On December 5, Luke “the Common Sense Atheist” published a blog post predicting that “immortality/consciousness uploading” would be achieved by the year 2150.
This sparked a comment thread in which I debated atheists on several topics, including the nature of consciousness, artificial intelligence, memes, the HBD movement, the Holocaust, and other issues.
At first, I merely wanted to disagree with Luke's prediction. I wrote...
Consciousness is not a material thing, so it can never be “uploaded.”
This led to an exchange between me and “Justfinethanks…”
JFT: A “song” isn’t a material thing, so that must be why it’s impossible to create an MP3.
TW: A song IS a material thing; it’s words set to music.
JFT: A “song” is the product of material things, like a guitar, vocal chords, drums, but the “song” itself is merely an emergent property of these combined things. Much like “consciousness” is merely an emergent property of neurons, chemicals, and electrical discharges.
TW: See, that’s your mistake. You assume consciousness is an “emergent property” of matter when there’s no evidence of that, and a lot of evidence against it.
Consciousness interacts with matter, but is not equal to matter; it is a non-material agent. And as such, it cannot be uploaded into a machine.
Then Urbster and I crossed paths…
Urb: There’s tons of evidence for consciousness being produced by the brain (by contrast, no one has ever produced evidence for the existence of any kind of “soul” or extraphysical, dualist property) or successfully explained such an interaction with physical matter.
TW: To take one example most people can relate to, let’s look at the placebo effect: Who is the “I” that thinks he’s getting healthier, and MAKES his body healthier, even if the pill he took is just a sugar bill? To the Reductionist, the “I” just an illusion. But the facts of science (plus common sense) suggest there really is an “I” (distinct from the body) which can influence the body.
Then Jeff interjected:
“Occam’s Razor would seem to shave off the idea of a soul, but were we to map out the brain in more detail and find that the consciousness function eludes us, it might still be plausible to come up with some notion of a “mind” or “soul”.
I’m not a big fan of Occam’s Razor (especially in science, ironically). The universe is a pretty big, complicated place, and while every generation of scientists answers some questions, they usually get dwarfed by the number of new questions that spring from the tremendous complexity that is the world and life itself.
I’m just glad there wasn’t an Occam’s Razor’s in Galileo’s time. I’m sure the Church would’ve used it against him: “The Earth goes AROUND the sun? Surely, you jest Galileo! That goes against Occam’s Razor.”
Then Fortuna arrived…
FTA: The placebo effect, and related instances of biofeedback, do not strictly require us to postulate anything spooky or ethereal.
TW: I don’t think there’s a “strict requirement.” However, if you take the placebo effect (and similar evidence), and then contrast it with the materialist paradigm, I would argue that “an inference to the best explanation” leads one to conclude that the best explanation is that the mind has a non-material element.
FTA: Also, Occams’ razor slices complex things all things being equal. Galileo had evidence that unbalanced that equation.
TW: True, but too often, Occam’s razor is used for scientific enterprises in which so much of our data is fuzzy (like consciousness studies). Unfortunately, the mere fuzziness leads people to use Occam’s Razor in favor of materialism, and I think that’s lazy – especially when, as I said before, we know from experience that the universe is a pretty big, complicated place.
FTA: How do you propose to “contrast” biofeedback with the materialist paradigm? We know that the brain has a great deal of chemical interplay with the rest of body, up to and including dramatically altering various aspects of your physiology.
TW: I’m not sure if I understand the question. The way I see it, biofeedback exists in a pro-mind paradigm too. Mind can influence the body, and vice versa. But the mind does not equal the body.
In the case of the placebo effect, the act of thinking itself is what drives the biochemical changes. What I am suggesting is that the origin of thinking (the irreducible “I”) is an immaterial process. There is no inherent reason to believe that matter can create mind; it’s a theory of materialist science. I won’t be arrogant enough to say it’s an illogical theory or a theory that could never be proven, but I don’t think it fits the evidence discovered by science over the past century.
Then Jeff came back…
Jeff: Because we know that the brain controls the body, it seems reasonable to assume that the brain would be responsible for the placebo effect (an effect on the body).”
