones and mitochondria. The computer is like this at the software level; it is a system of interlocking programs.

The other idea inherent in cybernetics is that a system that has agency—actually does something—works towards a goal. Then comes the question: “Can a computer have a goal?” If we believe some of the AI fabulists, yes it can. It can only have its programmer’s goal. But once the programmer gives the goal to the computer, it is now the computer’s goal. So, the computer has a certain amount of agency even if it isn’t self-directed.

So, a computer having a goal gives it more human-like characteristics. Then what distinguishes a human?I recently argued that contemporary Christian theologians have placed too much emphasis on embodiment and we need to return to the soul. Both soul and body are necessary, yet how do we balance the discussion?

I agree with you that as theologians we could use a little more balance. On the other hand, when I put on my computer science hat, I am very strong on embodiment. Current thinking among many proponents of artificial intelligence and transhumanism is that we might be able to upload our brains to computers. And what they’re really introducing there is a new quasi-Cartesian dualism, that what matters about us is something that is entirely separable from our body. And I strongly disagree with that. I think that we need bodies in order to be in authentic relationship with one another.

Embodiment is very important, and it is also central to the whole Christian understanding of the incarnation and the importance of the incarnation. I think one of the things that Christianity brings to the discussion is this sanctification of our mortal flesh, of the material existence that we have, and this idea that divinity can penetrate that material existence.

I think in part it comes down to the question of emotion. Love stands at the center of Christianity—the great commandment that we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves. If we think of that love in terms of charity or empathy … well, empathy is that you see someone else’s difficulty; you feel an emotion, and you respond. If you skip the middle step, and you just see the difficulty and calculate what a response ought to be, you’re acting like a sociopath, who calculates rather than genuinely feels another’s pain. And it’s pretty hard to have a long-term, authentic relationship with a sociopath.

So then you say, “Well, how do you feel an emotion?” The psychologists who are working with the science of emotion say it actually has to be felt bodily. When something frightens us, our heart speeds up, we get physically ready for fight or flight long before the cerebral cortex kicks in and calculates what it is that is frightening us and what we ought to do. When we feel love for someone, there’s a bodily feeling there before there’s a calculation.

It seems that bodily stimuli are critical to our humanity, not only here, but also in the resurrection?

Yes. In the Apostles’ Creed, we talk about the resurrection of the body. I think a lot of Christians don’t actually believe that; a lot of Christians that I know are functional dualists and talk as if the minute I die my soul goes to heaven. Yet on Sunday they say, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” So there’s a little bit of a disjunction there.

When we say we believe in the resurrection of the body, we mean we will remain a separate entity after death. In other words, we’re not just slurped into the godhead somehow. The Christian view is: “No, I will still be a separate entity, but that entity will have undergone some process of deification. It will have become like god, but it will not be God.”

Popular pronouncements from recent scientific studies suggest there’s no soul. Is there a soul, and why does the soul matter?

From my own background, as a Quaker, the Quakers have a saying, “There is that of God in every human being.” I guess I believe that that constitutes our soul. The soul is the locus of our connection with the divine and that makes it matter. I think one of the things that we have sometimes gotten off track with in Christian theology is seeing the purpose of a soul as for the afterlife rather than as a way of being in this life. What matters most about the soul is that it’s the place of connection with the divine in this life.

Do you believe people will one day become cyborgs, uploading their minds to electronic devices? Or will there be some type of quasi-upload that becomes a mockery of being human?

I don't think it’s going to happen. I think it is a dream that is held by a lot of Silicon Valley types who are not religious but not ready to let go of a hope for an afterlife. They are holding on to this idea that they can somehow give themselves an afterlife.

One reason it’s not going to work is due to the complexity of the brain and the entire human being. There are projects to map the connectome of the brain. The idea is that if we can do the human genome, then why can’t we do the connectome? But the connectome of the brain is much more complex than the human genome. We have billions of neurons, and each of those neurons can possibly be connected to thousands of other neurons. Plus, these connections are plastic; they change. We kill neurons off, we grow new neurons, we reconnect, we end connections that are not being used, and we build new connections in other places. Plus, we’re now finding out that we’ve got an awful lot of neurons in our gut as well. There’s a strong connection between the brain and the gut, and it’s not one way—brain to gut; gut to brain is connected as well.

So even if we do get to a point where we can reverse engineer the neural connections in the brain, we’re still missing a lot of what makes us us. And to add in all that other stuff—now the complexity is horrendous. Second, you’re going to diverge from whatever it is that ends up in the computer the minute they unhook you. Now there might be something in the computer, some curious doppelgänger, which has my memories. But it’s not going to have any of the same processes of retrieving those memories. It’s not going to have a bodily feeling when it retrieves a memory the way I do. I, in a computer, would be a very impoverished thing. Finally, I doubt that whatever is in the computer would be conscious; I think it will not be operative. And if it were conscious, the first thing it would say is “Let me out of here!”

Douglas Estes is associate professor of New Testament and practical theology at South University. He is the editor of Didaktikos, and his latest book is Braving the Future: Christian Faith in a World of Limitless Tech.

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Your Brain Is Not a Computer