William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The Closing Of The Scientific Mind

Brother in arms David Gelernter

The title was swiped from Commentary Magazine’s piece of the same name by David Gelernter, which all should read. Since today is a busy day at the Briggs Ranch, just a few words of comment.

[T]he chaos was on display in the ugliness occasioned by the publication of Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos in 2012…He explains why Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain the emergence of consciousness—the capacity to feel or experience the world. He then offers his own ideas on consciousness, which are speculative, incomplete, tentative, and provocative—in the tradition of science and philosophy.

Nagel was immediately set on and (symbolically) beaten to death by all the leading punks, bullies, and hangers-on of the philosophical underworld. Attacking Darwin is the sin against the Holy Ghost that pious scientists are taught never to forgive. Even worse, Nagel is an atheist unwilling to express sufficient hatred of religion to satisfy other atheists.

The usual spittle-flecked, forehead-vein-bulging, religion-is-child-abuse-chanting, Utopia-or-bust, barking mad, snot-nosed suspects. Dawkins, Dennet, etc. Best take on this brouhaha is by Ed Feser.

The Kurzweil Cult teaches that, given the strong and ever-increasing pace of technological progress and change, a fateful crossover point is approaching. He calls this point the “singularity.” After the year 2045 (mark your calendars!), machine intelligence will dominate human intelligence to the extent that men will no longer understand machines any more than potato chips understand mathematical topology.

Yes, Kurzweil borrowed the “singularity” from science fiction writer and mathematician Vernor Vinge. And, yes, it’s always a dangerous thing to say “It won’t happen” with matters of technology. But, and I say this without any humility, it won’t happen. There will be no singularity.

There will be artificial limbs and ever-sophisticated electronified prostheses, but since what makes us us isn’t ultimately material, we won’t be uploading our minds to machines. Immortality of sort Kurzweil preaches isn’t just unlikely, it’s impossible.

Searle writes, “the subjectivist ontology of the mental seems intolerable.” That is, your states of mind (your desire for adventure, your fear of icebergs, the ship you imagine, the girl you recall) exist only subjectively, within your mind, and they can be examined and evaluated by you alone. They do not exist objectively. They are strictly internal to your own mind. And yet they do exist. This is intolerable!

It still astonishes that there exists a small cadre of bizarro scientists who are keen on telling us that they, the scientists, don’t really exist. And that if we would only believe that they don’t exist, then the world would be a better place. Oh, they also assure us we don’t exist, either. In place of our existence are mindless meat machines. Subjectivity, they say, is only an “illusion.” Who is there to suffer the illusion is, of course, never explained.

The dominant, mainstream view of mind nowadays among philosophers and many scientists is computationalism, also known as cognitivism. This view is inspired by the idea that minds are to brains as software is to computers.

Our minds are not software running in brains. A mind is self-aware. Software doesn’t understand what it does, it just does. Software can’t look at itself and say, “Hey! I’m software. What do you know.” Software—lines of computer code, no matter how long—can’t feel pain, love, envy, hate, pleasure. It can’t feel anything. Gelernter goes into much greater detail.

That science should face crises in the early 21st century is inevitable. Power corrupts, and science today is the Catholic Church around the start of the 16th century: used to having its own way and dealing with heretics by excommunication, not argument.

In apology for the Church—first noting that metaphysics is not physics and religion not politics—it only excommunicates those who are provably, assuredly wrong. Scientists slaughter any who won’t toe the political line, pace:

Science is caught up, also, in the same educational breakdown that has brought so many other proud fields low. Science needs reasoned argument and constant skepticism and open-mindedness. But our leading universities have dedicated themselves to stamping them out—at least in all political areas. We routinely provide superb technical educations in science, mathematics, and technology to brilliant undergraduates and doctoral students. But if those same students have been taught since kindergarten that you are not permitted to question the doctrine of man-made global warming, or the line that men and women are interchangeable, or the multiculturalist idea that all cultures and nations are equally good (except for Western nations and cultures, which are worse), how will they ever become reasonable, skeptical scientists? They’ve been reared on the idea that questioning official doctrine is wrong, gauche, just unacceptable in polite society. (And if you are president of Harvard, it can get you fired.)

Yep.

Update This is tangentially related. Swap out “global warming” for any number of “scientific” problems and the truth remains.

23 Comments

  1. This view is inspired by the idea that minds are to brains as software is to computers.

    Our minds are not software running in brains. A mind is self-aware. Software doesn’t understand what it does, it just does. Software can’t look at itself and say, “Hey! I’m software. What do you know.”

