Monday, April 12, 2010

101 / Serial And Parallel

One of the endnotes to The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, discusses a theory of consciousness developed by the philosopher Daniel Dennett (I haven't read Dennet - yet). 

According to Dawkins' endnote, Dennet believes that the human brain and the brains of other animals operate in the fashion of a computer using "parallel processing" techniques, as opposed to a computer utilizing "serial processing" techniques. I am presuming that many understand the difference, in terms of computer architecture. A "serial processing" computer appears to be able to multi-task because it is so fast, but the computer, in fact, just does one thing at a time, one after the other, in serial fashion. More advanced computer designs actually do allow the computer to do more than one thing at a time, so that various different actions are taking place simultaneously (in parallel). 

 According to Dennet (according to Dawkins), animals other than humans use their brains in their native, parallel processing mode. Humans, however, again according to Dennet (according to Dawkins), use their parallel processing brains to create a "virtual machine" that produces, for humans, an experience of "serial processing," although the human brain is actually using its "parallel processing" architecture to provide this "serial processing" experience. I find that fascinating, and I think I am going to have to track down what Dennet himself has to say on the subject. 

 Why would humans want to simulate what is, in the end, a less efficient methodology for using the actual power of their brains, at least less efficient in terms of raw computing power? My suspicion, uninformed by any actual knowledge of what Dennet in fact has to say about the subject, is that it is only by creating the subjective "one thing after another" experience that human beings can have either a history, or an existence independent of the natural world. In the natural world, in which we are, of course, "creatures," just as all other animals are, the "rules" and the "laws" and the "realities" we experience are established by Nature. As I like to put it, "you can't break the law of gravity." 

Because humans have the "one thing after another" experience, however, unlike other animals (if Dennet via Dawkins is correct), humans can "see" how our specific individual actions lead to specific consequences, and this capability, or perspective, then allows us to "create" our own realities, and our own world, in which we make the "rules." Other animals simply live within the reality into which they were born. Everything is immediately present to them. Our realities come to us "serially," which means we can think up alternative realities for the future, and seek to create them. We can make both our dreams, and our nightmares, come true.

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