TW: If thinking was on the same level of complexity as digestion, that might express my opinion too. But thinking/consciousness is on an order of complexity so startling that science today struggles to even define it, never mind explain it. Thus, I don’t feel inhibited in suggesting that we are grappling with something which can not be understood in strictly materialist terms, and has has a non-material dimension.
I don’t know to what extent you’re familiar with the writer John Derbyshire, but he’s a proud Darwinist and a critic of Christianity who – despite all that – feels the “hard problem of consciousness” is so vexing, he rejects atheism.
Then came my discussion with Urbster about the existence of “I” which "I" (no pun intended) already described in my essay, The Cannibals of the Scientific Revolution.
After that bout, it was Fortuna's turn…
FTA: The evidence with which I’m familiar has only ever suggested that biochemical changes drive the act of thinking. Neurons fire, and then one wills their arm to move, or tastes ice cream, or gets angry, or what have you. As far I know, whenever we have been in a position to observe the matter, we have never observed the chain of causality flowing from thought to brain chemistry, only the reverse.Then I faced Urbster again:
TW: I’ve seen some research which suggests that, and other research which contradicts it. However, I have to cast a skeptical eye toward research which suggests that “I” am just a random firing of neurons, and that this cohesive “I” which imposes order on my thoughts and actions doesn’t exist. I don’t think it’s unfair of me to say that that totally contradicts my daily experience, and the experience of most civilized people, for that matter. The research is legit, I’m sure, but I’m confident it will be superseded by better research in the future.
FTA: I’d like you to cite the contradictory research please.
TW: I think this example should qualify, but if it doesn’t, let me know:
In 1991, investigators told a group of 48 men who were about to watch porn to suppress their sexual arousal – and surprisingly enough (according to penile plethysmography), while watching the porn, they were able to do so.
This, in my mind (pun intended), is evidence that “I” exist; “I” is capable of using reason to suppress instincts; and the very act of using reason can initiate biochemical reactions.
This example comes from The Spiritual Brain.
Urb: How could it possibly be that the brain can produce emergent consciousness? Well, how could it be that complex computers can produce emergent (”artificial”) intelligence?Then Fortuna came back…
TW: What is often billed as “artificial intelligence” is not even close to “biological intelligence.” It’s not even intelligence; it’s just algorithms.
Urb: Computers work. Does this take faith to believe? Computing is an EMERGENT phenomenon.
TW: I think your statement indicates a common misperception of what consciousness is and how it compares to strictly material objects like computers. As I hinted at above, there is no comparison between a human being and a computer. A computer can perform many seemingly intelligent functions (like Spellchecker or organizing newspaper articles alphabetically) but that intelligence does not require – and shows no evidence of – consciousness. Is the Internet conscious? Does it think and act and emote on its own volition? Of course not. And it’s reasonable to suggest it never will. As I said above, the idea that “consciousness emerges from matter” is a theory but not a fact, and given the evidence accumulated so far, it’s actually better described as a hope; a wish; a matter of faith. See for instance, Why the Mind is Not Like a Computer.
Urb: The more highly complex the brain is, the more intelligence an animal has. Surely it’s not just “conscious” or “not conscious” but there is a range of conscious behavior; some animals are more self-aware than others. Some animals can predict things farther ahead into the future and recognize objects and words. Therefore it is possible for evolution to produce conscious beings.”
TW: I’m OK with everyone you said until the final line, “Therefore it is possible for evolution to produce conscious beings.” That conclusion does not necessarily follow from the evidence you provide. In fact, there is no reason to believe that consciousness is a product of evolution. See for instance, Rob Rosenbaum’s recent article, The Dangerous Mysteries of Consciousness. Rosenbaum is a Darwinist but he’s upfront on how Darwinism cannot explain consciousness, and probably never will.
Urb: Even if we choose to separate talking about ‘the mind’ from ‘the brain,’ the mind is still just a function of my brain like the Windows operating system is the function of the computing processes of the electronic hardware.
TW: Again, that is a faulty analogy based on a misconception of what consciousness is.
Urb: There are as many examples of religion acting as a “parasitic meme”…It makes me wonder if you even understand what a “meme” is.
