52 Guitars: Week 1

The Mind Is Not A Computer

In Commentary, David Gelernter has a sharp critique of philosophical materialism as applied to the human mind that's very much worth reading. Materialism for many scientists has become a sort of religion, a dogma setting the bounds of permissible thinking. You can't really call yourself a Christian if you don't believe in God, and scientist-materialists would have it that you can't call yourself a scientist if you aren't a materialist--not, at least, if you allow non-materialist thinking to enter into your view of what constitutes objective reality. It's a frustrating position to argue against, because those who hold it believe that any fundamental disagreement is intrinsically irrational.

Yet it is hardly rational to attempt to account for reality while ignoring or explaining away the actual experience of being human, of being a being that wants, indeed desperately needs, to account for reality. It is an extremely mysterious experience, and people have been trying to figure it out for as long as there have been people. Our materialists are certainly not the first to deny that the experience has any meaning, but surely they are among the first to deny systematically that it even exists in any real sense. 

Gelernter, who is not some vague-minded humanities type but a professor of computer science at Yale,  focuses on the school of thought which takes the computer as an analog to the human being: hardware = body, software = mind. The actual experience of being that sort of being--i.e., human consciousness--is reduced to a more or less illusory epiphenomenon of the operation of the machine. 

Gelernter's critique is extensive and deep (barring a passing not-all-that-well-informed reference to the Catholic Church and heretics), and you should read the whole thing. Here's an important passage:

In her book Absence of Mind, the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson writes that the basic assumption in every variant of “modern thought” is that “the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away, excluded from consideration.” She tells an anecdote about an anecdote. Several neurobiologists have written about an American railway worker named Phineas Gage. In 1848, when he was 25, an explosion drove an iron rod right through his brain and out the other side. His jaw was shattered and he lost an eye; but he recovered and returned to work, behaving just as he always had—except that now he had occasional rude outbursts of swearing and blaspheming, which (evidently) he had never had before.

Neurobiologists want to show that particular personality traits (such as good manners) emerge from particular regions of the brain. If a region is destroyed, the corresponding piece of personality is destroyed. Your mind is thus the mere product of your genes and your brain. You have nothing to do with it, because there is no subjective, individualyou. “You” are what you say and do. Your inner mental world either doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. In fact you might be a zombie; that wouldn’t matter either.

Robinson asks: But what about the actual man Gage? The neurobiologists say nothing about the fact that “Gage was suddenly disfigured and half blind, that he suffered prolonged infections of the brain,” that his most serious injuries were permanent. He was 25 years old and had no hope of recovery. Isn’t it possible, she asks, that his outbursts of angry swearing meant just what they usually mean—that the man was enraged and suffering? When the brain scientists tell this story, writes Robinson, “there is no sense at all that [Gage] was a human being who thought and felt, a man with a singular and terrible fate.”

Man is only a computer if you ignore everything that distinguishes him from a computer.

That last line recalls an exchange I had years ago: I was complaining about the artificial intelligence researchers who assume, with no actual evidence, that computers can ever think in the way that people do, and the person I was talking to replied: "You can only assume computers are people if you think people are computers." 

That assumption is one thing that Gelernter doesn't dwell upon, and it needs to be stressed. It needs to be insisted upon. In science and philosophy of all things no one should be allowed to get away with basing a sweeping claim about reality on an unacknowledged and unsupported assumption, and the materialist view of mind as a sort of secretion of the brain is exactly that. This needs to be said again and again: it is an assumption made in keeping with its proponents' philosophical views, and there is no evidence to support it. Sure, there is plenty of evidence of a mind-brain connection. But there is none to support the assumption that the brain creates the mind.

As part of his critique, Gelernter has some rough words for the arguably insane ideas of Ray Kurzweil, who has a lot of followers among technologists. I had a few harsh things of my own to say about Kurzweil a few years ago, in a piece which, if I may say so, also seems worth reading. It contains a more detailed explanation of the fundamental flaw in the assertion that computers do or can "think" in the sense that we do.

But if you leap over those facts and assume that when all these ones and zeroes and switches reach a certain level of complexity they will become conscious, you are free to invent anything and claim the authority of science for it. 

It's a three-year-old piece called "Singularly Mistaken."


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The whole question of personality, mind, neurology and will is of great interest to me. I don't see how computers can ever have all that.

The AI assumption has always been that if you make the machine sufficiently complicated those things will simply appear. (You know, as happened on August 29, 1997, with Skynet.) For such smart people, they're awfully credulous.

I am going to make time to read that essay by Gelernter; it is very interesting to see such arguments coming from such a source.

