Pruett on Science and Faith

Go have a look at this post over at HuffPo. It’s called “Science and Faith: Reconciling After the Divorce,” by Dave Pruett. To judge from that title, you might surmise that’s it’s not exactly my cup of tea, and you’d be right. The catch, though, is that Dave is a very good friend of mine, having just retired after many years in the math department right here at JMU.

Dave has a new book out called Reason and Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit, from which the present essay has been drawn. I’m about fifty pages in so far and I am finding it a fascinating read, even though ultimately I suspect I am going to disagree with the book’s main conclusions. But I definitely recommend checking it out. If anyone can convince me I’m wrong on these questions, it’s Dave.

Here’s an excerpt from the HuffPo piece:

The central challenge facing 21st-century science is understanding the human mind. That science finds itself confronting the question of consciousness comes unexpectedly. First, mind appears to be resolutely immaterial; science can’t poke it with a metaphorical finger as Erin intuited. Second, mind as a domain of inquiry has been off-limits to science since Descartes.

There are in actuality two problems of consciousness: the “easy” problem and the “hard” one. The first concerns how sensory perception correlates with neural activity. Twenty-first century imaging techniques allow modern Magellans — cartographers of the neural realm — to map brain function at a submicron level of resolution. Progress is rapid, and it is virtually certain that the “easy” problem will be fully resolved.

The “hard” problem is altogether something else. In a nutshell: “Sensation is an abstraction, not a replication, of the real world.” How do physical stimuli generate subjective experience? Humans perceive light at a wavelength of 700 nanometers as red; we haven’t a clue why red. The mind is not a tabula rasa, the titan of philosophy Immanuel Kant concluded. Uninterpreted sensory input is useless, “less than a dream,” said Kant. In today’s lingo, uninterpreted sensation is noise devoid of music, pixels devoid of image or caresses devoid of care. Mind and brain are not synonyms.

This is where I have my first problem with Dave’s argument. I agree that you can’t poke the mind directly. But we certainly can, and have, “poked” the brain, and what we have found provides no comfort to people who think the mind is anything more than what the brain does. Everything that we normally think of as being associated with that little immaterial “you” that sits in your head pulling the levers of your physical body; whether personality, mood, conscience or anything else; can be directly affected by poking the right area of the brain. I would point to brain injuries that can cause people to perceive colors as sound, or which fundamentally change your personality. I would point to the success of drug therapies for mental illness, which treat mood disorders and whatnot as resulting from chemical imbalances in the brain. So while it is fine to say that mind is not synonymous with brain, I see no evidence that mind is the result of anything beyond the enormously complex physical processes of the brain.

I agree that it is a hard problem to explain how physical processes in the brain produce subjective experience. As I have written before, I not only don’t know how to explain it, I don’t even know what would count as an acceptable explanation. Can you even invent an explanation which, if true, would make you feel like you really understood how physical processes lead to subjective phenomena? I, for one, wouldn’t know what to invent. The trouble is, I would say the same thing about every nonphysical explanation for mind that I have ever heard. It’s not as though scientists with materialist blinders on have ignored the really nifty and clear-thinking explanations of mystics and new age gurus. It’s that no one, whether operating from a physical or a nonphysical perspective, has anything much to say about the origins of subjective experience.

Dave concludes with this:

Copernicus and Darwin upset the cosmos — physically, then biologically — forcing a schism between scientific and religious worldviews. But a new, holistic and healing story is now emerging through the unfolding of a third “Copernican” revolution. In the new physics, the veil between science and mysticism seems precariously thin, and the universe begins to take on a numinous glow. To hard-boiled positivists, this signals a disastrous turn of events. But for many of us, weary of denying either head or heart, it’s a breath of fresh air. Philosophy — the love of wisdom — may once again become whole.

Hmmmm. I’m not so sure about that. The title of the essay referred to science and faith. Faith in what, I wonder. Now we hear about “religious worldviews,” but considering the tremendous variety of religious beliefs and experiences in the world, that term is too vague for my taste. And tell me more about this new physics. What does it claim to have discovered and upon what evidence does it make those claims? I follow physics fairly closely, and it looks to me like they are mostly doing good old “poke and observe” physics. I’m afraid I missed the news about this new physics that has positivists quaking and which is giving the world a numinous glow (whatever that actually means.) (Incidentally, I think Dave meant “materialists” and not “positivists.” I was under the impression that positivists have been extinct for at least fifty years or so.)

Then again, Dave’s book is rather long and I have not yet gotten to the really juicy bits. And I hope this is just the first of many blog posts over at HuffPo. I don’t have to agree with an argument to find it interesting, after all. Perhaps when I finish the book I’ll have cause to retract this post.

Regardless, Dave is one of the nicest people on the planet and he’s a very engaging writer, so I highly recommend checking out his book. I may not agree with everything he says, but he always provides food for thought.

Comments

  1. #1 AbnormalWrench
    December 22, 2012

    To me, these arguments about consciousness are always confusing, since I see consciousness as nothing more than an emergent property of the brain. Arguing that we can’t completely “prove” that consciousness relates directly to the physical brain is as nonsensical to me as arguing how we can’t correlate digestion as an emergent property of stomachs. It confuses what it even means to by “conscious”, since in my mind, the word literally requires a physical brain, regardless what quality of consciousness we’re discussing. To say there can be consciousness without a brain is to me like saying there can be digestion without a stomach.

    And to continue the analogy, to go the added step with beliefs in heaven, to think there is a supernatural place where supernatural representations of your digestion go, who supernaturally enjoy phantom foods, and no gas is passed….or however that works…all without physical stomachs.

  2. #2 JimR
    December 22, 2012

    Does Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem actually preclude computer(s) simulation of the brain capable of developing new things/theorems/processes/etc. There are computer engineers who are always saying that it is just around the corner.

    To me it is intuitively similar to thermodynamics in a closed system, you cannot create a more ordered system. But in an open thermodynamic system you can create a more ordered system. I have not been able to decide what a more open system in computers would entail.

  3. #3 Bilbo
    December 22, 2012

    Jason,

    I think we share a dissatisfaction with both physical and non-physical attempts to explain the “hard” problem of consciousness. What I think the hard problem points to is that either physical stuff is more than we thought it was, or that there is something over and above both the physical and the mental, which explains them both.

  4. #4 Bilbo
    December 22, 2012

    By the way, I think this might help explain Thomas Nagel’s dissatisfaction with a strictly materialist/Darwinist explanation of evolution. Since he’s an atheist, but denies the ability to provide a materialist explanation of the hard problem of consciousness, he must believe that there is more to matter than what we’ve been giving it credit for. If so, then the development of life and of mind must be more than just a traditional materialist explanation, which is what neo-Darwinism attempts to be. Nagel is forced into a neo-Aristotelian conception of the physical world, which probably means resurrecting the old concept of final causation. If you are equally dissatisfied with a strictly materialist explanation of mind, and you wish to maintain your atheism, then I think you might want to consider neo-Aristotelianism, also.

  5. #5 MNb
    Moengo, Suriname
    December 22, 2012

    “What is consciousness if you cannot poke it with your finger?”
    Good question. Here is another one:

    “What is gravity if you cannot poke it with your finger?”
    You can only poke falling objects with your finger, you see.

    “Galileo … barely survived.”
    I wouldn’t call three weeks house arrest in the luxury appartment of the Duke of Ferrara “barely survived” – that’s all the punishment Galilei received.

    “We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story.”
    I think cosmology as provided by physics, evolution and (ancient) history combine to an awesome story, better than any religious one.

    “we haven’t a clue why red”
    Because we prefer to call it red.

    “the immensely troubling duality of matter/energy”
    That only shows the limits of human imagination.

    “The uncertainty principle collapses the Cartesian partition.”
    Exactly. And I predict something similar will happen to consciousness. I also predict that this way the problem of subjectivity will dissipate. Possibly we won’t understand it, like nobody understands quantummechanics in the traditional meaning of this word. So what?