TW: I understand “memes” very well, which is precisely why I object to Dennett’s statement. The only legitimate description of “meme” is a “good idea which aids survival.” From that description, 3 problems arise: 1) Dennett apparently believes that “memes” are something of a biological nature; something that is mentally equivalent of genes. That is – at a minimum, unproven; at a maximum, absurd. And in either case, it puts Dennett’s credibility into doubt. But further, there are more problems. A “parasitic meme” is a contradiction in terms; either it’s a “meme” or it’s not. A parasitic meme would not aid survival and is thus NOT a meme. So again, Dennett is using sloppy language to advance his agenda. And finally, I genuinely object to the causal statement that “religion is a parasitic meme.” It is atheism – not faith – that is a destroyer of happiness and culture.
See, for example, The Despair of the Selfish Gene.
FTA: There is no necessary connection between atheism and unhappiness; the vast majority of atheists are doing just fine, thanks, just like the general population.
TW: As The Economist notes, “sociologists agree that the practice of a faith and broad happiness with life do seem to be related, though nobody has much idea why.” In fairness, that same article also suggests that atheism *might* be more conducive to happiness than agnosticism, and for a predictable reason: Atheism – like Christianity – is a “life philosophy” which can provide people with some sort of ethical guidelines on how to live life; agnosticism – almost by definition – can not do that.
FTA: Ditto the destruction of culture; last I checked, Scandinavia was doing just fine.
TW: I don’t have the data in front of me, but I’m pretty sure it would be inaccurate to call Scandinavia “atheist.” I’m pretty sure most people in Scandinavia believe in God (and probably even the Christian God) but they lack the emotional investment in Christianity that we see in other parts of the world (like the U.S.). Also, on a related note, I would call Scandinavia a culture in decline and inferior in most ways to the Anglosphere (where Christianity is more vibrant).
FTA: You claim that teaching people about natural selection (which is an empirical fact, by the by) will somehow poison peoples’ outlook on life.
TW: I resist the assertion that natural selection (in the context of macroevolution) is an “empirical fact.” I would never call it a “fact” in the same way other scientific laws are facts, such as gravity.
FTA: That’s artifical selection. If your own chosen example [the Columbine massacre] had actually understood natural selection, he wouldn’t have done a damn thing, because actual “failures of natural selection” don’t survive and/or don’t reproduce, without any conscious interference on anyones’ part.
TW: I don’t disagree that [the Columbine killers] were morons, but if they were alive, they would probably say: We can see where natural selection is going. It weeds out the “unfit.” I am a mortal being and I will not live long enough to see the climax of natural selection millions of years from now. I want to live in a society without the unfit NOW. And that’s precisely what they did. Eugenics is an idea with a long scientific pedigree; Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galston, boldly used Darwinism as the foundation of eugenics. Eugenics is unpopular today because the Holocaust tainted it, but I would wager that – if current secular trends continue – it’ll make a nice comeback in the next 15-30 years.
FTA on memes: “My understanding of the term merely implies that memes are ideas that can replicate themselves through transmission from person to person.”
TW: To define “memes” as “ideas that can replicate themselves” – as you and Dennett do – is, IMHO, a real stretch of the imagination, to put it mildly.
On a theoretical level, the problem with memes is the same as the one with “selfish genes.” It assumes intent for something that – by definition – cannot have intent. Ideas are not conscious. They have no purpose…They have no desire to “replicate”…They are just, um, ideas!
At Neuroanthropology.net, Greg Downey (who favors Darwinism) states…
I think ‘memetics’ is one of the bigger crocks hatched in recent decades, hiding in the shadow of respectable evolutionary theory’…
It’s one thing to reify a concept, it’s another thing to start attributing it a whole complex personality, drives, desires, and levels of different reification. If defining gene as ’self-replicating’ is playing a little free with the details, defining meme, as ’self-replicating’ beggars the imagination it’s so stupid….
Arguing this reveals so little understanding of how brains work, especially how hard it is for ANY pattern to repeat completely. That is, even repetitive action typically involves constant changes in patterns of neural activation; maintaining consistency requires constantly shifting neural resources, even slightly, to take account to changes even in the organism itself…
Has anyone, ever, anywhere, seen an idea ‘replicate’ itSELF? Although this may seem like a semantic point, I think it’s a bigger logical problem with reifying culture as ‘memes’ and then attributing agentive power to the memes.
