Thursday, October 19, 2006

Continuing the Metaphor

Another interesting dynamic:

On the one hand, information processing accounts of the human mind are not new. Neither is the metaphor that the mind works pretty much like a computer, with the neurphisiological structure as the hardware, and the knowledge and cultural information as the software. It is also not news that this metaphor has been insufficient for some. There just seem to be too many qualitative differences (e.g. highly complex linguistic competence, and poetic as well as theoretic capacities, among others) between one and the other.

On the other hand, connectionist accounts of the mind have increasingly claimed that connection speed and capacity limitations are in fact cognitive capacities of the mind. They account, among other things, for important epistemic differences in early infancy, such as the difference between retrieving hidden objects that were previously visible and not bieng able to do so. These accounts claim that knowledge is task dependent and, moreover, that it develops in accordance with the speed of connection. The difference that they account for, however, is more likely a qualitative than a quantitative one. The difference between having or lacking knowledge, between representing or not an object, is qualitative enough. The question is, then, how do these theories account for such a change in terms of hardware differences such as strength of connection? The answer is surprisingly old and well known: through self-reference. The model proposed (Munakata, et. al. 1997) is such that the system (hardware) is able to revise itself by using the information (software) encoding through previous experiences. More importantly, while revising itself the system modifies itself (the connection strength is modified, at the very least).

How should we modify the computer metaphor, then, in order to fit our qualitative needs? I think we have a very plausible suggestion here: all we need is to make the computer in the metaphor a little bit more plastic and self-conscious. All we need is a hardware that is able to modify itself given its own software. The mind is still very much like a computer.