I have hazy plans to read Marilynne Robinson's book, which I hear is quite good. Edward Feser (in his Philosophy of Mind) and David Bentley Hart (in his recent The Experience of God) both mount sustained critiques of the computational theory of mind -- and, in Hart's case, of materialism more generally. Both are excellent. They are particularly good at being precise about the reasons a computational theory are inadequate, one of which is that the very definition of computation relies on "intentionality" (i.e. "about-ness"), which is an intrinsically mental reality. So the whole argument underlying the computational theory of mind is a non-starter.

Anyway, I'll be interested to read Gelernter's thoughts on this whole subject. I find it intensely interesting, and wish I had more leisure to study it.

I was a little surprised to see Robinson's name in this context--I didn't think she wrote on this sort of thing. Is Hart's book more intelligible than The Beauty of the Infinite? If it is I'd probably like to read it.

Clearly a lot of people would argue vehemently against the assertion that their favorite theory is "non-starter," though I agree with you.

I find it intensely interesting, too, but I don't have a great desire to study it, because I find it as exasperating as interesting. The question that keeps coming back to me, and I meant to mention it in the post, is: why do these people desire to prove that there is no such thing as a human being (as most of us would understand the term)? That they themselves don't really exist as independent subjects? Is it the sort of ultimate mastery-by-knowledge that Walker Percy talks about in Lost in the Cosmos?

Yes, I think of her as a novelist, but she has also published essays and at least one book of extended non-fiction (Absence of Mind). I believe that her book is not so much a contribution to philosophy of mind as an inquiry into the cultural or psychological or even spiritual roots of these materialist theories of mind. Her interests are, I think, similar to yours. She talks about this philosophy as an instance of "the dispelling of inwardness" that she sees as characteristic of modern culture. But I haven't read the book, so I can't say too much about it.

Oh, and yes, Hart's book is much more intelligible than Beauty. This is a book for a general audience, and he has tamed his prose. Although he occasionally slips those $64 words in there, for the most part it is accessible.

Sounds like I would like both books.

It's not the dollar value of those words that was the problem, but their private or at least esoteric definitions. "Within the world, beauty does not merely adorn an alien space, or cross the distance as a wayfarer, but is the true form of that distance, constituting it, as the grammar of difference." If I didn't have other good reasons to respect Hart, I would strongly suspect that of being jive.

Heh. Nothing like that in the new book. Like you, I didn't understand much of that lingo when I read Beauty, but I assumed that it was a lingo, that he was speaking the language of the continental post-modernists with whom he seemed to be in conversation. It never occurred to me that he might be speaking a private language.

I didn't think it was his very own private terminology, necessarily. As you say, language of the continental post-modernists. And since it was based on his dissertation (wasn't it?) I guess there was some justification for it. But the rest of us can't really be expected to do much with it. It unavoidably made me think of this book.

I can second Craig's recommendation of Feser's "Philosophy of Mind," which is the book that finally enabled me to understand -- well, start understanding -- the debate between materialist (I like Feser's term "reductionist) and non-materialist explanations of the phenomenon of consciousness. It's a book that is not only enlightening but encouraging -- consciousness being one scientific/philosophical question on which the materialist side is in worse intellectual disarray than the theistic side. Read the book and you'll never be afraid of Daniel Dennett again.

The whole of Geletner's article is good. I liked the paragraph near the start, where he says that all there is in computers is what we put into them, no more and no less. I've been making a number of grant applications in recent months, and one of our bye-words is 'the homework machine': we do not wish any grant to turn into a 'homework machine'. I read a book 45 years ago called 'Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine'. I remembered it as having a boy in it who lives with a brilliant professor, who invents 'some kind of machine' that can give answers to any question. So Danny uses it to do his homework. He does that together with his friends for several months. At the end of the book, he and his friends realize that, although they have been getting straight 'A's', they've been working themselves to the ground loading the information into the machine to do their homework. I remembered all that, over a little under half a century. But, because of turning 'homework machine' into a joke and a warning for our grant application writing, I got hold of a copy of the book from Abebooks. The 'machine' is a computer, as conceived by a children book writer in the middle 1960s.

It's actually morally sound.

Sounds like a book I should have had for my children.

One of the weird things about the AI boosters is that on one level they know that the only thing in computers is what we put into them. They *know* that, because they know exactly what computers are and how they work. And yet this knowledge co-exists with the faith that, given enough complexity, consciousness will somehow pop into existence. It may be that some of them don't believe this, and wouldn't accept that there is a distinction between an actual conscious human being and a machine beyond what can be detected by an observer. I.e., if you could make a machine that mimicked human behavior perfectly, it would, for their purposes and according to their definitions, *be* a human being. But I think a lot of them really have that mystical faith.