FTA: It is simply not the case that there is no reason whatsoever to think that consciousness is a product of evolution. We know that all life on the planet evolved, and that it exhibits a range of ability with respect to sustaining consciousness that correlates to evolved brain structure. That in itself is a powerful reason to infer that consciousness evolved.
TW: I think in some way you are validating my criticism of Dennett (and other materialists). They basically argue: “If life is a product of evolution – and nothing else – then consciousness must – someWAY, someHOW – be a product of evolution too.
As I said, that’s a theory worthy of consideration, but there is no evidence to support that theory (yet); it is merely a deduction based on a materialist philosophy.
Then DRJ arrived…
DRJ: It is now a widely held belief that broad genetic diversity of populations is one of the most important, if not the most important, measure of a populations fitness. Old forms of eugenics are actually counter-productive to that measure of fitness.
TW: I can think of at least one group of Darwinists who disagree: Those involved in the “Human Biodiversity Movement.” They are pro-Darwin atheists who are entranced by the link between race and evolution. For example, they encourage high-IQ racial groups (specifically, whites and Asians) to avoid reproducing with low-IQ racial groups (basically everyone else). They believe that the blending of the races in America is weakening the collective IQ of our country and thus, weakening our economy, national security, etc. That’s why they want to ban immigration, rescind racial discrimination laws, etc.
Steve Sailer is one of their most vocal advocates.
She his article, Darwin’s Enemies on the Left.
Needless to say, I don’t endorse Sailer’s views; I’m merely showing that “ideas have consequences” and even decent people (like yourself, presumably) can’t always control those consequences.
This did not sit well with Fortuna.
FTA: “There is no way to control for misinformed racists eager to seize on data that they hope will vindicate them.”
TW: Unfortunately, that doesn’t jive with my analysis of the HBD movement. They are not “misinformed racists.” No, they are highly-educated young men who found materialist science as a gateway drug to racism and sexism. See, for instance, the words of HBD blogger, “Thursday…”
“Two of the biggest shocks in my life came when, first, I discovered the truth about race and intelligence through people like Steve Sailer, Arthur Jensen, Charles Murray, Vince Sarich and then later discovered the truth about women and sex through Roissy and the seduction community generally. Suddenly, things that you have seen all around you start to make sense. You realize that, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been lied to all my life.’”
FTA: “If atheism is nothing less than a destroyer of culture, that ought to have a measurable effect, and yet those countries are doing fine.”
TW: They’re doing relatively OK for now. Let’s check back in 10-25 years, though, as the growth of their Muslim population hits a critical mass. I’m not optimistic. Atheists, almost by definition, are not people who are going to risk their lives for abstract ideas like “freedom” and “democracy.” They would rather be slaves than corpses.
FTA: You can’t even assent to the proposition that organisms that are less able to survive and/or reproduce than their peers will have their genes progressively less well-represented in subsequent generations?
TW: That’s microevolution. So yes, I accept that.
FTA: It makes no sense whatsoever to gun down a bunch of kids at random, or because you don’t like them personally, and call yourself a ‘natural selector.’
TW: It’s not rational, I agree; but rationality is an all too rare trait among our species. Indeed, I’m tempted to say atheism itself is irrational.
FTA: What “climax”?
TW: In retrospect, “climax” isn’t the best word. I’ll suggest “progression” as a substitute. The “progression” of the human species. The arrival of Nietzsche’s “Superman,” or something to that effect.
FTA: There is no assumption of intent implied in the selfish gene concept. I have to wonder how much of the primary literature on the subject you’re actually familiar with, because I can’t really even discuss this with you until you understand just how bad of a misconception that is.
TW: With all due respect, I’m tempted to repeat that line back to you. How else would you interpret this line by Richard Dawkins, the author of the “selfish gene” concept: “Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.” That implies the genes have “intent,” does it not?
FTA: Similarly, I can’t begin to respond to any criticisms of the meme concept that you may have until said criticisms are no longer spurious. There is no attribution of agency going on.”