    Rather shortsighted, don’t you think? Software is how a general purpose machine (the CPU) becomes a specific machine. What that means with respect to what software can do is that the complexity of the software is only limited by the underlying machine. If the underlying structure were more complex than current CPU design who is to say what limits of software sophistication might be?

  2. I came across this just after reading your post:

    “…It is important, and bears emphasizing at this point, that we now have a model of mind in which (a) some features of its state at any given moment are tractable to prediction, (b) other features are not tractable to prediction, and (c) the tractable and intractable features are causally entangled with each other and are both inputs to ongoing computation.

    “Now I propose a definition: the “subjectivity” of a human being is that portion of his or her evolving mental state which is intractable to prediction by any observer….”

    “Tackling subjectivity head on”
    http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=5207

  3. Dav,

    Software is not just limited by the underlying hardware, it’s also limited by the capabilities of it’s author.

  4. @DAV – what is in question is not how sophisticated software may be but that paradigm associated with the brain and mind: computer/hardware/software. Simplest counterpoint is history. Renaissance people, having the most complex technology in form of gears imagined brain as “microgears”, we discovered electric circuits – hey, brain must be circuitry, late 19th/early 20th century – telephone system/switching, oh, yes – brain can be extrapolated as complex telephone network,… now the most complex systems we engineered are computers and Internet, oh, yes, brain and mind are just complex hardware/software. Each of these has a grain of truth. There are physical principles in work, there is circuitry, there are networks, there goes some computing,… However, each time we are just coming closer to the truth but brain/mind complexity and true understanding of it is certainly still far from our complete grasp. Fact that each of those ancient and modern systems can mimic some aspect of brain and mind and that there is some correspondence is not full truth. If anything, modern computer technology diverges from brain systems as much as it can be imagined (digital vs. analog; single complex CPU vs. extreme multitude of trivial independent nodes; fixed unchangeable hardware vs. ever changing and self-reconnecting hardware; information processing over predetermined pre-engineered path vs. whole system reaction; data separate from the process vs. data as process itself,…).

    As for initiator topics: I am a scientist and I see future breakthrough in fundamental physics exactly on the issue of self-awareness/consciousness. I see it arising naturally from fundamental principles. From principles that determine (on microscopic level) what the particle is and propagation of that principles through each more and more complex system (atom, molecule, cell,…). Instead of reaching Kurzweil singularity I see us reaching a point in a similar time frame of a need (and hence, soon after discovery and understanding) arising from further technological miniaturization to deal with the issue of “what is truly an elementary particle” and current working model of wavefunction won’t suffice for various reasons Physics is already hinting at us.

  5. MattS,

    Today yes. But if software has a better underlying machine would it need an author?

  6. dusanmal,

    Well, people do tend use analogies but the brain is much closer to a modern computer than you seem to realize.

    digital vs. analog; Bot true simultaneously for the brain and surprisingly for a modern computer. Transistors are not digital devices yet computers are constructed of them. Neurons perform as digital gates being ON or OFF. The communication between them is primarily in pulses.

    single complex CPU vs. extreme multitude of trivial independent nodes

    As a difference, that is becoming less true as time passes. Don’t confuse current limitations with what may come about later. Babbage came up with a mechanical computational model. His concept wasn’t much different than the concept used in modern computer construction. The physical mechanism is different. It turns out that electronic gates are easier to build than mechanical ones.

    Even single CPU’s have organized subsystems. So do brains. The basic organization within a brain is the neural network. Neural networks are capable of many computational tasks and what they excel at is pattern recognition.

    fixed unchangeable hardware vs. ever changing and self-reconnecting hardware .. and the rest.

    Perhaps just more shortsighted perceptions of the future?

    self-awareness/consciousness

    What is self awareness but another level of pattern recognition?

  7. In apology for the Church—first noting that metaphysics is not physics and religion not politics—it only excommunicates those who are provably, assuredly wrong.

    Really? On January 3, 1521, the Bull Decet Romanum pontificem officially declared Martin Luther a heretic. Most would now agree his objection to the practice of selling indulgences was not wrong. No quibbles allowed about his obstinance being the real reason for the excommunication; at the core the argument was about officially sponsored deception and fraud, not a power struggle.