    “To hard-boiled positivists (materialists, JR), this signals a disastrous turn of events.”
    On the contrary. It signals another disastrous turn of events to human arrogance – the very idea we are capable of understanding in the meaning of the word Pruett attaches to it.

    PS: as long as final causation cannot describe why a radioactive atom decays now and not on another moment I think Neo-Aristotelianism is a failure.

  6. #6 Kevin
    December 22, 2012

    “provides no comfort to people who think the mind is anything more than what the brain does”

    If you corrupt a computer’s memory, it will affect its interaction with you. Its original behaviour may be restored from a backup, but none of this is consonant with claiming that a computer is a mind.

  7. #7 Kevin
    December 22, 2012

    “I would point to the success of drug therapies for mental illness”

    When a drug can make a man go directly from not understanding the purpose of money to understanding its purpose, then I will start to wonder about the mind-brain distinction.

  8. #8 proximity1
    December 22, 2012

    ” It’s that no one, whether operating from a physical or a nonphysical perspective, has anything much to say about the origins of subjective experience.”

    Huh?

    Antonio Damasio has had much to say about it.

    Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (Pantheon Books, Random House Publishers)

    see contents pages

    Part III

    Being Conscious–

    7.) Consciousness Observed

    8.) Building a Conscious Mind

    9.) The Autobiographical Self

    (and more) at:

    http://www.usc.edu/schools/college/bci/documents/SCTM%20%20final%20front%20to%206%2010901.PDF

  9. #9 Lenoxus
    December 22, 2012

    It’s not as though scientists with materialist blinders on have ignored the really nifty and clear-thinking explanations of mystics and new age gurus.

    Spot-on, Jason. Of course, I thin many gurus intuitively percieve the lack of an explanation as being an explanation. That’s what “deep” means, right? Any old pickle can explain something, but to majestically arise above the petty fray of “both sides” into a wonderful rainbow of greys and platitudes– that takes sprituality, or something.

  10. #10 Charles Sullivan
    December 23, 2012

    Here’s the problem; if you have never tasted chocolate then you will not know how chocolate tastes by examining my brain.

    You will uncover a whole host of neurological facts about my brain when I’m eating chocolate, but you will not know how it tastes if you’ve never tasted it.

    This is the 1st / 3rd person distinction. Or if you prefer subjective/ objective distinction, or the qualia / quanta distinction.

    Thomas Nagel (before he went over the cliff) thought that the 1st person perspective could never be understood in full by any 3rd person (empirical / scientific) investigation.

    Perhaps that’s just how it is.

  11. #11 MNb
    December 23, 2012

    Why exactly is that a problem for materialism? Or at all?

  12. #12 Verbose Stoic
    December 23, 2012

    This is where I have my first problem with Dave’s argument. I agree that you can’t poke the mind directly. But we certainly can, and have, “poked” the brain, and what we have found provides no comfort to people who think the mind is anything more than what the brain does. Everything that we normally think of as being associated with that little immaterial “you” that sits in your head pulling the levers of your physical body; whether personality, mood, conscience or anything else; can be directly affected by poking the right area of the brain. I would point to brain injuries that can cause people to perceive colors as sound, or which fundamentally change your personality. I would point to the success of drug therapies for mental illness, which treat mood disorders and whatnot as resulting from chemical imbalances in the brain. So while it is fine to say that mind is not synonymous with brain, I see no evidence that mind is the result of anything beyond the enormously complex physical processes of the brain.

    The funny thing here is that if you start from Cartesian dualism, you don’t really have a problem with most of these things, because Cartesian dualism is generally interactionist. Mind changes brain/body; brain/body changes mind. The main criticism against Cartesian dualism, in fact, is that it doesn’t really explain how that causal mechanism works; how DOES the mind change the brain and vice versa? But, in essence, the questions you raise here are no more — and no less — puzzling than asking how it is that when I think about moving my arm my arm moves, or how when I experience pain I react to it by moving my hand off the stove. If “mental” events are going to produce “physical” reactions, then there’s some sort of causation going on there, and that’s what can explain the changes going the other way as well.

    The one caveat is with personality, perhaps … but then in those cases do we have a change in subjective experience or how that subjective experience is expressed? If I mucked around with your drivers, someone only watching your reactions on a computer monitor would see completely different behaviour … but that would not mean that you are nothing more than computer drivers.

    But, at any rate, the key issue is that it looks like the qualities of our subjective experience arise from and impact our physical behaviour, and the hard problem is all about figuring out how and why that is.

    Anyway, I have two concerns about a materialism about mind based on the brain:

    1) As stated above, the key issue is how things in subjective experience can impact my behaviour. Under the brain model, we think that the neural chains are causally closed, which means that it looks positing mental causation results in over-determination: the neural firings are sufficient to explain why there was a certain reaction to a certain stimulus, so what is there causally for the subjective experience to do? And if there is nothing for it explicitly to do, then why can’t I take it out and still keep the same behaviour? And then we have epiphenomenalism, and a hard time explaining why we have subjective experience at all.

    2) It seems possible that things without brains might have minds, like sufficiently advanced AIs or aliens with completely different physical structures. If you define consciousness as being what the brain does — which you actually don’t do — then you can’t address that. But if you don’t do that, then what we still need is a way to assess subjective experience from a third-party view independently of what is happening in a brain, and so then there would still be many questions left to answer, and a hard problem still to solve.

  13. #13 Jerry Coyne
    www.whyevolutionistrue.com
    December 23, 2012

    Oh, come on, Jason; you’re pulling your punches because the guy is a friend. What you’ve just done above is taken his PuffHo piece apart completely, and yet you still claim that this kind of stuff has the potential to convince you.

    Just admit that he’s pushing the same old woo, but you’re going easy on him because he’s your pal. There’s no shame in that (well, maybe there is). If he had been Chopra writing this, you’d have come down a lot harder!

  14. #14 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 23, 2012

    MNb —

    “Galileo … barely survived.”
    I wouldn’t call three weeks house arrest in the luxury appartment of the Duke of Ferrara “barely survived” – that’s all the punishment Galilei received.

    You left out the part of the story where Galileo was threatened with torture and imprisonment unless he recanted his views in the most humiliating terms. And he was actually under house arrest for the rest of his life, even if that arrest was loosely enforced.

    proximity1 —

    “It’s that no one, whether operating from a physical or a nonphysical perspective, has anything much to say about the origins of subjective experience.”

    Huh?

    Antonio Damasio has had much to say about it.

    I think you’re being overly literal here. Obviously lots of people have written lots of things about consciousness, I meant simply that I have never read anything that I found convincing.

    As it happens, Damasio’s book has been sitting on my shelf for a while, so maybe it’s time I actually read it. Is it good?

  15. #15 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 23, 2012

    Jerry —

    Just admit that he’s pushing the same old woo, but you’re going easy on him because he’s your pal.

    If you’re willing to read between the lines even a little bit, I think I pretty much did say that. But given your harsh reaction to what I wrote, I guess I shouldn’t tell you who put him in touch with the relevant editors over at HuffPo.

  16. #16 Mike Meiners
    December 23, 2012

    The pretense that the mind is anything other than a function of brain is based on the superstitious belief in ‘immortal soul’ as existing separately from the body. Or more simply, man’s insistence that he holds a special place in the universe and must be more than the sum of his parts. Creating mind is what the brain does.- the same relationship as eyes to sight, ears to hearing, tongue to taste. Anything to the contrary is simply mysticism and superstition.