TW: A quote from Dennett: “There is considerable competition among memes for entry in as many minds as possible. This competition is the major selective force in the memosphere, and, just as in the biosphere, the challenge has been met with great ingenuity. For instance, whatever virtues (from our perspective) the following memes have, they have in common the property of having phenotypic expressions that tend to make their own replication more likely by disabling or preempting the environmental forces that would tend to extinguish them.” And it goes on from there. And it’s all B.S.
FTA: The act of using reason is itself initiated by biochemical reactions.
TW: That is an assumption based on a materialist paradigm, but there is no solid proof of that. Indeed, based on the seeming impossibility of matter to account for the mind, I have no qualms about positing a non-material source for consciousness.
A quote from the Dalai Lama:
“I said to one of the scientists: ‘It seems very evident that due to changes in the chemical processes of the brain, many of our subjective experiences like perception and sensation occur. Can one envision to reversal of this causal process? Can one postulate that pure thought itself could effect a change in the chemical processes of the brain?’ I was asking whether, conceptually at least, we could allow the possibility of both upward and downward causation.
The scientist’s response was quite surprising. He said that since all mental states arise from physical states, it is not possible for downward causation to occur. Although out of politeness, I did not respond at the time, I thought then and still think that here is as yet no scientific basis for such a categorical claim.
The view that all mental processes are necessarily physical processes is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact. I feel that, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, it is critical that we allow the question to remain open, and not conflate our assumptions with empirical fact.”
DRJ: It seems as if your trying to vaguely dancing around the old argument that such racist beliefs (school shootings and the like too) are the inevitable result materialist science, but without actually saying it so matter of factly.
TW: No, let me clarify: Fortuna said that the Columbine killers were “irrational” according to Darwinian principles. I challenged that view. I said it really wasn’t clear whether “weeding out the unfit through violence” is “rational” or “irrational.” Using Darwinism alone, that can’t be determined. The Darwinist fetish for eugenics, for example, seems to indicate that the question is an open one.
DRJ: If you are, in fact, trying to make a case that materialist science leads people towards anti-social beliefs, like racism, then you’ll need to back it up with more than anecdotes of people in the fringe.
TW: This is a complicated subject, and there’s no way I can summarize my views (at least not persuasively) in one comment. However, I’ll make a few assertions and you can critique them as you wish…
1) If you a materialist, the most logical religion is atheism.
2) If you an atheist, ethics either don’t exist or should be founded on materialist/Darwinist principles.
3)Darwinian principles are ambiguous (as I just explained). Using Darwinism, you could justify the Holocaust (as Hitler did) or you can justify liberal democracy (as contemporary scholars like Larry Arnhart do). I will say this, though: I do think the Darwinist denigration of humanity (“we’re just apes who wear pants") makes it easy for people to initiate violence and/or tyranny. A tolerant form of theism (such as 21st Century Christianity) is superior in that regard.
FTA comes back...
FTA: Did you not read what I said? Racial differences in IQ evaporate when you control for education and socio-economic background.
TW: Personally, I don’t want to touch that issue with a 10-foot pole. I’ll just humbly say that if you talked to those guys, they would happily whip out different studies which show the opposite conclusion.
FTA: Nietzche’s “superman” is not a scientific concept. Evolution isn’t teleological, natural selection is not interested in progress.
TW: I never claimed that the “Superman” was a scientific concept. No, it’s an ideological goal – a goal that Nietzsche, Hitler, and many others shared, while using Darwinism to justify it.
TW: Yes, I read The Selfish Gene.
FTA: You are categorically wrong to think that A.) Memes have to aid survival to be considered memes at all and B.) Memes have to be treated as having intent, by definition
TW: I’ll take this one at a time.
I originally wrote, “A ‘parasitic meme’ is a contradiction in terms; either it’s a ‘meme’ or it’s not. A parasitic meme would not aid survival and is thus NOT a meme.”
It’s not clear to me why you consider my statement inaccurate. To quote Wikipedia, “Richard Dawkins introduced the word ‘meme’ in The Selfish Gene as a basis for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena”…As we all know, the main evolutionary principle is “survival of the fittest” …If religion is a “meme” and a meme is a fitness strategy, it’s not clear to me why – in Dennett’s words – religion is a “parasitic meme.” I’m almost tempted to say it’s illogical; “a contradiction in terms.”
