Thursday, April 17, 2014
We all laugh at the thought that a machine may one day develop artificial intelligence, or that human consciousness could reside in a remotely controlled body while its brain is back in the lab, or that one’s mental processes could be stored in a book to be accessed by the manual computation of future readers; but embedded in these simple vignettes are deeply unsettling challenges to the way we view human consciousness and even the concepts of soul and self-worth. This book is a test of the endurance of concepts like spirit and consciousness, and if you’ve ever waivered under the onslaught of materialistic reductionism, I promise you this book will come close to kicking out your remaining legs. However, it was supremely entertaining and searching, and ultimately I found it to offer the most beautiful alternatives to a holistic, spiritualized view of existence that I have ever come across.
Near the beginning of the book the authors had warned of two extremes to avoid: solipsism—the idea that I am the only conscious being in the universe, and Panpsychism—the idea that everything in the universe is conscious. They steered pretty clear of solipsism, and though I would never have expected them to fall into the camp of panpsychism with animists, I truly think they veered towards panpsychism by attributing mind and even suffering to all things which might potentially behave mechanistically like humans do…which includes everything. While trying to avoid falling into the pot of attributing ‘soul’ to a few things, and in their attempt to eliminate the exclusive way soul is applied to only humans, the authors fell into the fire of asserting that everything has soul-like qualities, which is to say that everything has a soul, even if it isn’t traditional way to think about soul.
Nonetheless, a very pertinent and tenable question is posed that isn’t easily dismissed. Hofstadter gave the analogy of a flame to illustrate the soul dilemma:
“We just fall like a ton of bricks for the notion that there’s a “soul” in there—a flame-like soul that can flicker on or off, or even be transferred between bodies as a flame between candles. If a candle blows out and is relit, is it “the same flame”? Or, if it stays lit, is it even “the same flame” from moment to moment?”
A flame is a process of combustion, but not a thing separate from fuel or ignition. It’s both process and material, so in some sense a flame lives on, and in another sense it dies and is reborn from moment to moment. The comfort found here, for those who feel the loss of soul in science, is that our bodies and minds are elements continually left in the past, one with new elements added every new instant, and the total process by which these transitions occur and support the process. The continuity which we call soul or consciousness continues in some mysterious way, replacing of cells in our bodies, and over the course of time, replacing our entire body many times over the course of a lifetime. This continuity can even be stretched to an understanding of life beyond death, for just as a flame is blown out, and may be relit later, so it is conceivable that mind may be ‘relit’ and reconstituted after death in a very physical way, given enough time, and maybe in hitherto undreamed ways. We don’t know what consciousness is, or how it got here, and we can’t say it will never make an appearance again. Since we already have the precedent of it being here at all and being conscious, there’s good reason to believe this flame of consciousness will show up again somewhere in this or that universe.
By brilliantly rephrasing the problem of soul, the authors are avoiding a ‘yes/no’ sort of answer, and moving instead toward a radical reinterpretation of soul and self that is consistent with materialistic science. I have to admit, it’s about time. The idea of a soul, as most conceive of it, is an old idea, and was never meant to be plugged into modern scientific formulas. Even as a religious concept it has been, throughout the ages, fraught with complications which for a while people were happy to turn their heads and ignore for the sake of comfort and stability. However, in these days, when bodies live longer and we have the luxury of spending time asking questions and growing into the answers, we don’t have to feel rushed to premature answers lest we die in the process of questioning. The book’s challenges to the ancient concept of soul and spirit is especially valid for our time, if a bit unsettling.
To tackle the difficult and often abstract topics of self and consciousness, the authors—gurus in computer science and philosophy—use imaginative stories and thought experiments to stretch readers’ cerebral muscles, warming them up to start asking questions like, “Who am I? Am ‘I’ a simple monad, with complex feelings, thoughts and acts? Am I fooling myself to think I am a cohesive being with clearly defined boundaries, functions and…worth?” Maybe it’s impossible to simplify our identity—humanity may be, as Hermann Hesse phrased it, “so far from being a unity, is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities”—but this work sure takes the conversation a step forward towards clarity.
