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Ed Driscoll

‘The Closing of the Scientific Mind’

January 2nd, 2014 - 7:29 pm

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Tremendous article by David Gelernter in the new issue of Commentary, which appears to be outside of the subscriber paywall, at least for the moment. I’m not sure if I fully agree with all of Gelernter’s conclusions, but the sheer scope of the article is pretty staggering. “Mind-blowing” isn’t a 1968-era compound word I use very often, but it seems sort of apropos, given the Blade Runner-esque topic of the piece:

Where does the physical end and the mental begin? The resonance between mental and bodily states is a subtle but important aspect of mind. Bodily sensations bring about mental states that cause those sensations to change and, in turn, the mental states to develop further. You are embarrassed, and blush; feeling yourself blush, your embarrassment increases. Your blush deepens. “A smile of pleasure lit his face. Conscious of that smile, [he] shook his head disapprovingly at his own state.” (Tolstoy.) As Dmitry Merezhkovsky writes brilliantly in his classic Tolstoy study, “Certain feelings impel us to corresponding movements, and, on the other hand, certain habitual movements impel to the corresponding mental states….Tolstoy, with inimitable art, uses this convertible connection between the internal and the external.”

All such mental phenomena depend on something like a brain and something like a body, or an accurate reproduction or simulation of certain aspects of the body. However hard or easy you rate the problem of building such a reproduction, computing has no wisdom to offer regarding the construction of human-like bodies—even supposing that it knows something about human-like minds.

I cite Keats or Rilke, Wordsworth, Tolstoy, Jane Austen because these “subjective humanists” can tell us, far more accurately than any scientist, what things are like inside the sealed room of the mind. When subjective humanism is recognized (under some name or other) as a school of thought in its own right, one of its characteristics will be looking to great authors for information about what the inside of the mind is like.

To say the same thing differently: Computers are information machines. They transform one batch of information into another. Computationalists often describe the mind as an “information processor.” But feelings are not information! Feelings are states of being. A feeling (mild wistfulness, say, on a warm summer morning) has, ordinarily, no information content at all. Wistful is simply a way to be.

Let’s be more precise: We are conscious, and consciousness has two aspects. To be conscious of a thing is to be aware of it (know about it, have information about it) and to experience it. Taste sweetness; see turquoise; hear an unresolved dissonance—each feels a certain way. To experience is to be some way, not to do some thing.

The whole subjective field of emotions, feelings, and consciousness fits poorly with the ideology of computationalism, and with the project of increasing “the plausibility of the hypothesis that we are machines.”

Thomas Nagel: “All these theories seem insufficient as analyses of the mental because they leave out something essential.” (My italics.) Namely? “The first-person, inner point of view of the conscious subject: for example, the way sugar tastes to you or the way red looks or anger feels.” All other mental states (not just sensations) are left out, too: beliefs and desires, pleasures and pains, whims, suspicions, longings, vague anxieties; the mental sights, sounds, and emotions that accompany your reading a novel or listening to music or daydreaming.

At a minimum, Gelernter’s article raises puzzling questions about whether the Turing test is sufficient to determine just how intelligent artificial intelligence is; beyond that, it’s an unsettling look at what transhuman life could be like in the coming decades. Of course, transhumanism may not arrive on the timetable its proponents suggest; as Gelernter notes, “imagine predicting the state of space exploration today based on the events of 1960–1972.” But radical advances in cybernetics are on their way, it’s just a matter of when. Gelernter is giving a rather unsettling look at some of their downsides.

As I said, I’m not sure if I agree with all of Gelernter’s conclusions, but definitely read the whole thing, to coin an Insta-phrase.

And for my interview last year with Gelernter on America Lite, his look at the transformations the radical left imposed first on academia, and then the rest of the nation in the last 50 years, click here.

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Top Rated Comments   
My first reaction, I've got to say, was "Oh, David, don't be silly."

My second reaction, after reading the combination of argument from ignorance and claims of special knowledge, was "Oh, David, don't be silly."
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (11)
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A couple of good read's on the subject on man/machine/mental states/subjectivism/conciousness/self awareness

Short sci-fi stories. "For a Breath I Tarry" and "Home is the Hangman" by Roger Zelazny.