Onto the next point…
Personally, I don’t believe in “memes” so debating whether or not they have intent is the equivalent of debating “does the flying spaghetti monster have intent?” If Dennett believes that memes don’t intent, fine…but then he should STOP talking about them as if they DO have intent…See the Dennett quote I used above…Another Dennett quote: “Thousands of memes, mostly borne by language, but also by wordless ‘images’ and other data structures, take up residence in an individual brain, shaping its tendencies and thereby turning it into a mind.” Again, this sounds like intent; memes compete for minds, become part of the mind, and then that mind tries to spread its memes to other minds…If there’s any confusion on this issue, Fortuna, blame Dennett; not me.
FTA: The problem you haven’t addressed is that the Columbine killers did not act to weed out the unfit. As far as I know, the majority (if not the entirety) of their victims were not otherwise likely to die young or be unable to reproduce. They were fit.
TW: The Columbine killers would probably define “fitness” the way Darwinists do: Anyway they like! :)
FTA: Every time we are in a position to observe the matter, brain chemistry happens first and then thought follows, including higher reasoning. There is research to back this up, and I’ll happily reference it for you if you like.
TW: I’ll take a look at the research – assuming it’s not like a 40-page research paper; a 5-7 pages news article or Wikipedia page will suffice.
FTA: Evolution is purely descriptive, so indeed it should not be surprising that it doesn’t tell you what you should do. That would be like looking to the theory of gravitation to determine the desirability of falling off a tall building.
TW: I respect your opinion, but that doesn’t change the fact that many scientists such as Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, and others ARE using evolution as the basis of moral theory. And needless to say, it’s an endeavor I don’t support.
FTA: While it’s certainly the case that Hitler was anti-Christian in some respects and/or at particular times, you can’t just say he was anti-Christian and leave it at that.
TW: A few counter-points. First, Hitler was a politician, especially from 1920-1933, when Germany was a democracy, and thus, Hitler needed to coax the masses to accept his program. Therefore, it would make sense for Hitler to say some nice things about Christianity in public venues. Even when Hitler was dictator after 1933, his position wasn’t totally secure, and it made sense for him to be on decent terms with the church. Thus, when the church protested his first sterilization program in 1937/38, he withdrew it, and waited til the chaos of WWII to commit genocide.
Second, Hitler’s private comments should carry more weight than his public comments, and here we have Hitler’s ruminations that Christianity is a slave morality that prevented Aryans from forcefully achieving their natural superiority over other races. Since this accords better with his behavior as a genocidal dictator, I think it’s a truer reflection of his inner faith.
Last but not least, Hitler’s behavior was “unChristian” to put it mildly. And this is actually an important point. If Hitler committed the Holocaust in the name of Christ (in the way, say, Osama bin Laden commits crimes in the name of Allah), that would be one thing; but Hitler committed the Holocaust in a quest for racial domination. That is totally against the spirit of Christianity.
DRJ: It seems implied that Dawkins et al are somehow building their moral theories in a Hitler-ish fashion, to which I strenuously object.
TW: Oh goodness, no. I don’t think Dawkins et al have malignant intentions, just like I don’t think Darwin himself had malignant intentions. Dawkins is an academic, with all that implies. As Plato might say, he doesn’t have a “tyrannical soul.”
DRJ: There are a wide variety of ethical theories developed in godless worldviews.
TW: Yes, but some ethical theories are more logical than others given a materialist/atheist foundation, and dare I say, over time, the more logical ones will have more influence over the less logical ones.
DRJ: Dawkins, from what I know appears to be somewhere in the secular humanist territory.
TW: Yes, and dare I say, that is one of the “less logical” foundations.
To quote the Darwinist writer John Derbyshire…
“A Darwinian view of human nature really is quite sensationally revolutionary. In particular, it makes a hash of intrinsic human equality. We may of course — and we should, and I hope we ever shall! — hold equal treatment under the law to be an organizing principle of our civilization; but that is a social agreement, like driving on the right, not a pre-existing fact in the world.”