Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The mortal illusion?

Is there free will?  Morality?  Or even hope (in an Absurdist sense)?  Is the mind anything more than a machine?  Several prominent writers have suggested no to each of these questions.  If it hasn't already occurred, there may be some notions of "emergence" and "irreducible complexity" that will probably also be found empty and illusory.  Daniel Dennett is one writer who would agree, since he takes a deflationary approach to the hard problem of consciousness.  Opposed to this is John Searle, who is "anti-deflationary".  (Searle famously illustrated his perspective with the "Chinese Room" argument.)

Life is often characterized as having emergent properties, but if the same physical laws can be used to describe life and death equally well, where lies any fundamental distinction?  Before anyone cries foul, I am aware that there are relative truths and there are absolute truths (a Buddhist notion) and each should carry equal weight.  But wouldn't the distinction between life and death lie in the former category?  It is a notion that has served humans well throughout evolution as we struggled to survive in the forests and savannas, and now the concrete jungles.  But we know that living organisms can be reduced to "non-living" components and scaled back up again to living organisms.  Each state seamlessly emerges from and returns to the other.  Omnia mutantur, nihil interit.

If the difference between life and death is an illusion, it would be the greatest illusion of mankind.  It is certainly already the source of our greatest fears.  But Lucretius first made the point: when an organism dissolves with its body, nothing is essentially lost in any permanent sense.  To which I would add: love recognizes a common origin and destiny. 

See also: emergentism, supervenience


  1. Well, Dennett certainly deflated my struggle to grok how consciousness could arise. And Searle's Chinese Room (CR) argument does nothing but squeeze the real problem out of sight making the hard-problem even harder! (May I reiterate it once again: if the instruction book in the room tells you how to arrange the symbols so that a person outside the room thinks the room is talking to her, then the instruction book is a mind--or at least a language-capable synthetic adult human brain. So, CR solves nothing.)

  2. Freewill: can you choose to bat a balloon bumped your way? Yes. But then, are you sure you chose to do it, or did your brain just trick you into thinking you decided to hit the balloon after your body had already begun to do it?

    It appears to me that in most situations where something is happening that we can intervene in and are aware of it happening, we have freewill and can choose how to react. But making a decision about how to act is a biological process that has been shown to work its way up from an unconscious level to a conscious level, so it ought to be only natural that sometimes we would act mechanically as if we have no freewill. A great deal of what we do is automated and we do it unawares.

    It just doesn't seem right that our conscious awareness is always making up reasons for why we do everything after the fact, which would have to hold true for us to have absolutely no freewill. Our inner narrative would have to be simply fake all the way and we would have to be doing everything from an unconscious level otherwise. Yes, I think that the no-freewill position is pushing it. There is likely some conscious control.

    It's quite creepy if you start to think of our consciousness as being complete rubbish, a just-so story that has no affect on anything we do and never did--a side effect of our evolved brains that gather and compute tons of data every second.

  3. It seems to me that when Searle tries to locate consciousness he gets caught in an infinite regression full of Chinese Rooms, each containing a book and a person, that contains another room with another book and person, ad infinitum. His anti-deflationary account won't allow him to prove that a single genuine person exists. (Though to be fair he is aware of his own subjective awareness and he assumes other people have one too.) A deflationary account involves no such regression, what you see is what you get.

    As far as free will goes, I am not convinced it exists in an absolute sense, although in a relative sense it is a very useful concept.

    Our consciousness is no more or less amazing than the rest of the universe, always changing in one sense and unchangeable in another. If it is a side effect of evolution, we quite naturally value it very highly and evolution has equipped us with the instinct of self-preservation. But the notion that the self is in danger of being lost, while true in a relative sense, in insupportable in an absolute sense. This is not nihilism, but I think quite the opposite - that it somehow "reifies" consciousness or immortalizes it. After all, is a machine mortal or immortal? That question has as much bearing on human consciousness as it does on machines.