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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Meat-Robots Are Stirring

The mind-body problem is one of the more serious problems in philosophy. At the risk of over-simplifying, the two main camps can be described as dualism and monism. A dualist thinks that there's more to the mind than just neurons—the word that comes up most often is consciousness. The monist rejects the idea that there is some vitalist component to the mind. It can all be explained by the structure of the brain and the laws of physics and chemistry.

Monists are materialists, for the most part. Dualists often believe in supernatural beings.

Michael Egnor writes articles on Intelligent Design Creationism for the Evolution News & Views website at the Discovery Institute. He thinks the materialists have been winning but it's time for the zombies meat-robots to strike back.

As a general anti-science strategy, it's easy to see why the mind-body problem is resurfacing. The IDiots have lost the battle over evolution so they have to look around for something else to attack. We (scientists) don't understand exactly how the mind works. That's a perfect gap to shove God into, for now.
The materialist project to explain the mind reads less like a compendium of scientific and philosophical investigation than like a psychiatrist’s case log. Succinctly, the materialist project is batsh*t. The mind is a catastrophe for materialism. Materialism doesn’t explain the mind, and it probably can’t explain the mind. Materialism flounders on the hard problem of consciousness — the problem of understanding how it is that we are subjects and not just objects. Now a number of scientists and other academics are challenging this repellent materialist nonsense. There’s no scientific or even logical justification for the inference that the mind is merely the brain, without remainder, and the philosophical and sociological implications of the materialist view of the mind are abhorrent. Now there’s a reality-based push-back to materialist superstition, and the materialists have an insurrection on their hands.

The meat-robots are stirring.
I wonder if the meat-robots have something substantial to contribute to the discussion or whether they'll just be complaining about science, as they always do?


  1. There’s no scientific or even logical justification for the inference that the mind is merely the brain, without remainder

    Doesn't the burden of proof rest on the dualist to prove there is a non-material component? Given the difficulty of conclusively proving the nonexistence of any entity, etc.?

  2. I'm a dualist (believe it or not) who is unimpressed with Egnor while I like the evidence from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in On Life After Death.

  3. Now lets just tone down throwing epithets around and get to the point.

    That's a very good simplification that makes things very clear, monists and dualists. Just for the record: I am a dualist and yet I am fully materialist and I don't believe in supernatural of any kind.

    Taken to its logical end, reductionism/monism must mean that consciousness is nothing but an after-effect and that there can be no free will of any kind whatsoever. This may very well be true but I find it a little hard to believe that I am a "meat-robot" and that the pecular way in which matter in the universe ended up behaving before made me write what I am writing now.

    In my view, it is equally possible that what we perceive as consciousness is simply an intrinsic part of the world organization. Maybe it is another facet of the matter that yet to be discovered. This way everything is conscious, an electron and a door knob, there are just different ways that the consciousness is "expressed", depending on the level of organization.
    In my view, this view is enritely materialistic proposition that does not contradict anything we already know.

  4. Meat-robots is the term Egnor uses for those who believe in science explaining the brain (what Larry Moran calls the monists).

    I guess everyone is a meat-robot. I don't understand the "robot" part of it though.

  5. DK, reductionism doesn't imply determinism if nature includes probabilistic components.

  6. reductionism doesn't imply determinism if nature includes probabilistic components.

    No, it does. Determinism has absolutely nothing to do with ability to predict. It has everything to do with the things being determined by. Probabilities and uncertainty change nothing, nothing at all conceptually!

  7. In case anyone hasn't seen it, Dr. Steve Novella has a series of posts on this latest morph of ID:

  8. Hmm.. So Bell is probably a monist!

  9. I've seen a number of otherwise non-supernatural folks cling to dualism. I am not among them.

    I don't find the explanations of a separate "mind" to be terribly satisfactory. Reading the likes of Synaptic Self, Mapping the Mind, How The Brain Makes Up Its Mind or textbooks, be they neurology, physiology or even psychology, there isn't much room for a separate "mind".

    If thoughts could occur without corresponding chemical and electrical changes, if people could "will" themselves around aphasias and schizophrenia, if children all of a sudden started reciting their pre-corporeal existences, that might twig me onto some semblance of dualism. Not that mere testimonials would do, of course :)

    It's a little like the creationist arguments using the world and its life as an example, but neglecting to notice that people living in the exosphere or on the moon would be exceedingly good proof of a deity compared to people living where life is mundanely possible.

    I don't know what the worry about being a 'meat robot' is. Determinism? How would a separate 'mind' evade this determinism? Are they not subject to laws of any kind? Are the thousands of input and output points per neuron not chaotic enough to assure people that they are not predictable robots?

    It's a little bit of a sore point with me in particular because, though I love the physics works of Roger Penrose and Nick Herbert, they go all quantum-woo-dualism when it comes to consciousness.

