Programming Our Computer-like Brains With Greek Philosophy and Mathematics Leads to Virtue

I know John Hatzopoulos through a global forum of Greek professors. His questions and responses to a variety of political and academic issues are always interesting and measured.

In contrast to the often-heated exchanges among a vocal minority of professors, especially about religion, he would appeal for reason and restraint.

Since the participants in this intercontinental debate are mostly academics, Hatzopoulos speaks to them as one educator to another.

He would say education is the key to all the problems facing Greece -- and the world. In the case of Greece, he lamented the politicization of the Greek universities. This meant Greek parties funded student activities, a corrupting practice spilling over the appointment of professors and the general workings of the universities. Take that extra influence away, he argued, and the universities would shine.

But his discussion of education, science and politics was always flavored with allusions to classical philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle. He admired Plato because Plato balanced desire and anger with doses of logic. And he repeatedly cited Aristotle's midway of virtue as the defining moment for human actions. This means avoid the extremes. Don't expect or fight for too much or too little in conforming to virtue. A man exhibits courage, for example, only if his actions are neither cowardly not insolent.

This wisdom impressed me. I stayed in touch with him. In fact, we met briefly during his 2014 visit to southern California where his son goes to college.

Hatzopoulos was born in the Greek Aegean island of Naxos. He learnt the rudiments of peasant economics and self-reliance in a mountain village.

He studied rural and surveying engineering in Greece and received a doctorate in photogrammetry and remote sensing at the University of Washington, Seattle, Washington. He then taught for several years at California State University-Fresno and, since 1989, he has been a professor of engineering at the University of the Aegean in Lesbos.

We think of engineers as experts with machines and technics. But Hatzopoulos is more than that. He has folded engineering within his Greek metaphysics. He is a messenger of high tech and Greek philosophy. The result of this marriage is what he calls education.

He put his controversial ideas in a powerful book with a strange title: Education and Neuron Network Based Systems (Lambert Academic Publishing, 2014).

The title of the book goes hand in hand with its dense narrative. Clearly, not many people are likely to read this technical treatise about the portrayal of the brain as a computer.

I still doubt human brains are similar to electronic computers. My friend and professor of brain studies at Scripps College, Alan Hartley, tried to disabuse me of my innocence. He said to me:

The brain is a (stunningly) complex network of neurons. Sometimes sub-parts or systems of the brain are described as neural networks... The computer is programmed to act as though it had many interconnected components -- just like a simple version of a brain -- and that the strength of those connections can be dynamically adjusted as the program / computer encounters new "experiences" -- just as the brain "learns" by modifying it's nerve connections.

Hatzopoulos defines the brain in a similar fashion. He says the brain is "a neuron based structure and neurons can hold programming instructions and process data." He assumes the brain works "like a computer." He also speaks about the mind "hosted" by the brain.

Hatzopoulos' vision of a mechanical model of the human mind and brain does not lead him to engineering solutions divorced from philosophy or the natural world. He criticizes severely the abuses of technology. He abhors the industrialization of agriculture, the burning of fossil fuels causing global warming, and other human activities destroying the natural world.

He denounces globalization because the entire process has been high jacked by a plutocracy. Globalization has been bad for humans and even worse for the natural world. Indeed, he takes the image of the cave from the Republic of Plato to demonstrate the monstrosity of modern societies: the vast number of humans living in an underground cave in near darkness, seeing only images of life on the wall in front of them.

He explains all these calamities as consequences of bad education. That is to say, in the absence of right and wrong, and away from science and moderation, human mind runs wild.

The laws of nature have the final say in the functioning of his brain-computer model. The energy for this model comes from mathematics and Greek philosophy. And the intent is an educational system of virtue.

Hatzopoulos' ambition is no less than giving educators a recipe for the virtuous education of this and subsequent generations. That recipe includes mathematics, philosophy and science. Like ancient Greek philosophers, he calls philosophy the chief science and the mother of all sciences.

His hope is that educators will reunite philosophy with the sciences in order to neutralize "brain programming by methods of propaganda, bias and deception." Philosophy and science together give birth to environmental ethics. The sciences discover the laws of nature, and philosophy provides the reasoning for our respect for the natural world and, therefore, our respect for the integrity of life on Earth.

So Hatzopoulos' seemingly technical treatise on computers and the brain is a carefully thought out guide to education that matters. This is a call to virtue and sanity to finally bring to an end the cave inhabited by the vast number of human beings.

Hatzopoulos the engineer speaks like a Greek philosopher who knows science. Read his timely and important book.