  8. The essence of the [flawed] premise in the referenced article is that one’s subjective experience is accurate and merits consideration as-is. Here’s enough easily-verified quotes to illustrate that point:

    “Nowhere is its [‘science’s’] bullying more outrageous than in its assault on the phenomenon known as subjectivity. …. Your subjective, conscious experience is just as real as the tree outside your window or the photons striking your retina—even though you alone feel it. Many philosophers and scientists today tend to dismiss the subjective and focus wholly on an objective, third-person reality—a reality that would be just the same if men had no minds. … Subjectivity is your private experience of the world: your sensations; your mental life and inner landscape; your experiences of sweet and bitter, blue and gold, soft and hard; your beliefs, plans, pains, hopes, fears, theories, imagined vacation trips and gardens and girlfriends and Ferraris, your sense of right and wrong, good and evil. This is your subjective world. It is just as real as the objective physical world.”

    YES, some memory is “real” to the person experiencing it, however, it is not necessarily “real” by any objective standard. Numerous courtroom dramas illustrate this, where “witnesses” recount events, often consistently and with apparent fervor in the accuracy of their belief…only to be shocked when the video is played showing their recollection of events is just plain wrong. We see things that are not there, we fail to see things that are, and, humans are known to literally re-write their memories over time as courtroom dramas illustrate conclusively when video/audio is played. Not to mention any number of mental illnesses where people see/hear things that aren’t there (but they believe with total confidence otherwise).

    THAT IS, THE ENTIRE PREMISE OF THE ESSAY IS FUNDAMENTALLY FLAWED—it endeavors to present one’s subjective experience as accurate when we know subjective experience is inherently prone to inaccuracies. Consider as an example of how fallible our subjective experience is the video at this link, where a talented pilot can roll the aircraft such that a glass of tea appears undisturbed, even when being filled: http://jeremy.zawodny.com/blog/archives/006784.html .

    One’s subjective experience, if the outside view is obscured, is of straight & level flight and not the aerobatics they’re actually engaged in. Here’s another where the joke is on the viewer, who probably will miss everything, and if not, most of what’s really happening: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voAntzB7EwE .

    There are many many such examples in pretty much every human endeavor (just try to recall a particular conversation accurately—secretly tape record it then recall it an hour or day later, make notes, then replay the audio and compare with the notes). To think that one’s subjective experience, much less memory, is accurate is the height of arrogance….or wishful thinking…and then one invariably sees the game that’s afoot—the rebelliousness at science isn’t about science at all, it’s about the desire to maintain rationalizations & false, but comforting, beliefs.

    Truths are generally rather simple and briefly stated, that’s a characteristic of truth; the convoluted and logically intricate essays presented are neither simple or brief, which is a strong indicator where the errors actually reside.

  9. “The usual spittle-flecked, forehead-vein-bulging, religion-is-child-abuse-chanting, Utopia-or-bust, barking mad, snot-nosed suspects.” Come on, Briggs, tell us what you really think!

    “Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain the emergence of consciousness.” I am not sure what this sentence means. Is it a claim only that Darwin did not address this issue or that consciousness can not arise through any sort of descent through modification theory? Is it only a statement of the limitations of the present state of the art or a call for vitalism?

    In the Gelernter piece there is a discussion about Phineas Gage and his unfortunate accident where this comment by Robinson appears “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?” This is quite a reach and seems to reflect an untenable belief that there is a mind that is unaffected by brain trauma. There is an extensive literature on the changes of personality that occur with head injury. Would Robinson also claim that dementias such as Alzheimer’s are just an understandable emotional reaction to old age? I think that some people have been foolish enough to claim that.

    As to the singularity, I am very skeptical of such projections as well.

  10. Fine article Matt. There are agnostic/atheistic scientists and philosophers who object to the notion of the brain as a “meat computer”, operating according to ingrained algorithms: Roger Penrose, John Searle, David Chalmers come to mind.

  11. DAV,

    “Today yes. But if software has a better underlying machine would it need an author?”

    Yes, without at least a BIOS and an operating system, a computer is just an expensive paper weight.

    Even if you had a machine sophisticated enough for true learning, it would still need some basic software on start up in order to begin the process of learning.

  12. Whose writing would have a more detrimental effect on a youngster’s scientific curiosity and imagination? Kurzweil’s or Feser’s? Nagel’s or Gelernter’s?

    Most of left “believe in” global warming not because they understand the physics, but because they desire its “solution.”

    Now, please offer me some speculations as to why some of left and most of right do not believe in global warming?

  13. Briggs

    January 7, 2014 at 5:32 pm

    JH,

    Speculation: most on the right are right, most on the left out.

