Monday, March 30, 2015

Are Minds like Witches? The Catastrophe of Scientific Progress

Here's an article of mine that went up on Scott Bakker's blog. The article's called "Are Minds like Witches? The Catastrophe of Scientific Progress." It's about the full implications of thinking that the naive, quasi-dualistic conception of the human mind should be eliminated in favour of thinking that only material systems exist. Here are the article's first few paragraphs:


As scientific knowledge has advanced over the centuries, informed people have come to learn that many traditional beliefs are woefully erroneous. There are no witches, ghosts, or disease-causing demons, for example. But are cognitive scientists currently on the verge of showing also that belief in the ordinarily-defined human self is likewise due to a colossal misunderstanding, that there are no such things as meaning, purpose, consciousness, or personal self-control? Will the assumption of personhood itself one day prove as ridiculous as the presumption that some audacious individuals can make a pact with the devil?

Progress and a World of Mechanisms

According to this radical interpretation of contemporary science, everything is natural and nature consists of causal relationships between material aggregates that form systems or mechanisms. The universe is thus like an enormous machine except that it has no intelligent designer or engineer. Atoms evolve into molecules, stars into planets, and at least one planet has evolved life on its surface. But living things are really just material objects with no special properties. The only efficacious or real property in nature, very generally speaking, is causality, and thus the real question is always just what something can do, given its material structure, initial conditions, and the laws of nature. As one of the villains of The Matrix Reloaded declares, “We are slaves to causality.” Thus, instead of there being people or conscious, autonomous minds who use symbols to think about things and to achieve their goals, there are only mechanisms, which is to say forces acting on complex assemblies of material components, causing the system to behave in one way rather than another. Just as the sun acts on the Earth’s water cycle, causing oceans to evaporate and thus forming clouds that eventually rain and return the water via snowmelt runoff and groundwater flow to the oceans, the environment acts on an animal’s senses, which send signals to its brain whereupon the brain outputs a more or less naturally selected response, depending on whether the genes exercise direct or indirect control over their host. Systems interacting with systems, as dictated by natural laws and probabilities—that’s all there is, according to this interpretation of science.

How, then, do myths form that get the facts so utterly wrong? Myths in the pejorative sense form as a result of natural illusions. Omniscience isn’t given to lowly mammals. To compensate for their being thrown into the world without due preparation, as a result of the world’s dreadful godlessness, some creatures may develop the survival strategy of being excessively curious, which drives them often to err on the side not of caution but of creativity. We track not just the patterns that lead us to food or shelter, but myriad other structures on the off-chance that they’re useful. And as we evolve more intelligence than wisdom, we creatively interpret these patterns, filling the blanks in our experience with placeholder notions that indicate both our underlying ignorance and our presumptuousness. In the case of witches, for example, we mistake some hapless individual’s introversion and foreignness for some evil complicity in suffering that’s actually due merely to bad luck and to nature’s heartlessness. Given enough bumbling and sanctimony, that lack of information about a shy foreigner results in the burning of a primate for allegedly being a witch. A suitably grotesque absurdity for our monstrously undead universe.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Irony of a Natural Afterlife

Is a natural afterlife possible? Answering this depends on what we mean by a person, since that which is traditionally supposed to survive the body’s death is the personal self, or more specifically the individual’s innermost self. Mystical traditions in the world’s religions identify that self with God, so that the afterlife is thought to be the “union” of an individual’s mind with the ultimate source of all minds. This is a euphemistic way of saying that in the afterlife we’re all destroyed as we realize that only God is real.

The Plausibility of a Natural Afterlife

In any case, most religions identify the self with a spirit, that is, an incorporeal substance. New Thought adherents attempt to explain this substance in terms of energy, vibrations or other such pseudoscientific notions, so that the self-help advice sold by leading members of that movement can appeal to a secular crowd (because that crowd has the most disposable income). If we assume the naturalistic, cognitive scientific picture of the self, though, this metaphysical dualism between mind/spirit and body looks as though it reifies higher-order thought. Reification is the concretization of something, such as treating a thought as though it were the same as that which only symbolizes it. In effect, Judaism’s ban on idolatry prohibits the reification of God, since the monotheist’s God isn’t supposed to be any particular being but the ground of all beings. Likewise, if the self is something sustained by the brain, the religious notion of the immaterial spirit is only a symbolization of that mostly hidden inner reality of consciousness flowing into particular thoughts and feelings. If we ask what the human brain does that distinguishes us from other species, the answer is that it thinks abstract thoughts. Those thoughts in turn allow us to use language and form meaningful social relationships and thus communities bound by cultures that include religious ideas; moreover, our abstract ideas can act as models or simplifications of our environments, which enable us to discover how natural processes work, to predict and to plan for events, and thus to technoscientifically control the wilderness by reshaping it according to our wants and needs.

The natural self, then, isn’t a thing that thinks abstract thoughts. To speak of a possessor of thoughts is to reify or to concretize the self, to mistake a symbol or other simplification, such as the Cartesian mental substance or the immaterial spirit, for the self’s reality. The human self isn’t identical even with the brain, as is clear from the computational, which is to say linguistic, aspect of thinking. Just as a computer program can be implemented in different devices, so too a pattern of thinking is multiply realizable. In any event, the person that we most wish to survive bodily death is just the stream of thoughts itself, including the appetites, fears, tastes, imaginings, fantasies, cogitations, and all the myriad other forms of thinking that make for the experience of being a human person. Some of these thoughts are more primitive or animalistic than others, but all are distinctly human to the extent that they have rich layers of meaning owing to their intellectual connections to background thoughts or worldviews that draw upon language and culture. For example, other species have appetites and fears, but animals lack personal selves if those mental states of theirs have only mechanical roles in causal relations as opposed to having higher meanings in a certain autonomous project, that being the creation of a coherent inner self through practice in introversion. Each self is different because we have different patterns of mental activity owing to our distinguishing artistic judgments about what sort of person we want to be. We practice being one sort of person or another by feeding our impulses so that we accumulate peculiar assortments of mental habits which individuate us.

The question of an afterlife, therefore, is about whether a pattern of thinking can survive physical death. To some extent, this question was answered long ago by Plato who distinguished between biological afterlife through procreation and intellectual afterlife through the survival of ideas. Plato lives on, in part, because the survival of his texts sustains Platonism, the system of ideas that reflects some of his mental habits. But this isn’t the survival of the whole self, since most of Plato’s mental habits aren’t recorded in Platonism. As science fiction authors have speculated since the invention of the computer, the whole self may be immortal, after all, as long as a computer can implement the entire pattern of mental activity that comprises the inner self. A computer program can be copied and stored on multiple devices, greatly increasing its potential longevity; in addition, the program would be immune from biological degradation or from the vicissitudes of the cellular or animalistic life cycles. Simulating a mind would require being able to predict how a person would respond to any situation, by weighting each possible thought in terms of its probability given either some sense impression or another thought. For example, someone who works at a zoo may be more likely to think of elephants in superficially non-elephant-related situations, since she’s liable to interpret her experience in terms that she considers important on the basis of her experience. If she loves elephants, she’ll be in the habit of wondering about their inner life or about how our modern activities endanger them. Again, someone whose parents smoke and who takes up that habit herself will have a high probability of thinking of smoking a cigarette when faced with certain stresses. With enough study, such habits should be predictable, in which case we could map out the relations between our mental tendencies, which amounts to laying out the blueprint for reproducing the personal self in question.