And several sections of Dinesh D'souza's "Life After Death: The Evidence" pointing out issues with free will/brain as a computer/bio-feedback/mental states affecting physical actions/ connection between a mental decision, choice, desire affecting physical materials.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
I've been more impressed with the opposite phenomenon: Large parts of vulgar materialism can be seen as obvious nonsense when looked at using the computer metaphor. Let's take behaviorism as an example. In order to analyze the behavior of a computer program, you must take the internal states of the computer into account. Let's take the common atheist argument that God cannot exist outside space--time as another example. It looks much lamer if you consider a simulated being criticizing the idea that the Programmer is outside the array of bits.

I'm also rather dubious about subjectivism. Subjectivism has given us a world in which the right to life of an unborn child depends on someone else's emotional state. ("You're nobody until somebody loves you." sounds less sappy now.)
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm impressed with your ability to cram so many false assumptions into each sentence. What is "vulgar materialism"? Is that different than plain old materialism. If so, then why should anyone care about it. Apparently you think behaviorism is part of this "vulgar materialism". I see it as a rather transparently wrong psychological hypothesis. Not sure how it constitutes a large part of any broad materialistic thinking. It was only accepted by a few psychologists in the first place and always had detractors.

"Let's take the common atheist argument that God cannot exist outside space--time as another example."

Never heard of such an argument. The word "exists" has multiple meanings and one meaning is only meaningful with regards to space and time. It is a category error for example to say "the universe exists" in this sense. Same would be true for any god that supposedly exists outside space and time. Perhaps you should invent a new word, because god can't exist like a chair exists.


"It looks much lamer if you consider a simulated being criticizing the idea that the Programmer is outside the array of bits."

Yet the programmer does not exist outside of the time and space framework that the simulation exists in. The programmer also cannot be said to exist within the array of bits either. When the simulated beings talk about 'exists" this is exactly what they would be talking about. So the programmer could not be said to exist in this sense.

Now lets suppose the simulation is written in such a way that it has no connection to the programmer. That is, the programmer cannot give inputs into the simulation. In which case, as far as the simulated universe is concerned the programmer does not exist Furthermore, since the simulation is fully specified it doesn't need a programmer to exist as a set of relationships between the simulated beings. Thus from the viewpoint of such a simulated being no programmer does exist, and there is no way to prove one does, or doesn't. He doesn't and shouldn't care. Such a simulation doesn't really even need a computer to run.







33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
My first reaction, I've got to say, was "Oh, David, don't be silly."

My second reaction, after reading the combination of argument from ignorance and claims of special knowledge, was "Oh, David, don't be silly."
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
I agree. I'm a computer scientist and I'm embarrassed for him.

He makes all sorts of silly, very silly, points. Like this one:
"1. You can transfer a program easily from one computer to another, but you can’t transfer a mind, ever, from one brain to another."

Which supposedly shows the superiority or mystery of brains or something. The thing is that we could construct a computer in such a fashion that one could NOT copy or read out the content. Which would make in inferior, not superior. There is no mystery to it. Computers were designed to make this easy, and brains were not.

"2. You can run an endless series of different programs on any one computer, but only one “program” runs, or ever can run, on any one human brain."

This is just plain wrong. I run "software" on my brain that is quite different than that being run by fundamenalist christians. One can hard code software and to a large extent the human brain does that too. We could create a computer that does that also. Not sure why he thinks that is so special.

"3. Software is transparent. I can read off the precise state of the entire program at any time. Minds are opaque—there is no way I can know what you are thinking unless you tell me."

Again, so what? We could create a computer which also makes things less transparent.

It's one sentence of sillyness after another. The article is crammed with various other kinds besides his mistakes in computer science. He makes mistakes in philosophy, biology, etc.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
You've seem to completely miss the point.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
He seems not to have a point, other than the argument from ignorance, which is a fallacy. Also, why pile on error after error if you have a point to make. It only confuses the issue. Perhaps you can make his point without also committing these errors?
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Dare I say it? If one reads, one finds that the mind/soul/body conundrum is best explained by the Christian theology surrounding the Incarnation.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well in the same way missing socks are "best explained" by gnomes.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
no computer shall ever write a poem.

or shall they???

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTzA_xesrL8
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
I think that I shall never see
A sight like Lotus 1-2-3.
Code is writ by fools like me
But only nerds use plus-plus-C.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
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