Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Brain As A Modeling Engine

There is a great struggle today surrounding how to think about the universe at a very basic level. Folks who look at reality from a scientific viewpoint and those that look at it from a religious viewpoint seem to be completely deadlocked.

I think that viewing the operation of the brain as a modeling engine addresses this problem. This idea is not new with me but after hearing about it and thinking about it I really like the idea.

The brain, not only of humans, but of all organisms that move about the environment must construct a real time model of how the environment will change in the near future. This model allows the organism to predict what it should do in order to negotiate that environment. This type of prediction behavior allows the organism to navigate the environment safely and successfully.

Such a modeling engine must operate correctly and not get caught in endless loops or infinite regressions. In other words it must resolve all these types of potential show stoppers. It would not do for a creature that spots a predator to freeze in indecision while it’s modeling engine looped and recurses endlessly trying to decide what to do.

This resolution process is built-in to how the modeling engine functions. This resolution process effects how we deal with all concepts. How we construct our larger world views and how we view reality as operating over large distance and time scales is colored by this feature of our brains.

This resolution process can be used to explain abstract ideas like faith and belief. If you do reductionist thinking about religious matters you will get caught in an infinite regress. The concept of faith and belief act to short circuit this infinite regress and are natural behaviors of how the brain works.

We actually challenge this process by using the scientific method. The scientific method is not much use in an immediate way. It is more sedate and deliberate it does not have built into it bits that stop its action at a potential infinite loop or infinite regress.

For example, when we see conflicts between creationist and intelligent design folks and scientists we are seeing this very basic resolution process come into play. You have to force yourself to think using the scientific method and thinking about reality using creationist and intelligent design models is much more 'natural' from the standpoint of how the human brain organizes its interpretation of reality.