Oddly enough, the book started out sounding balanced regarding ideas like holism (universe as soul) and reductionism (universe as machine), citing articles from different perspectives. But the catch—and an awesomely disorienting catch it was—was a HUGE bait-and-switch revealed all the way near the end!
“In this book there are a variety of thought experiments designed to explore the implications of the hypothesis that materialism is true: the mind or self is not another (non-physical) thing, in miraculous interaction with the brain, but somehow a natural and explainable product of the brain’s organization and operation.”
It was a smart move not to reveal this too early. I was actually floored when I realized that the authors were consummate materialists who conceived of the universe and all beings inside it in purely mechanomorphic terms. It seemed to me that they were completely taken-in and driven by Richard Dawkins’ ideas in “The Selfish Gene”, an excerpt from this work provided in chapter 10. Dawkins’ idea is that what we call life is the accidental collision and subsequent survival of enduring combinations of matter; and frankly, I understand why it is the message-thread that weaves through this entire work and probably provided the authors with their premise, however clandestine. This chapter was my first interaction with Dawkins’ concepts, and I found him to be brilliant and imaginative; and though I personally don’t swallow whole all of his theories—they seem to come up short in attempting to explain the phenomenon of consciousness and will—still, they are as compelling and courageous as anything I’ve seen from a reductionist.
Because this his hard for people to accept who are accustomed to thinking of the universe in terms of mind, spirit, and free will, the authors attempt to provide a conciliatory and inclusive definition of determinism which encompasses both sides of the debate between soul and body by saying that holism is a view of the world as top-down causality (a sophisticated whole structures the parts), and reductionism is a view of the world as bottom-up causality (the parts are always responsible for the whole, and any final rendering by the whole of the parts is first determined by the parts). The authors attempt to escape the accusation of bias by inserting the Zen idea of “mu”, which “unasks the question” and reveals that “there is a larger context into which both holistic and reductionistic explanations fit.” But really, though mu is a fun concept aimed at assuaging the fears and defenses of holistic thinkers, it’s clear that the authors preponderantly believe we are a random collection of atoms. Still, and maybe in spite of the attempt to introduce-but-minimize it, I found mu to be a very useful way of getting back to the assumptions. By the end, I was actually endeared to mu and to an understanding of the mechanistic process of nature, even in reductionist terms.
Religious or holistic thinkers may ask, how could determinism become endearing to humans who are typically so focused on free will? The key is an understanding that all determined parts are part of the determining whole. One determines as much as one is determined. There is no abstract universe ‘out there’ that is making us. We are as significant a part of the universe as anything else, therefore the universe resides in us. I am the universe in that I am a real part of the whole, and without myself, there is no whole. Therefore, I am the determined part, and the determining whole—both determined and determining. An excerpt from Raymond Smullyan’s dialogue between God and man (chapter 20, “Is God a Taoist?”) helps to illustrate this:
“[God speaking to man] Your acts are certainly in accordance with the laws of nature, but to say they are determined by the laws of nature creates a totally misleading psychological image which is that your will could somehow be in conflict with the laws of nature and that the latter is somehow more powerful than you, and could ‘determine’ your acts whether you liked it or not. But it is simply impossible for your will to ever conflict with natural law. You and natural law are really one and the same…Don’t you see that the so-called ‘laws of nature’ are nothing more than a description of how in fact you and other beings do act? They are merely a description of how you act, not a prescription of how you should act, not a power or force which compels or determines your acts. To be valid, a law of nature must take into account how in fact you do act, or, if you like, how you choose to act…But the confusion is largely caused by your bifurcation of reality into the ‘you’ and the ‘not you’. Really now, just where do you leave off and the rest of the universe begin? Or where does the rest of the universe leave off and you begin?”
There are definite pros to believing in this kind of determinism:
1. Mind and thought may not be as unique to human experience as previously thought; but nor are we as alone, isolated, and unsolvable as previously thought.
2. We may not have souls; but whatever it is we do have, nature has a lot of material to make more for a long time, again and again.