  17. #17 MNb
    Moengo, Suriname
    December 24, 2012

    “where Galileo was threatened with torture and imprisonmen”
    He wasn’t. Sources:
    Karl von Gebler, GG und die römische Kurie. Nach authentischen Quelle, Stuttgart 1976.
    Arthur Koestler, Die Nachtwandler. Das Bild des Universums im Wandel der Zeit, Bern 1959.
    Walter Brandmüller, Galilei und die Kirche oder das Recht auf Irrtum, Regensburg 1982.
    Gerhard Prause, Niemand hat Kolumbus ausgelacht, Düsseldorf 1986 (chapter Galilei war kein Märtyrer).
    Gerhard Prause, Der Fall Galilei in Forschung und Lehre 3 (1994).
    These guys have read the original document.
    The whole story of the persecution of Galilei (and Copernicus) stems from the 18th Century French anti-clerical propagandist Augustin Simon Irailh.
    If you need a martyr from that period you better choose Giordano Bruno. Alas he was deeply religious and not very scientific.

  18. #18 MNb
    December 24, 2012

    documents. Plural.

  19. #19 proximity1
    December 24, 2012

    RE:

    JR: “I think you’re being overly literal here. Obviously lots of people have written lots of things about consciousness, I meant simply that I have never read anything that I found convincing. ”

    You’re writing! How else am I to take your words here except “literally”?

    If you really intended to say that you “have never read anything that (you) found convincing” (about ” origins of subjective experience”, as that is concerned with consciousness,) rather than what you did in fact write— “that no one, whether operating from a physical or a nonphysical perspective, has anything much to say about the origins of subjective experience”— why didn’t you just write it that way, instead?

    Is there someone forcing you to be vague or non-“literal” in your writing?

    “As it happens, Damasio’s book has been sitting on my shelf for a while, so maybe it’s time I actually read it. Is it good?”

    From what I’ve read of it so far, yes, I think it it’s well worth my time and probably yours, too. I’m reading it along with some other books which I take up in turns (some on genetic theory, and history and philosophy of science) so I haven’t finished reading it. I haven’t found everything in it convincing so far, but I’ve found everything in it interesting.

    In my opinion, it’s good–that is, worth reading, interesting, for anyone interested in the issues under discussion here, yes. Whether you’ll find it convincing is another question.

    Even if you’d read only the portions I’ve made so far of Self Comes to Mind,, I don’t think you’d have written, even figuratively, what you wrote above about the origins of subjective experience having been treated in so unconvincing a manner–even if you don’t come out fully convinced.

    I suspect that Damasio’s treatment will better arm you with respect to the problems of understanding you allude to here, where you write,

    “… not only don’t know how to explain it (i.e. “how physical processes in the brain produce subjective experience”) , I don’t even know what would count as an acceptable explanation. Can you even invent an explanation which, if true, would make you feel like you really understood how physical processes lead to subjective phenomena? I, for one, wouldn’t know what to invent”

    Convinced or unconvinced, I don’t think you’ll feel obliged to write that again.

  20. #20 Another Matt
    December 24, 2012

    Under the brain model, we think that the neural chains are causally closed, which means that it looks positing mental causation results in over-determination: the neural firings are sufficient to explain why there was a certain reaction to a certain stimulus, so what is there causally for the subjective experience to do? And if there is nothing for it explicitly to do, then why can’t I take it out and still keep the same behaviour? And then we have epiphenomenalism, and a hard time explaining why we have subjective experience at all.

    There are many possible answers to your questions, but I think dualists have similar questions to answer.

    For instance, how do they think things would be different if materialists were right? I think there are two answers, neither of which is very satisfactory. The first just says that if materialists were right, nothing like humans (or maybe mammals) could have evolved in the first place. The second answer is “zombies!”

    And then we can do this kind of thing:
    “Under the biological model, we think that elephant bodies are self-contained systems, so positing ‘elephant behavior’ results in over-determination: the function of all of its cells are sufficient to explain why the system behaved the way it did, so what is there causally for ‘elephantiness’ to do? And if there is nothing for it explicitly to do, then why can’t I take the ‘elephantiness’ out of the elephant and still keep the same behavior? And then we have an epiphenomenon, and a hard time explaining why elephants are elephantine at all.”
    This is the “hard problem of elephants” — to explain how elephant cells cause elephants to be elephantine without referring to any ‘elephantiness’ in any of its parts.
    Intuitively this feels different than the consciousness question, but I’m not sure why it should.

    In other words, I think your worry here begs the question a little. Moving “subjective experience” in and out of the picture in your thought experiments without justification already treats it as something separable from the brain’s physical processes — but this is exactly what is at issue to begin with.
    On the other hand, I suppose I could beg the question with soul dualists in the same way: “the function of the soul is sufficient to explain mental behavior, so what is there causally for subjective experience to do? And if there is nothing for it to do, why can’t I take the subjective experience out of the soul and still keep the same behavior?” This is the “hard problem of soul-consciousness” — to explain how the soul causes consciousness without referring to any consciousness or subjective experience in its essence.

  21. #21 JimV
    December 24, 2012

    To the limited extent that I think I understand what VS seems to be puzzled about, it sounds similar to the debate on whether, based on a materialist concept of mind, there can be such a thing as “free will”. The answer many materialists, including Dr. Coyne, give is “no”, that in fact our actions are predetermined by the material construction and content of our neurons and the rest of our nervous systems (as influenced by the environment). And they cite some laboratory evidence that in fact decisions are made before we are consciously aware of it. I have a slightly different hypothesis but will not muddy the waters with it here. My point is that materialists have no conceptual difficulty with such “problems”.

    As to the comment by JR referencing Godel, here’s how our minds, or a computer, can come up with something “new”: a) by observing something similar and mimicking it (e.g., seeing a log roll downhill and creating a wheel); b) by pure random trial and error; c) and applying logical transformations (such as those used by the program “Mathematica” to solve equations of complicated mathematical formulas, and those used by “Siri” to tell us whether it is raining outside our houses). These methods (mainly the first two) account for the totality of engineering developments which I have seen in my 38 years of mechanical engineering work, including all of my patents.

    I would also like to remind people that with around 100 billion synapses in our brains, we have a a biological computer more powerful than any super computer yet made, by some orders of magnitude. Along with several billion years of programming, going back to flatworms whose primitive nervous systems allow them to learn how to traverse mazes.

  22. #22 Verbose Stoic
    December 24, 2012

    AnotherMatt,

    For instance, how do they think things would be different if materialists were right? I think there are two answers, neither of which is very satisfactory. The first just says that if materialists were right, nothing like humans (or maybe mammals) could have evolved in the first place. The second answer is “zombies!”

    When I first read this, I thought I got it, but now I’m not so sure. Note that other than the fact that I probably am a bit wordy, I do tend to use specific words because it matters to use them, which is why I used “…I have two concerns about a materialism about mind based on the brain.” in the intro. Not all materialist models are vulnerable to these attacks, especially the one you quote here. The brain model is, because the brain would have to be causally closed for it to work, allowing no external cause (beyond the inputs to the brain). And that leads to the possibility of zombies. I disagree with Chalmers that they could be physically identical because I think that subjective experience does important stuff in determining behaviour, and so think you’d either have to add an additional input mechanism to get that information, or that if the neurological story is right there’d have to be some small thing that we can’t yet measure that differs between the two. But, philosophically, it implies that it’s possible and that, therefore, it’s hard to see what subjective experience could possibly do that has an impact.

    Which leads into the elephant story. We know what it means to be an elephant — trunk, ears, etc, etc — and have indeed explained how it is that the cells of the elephant come together to produce those properties. So the reason that our intuition is different is that it’s clear in the elephant case that we have done it. We don’t have that for subjective experience yet, and if you don’t have subjective experience you don’t have consciousness. Now, I personally won’t say that you’ll never get it, but I feel perfectly reasonable in saying that I’ll wait until you do before giving up the game.

    In other words, I think your worry here begs the question a little. Moving “subjective experience” in and out of the picture in your thought experiments without justification already treats it as something separable from the brain’s physical processes — but this is exactly what is at issue to begin with.

    I’m not sure if you’ve read the thought experiments at my blog, but I’d be interested if you read those and thought that I was moving it in and out invalidly. I know I had a debate with someone who said something similar, but the problem was that from my end he was using the assumption that if you act like you have subjective experiences you must have them, which requires a bit more substantiation.

