Is the human brain intelligent enough to understand itself?

ANIL MITRA © May 2015—May 2015

Home | Contact

The following is from a piece I wrote on Quora.

  1. 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 century).
  2. In the original question infinite regress is suggested by self reference--i.e. the brain fully understanding itself.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 relationship).
  5. 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 are specified.
  6. 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.
  7. 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