I'm more annoyed than skeered by Dennett, Jeff (good to hear from you again, btw). He has an elaborate intellectual apparatus, yeah, but also the same major blind spots as most of these guys, and the same inability to see them, which is simultaneously amusing and frustrating.

I don't know the technical philosophical arguments in this debate, but I find that the more I succeed in rooting out materialist presumptions from my own thinking the more naive materialists appear.

I second that "Good to hear from you again" for Jeff.

Grumpy, I read the Danny Dunn book as a kid. In fact, I recently summarized it to my kids. I think at least some of the older ones read it.

Of course, now the Internet does your homework for you because you can buy someone else's paper on the Internet.

For such smart people, they're awfully credulous.

That's one hell of an assumption!

Oops! I meant to include the first part of your comment: The AI assumption has always been that if you make the machine sufficiently complicated those things will simply appear.

It is, and they don't seem to feel any obligation to justify it.

The internet and academic cheating is another example of the way technology always creates new problems, and then those drive the creation of new technology to solve those problems. There are term-paper-peddlers, and software-to-detect-bought-term-papers-peddlers.

Good grief!

"Sure, there is plenty of evidence of a mind-brain connection. But there is none to support the assumption that the brain creates the mind."

I'm probably mostly in agreement with you, Mac, but I don't see why you make the second statement. There is much evidence of an association between physical states of the brain and various experiences in the (non-physical) mind. When A and B are closely associated, it is natural to postulate that A causes B or B causes A.

1) I agree the materialists make a huge, unwarranted leap when they assume that consciousness will somehow just emerge when computers and software get sufficiently big, fast and complex. But IMHO the statement This computer is conscious can never be proved or disproved.

All that one knows about is the behavior of the machine. You cannot do a Vulcan mind-meld and somehow experience its consciousness. You can only observe its external behavior. If computers/software become capable of the sort of rich, sophisticated and creative interactions one only gets from another human (and I'm not predicting they will), then people will naturally start to think of them as conscious, especially if they're given a human-like form. Personally, I won't believe it, but I don't think it's an answerable question.

2) The extreme form materialism strikes me as silly. A very smart scientist can say I am nothing more than a collection of atoms bumping against one another, but I know he's wrong every time I think a thought, taste some food or feel an emotion. And what's more, I know these inner experiences more directly and with greater certainty than anything else.

So this kind of extreme materialism strikes me as ridiculous. But it seems that you, Gelernter and others are offended by this stuff. What's going on? Is it the dehumanizing reductionism, equating humans with robots, that is so objectionable? Is it the arrogant denial of religious beliefs? Another possibility that occurs to me is the fact that some people think the non-physical mind is the escape-hatch from determinism (which, IMHO, it is not--yet I do believe in my own version of free will).

"But it seems that you, Gelernter and others are offended by this stuff. What's going on?"

That's a good question, and deserves a thorough answer, which I don't have time for right now. Later today, I hope.

On second thought, I think I'll do a blog post on that question.

I agree that the consciousness of a computer can never be proved or disproved. For that matter--the great sophomore discovery--neither can mine or yours. So if anybody ever does succeed in creating an undetectable Blade-Runner-type android (very doubtful imo), whether or not it's conscious would be an open question. But what I was getting at was the assumption that it would happen.

"When A and B are closely associated, it is natural to postulate that A causes B or B causes A."

Well, not necessarily. Nobody thinks the heart creates the skeleton. But aside from that, the materialists aren't saying either A causes B or B causes A. They're saying it's obvious that A causes B, and only a fool would say B causes A. That's their fundamental irrationality. They don't see that it only seems that way to them *because* they're materialists.

"'When A and B are closely associated, it is natural to postulate that A causes B or B causes A.'

Well, not necessarily. Nobody thinks the heart creates the skeleton."

With all due respect, I think you stacked the deck against me with a very unsuitable analogy, since the nature of the heart/skeleton association bears so little resemblance to the brain/mind association, the essence of which is the correspondence between events in one realm (the brain) to events in another realm (the mind).

A more apt analogy, I believe, might be the association of the heart to the blood vessels. Someone checking your pulse or measuring your blood pressure might soon speculate (assuming they knew little about the cardio-vascular system) that the heartbeats cause changes in the blood vessels--or vice versa.

My point at the top was in response to the following:

"Sure, there is plenty of evidence of a mind-brain connection. But there is none to support the assumption that the brain creates the mind."

