Ed Driscoll

'The Closing of the Scientific Mind'


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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