Is the human brain intelligent
enough to understand itself?
MITRA © May 2015
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The following is from a piece I wrote on Quora.
- As Athraya Shankar (a contributor on Quora) points out,
infinite regress is sometimes ‘solvable’; Shankar gave an example sqrt(x
+ sqrt(x + sqrt(x + …) = 2 whose solution is x = 2. In philosophy Zeno
was one of the first to point to problems of infinite series
(satisfactorily resolved in modern mathematics—i.e., the 19th
- In the original question infinite regress is suggested
by self reference--i.e. the brain fully understanding itself.
- Self reference sometimes leads to contradiction as in ‘This
sentence is false’ which is true if and only if it is false. Self
reference does not always lead to paradox as in ‘This sentence is true’
which is true if and only if it is true; and this points to the problem:
the real problem is that the self reference is in fact reference to the
sentences' truth values which do not necessarily exist.
- The idea of a self referential brain is therefore (of
necessity) neither impossible due to infinite regress nor paradox of
self reference (self reference and infinite regress have an obvious
- The question concerned 'understanding' rather than
'knowledge' in the sense of information. Perhaps a brain could map
itself but that would not be very interesting: it would be a mass of
data but no understanding. ‘Understanding’ refers to things like what
are the essential characteristics and functions. So 'full understanding'
would require formulating all essential characteristics. The task does
not seem impossible but faces two problems (1) How to know that a
characteristic is essential? (2) How to know that all characteristics
- An approach to these questions is to frame the original
question within a higher level or broader conceptual system—e.g.
evolutionary adaptation or a non-speculative philosophical system.
Thinking in evolutionary terms we can see why we would have perception,
thought, feeling, and emotion.
- My answer to the original question, then, is that an
outline of understanding is within grasp. However, the brain is so
complex that there are likely multiple ways to formulate this
understanding; and it is so multiply self referential that getting
details and prediction right will be elusive and the returns may
ultimately be marginal