Our extended thinking

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How rational is our brain? Can our limited mind compete with computers? Questions that are easily posed, but which assume a wrong idea of ​​how human cognition works (or should work). Though our brain seems to make us think that there is some kind of processor in our heads that takes care of everything, this is just not the way it works. Our thinking is a rich and heterogeneous complex of ways to methods to external stimuli. Artificial intelligence is perhaps faster, but also many times poorer. To become smarter, it is necessary to increase our own collective cognitive capacity, especially by creating new knowledge by dialogue. Relying on the ever increasing computing power of digital systems only leads to the decline of this collective cognitive capacity.

Compared to the computer, our brain seems to be inferior thinking machine, with limited speed, a bad memory and prone to errors. A machine that is also distracted by emotions and impulses. If only we could think purely on the basis of universal calculation methods that are independent from any physical or other random circumstances. In that case, we would take the same kind of decision in all circumstances, able to process all information with a cool head. In short, the kind of thinking that we call ‘rational’.

No wonder that we like to look for artificial intelligence or medicines that ‘improve’ the brain. Just putting a plug into our heads so that we will never forget anything, concentrate better, be more productive. No wonder, too, that we are afraid of the computers that are getting smarter, are they perhaps even smarter than us?

The computer makes us jealous, because they think exactly as we would have liked to be thinking. After all, the computers that we know are about input, algorithmic processing and output. A clear and unambiguously structured process that is not be disturbed by anything.

That computers can do this so well is no miracle. After all, artificial thinking has been developed precisely on the assumption that the human brain works like this – and for a long time we thought we had the exclusive right to rationality. You see, hear, smell or feel what, the conscious brain thinks about that impression and determines what the optimal action is. Run away, say ‘ouch’ raise your ears, react with a sharp remark, build a pyramid, and so on. The quest of computer builders is to mechanically reproduce this process. Via punch card machines such as the pianola, eventually supercomputers have been created that can process incredibly large quantities of zeros and ones.

The desire to upgrade the brain and the fear for a computer that is smarter than ourselves are two sides of the same coin. Both attitudes are based on a completely false picture of our cognitive abilities. That brain of us does not work at all like a computer, just as there is no consciousness that acts as a director of our thinking and acting. It may seem like that, but not everything is what it seems.

The computer is a reconstruction of a flawed idea of ​​the human mind. Meanwhile we know that our brain is not so ‘rational’ at all, evolution has made the brain much smarter than that.

In the first place, human cognition to a large degree takes outside of the brain. For instance, the sum 323 divided by 17 is quite difficult to solve until you pick up pen and paper and make a simple tail division. You forget your groceries quickly, unless you write them down on a list. If a draftsman wants to draw something from the his memory, then there is almost never a drawing directly on paper. Instead, the draftsman first sketches something, he looks at his pencil marks to see what he remembers. His fingers holding the pen are in dialogue with the paper, a dialogue that shows his eyes what he remembers. In short, we do a lot of thinking with our hands and our eyes and with our technology, much more than we realize – we are natural-born cyborgs.

In this way, computers are no more than a further expansion of our brain. The brain does not need an upgrade, the computer already is the upgrade. You also do not have to worry that the computer is overtaking us in brainpower, no, that computer is our brainpower. (That fear is a bit strange to start with, also from the viewpoint of the classical brain-world dichotomy; in many things, computers are already far better thinkers than us, tail divisions that are so large that they do not fit on a wallpaper roll, are a piece of cake, even for the cheapest PC.)

Second, your consciousness is not the director of your decisions. Consciousness is a reconstruction of the brain. It is an illusion, a film that is displayed in our inner cinema. The idea that we are on top of everything enables us to respond quickly and adequately to external changes. That your consciousness communicates that your right leg is part of your body helps you to kick a ball. With that, physical reactions can be coordinated effectively. Your consciousness also enables you to learn things. By having previous experiences on display on your inner film screen and by thinking about them, you can improve yourself, just like the striker who has to take a penalty kick will check his memory how he can do it best.

Some neurologists think that it means that we are not making conscious decisions at all, if our consciousness is not what it seems. That is a silly thought, the football player who makes a goal by kicking the ball with his right leg, makes a conscious goal – even though invisible neurological processes have been taking place. There is no reason for him not to cheer.

What consciousness also does is to focus our attention onto something. Our thinking is not only extensive, but also targeted at a concrete situation. First our consciousness ‘places’ us in a certain situation and only then does it come to mind what the right thought is. By the way, situating that situation is closely related to the role of emotions: they prepare us to think by structuring the situation and then turn to action. In short, without emotion, no thinking and no action. In other words, the brain looks not at all like a box of algorithms that can do their work anywhere and anytime.

It is not only that we expand our thinking by using pens, paper and machines. It is an essence of human thinking that we do this together. This is possible thanks to the only feature that makes us truly unique: our command of language. Elephants and dolphins may have more brains, but we have a better larynx. Language allows us to store, collect and, above all, transfer information to others. Especially having the capacity to write it down, allows us to constantly expand our knowledge and our cognitive abilities. Just look at philosophy, in which we continue to build on what Plato and Aristotle have been writing 23 centuries ago.

We use language not only to communicate with each other and to learn from each other, but also to think about ourselves. Perhaps the football players who scores a goal does not have linguistic thoughts, but if you calculate a sum, it helps to start a dialogue with yourself. You will speak inside your head as if you are speaking to someone else, this gives you the ability to give possible answers, to test them and if necessary to correct them. Language allows you to take distance yourself from yourself, to see yourself as a consciously thinking being. This is really important: the idea that you see yourself as a conscious being makes you a conscious being. We pull ourselves out of the swamp by our own hair.

But still, wouldn’t you want to be able to think just a little bit faster. Play chess a little better, write more papers and what not. You could come a long way by using smart drugs. But accessing the internet with a plug in your head, as some techno enthusiasts claim, seems as likely as the belief that cryonism will bring people back to life. Brains and computers are, as mentioned, incompatible systems. Moreover, a better brain is especially better and faster compared to other people. This may yield more money or a greater reputation, but also structural inequality. Above all, longing to be smarter seems to be a matter of vanity.

To really think better, it is more effective to listen better, to talk, to read and to build devices that help us to think better. Talking about devices, it needs to be stressed that we may have to be afraid of the enormous computing power of all those knowledge systems. The machines that are made do not reinforce our dialogical capacities, but from their mono-dimensional rationality they mainly impose ways of thinking and doing in a one-sided and inevitable way.

At the risk of contradicting myself, I would also like to say that we have to keep our heads cool and that we should not be distracted by fear and hope. Let us make smart systems really smart by helping us in our thinking, so that we can extend our thinking even further.

Further reading:

Clark, Andy. “Natural-Born Cyborgs?”. Cognitive technology: Instruments of mind  (2001): 17-24.

Damasio, Antonio. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Rationality and the Human Brain. New York Putnam, 1994.

Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. Little, Brown, 2017.

———. From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. WW Norton & Company, 2017.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. What Computers Can’t Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence. Vol. 1972: Harper & Row New York, 1979.

Schirrmacher, Frank. Ego: Das Spiel Des Lebens. Karl Blessing Verlag, 2013.

Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. Yale University Press, 2008.

———. Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. Yale University Press, 2012.

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