    On the other hand, I suppose I could beg the question with soul dualists in the same way: “the function of the soul is sufficient to explain mental behavior, so what is there causally for subjective experience to do? And if there is nothing for it to do, why can’t I take the subjective experience out of the soul and still keep the same behavior?” This is the “hard problem of soul-consciousness” — to explain how the soul causes consciousness without referring to any consciousness or subjective experience in its essence.

    The problem would be that people would say that if you take subjective experience out of the soul/mind, you don’t have one anymore; the defining property of the soul entity is of being the ground for subjective experience events. That can’t be said about the brain, as it clearly does more than that. The real issue, though, for me is that it seems to me that the neurological story says that the same event — the neural firings — is responsible both for the experience and for the effect of that experience, while in the dualistic story there are two separate events, the mental and the physical. This leaves room for the mental event to actually have a causal impact on the physical, which you don’t seem to be able to do if they are the same event (how can an event have a direct causal impact on itself through what are simply different aspects of the event?).

    JimV:

    The answer many materialists, including Dr. Coyne, give is “no”, that in fact our actions are predetermined by the material construction and content of our neurons and the rest of our nervous systems (as influenced by the environment). And they cite some laboratory evidence that in fact decisions are made before we are consciously aware of it. I have a slightly different hypothesis but will not muddy the waters with it here. My point is that materialists have no conceptual difficulty with such “problems”.

    The counter is that the actual conceptual problems are in the consequences of it, and that many of the answers to them are either to bite the bullet and accept them — see Jaegwon Kim and epiphenomenalism — or simply deny that the consequences are there without any real argument. For example, notice how every time Coyne talks about free will he gets asked how we can still have real moral responsibility? It’s not because everyone forgets that he says that we can still make decisions, but that those who bring it up can’t see how he can get to real decisions with his model. Declaring that we still make decisions doesn’t really help, because the counter is one that a former professor of mine mentioned: if determinism is true, then my current action was determined by the Big Bang. How can I be said to be responsible in any way for something that was destined to happen the instant we had a Big Bang?

  23. #23 Another Matt
    December 25, 2012

    Verbose Stoic — there’s much to reply to here, but I think I’ll restrict my reply to the following quote, since you said it was the most pressing:

    The real issue, though, for me is that it seems to me that the neurological story says that the same event — the neural firings — is responsible both for the experience and for the effect of that experience, while in the dualistic story there are two separate events, the mental and the physical. This leaves room for the mental event to actually have a causal impact on the physical, which you don’t seem to be able to do if they are the same event (how can an event have a direct causal impact on itself through what are simply different aspects of the event?).

    I’m not sure you’ve justified why “the neural firings” counts as a single “event,” but I suppose “event” is always relative to where one is willing to draw the boundaries. There are many hypotheses which could in principle address your worry — for instance, imagine an organism for which its neurons are divided into “experience neurons” and “effect neurons,” which each talk to each other. The “experience neurons” would be entirely responsible for creating perceptual experience (and would gather data from input from the world), and they would feed information to the “effect neurons” which process that data, do the thinking, make decisions, control motor neurons, store memory, etc. The “experience neurons” get two kinds of feedback from the “effect neurons” — first, indirect feedback through the environmental effects of the organisms own actions which result from the effect/motor neurons, and second, direct feedback from the “effect neurons,” which provide subjective experience of some of the processing, thinking, and decision-making that goes on in the “effect neurons,” as well as a kind of “structural overlay” on the raw sense data, so that a rock is seen as an object rather than an unvarnished blob of color. Experience neurons could send information back to the effect neurons after having received the “theory laden” information from the effect neurons. Und so weiter.

    Already in this utterly simplistic but infinitely variable toy model we have a set of “neural firings” — those of the “experience neurons” — which determine the subjective experience, but which send information out for processing, and receive information from both external and internal sources. A demon which could tickle all the inputs to those neurons at just the right time (similar to what is sometimes known as “Haugeland’s demon”) could simulate all the subjective experience you could please (this is basically a “brain in the vat” scenario). But the information it’s sending to the effect neurons has tons of effect on the information processing side of the system, and it later dramatically affects the subjective experience itself through the feedback from the processing on the other side.

    I think there is an infinity of such models, all of which have at least two things in common, one of which is “feedback” (or maybe more generally, “recursion”), and the other of which is the perspectives of different levels of analysis (which is what I think you could mean when you mention “different aspects of the event”).

    To say that “the neural firings [are] responsible both for the experience and for the effect of that experience,” or as you say, “event [that has] a direct causal impact on itself through what are simply different aspects of the event,” is in general terms to say that an emergent property of some process can feedback and influence that underlying process. We see that all the time in all sorts of phenomena, and especially in biology.

    Take the action of the circulatory system as “an event.” Its structure emerges diachronically through embryonic development and synchronically from the deployment and relationship among its cells. This emergent large-scale structure constrains the flow of blood, and its cells themselves depend on a ready blood supply. The circulatory cells create an emergent property (the structure of the vessels), which in turn has a causal impact on the functioning of those cells — a proper explanation requires analysis of both levels together. There are also plenty of recursive structural features like these: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasa_vasorum

  24. #24 Another Matt
    December 25, 2012

    One more thing:

    the defining property of the soul entity is of being the ground for subjective experience events.

    This kind of claim doesn’t really say anything: it’s a virtus dormitiva* kind of argument, and just sidesteps explanation altogether:

    Q. “How does a soul create subjective experience?”
    A. “Through its subjective-experience-creating power.”

    I think soul dualism is also susceptible to all the problems of free will under materialism. One would need to say whether the soul exists under a deterministic or indeterministic ontology, and then we’re just off to the same race (but with an extra entity)… unless one posits a virtus dormitiva again:

    Q. “How does a soul create free will?”
    A. “Through its free-will-creating power.”

    * http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/dormitive_principle

  25. #25 Reginald Selkirk
    Cyberspace
    December 25, 2012

    Charles Sullivan: Here’s the problem; if you have never tasted chocolate then you will not know how chocolate tastes by examining my brain.

    Things we do know: Chocolate, a mixture of chemicals, interacts with chemosensors in the mouth. These sensors send neural signals to certain parts of the brain. Then (black box stuff happens) and we taste chocolate.
    So: Supposing we could figure out precisely which areas of the brain to stimulate, and we did so. The experimental subject would presumably then ‘taste’ chocolate, even though she had no chocolate in her mouth. Would this satisfy your challenge? This would not require understanding the black box stuff at all, merely feeding it the appropriate neural signals.
    Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: Brain probe triggers out-of-body experience
    Researchers prepping a patient for epilepsy surgery stimulated an area of her brain with a probe, triggering in her the perception that she was viewing her body from above. But of course, she wasn’t, it was just an illusion. (This example has the added benefit of addressing out of body experiences as purported evidence of dualism, but it also seems to address your question as well.)

  26. #26 Verbose Stoic
    December 25, 2012

    AnotherMatt,

    Well, the issues around these things are pretty complicated and so I didn’t want to go into them in my first post, but I have considered your “experience module” idea, and it has the same problem. How do we get from from “experience neurons” to the “effect neurons”? Well, the input to the effect neurons from the output of the experience neurons. Which is just a neural event, and it follows directly from the experiential neural events (if it is not identical to it). And inside that module, we have neural events being caused by the inputs to that module from other parts of the brain. So, it goes into that module, everything lights up, and we have a neural event that produces that subjective experience … which, then, directly produces the effect neurons. As I said earlier, you have over-determination, as even if that module didn’t produce any experience at all the neural events would still be the same and still proceed through and produce the effects.

    Unless they aren’t, and unless the neurons simply couldn’t produce that same output without having a different experience. Well, perhaps. But it’s hard to see how this could be due to the mental properties of the mental event (the subjective experience). And that’s because of the problem I outlined: what we have are two events, the mental and the physical. Under the neurological story, the physical event is sufficient to cause the effect, and so there’s no room for the mental event itself to play a causal role in the production.

