from C@LLING JAPAN: Newsletter of the Japan Assoc. for Language Teaching CALL SIG
Vol. III, No. 3. Dec. 1994. (pp. 5 - 6).


The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics

by Roger Penrose.    (Oxford University Press, 1989.)

This 632-page book explores fundamental questions about what computers can and cannot do. With recent advances in computer technology, writers such as Minsky (1985), Allman (1990) and Papert (1993) have questioned whether computers might eventually emulate human intelligence.
Penrose maintains that computers cannot emulate human thought since many brain functions are not computable. One of the reasons for this involves the phenomena of brain plasticity – the ability of the brain rewire itself and perform functions in new areas. Unlike a conventual computer which is a fixed collection of prewired transistors, neural connections change constantly. In most adults, for instance, language skills are primarily mediated through the supplementary motor cortex and Broca and Wernicke's areas. People who have gone through post-trauma rehabilitation therapy, however, have been able to carry out these functions in other areas. If the brain can be likened to a computer, Penrose adds, ". . . then it is a computer capable of changing all the time."
Other arguments Penrose offers for why the mind differs from a computer are more speculative. The relation of black holes, Godel's theorem, and the Weyl curvature hypothesisto the central theme of computers and consciousness is elusive. Nonetheless, Penrose's speculations are fascinating, if not scientific in any rigorous sense.
Two parts of this book may be of particular interest to language teachers.
The first was its discussion of the relation between language and the brain (Chapter 9). Penrose provides an overview of the neurolinguistic literature and raises interesting questions about consciousness. Although Penrose does not regard language as necessary for consciousness, he concedes languages is a tool which enables us to achieve subtlety of thought. At the same time, he stresses that mathematical thinking can be done in a visual mode without language.
The second part of his work that intrigued me was his system of classifying scientific ideas. Penrose suggests scientific concepts should be ranked according to a three tiered system. The most elegant and far-reaching theories he labels "superb." Ideas which have pragmatic merit, but limited scope he terms "useful." Those which are questionable he simply labels "tentative." He notes that as our scientific understanding matures many theories are assessed differently. A thousand years ago Ptolemic theory of planetary movement was considered superb; today it is a historic sideline.
It is interesting to consider how current ESOL theories might be viewed in the classification scheme advocated by Penrose. I believe it is useful for each teacher to evaluate the theories s/he has come across in terms of Penrose's categories. A generation ago many teachers considered Pavlov's Stimulus-Response Theory "superb." Today the value of this theory in language instruction seems less certain. The value of theories by Noam Chomsky, Larry Selinker, S. Pit Corder, and Krashen are under debate. How important a theory is regarded tells us something important not only about the theory itself, but about the cultural and historical background from which we come.
"How important a theory is regarded tells us something important not only about the theory itself, but about the cultural and historical background from which we come."
Penrose concludes this work by stating that mechanistic views of the mind are inadequate. Although he offers convincing arguments why the mind is not a complicated computer, the claims he puts forward in favor of a transcendental form of consciousness are equivocal. Speculations such as "consciousness, in essence, is the seeing of a necessary truth; and . . . may represent some kind of actual contact with Plato's world of ideal mathematical concepts" (p. 445, 446) appear more metaphysical than scientific. Other claims such as, "the nature of the universe that we find ourselves in is strongly constrained by a requirement that beings like ourselves must be present to observe it" (p. 405, 406) are even less tenable. The author concedes that many questions about consciousness have yet to be answered, but believes as our understanding of quantum physics matures and mental phenomena are investigated from new perspectives fresh answers will come.

- Reviewed by Tim Newfields


Allman, W. F. (1990). Apprentices of wonder: Inside the neural network revolution. New York: Bantam.

Minsky, M. (1985). The society of mind. New York, London: Simon & Schuster.

Papert, S. (1993). Mindstorms: Children, computers, & powerful ideas. London: Basic Blackwell.

Chronological Index Subject Index Title Index

Copyright (c) 1996 by Tim Newfields