The "no one in charge" world

We used to think that leaders controlled organizations, logic controlled computing, and individuals were in charge of their thoughts. Organizations are evolving into no-boss demoncracies. On Demand computing relies on the interactions of software agents rather than insturctions from up top somewhere. And today's New York Times has an astounding article on the work of Nobel Laureate Gerald M. Edelman, who suggests that for brains, just as for organizations and computers, no one is in charge.

"The brain is not a logically structured organ; these processes of connection resemble the processes of metaphor more than those of logic."

Reporter Edward Rothstein writes,

The theory's first principles and assumptions are relatively simple: There is no overseer in the brain setting rules and making connections. There are also no "spooky" forces, as Dr. Edelman puts it. Neither is the brain a machine or a computer. For Dr. Edelman, there are only the "unlabeled world" and the "embodied brain," a confrontation of unstructured immensities.

Speculating on how the brain ("the most complicated material object in the known universe") does its thing will never be a walk in the park.

The brain will always have more going on than seems necessary, more randomness and variation than any humanly designed system. There is enormous redundancy (which Dr. Edelman refers to as "degeneracy") in the brain's functioning, giving it remarkable resilience and evolutionary possibilities. No brain event happens the same way twice. Even memory is always a variant, he says a re-creation, never a repetition.

I've been questioning the utility of logic in figuring out our world. Logic simplifies understanding but that doesn't make it an accurate reflection of what's really going on. A spreadsheet is all logic, and I've used what-if scenarios in Excel to convince myself and others of the viability of outlandish, absurd outcomes. It was comforting to read, "The brain is not a logically structured organ; these processes of connection resemble the processes of metaphor more than those of logic."

These theories are part of what Dr. Edelman hopes will become "sciences of recognition," studying how biological processes recognize other biological processes. It is an enterprise, he argues, that spurs amazement, because if it succeeds, it will show that out of accident and diversity, something as miraculous as human consciousness can be born. But this vision can also spur discomfort, because it implies that there is no supervising soul or self nobody is standing behind the curtain.

The Times placed the article on Edelman (The Brain: It's a Jungle in There) not in the Science section, but rather, in the Arts section of the paper.

Wider than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness


Posted by Jay Cross at March 27, 2004 09:16 AM | TrackBack
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