    And similar things occur for feedback loops or anything else; as soon as you put it into neural terms, the fact that the physical event is sufficient leaves the mental event as at best an epiphenomenon, something that happens along with it.

    Q. “How does a soul create subjective experience?”
    A. “Through its subjective-experience-creating power.”

    Well, except that I’m not talking about the soul having subjective-experience-creating power, but about it being the entity for subjective experience events. Let me talk about “bodily events” to make this clear. Something is a bodily event if it is an event that happens in the body. We don’t say that the body has bodily event creating power, but it is surely the case that we can have bodily events because we have a body. The same thing would apply to brain events. And the same thing applies to mental events. So when I say that, I merely say that the entity where mental events happen is a mind/soul/whatever, but there are various causal mechanisms — both internal and external — that create mental events, including subjective experiences. So, not a virtus dormitiva argument at all.

  27. #27 Dan
    December 26, 2012

    MNb, care to substantiate your claim that Galelio wasn’t threatened with torture and imprisonment with English sources? I’ve read English translations of the relevant court documents and they are clear that he was threatened with both (unless the translations are wrong).

    In a Harvard press book financed by the Templeton Foundation titled “Galileo goes to jail: and other myths about science and religion”, which is extremely friendly to religion, the person who wrote about the myths in the popular Galileo story quotes documents drafted by the Church and signed by Galileo specifically stating that torture was a threat. In fact Prof. Finocchiaro, who has also read the original documents, says on page 76, “this deposition leaves no doubt that Galileo was threatened with torture during the June 21 [1633] interrogation.” And by the way, Finocchiaro has written several books and numerous peer-reviewed papers on Galileo, and even translated some of Galileo’s writing for academic publication.

  28. #28 MNb
    December 26, 2012

    Dan, I think I substantiated by given some sources above. What you write is new to me. Thanks for that.

  29. #29 Kevin
    December 26, 2012

    “You left out the part of the story where Galileo was threatened with torture and imprisonment unless he recanted his views in the most humiliating terms”

    How do you know this happened to Galileo?

  30. #30 Another Matt
    December 26, 2012

    As I said earlier, you have over-determination, as even if that module didn’t produce any experience at all the neural events would still be the same and still proceed through and produce the effects.

    Well, the hypothesis is that the neural events would be different if they didn’t produce any experience at all.

    And similar things occur for feedback loops or anything else; as soon as you put it into neural terms, the fact that the physical event is sufficient leaves the mental event as at best an epiphenomenon, something that happens along with it.

    This is the crux. And I’m sorry, I think your phrase “at best” is doing most of the intuitive work in your argument. It’s as though you’re saying “the car’s locomotion is at best an epiphenomenon of controlled explosion, so I don’t see how a car’s movement could have any effect on the world.”

    A quote from Dennett’s Brainstorms comes to mind (pp. 64-65):

    It used to be popular to say, “A computer can’t really think, of course; all it can do is add, subtract, multiply and divide.” That leaves the way open to saying, “A computer can’t really multiply, of course; all it can do is add numbers together very, very fast,” and that must lead to the admission: “A computer cannot really add numbers, of course; all it can do is control the opening and closing of hundreds of tiny switches,” which leads to: “A computer can’t really control its switches, of course; it’s simply at the mercy of the electrical currents pulsing through it.” What this chain of claims adds up to “prove”, obviously, is that computers are really pretty dull lumps of stuff — they can’t do anything interesting at all. They can’t really guide rockets to the moon, or make out paychecks, or beat human beings at chess, but of course they can do all that and more. What the computer programmer can do if we give him the chance is not explain away the illusion that the computer is doing these things, but explain how the computer truly is doing these things.

    It seems to me you’re trying to say the equivalent of, “because the multiplication that takes place inside a computer is merely an epiphenomenon of the electrical currents pulsing through it, there’s nothing at all for the multiplication event to do in the computer’s operation.” Note how much work the “merely” is doing there.

    One more thing:

    Let me talk about “bodily events” to make this clear. Something is a bodily event if it is an event that happens in the body. We don’t say that the body has bodily event creating power, but it is surely the case that we can have bodily events because we have a body.

    Nope, I don’t buy it. This would only be analogous if there were some controversy about whether we in fact have bodies. If that were the case, you’d have to provide evidence of bodies before you got to use “bodily events” without begging the question in a virtus dormitiva way.

    There is a very good strategy to deal with this that you’ve hinted at here:

    So when I say that, I merely say that the entity where mental events happen is a mind/soul/whatever, but there are various causal mechanisms — both internal and external — that create mental events, including subjective experiences.

    It’s the “we’ll provisionally call the producer of mental events a ‘soul,’ whatever that turns out to be” strategy. This amounts to a regimentation of previous intuitive linguistic placeholders, and is in some way the complementary strategy to the outright eliminativists’. What we’ve been calling “soul” could in fact be “the way the brain is organized” rather than some traditional metaphysical essence.

    This is what’s going on with Jerry Coyne and the free-will arguments on his site. Some of us take the former strategy and agree to call the difference in behavior we notice between humans and rocks “free will,” whatever it happens to be, while Dr. Coyne and others take the eliminativist route.

    I think the latter route has the danger of missing useful explanatory differences that are available through analysis of levels of organization — there are those who take it a step too far and say that determinism implies that there’s no difference in the behavior of a car that has been programmed to traverse the desert without a driver and a roller coaster.

  31. #31 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 26, 2012

    Kevin —

    See Dan’s comment, two above yours.

    In that same essay, Finocchiaro provides specific quotations from the relevant court documents showing that Galileo was plainly threatened with torture during his interrogation. For example, he quotes the minutes of the Inquisition meeting of June 16, 1633, chaired by the pope:

    His Holiness decided that the same Galileo is to be interrogated even with the threat of torture; and that if he holds up, after a vehement abjuration at a plenary meeting of the Holy Office, he is to be condemned to prison at the pleasure of the Sacred Congregation, …

    Later he provides a specific excerpt from the interrogation of Galileo by the Inquisition:

    Q: Having been told that from the book itself and the reasons advanced for the affirmative side, namely that the earth moves and the sun is motionless, he is presumed, as it was stated, that he holds Copernicus’s opinion, or at least that he held it at the time, therefore he was told that unless he decided to proffer the truth, one would have recourse to the remedies of the law and to appropriate steps against him.

    A: I do not hold this opinion of Copernicus, and I have not held it after being ordered by injunction to abandon it. For the rest, here I am in your hands; do as you please.

    Q: And he was told to tell the truth, otherwise one would have recourse to torture.

    A: I am here to obey, but I have not held this opinion after the determination was made as I said.

    Finocchario then concludes, fleshing out the quotation given by Dan:

    This deposition leaves no doubt that Galileo was threatened with torture during the June 21 interrogation. But there is no evidence that he was actually tortured, or that his accusers planned actually to torture him. Apparently, the “rigorous examination” mentioned in the sentence meant interrogation with the threat of torture, not interrogation under actual torture.

    Incidentally, in the context of the book, Finocchario was writing to dispel the myth that Galileo was actually tortured and imprisoned.

    That’s all pretty unambiguous, and completely justifies what I said before. We have the premiere historian of Galileo providing unambiguous quotations from the actual court documents. MNb was simply wrong to deny it.

  32. #32 Cameron Hoppe
    http://thesexyuniverse.com
    December 26, 2012

    The most complex system a human mind can understand is another human mind; this is done intuitively, though, not analytically. So when human beings come up against a system that is non-linear, stochastic, etc, it’s entirely natural to attribute personality to them. There is nothing wrong with this. By making the system human, we begin to bridge the gap of understanding.

    Religion, myth, and legend can be seen in this light–an attempt to understand the non-human world in a strategic and meaningful way. I prefer science and mathematics, but there’s nothing wrong with the religious approach. It’s available to anyone without any special training, and it’s much more efficient, especially when resources are strained.