3. We may be determined, but we are also integral to, and synonymous with, the determining whole.
Whether or not one finds the ideas in the book to be palatable, it certainly is a wild ride nonetheless. The best chapters in the book are, in order of appearance:
On Having No Head—A fun and strangely convincing essay about the myth we have all bought into that tells us we have heads. It’s a hoax! We’ve never seen our heads, and our subjective perspective eliminates the option of us experiencing our own heads as objects. Genius.
The Turing Test—The famous Turing Test fable which first appeared in Scientific American in 1981. Are we sure that computers won’t ever be able to think like humans? This hypothetical test will leave you wondering.
Selfish Genes and Selfish Memes (by Richard Dawkins)—A must read about how mind may have been formed by the ‘mindless’ evolution of particles which clumped together to form 6 forms of stability: longevity/fecundity/copying-fidelity/competition/combination/colonization. Much emphasis is laid on the human body as a survival machine, future thought as simulated models of trial and error, and memes as transmittable culture (ideas) which is currently the most advanced form of evolution and self-replication. The Selfish Gene is probably the seminal work which forms the undercurrent for the entire present volume.
Prelude…Ant Fugue—Very creative, if hard-to-read-at-times, analogy about how the brain works somewhat ‘accidentally’ to form a holistic system that appears to be conscious as a whole when really it is only as conscious as a stone. Brilliant.
The Story Of a Brain— A brain is kept alive in a nutrient bath beyond the death of the body, and the brain is stimulated artificially to provide ‘experiences’. Eventually the brain is broken up into halves, parts, and finally into separate neurons which were replaced when they wore out. Is it the same brain when replaced neuron by neuron? Is it still conscious?
Where Am I/ Where was I?— A brain is removed from its body and the body is sent into hazardous situations. Consciousness is generated by the brain, but resides in the body. Eventually the body is replaced with new bodies. Is consciousness in the body, brain, or neither? Which body is my body?
The Riddle Of the Universe And Its Solution—An infectious thought is sending people into catatonic states, and scientists try to isolate the idea in media before they succumb. An analogy to unsolved paradoxes that tangles people’s thoughts and hamstrings basic logic. Is this recurring feedback what creates consciousness?
Is God a Taoist?— A man has a very unpredictable discussion with God. God redefines man’s idea of free will, suffering, and evil. The redefinitions of theistic and humanistic ideas are astounding and very useful.
An Unfortunate Dualist—A man takes a drug to kill his soul because he no longer wants to live, but the drug helps the body and brain continue on as normal so a bodily suicide does not negatively impact others. What happens to consciousness?
What Is it Like To Be a Bat?—Philosopher Thomas Nagel speculates on what it is like to be a bat, and determines that we can’t really know what it is like to be anything other than ourselves. The problem of subject/object duality and relation needs to be explored more.
An Epistemological Nightmare— An epistemologist builds a brain-reading machine and ends up being driven crazy by it because people’s meanings, and even one’s own internal meanings, are so varied.
A Conversation With Einstein’s Brain— Best chapter in the book! This one really blew my mind. Imagine if Einstein’s brain was catalogued into book with a separate page for every neuron including its threshold values, resistance values, structural change calculations etc. If we input data from a spoken question like, “Hello Einstein, how are you?”, would one be able to run the data through the book to compute a response from Einstein’s brain to contemporary conversation partners? If so, would that make Einstein dead or alive? It’s a trap!
Fiction—All characters in a story are the author’s thoughts, and therefore, in some sense, are the author. Does the author’s meaning change the character’s feeling about their part in the story? Do we feel our part in the story of life is changed if the state of the author (ourselves or God) is changed?
The structure of the book was very helpful. Introductions were provided for topics, then vignettes illustrated the topics, and these were followed by a reflection by the authors to help readers distill the take-aways. The philosophical gleanings were bountiful, and the challenges to traditional ways of thinking about humanity and human consciousness were well worth the work.
Bottom line: what do we really know about consciousness and mind? Very little as it turns out, but enough to rule out, according to the authors, antiquated ideas about soul. Still, the subjective-objective tension, and the balance between holism and reductionism keeps this matter from being over-simplified and conclusive. What do we really know about other people’s conscious experience in general? What do we really know about our own past conscious experience, say, even 5 years ago? As one author states, “When you come right down to it, it’s not so clear just what it is like to be me, right now.”