  14. Briggs

    January 7, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    Ken,

    “Subjectivity” used in this sense has a technical meaning. Boils down to “I know I exist”, a proposition even those saying “we make mistakes” believe.

    All,

    Apropos: “He says it mostly comes down to the money—to the incentive structure of academic research funded by government grants. Almost all funding for climate research comes from the government, which, he says, makes scientists essentially vassals of the state. And generating fear, Lindzen contends, is now the best way to ensure that policymakers keep the spigot open.” Link.

  15. Dear Dr. Briggs:

    I agree – and you may find my Dec. 16/2005 zdnet column on a closely related set of issues interesting.

    It’s at
    http://www.winface.com/collections/ccpe.html

  16. @Gary: Pope Leo issued a list of Luther’s errors in Exsurge Domine seven months before the bull of excommunication. Luther’s objection to selling indulgences, which violated Church teachings against simony anyway, wasn’t at issue. The way he overreacted by condemning indulgences altogether was.
    http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Leo10/l10exdom.htm

  17. Dr. Briggs,
    Eloquent! You are my Guru in such matters. The word Guru, of course, is a Sanskrit term for “teacher” or “master”.
    “The syllable gu means shadows
    The syllable ru, he who disperses them,
    Because of the power to disperse darkness
    the guru is thus named.”
    (Advayataraka Upanishad 14—18, verse 5)

  18. MattS,

    it would still need some basic software on start up in order to begin the process of learning.

    It would seem so. The brain seems to come prewired with some rudimentary capabilities. It isn’t completely blank. We can initiate movement of muscles although fine control must be learned. We don’t learn to see — we just do — although we learn to associate things we see. Color vision seems built in.

    In any case, “software”, as I said before, is what converts a general purpose machine into a specific one. A machine with a BIOS is equivalent to a machine initially wired a specific way. You wouldn’t be able to distinguish the two without lifting the hood.

    So I don’t see any problem with a machine that is wired to create its own software. I just don’t know how to build it.

  19. Dav,

    “In any case, “software”, as I said before, is what converts a general purpose machine into a specific one. A machine with a BIOS is equivalent to a machine initially wired a specific way. You wouldn’t be able to distinguish the two without lifting the hood.

    So I don’t see any problem with a machine that is wired to create its own software. I just don’t know how to build it.”

    You are forgetting the operating system. A computer with bios but no OS is still just an expensive paperweight. For a computer to create software it would have to have software designed to do that task. Even infinitely complex hardware will not get you around that basic requirement. Without at least some minimal set of initial software a computer is just an overpriced paperweight.

  20. MattS,

    You are forgetting the operating system. A computer with bios but no OS is still just an expensive paperweight.

    Not true at all. An OS is just off the shelf, prepackaged software. So is the BIOS for that matter. They are implementation conveniences — nothing more. The computer controlling your car’s engine likely has neither. I have developed satellite control software with neither.

    Back in the stone age (c 1960) there were still computing machines around that were programmed by literally rewiring them.. How much prewiring which had been done limited the final machines which can be built.

    “Software” is just the name given to a method to do the same programming function without the need to mess with wires. It is “soft” because it is more easily changed. The BIOS in your computer is called “firmware” because it’s not so easily changed. The computer itself is “hard” because it isn’t expected to be changed at all by the end user, Don’t get hung up on how things are done today. When I say “software” I am referring to any rewiring method to get to the final result from the initial state.

    Our brains come with some prewiring which is our heritage. Apparently, that includes the ability to self-rewire — in effect, develop its own “software”.

  21. Briggs,

    How can you assert “subjectivity” has a technical meaning: ““Subjectivity” used in this sense has a technical meaning. Boils down to “I know I exist”, a proposition even those saying “we make mistakes” believe.”

    …given the author referenced defines it per the excerpt I quoted, which, again, puts emphasis on something quite different:

    “Your subjective, conscious experience … you alone feel it. ubjectivity is your private experience of the world: your sensations; your mental life and inner landscape; your experiences of … your beliefs, … your sense of right and wrong, good and evil. This is your subjective world. It is just as real as the objective physical world.”

    You sure you’re not just seeing/reading what you want and not what’s truly, objectively, really there?

  22. Briggs

    January 8, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    Ken,

    It doesn’t take much trouble to look up. Here, for want of a better, is one link (I’m lazy, too).

  23. @MattS “Software is not just limited by the underlying hardware, it’s also limited by the capabilities of it’s author.”

    Heh, you have no idea what genius I have coded serendipitously.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*

© 2016 William M. Briggs

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