  33. #33 Pierce R. Butler
    December 26, 2012

    The central challenge facing 21st-century science is …

    The simplistic assumption that science has a “central” challenge betrays poor thinking from the get-go. Scientific history doesn’t show that kind of pattern, except maybe when F. Bacon redefined the whole project in the good ol’ days.

    Humans perceive light at a wavelength of 700 nanometers as red; we haven’t a clue why red.

    Has this poor man never sat around a table with a bottle or more on it, and asked whether his friends saw the same…?

    … to the success of drug therapies for mental illness…

    Matter-over-mind impacts have been documented since approximately the discovery of fermentation.

  34. #34 MNb
    December 27, 2012

    “there’s nothing wrong with the religious approach”
    Not inherently nor a priori. The practical results of the religious approach are not exact encouraging though. The scientific approach has enabled the two of us to communicate directly with each other, though I live in a country quite far away. And the religion approach?

    “MNb was simply wrong to deny it.”
    Yup. MNb didn’t know about Finocchario. That’s why I thanked Dan.

  35. #35 Verbose Stoic
    December 27, 2012

    Another Matt,

    Well, the hypothesis is that the neural events would be different if they didn’t produce any experience at all.

    I concede that it’s possible (my original reply on this wasn’t as clear as I would have liked). But you have to demonstrate that that is not just because different neural events produce different experiences, and that there’s something about neural events that means that they always produce certain experiences. It must be the case that the qualities OF that experience determine, in some way, the neural firing we have. And that’s what at least so far you cannot do, and what I think is impossible as long as the subjective experience and the neural firing that produces it are the same event.

    It’s as though you’re saying “the car’s locomotion is at best an epiphenomenon of controlled explosion, so I don’t see how a car’s movement could have any effect on the world.”

    You keep getting the analogies of my position wrong [grin]. I’m arguing, in fact, that the locomotion HAS causal powers; I’m arguing that we have mental causation. I’m saying that under the materialist model it ends up being the case that the locomotion of the car has no effect. Let me alter the analogy to put it better: my argument is that under the materialist model mental events are like the engine noise in the engine; it is the product of the controlled explosion, and so always happens when you have it, but it has no actual impact on the locomotion of the car; in theory, you could take it out and not change how the car moves. This is not a problem for engine noise because it isn’t SUPPOSED to have any impact on how the car moves, but it seems like it would be a problem if subjective experience turns out to be nothing more than engine noise.

    It seems to me you’re trying to say the equivalent of, “because the multiplication that takes place inside a computer is merely an epiphenomenon of the electrical currents pulsing through it, there’s nothing at all for the multiplication event to do in the computer’s operation.” Note how much work the “merely” is doing there.

    Dennett certainly and probably you are missing the difference between hardware explanations and software explanations (hence his reference to programmer when he’s talking about the hardware). When the hardware in your computer “multiplies”, there is nothing at the hardware level that knows or understands that it is doing multiplication. The same hardware activations can be doing multiplication or parsing a string or adding or, well, anything, in theory. It’s at the SOFTWARE level, at the part of the program that says “Multiply 2×2 here” where you get even a hope of something that understands what multiplication actually is, and so is really doing multiplication. This is where functionalism has a huge advantage, because it presents the mind as a program running on the hardware of the brain. But the neurological answer is all about a hardware explanation, but the neurons do not in any way “multiply” or do any of the mental things; they could be used for many things that need not even produce mental events at all. Thus, if your neural explanation is complete, then it’s just a bunch of hardware events … and it is not the hardware that alters its actions in response to actual content, which means that the actual content of the outcome has no impact on the hardware activations. It’s only the overarching program that reads the output and changes the input accordingly.

    Nope, I don’t buy it. This would only be analogous if there were some controversy about whether we in fact have bodies. If that were the case, you’d have to provide evidence of bodies before you got to use “bodily events” without begging the question in a virtus dormitiva way.

    No. Your claim was that the objection I raised against the materialist model — that we need to find out how the mental events and content of them can have causal power in that model — could be raised against the dualist model by asking what its power was that could do that. My analogy with the body is just to explain how mind/soul are viewed in that model, and so the objection you raise is not valid. I need not prove my model correct to point out that an objection you raise against the model isn’t valid because the model does not say what you think it says.

    It’s the “we’ll provisionally call the producer of mental events a ‘soul,’ whatever that turns out to be” strategy. This amounts to a regimentation of previous intuitive linguistic placeholders, and is in some way the complementary strategy to the outright eliminativists’. What we’ve been calling “soul” could in fact be “the way the brain is organized” rather than some traditional metaphysical essence.

    Not under my model, it can’t, and if you aren’t talking about my model then there’s really no point for us to be addressing it, is there? In my case, it has to be something distinct from the physical events of the brain because of the problems I’ve raised, and so if it comes down to “the way the brain is organized” then I would concede the materialist model.

  36. #36 Another Matt
    December 27, 2012

    Verbose Stoic (I’m not going to quote the whole thing):

    Dennett certainly and probably you are missing the difference between hardware explanations and software explanations (hence his reference to programmer when he’s talking about the hardware)…

    No, this is rather Dennett’s point, and I think we’ve come to a place where we might agree (this quote was from 1978, when programmers did in fact have to know a little bit about hardware to get their programs to work).

    It is at the software level where multiplication (and chess playing, and whatever) occurs. But there’s nothing wrong with saying that the software is also an emergent property (not merely an emergent property!) of the electric pulses at the the hardware level. This is what I’ve been trying to say: You need both levels of explanation to get anywhere, but the fact that the software level exists is not a count against materialism at all, but it is in fact the organized connections among the levels that gives materialism its explanatory power. High-level emergent properties have the ability to constrain operations at the lower levels on which they supervene.

    Douglas Hofstadter has made his whole career on this idea. If you can stand his cutesy dialogues, you might read this:

    http://files.meetup.com/1293030/Who%20Shoves%20Whom%20-%20Hofstadter.pdf

  37. #37 MNb
    December 27, 2012

    “it has no actual impact on the locomotion of the car; in theory, you could take it out and not change how the car moves”
    This is wrong. Noise is a form of energy. Not only violates taking it out the laws of thermodynamics, if you minimalize it you can use that energy to influence the movement of the car/loc indeed. It’s just very small, but it’s there.
    You get your physics wrong. I don’t know about this nice mind discussion, but this here is not very promising.

  38. #38 Another Matt
    December 27, 2012

    MNb —

    Relative to the function “locomotion,” you can, for the most part, leave the noise out of the causal explanation: when you describe the function of the parts of the car in the overall design, you don’t have any place where you say, “here’s where the noise goes in, and here’s what it does.” It’s a byproduct of the other functions.

    However, if you actually made an attempt to remove the noise, you’re going to have to change the design of the car, which will likely have a huge effect on the car’s ability to locomote. In this sense, the noise, once it is pointed out as an entity, plays a huge role in the design of the car after all: the competence of the car in its other functions depends on a design in which the noise will arise. There’s nothing really for the noise to do except be there inevitably as a result of a certain kind of organization.

    VS’s worry about subjective experience seems to be like this — if it’s just there as the byproduct of a certain kind of organization, then there’s nothing for it to do; you could leave it out the causal explanations of behavior. One point worth making is that this does not imply that you could therefore remove subjective experience from the system, even in theory. Any attempt to do so would likely come at the expense of destroying the very mental competences we care about explaining in the first place.

    There are many things that are like this. I’m reminded of a discussion of “followthrough” in baseball or golf I read somewhere (I can’t remember where). The followthrough doesn’t do anything at all — it happens after the club or bat has made contact with the ball, so you can leave it out of the causal explanation for the ball’s flight. Except, the physiological constraints of our bodies makes the followthrough a necessary “epiphenomenon” of a well-designed swing — a good swing will inevitably have a followthrough. It could be the case that having the right kind of followthrough as a goal will ensure the design of a good swing, and it could even be the case that the right kind of followthrough is necessary for the design of a good swing. In either case it’s an epiphenomenon, but not a mere epiphenomenon.

