Ones and Zeros

Long ago when the only way to have a personal computer was to buy a kit and build it yourself, a friend was doing just that. The evening came when all the soldering and assembling was done, the machine was plugged in and the ON button pressed. What was expected was just a flashing cursor, perhaps after a logo or a boot log (whatever). But what happened was the screen filled with 1s and 0s. Someone said jokingly that all the computer had to work with, after all, were 1s and 0s, what should we expect…

I think of this when people ask how just electrical pulses in the brain can produce consciousness. Well, how can 1s and 0s in a computer produce pictures?

Computers have three things other than 1s and 0s. They have programs, hardware and peripherals. Brains have communicating cells, organized processes, a body with muscles, glands and sense organs. The difference is that humans built the computers using engineering principles that are well understood. We do not understand brains. New aspects of the brain are discovered every week. Brains are hugely complicated. We may think we can see the faint outline of how a brain works but we could be wrong about so many ‘facts’. However, there is absolutely no reason to think that brains cannot be understood. There will be a way to get from the electrical pulses to the thoughts just as there is to get from the 1s and 0s to the screen images.

This is not to say that brains are much like computers; they are quite different but share some aspects, enough aspects that the analogy is often useful.

(All this reminds me of one of the first Dilbert cartoons I ever saw, stuck on someone’s wall. It was about the old days and how everything was harder to do – the days before ones and zeros, when people had to use the letters I and O.)

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