It seems to me there is a lot of evidence that the brain affects the mind, a common, obvious example being the consciousness-altering effects of alcohol and other psychoactive drugs, which change the brain's chemistry, thus inducing changes in the mind. (There are situations in which a plausible case could be made that the mind changes the brain: eg instances of severe depression or extremely traumatic experience causing long-lasting changes to the brain.)

To say that "the brain creates the mind" is an extreme position that I never asserted don't wish to defend. However, it seems to me that evidence for this idea, in part, would consist of examples in which physical brain-events cause non-physical mind-events--and clearly there are lots of these. Thus my objection to the assertion that there is no evidence "to support the assumption that the brain creates the mind." Just because there is evidence pointing to a certain conclusion does not mean the conclusion has to be true.

Sorry, I was being nit-picky--you had used the word "associated" which to me doesn't necessarily imply a very close connection, but that's not the way you intended it. But the heart-vessel association is indeed a much better analogy.

Just as you didn't assert or wish to defend the idea that the brain creates the mind, I don't assert that the brain, and for that matter the body as a whole, doesn't affect the mind. That would be crazy. As C.S. Lewis has Screwtape remind the junior tempter, human beings are physical creatures, and what happens in or to their bodies affects their minds (and I think he includes vice versa). Absolutely no argument about that.

But the idea that the brain creates the mind doesn't in any way follow from that, and is precisely (and only) what I'm arguing against. The fact that there is mutual *influence* doesn't shed any light on whether one *creates* the other. That's the leap of faith, and I say there's no evidence for it. Or, to be more precise, that there's no more evidence for it than for the idea that the mind creates the body. It rests on materialist prejudice, i.e. a presumption that a materialist explanation is intrinsically more plausible than a non-material one.

It seems to me there is a lot of evidence that the brain affects the mind, a common, obvious example being the consciousness-altering effects of alcohol and other psychoactive drugs, which change the brain's chemistry, thus inducing changes in the mind.

I agree. St Thomas Aquinas I think says that the mind is something other than the brain, which I agree with, but it does seem to me all the same that the brain's condition greatly influences the mind. It's all a big mystery, but very interesting to think about.

The brain and generally what's in the blood system must influence the mind. Think of people's behavior before and after a glass of tequila.


I keep thinking about your earlier comment -- "The question that keeps coming back to me, and I meant to mention it in the post, is: why do these people desire to prove that there is no such thing as a human being (as most of us would understand the term)? That they themselves don't really exist as independent subjects? Is it the sort of ultimate mastery-by-knowledge that Walker Percy talks about in Lost in the Cosmos?"

That truly is a puzzle, and I'll be darned if I can figure it out.

I haven't read Lost in the Cosmos. Can you explain what Percy meant by that "mastery-by-knowledge"?

I don't think I could summarize it adequately, definitely not right now since I have to join a conference call in 10 minutes. I'll look at the book this evening and see if I can find a manageable quote.

Grumpy: indeed, as documented in this research.

One thing that makes it difficult to summarize even a part of Lost in the Cosmos is its funny Q&A format. It's subtitled "The Last Self-Help Book" and most of it is organized as a quiz. So Chapter 15 is titled "THE EXEMPTED SELF: How Scientists Don't Have to Take Account of Themselves and Other Selves in their Science and Some Difficulties that Arise when they have to." It includes this question:

"Why does it make scientists uneasy that it appears to be the case that Homo sapiens sapiens, a conscious languaged creature, appeared suddenly and lately--when scientists profess to be interested in what is the case, that is, the evidence?"

It's a multiple-choice question and I don't want to type in all the choices, but choice (d) is:

"Because scientists in the practice of the scientific method...often...find themselves located in a posture of covert transcendence to their data, which is by the same motion assigned to the sphere of immanence. Hence, scientists operate in the very sphere of transcendence which is not provided for in their science. Given such a posture, it is not merely an offense if a discontinuity turns up in the sphere of immanence, the data, but especially if the discontinuity seems to allow for the intervention of God. A god is already present. A scientist is a god to his data. And if there is anything more offensive to him than the suggestion of the existence of God, it is the existence of two gods."

My phrase "mastery by knowledge" is really not a very good description of this syndrome.

Thanks, Mac.

A "posture of covert transcendence to their data" can be a dangerous thing.

Which makes me think of the Benedict quote you provide in your latest post on Evangelii Gaudium: "A scientific approach that believes itself capable of managing without an ethos misunderstands the reality of man. Therefore it is not scientific."

"...dangerous thing..." Especially if the data is (are) the rest of the human race.

The scientism Percy's talking about is definitely "not scientific."

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