  39. #39 drdave
    http://nssphoenix.wordpress.com
    December 27, 2012

    Jason, yes Damasio’s book “Self Comes To Mind” is very good. I have read all of Damasio’s books.

    As far as Pruett’s essay goes, it sounds like another argument from ignorance: “we cannot explain the mind (yet) so it must be magical”.

  40. #40 Verbose Stoic
    December 28, 2012

    MNb,

    I think that Another Matt has covered off your comment, although I’d quibble over “in theory”, since for me if you say that it can’t happen because of the laws of physics I call that “in practice” and not “in theory”. Different meanings of “theory”, I guess.

    Another Matt,

    Well, I’m not sure how it can work to say that the software emerges from the hardware, since it generally doesn’t. Maybe you can say that connectionist systems work that way, but while they can actually do some learning that we do they aren’t exactly great at understanding, and they don’t really provide a reason to think that they have subjective experiences either.

    But I think the big problem really is this: For me, it seems that if the mental event and the physical event are the same event then there’s no reason to think that the mental event has any impact on that physical event, and if the neurological story is true then as long as that physical event happens then the effect will happen, too. Thus, the mental event has no impact on what happens. And we can see this in your golf example. By the mechanics of humans, in order to hit a golf ball properly there will have to be a specific type of follow-through. But if you had another type of creature with different mechanics, you might not need or have that sort of follow-through … and yet have the same behaviour.

    And then the same thing could apply to all of our cognitive and mental facilities. If we design an intelligent AI, we don’t have any reason to think that it would have subjective experiences, and if it doesn’t then we would have the same behaviours without that extraneous experience thing. But that would make subjective experience something that just happens, or something that neurons just happen to do while doing intelligent things. This may be true, but I’ll need a lot more evidence before I’ll dismiss my actual experience of what experiences do in such a radical fashion.

    Hence, why I say “merely epiphenomenal”. I’m analyzing it from the causal perspective … and noting that under the neurological story it seems that it actually does nothing, while from our perspective it seems like it does everything. And that’s something that I don’t think anyone should be too quick to accept.

  41. #41 Another Matt
    December 28, 2012

    Well, I’m not sure how it can work to say that the software emerges from the hardware, since it generally doesn’t. Maybe you can say that connectionist systems work that way, but while they can actually do some learning that we do they aren’t exactly great at understanding, and they don’t really provide a reason to think that they have subjective experiences either.

    I’m totally mystified by your statement, so I think we might have a different idea of what is meant by “emerge.” Can we at least agree that a computer is made entirely of matter and energy, and does everything it does by virtue of the structure of its physical organization (and the way that organization manipulates electrons)? And the reason other hunks of matter — boulders, buckets of water, etc. — do not exhibit this behavior is because they are not so organized?

    The connectionist models seem to me to be a kind of triple emergence — software implemented on “virtual hardware,” which is itself software implemented on physical hardware.

    And then the same thing could apply to all of our cognitive and mental facilities. If we design an intelligent AI, we don’t have any reason to think that it would have subjective experiences, and if it doesn’t then we would have the same behaviours without that extraneous experience thing.

    I guess I’m just not convinced by this intuition, and a lot has to do with what we mean by “intelligent.” You could just as easily say that we don’t have any reason to think that any non-human animals have subjective experiences, or you could propose a similar cutoff — maybe reptiles have them but not amphibians or anything that evolved earlier. To me the more plausible idea is that it’s something that comes in degrees according to the complexity of the organism’s model of the world and the processing it can do with the information about the world (I suppose this is another way of saying that its degree of experience is correlated with its intelligence).

    But if I were to imagine a 30th generation AI that gives engaging interviews on TV programs about its new ebook, “The Structure Of My World: what it is like to be a 30th generation AI,” and has well-attended formal debates with people about whether or not it really has experiences, I’d take what it had to say about whatever experiences it had pretty seriously.

    I think it’s much more likely that we’ll never have such an AI, and you could argue that such a being could never exist, but since you’ve already put forward “an intelligent AI”… I’m just not sure what kind of thing you have in mind.

  42. #42 MNb
    December 28, 2012

    @VS: “if you say that it can’t happen because of the laws of physics I call that “in practice” and not “in theory”. Different meanings of “theory”, I guess.”
    Yes – yours is not quite the meaning physicists give to “theory”. Now that’s OK in a discussion. It’s better to make it explicitly clear though. Analogies are fine, but can lead to logical fallacies. In my eyes you were quite close, but I don’t claim it would necessarily affect what you write about the problem of te mind.
    Your “theoretical” approach of the loc example has no meaning in physics. What you guys make of that I’ll leave up to you.

  43. #43 Kevin
    December 28, 2012

    Thanks, Jason, for the comment on Galileo.

    I just wanted to confirm that you accept that knowledge may be gained from testimonial evidence.

  44. #44 MNb
    December 29, 2012

    Of course, Kevin, or we could throw almost the entire historical science into the dustbin. How else do we know that President Roosevelt died in April 1944 and not in May?

  45. #45 Verbose Stoic
    December 30, 2012

    Another Matt,

    I’m totally mystified by your statement, so I think we might have a different idea of what is meant by “emerge.”

    Well, in this debate, when I think of emergence I tend to think of it as a case where when you hook up the hardware in the right way, the phenomena simply starts to happen, and there’s no particular link between it and the things you’ve hooked up. Software is supposed to guide the hardware interactions, and so emerging in this way unplanned from the hardware isn’t really accurate. Think about it this way: the software is like the tape in a Turing machine, and the hardware is basically the head (and anything that follows from its moving). The symbols on the tape don’t emerge from the head moving, because they tell the head how to move. Moreover, the software can be instantiated on different hardware, with different representations.

    To me the more plausible idea is that it’s something that comes in degrees according to the complexity of the organism’s model of the world and the processing it can do with the information about the world (I suppose this is another way of saying that its degree of experience is correlated with its intelligence).

    But that’s just an assumption. You don’t have any reason to think that having a model of the world and being able to process it means that you have actual subjective experiences, and the evidence is against it because we know that we can model the world in ways that don’t use subjective experience at all. If subjective experiences are one way to model a world but there are others, then you cannot say that if something models a world and processes it that it must have subjective experiences.

  46. #46 Another Matt
    December 30, 2012

    Think about it this way: the software is like the tape in a Turing machine, and the hardware is basically the head (and anything that follows from its moving). The symbols on the tape don’t emerge from the head moving, because they tell the head how to move. Moreover, the software can be instantiated on different hardware, with different representations.

    Exactly right. But you can’t have a Turing machine without the tape, and the tape has to have some kind of physical instantiation — it is part of the hardware. The movement of the head emerges from the way the tape is organized physically, and physical ability of the head to read from the tape.

    When you say “the software can be instantiated on different hardware,” you’re making the same claim I am — that its physical instantiation is all there is, but it’s the relationship among the parts that makes it work.

    But let’s say I write a program in Python. It’s going to work the same way on any hardware that has a Python interpreter in all the ways that matter for the operation of what we care about for programs. It’s really easy to look at this situation and suggest that the software has some kind of metaphysical power to control the computer, but let’s look at what’s going on:

    The interpreters themselves do not have to have to be the “same software” at all — they just need to comply with the definition of Python, so that the correct behavior for Python emerges from the interpreter. It can be written in any compiled language (C, for instance). Likewise the compiler doesn’t need to be the same software, just so long as it guarantees the proper high-level behavior — in many cases it can’t be because of hardware constraints further down. Assembly code generated by the compiler is going to be radically different depending on the hardware’s architecture.

    So when I say my Python program is “the same software no matter what hardware it runs on,” I have to acknowledge that this is only possible because someone else has done all the hard work to negotiate the interplay between levels of software and hardware so that the physical activity of the hardware delivers the same behavior we agree to care about at the higher level. Laplace’s Demon might not call the two instantiations the “same” at all, but its cares our different from ours, and we might even be entitled to say that it’s missing something important.

    This is how I think of “emergence” — it’s not that there is “no particular link” as you put it, but rather that there is a very specific link among the levels. The “same behavior” emerges from lower levels that are not themselves organized in the same way at every detail. This happens because we can label some information relevant and some not when we deem something “the same.”

    Back to elephants — Laplace’s Demon will never be able to form a conjunction of physical predicates necessary to pick out any and all elephants in a planet-sized lump of matter. We recognize “elephants” by ignoring a huge number of details that we’ve decided are irrelevant to the definition of “elephant.” “Elephant” construction and behavior emerges from matter that’s very different in the details of its deployment, but close enough in all the ways that matter to us.

    A proper explanation shows how to navigate the different levels of organization.

  47. #47 Verbose Stoic
    January 1, 2013

    Another Matt,

    It seems like you’re more opposing reductionism/eliminativism than you are talking about emergentism, basically saying that even though all of the higher levels are implemented by the lower, there are interesting concepts at the higher levels that you won’t find at the lower. Is this right? If this is the case, then we agree … but this is a separate question, to me, from the ones we are addressing.

  48. #48 Another Matt
    January 2, 2013

    VS,

    Seeing as how nobody else is commenting, I suppose it’s time to let this go. My point is that it’s OK to point out concepts at higher levels, but I think it’s a mistake to think of them as “things in themselves,” or as having some kind of “essence” or “essential quality” or whatever.

    One way of putting this is to say that identical lower levels will have identical high-level organizations (this is an almost impossible thing to achieve, though — “in theory” you can have atom-for-atom copies of things). But the reverse is not true — “the same” (i.e. really really similar) high-level phenomena can occur with sometimes even radically different low-level organization. An appropriate low-level organization is sufficient for the emergence of whatever high-level stuff occurs, but it is not necessary. As I said above, any good theory of emergence for a given high-level phenomenon will show how the connection among the levels works.

    I don’t think it’s a separate question from what we have been addressing — I think it’s really the only one that has any chance of handling either the consciousness or free-will problems.

    Anyway, thanks for the conversation — you’re welcome to the last word if you’d like.

  49. #49 eric
    January 3, 2013

    One way of putting this is to say that identical lower levels will have identical high-level organizations… But the reverse is not true — “the same” (i.e. really really similar) high-level phenomena can occur with sometimes even radically different low-level organization

    This is certainly true in chemistry and physics – the whole statistical formulation of entropy is based on it being true (that there is only one macrostate per microstate, but many microstates per macrostate).

    So I would say that you’re almost certainly right about it applying to neural signaling/biochemistry, and that anyone arguing it doesn’t apply in biology is going to have a tough row to hoe.

  50. […] Pruett, by the way, is an emeritus professor of mathematics at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, which makes him a colleague of my friend (and staunch opponent of accommodationism) Jason Rosenhouse.  Like me, Rosenhouse went after Pruett’s first column in a post at EvolutionBlog. […]

  51. #51 eric
    January 4, 2013

    Thanks for that link, whomever (Jan 4). That’s a really terrible new piece by Pruett. Some initial thoughts:

    Second, it [the Pope’s admission] grants autonomy to both revelatory processes, implying that neither should seek to manipulate or triumph over the other

    Governments and venture capitalists are free to invest in either science or religion. That they overwhelmingly choose to invest in science is not a sign of “manipulation” or “triumph” of some scientific cabal bent on monopolizing the marketplace of ideas. It means that those investors think their specific goals are best served by the tools of science.

    I’d also quibble on the use of ‘revelatory’ since science does not give weight to revelation. However, I think he’s probably using the word in the broader sense of ‘both seek to reveal things about the world’ so let’s let that one go.

    Scientism (or scientific materialism), on the other hand, adds to science a statement of faith: The universe is only material.

    I think this is a fine definition of scientism, but I would argue it results in a nearly empty set of scientismists. No major scientific figure or body of scientists, AFAIK, takes it as “a statement of faith” that the world is only material. Even the most vocal atheist non-accommodationists like Dawkins and Myers will tell you that they are only a 6.something on the Dawkins scale; they will admit that their materialism is tentative and theoretically open to revision based on new evidence. They think that’s highly unlikley, yes. But there are few to no ‘metarialist certainty extremists’ the way Pruett and others seem to think there are. To argue against this sort of scientism is to attack a straw man. There are no such real men (or women).

    But scientism ups the ante: Science is the best (or only) way to make sense of the world.

    Well, of course its best…according to some criteria of comparison. According to other criteria of comparison, science may not be best. There is nothing ethically or socially wrong with pointing out that for use X method A works better than B, while for use Y method B might work better than A.

    Is Pruett taking an anti-intellectual or post-modernist stance? Is he saying we shouldn’t even try and figure out what methodology is most useful for doing some activity?

  52. #52 Xuuths
    January 4, 2013

    Another Matt, I believe your Python example is germane to the discussion about our perception of red.

    All living awake humans with eyes open, and fully functional eyes (not color blind, missing rods/cones/etc., or neurological damage), will see what they have been taught is “red” when exposed to the same wavelength of light. Just like all the computers getting the same instruction in Python.

    What is dfferent will be the machine code generated in the computers, or perhaps the perception of individual humans. Is my “red” the same as your “red”? Is your RGB “red” the same as my CYMK “red”?

    Is that even a meaningful question?

  53. #53 Xuuths
    January 4, 2013

    eric, for your point to be valid, why would you use the methods of science to determine whether or not science is the best method for doing some activity? Doesn’t that, by your very use of it, already say that science is the best method for figuring out stuff?

  54. #54 eric
    January 4, 2013

    One more…

    science has initially embraced — then discarded — most of the following tacit assumptions: dualism, determinism, reductionism, absolute time, absolute space, the principle of locality, materialism and, most recently, realism.

    From a later paragraph it sounds like Pruett is going to defend each of his assertinos in turn (science has given up the assumption of dualism. Then, science has given up…). Without addressing all of them, I will say that he has made a fundamental error in characterizing his opposition. He’s mistaking a conclusion for a premise. Materialists do not take it as an assumption that the world is all their is, they conclude that based on their reading of the evidence. He’s right – it would be wrong to assert as a premise that the world is only material. Fortunately, nobody actually does that. Instead, what folks like Dawkins do is draw the (tentative and open to revision) conclusion that the world is only material based on our experiences of looking for causes of things, and finding only material ones.

  55. #55 eric
    January 4, 2013

    eric, for your point to be valid, why would you use the methods of science to determine whether or not science is the best method for doing some activity?

    Where did I say or do that? I made no assumption about the criteria people use to assess methods for various uses.

    Its fair to point out that when people have an empirical or material goal in mind (which is often), their method-selecting process might be similar to science’s internal method of coming to conclusions, because science is empirical too. But so what? That’s like pointing out that, when selecting a sense to use for an ice-cream tasting contest, the sense of taste has a bit of an edge. Yeah, such a statement is true. But the edge is not due to some unwarranted philosophical bias towards the sense of taste.

  56. #56 Xuuths
    January 4, 2013

    eric, you wrote:

    According to other criteria of comparison, science may not be best.

    Would you care to tell us how using criteria for comparison is not using science? Or how you would evaluate which is better between two choices without using science?

  57. #57 eric
    January 4, 2013

    Would you care to tell us how using criteria for comparison is not using science? Or how you would evaluate which is better between two choices without using science?

    Sure. If my criteria is “popularity” then I ask for a hand vote. The one with the most votes is best by that criteria. If my criteria is “conforms with the literal words of the bible,” then I compare the statements of science and (a) religion to the bible and say the one that best matches it is best by this reference-to-authority method.

    Now, if you are taking the term “science” to be so broad as to include all empiricism plus all analytic and critical thinking, then, yes, I’d agree with you – one cannot evaluate religious vs scientific methodologies without using ‘science’ by this very broad meaning of the term. Is that the point you are trying to make?

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.