    Consciousness is very, very cool, but it's not magic.

  10. I don't know what the worry about being a 'meat robot' is.
    Consciousness is very, very cool, but it's not magic.

    OK, just answer one question: do you have a free will or not? Just yes or no, please.

  11. "...sociological implications of the materialist view of the mind are abhorrent."

    Same old argument from consequences and is-ought fallacy. Just because claim X leads to bad behavior Y, doesn't make claim X untrue. And to boot, if claim X is descriptive, it never rationally leads to claim Y being true, where claim Y is normative.

    Someone needs to explain this to Egnor.

  12. do you have a free will or not? Just yes or no, please.

    Absolutely. The physical organization of my brain does not constrain my thinking. In fact, I would imagine that if you removed my brain, I would still be able to think pretty well.

  13. OK, just answer one question: do you have a free will or not? Just yes or no, please.

    Trick question, intentional or not. "Free Will" is a concept that has been bouncing around Christian Theology for a very long time, and as such has a broad range of definitions and odd assumptions behind it that I am unfamiliar with. I simply haven't spent the time considering 500-year-old discussions (leaving for the moment translation errors) to be able to answer that question accurately.

    Do I think that I can behave freely within a set of constraints? Sure. Am I correct? This is an hypothesis that I find rather difficult to test.

    The idea that the brain is necessary for a mind is clearly correct - each and every one of the thousands and thousands of cases of brain damage, disease, drug reactions, and simple brain-blood-flow monitoring provide massive evidence in favour of that hypothesis.

    The idea that the brain is also sufficient for a mind is a little less well established, but the total failure by anyone ever to find anything else that contributes to every mind so far examined is pretty convincing to me.

    This doesn't of course get past the deterministic objection, and I haven't seen a link between the non-deterministic world of the quantum and the apparently deterministic world of larger spatial and temporal scales. However, at this point I'll pull out an old cliche, and remind everyone that cause-and-effect remains the one underlying feature of the universe we have no ability to test or examine.

    Short answer: meh. Doesn't bother me.

  14. To TheBrummell:

    Trick question? OK, lets try it with definition:

    "Free will, an ability of an individual to choose a course of action such
    that the choice is not wholly dependent on the combination of physical
    forces in the universe that immediately precede the act of choosing".

    So, do you have a free will? Yes or not?

  15. OK, just answer one question: do you have a free will or not? Just yes or no, please.

    You seek a one word answer to a term you have not defined: free will. What is this will free of?

    I am a 'slave' to my mood, my skills, my hunger, my thirst, my knowledge, what makes me guilty or proud, my location and serendipity, but even at the most mundane level, I do not know what I am having for lunch tomorrow or what designs I will come up with at work, or what I want to teach my kids first. My decisions are affecting what I'm typing right now.

    My answer to "do you have free will?" would have to be "effectively".

    I'm feeding an inordinate number of calories to this chunk of gray in my skull, with a weirdly large forebrain and associative areas. If this weren't me, what would be the point of all that space and processing power? There is so much that is extraneous for purely biological functions.

    I am frustrated with how slow learning is, including not just having trouble learning Tagalog, but my son learning nice from naughty or language. I am also annoyed with the requirement for sleep. These have decent biological explanations these days.

    How does the concept of a separate 'mind' help with explaining any of these things? If it took a biologically-slow amount of time to learn right from wrong, to learn language and even to bond with my loved ones, what is there even left for a 'mind' to do? All the elements that need to get put together to make decisions lie in dense biological networks.

    I also wish to not denigrate the parts of the brain that are between the autonomous and the conscious parts. There may be experiments that say that the conscious part of your brain rationalizes having made the decision to move your arm after the fact, but the part that decided to move the arm is just as much a part of you, even if not accessible to introspection.

    "Meat robot" is an amusing but inordinately crass analogy for the elegant, emergent phenomenon of the monist mind that comes from a truly massive chaotic analog-and-digital network of a tenth of a quadrillion synapses.

    Enough of my ranting, though. I do actually enjoy discussions such as these :)

    What I'd like to see from dualists are mechanisms of interaction and properties of the dualistic mind.

    I'm not sure what consciousness as a general property of nature is supposed to mean. I know quite a few approaches to quantum mechanics, and the von Neumann's consciousness-as-measurement one only helps push away one of the mathematical issues away to something that can pretend not to be part of the system, but that seems pretty weak when it's ultimately a question of conjugate attributes (e.g. position/momentum or even 1/2 position/1/2 momentum/1/2 phase and the same with the opposite phase). It's too bad that quantum reality research is so out of vogue these days (probably due to frustration :)

    At least materialistic dualism has some chance to be testable, unlike slippery supernatural dualism :)

  16. dk - With your updated definition, I would thus have to answer no, because the vast majority of the immediate physical forces that go into the act of me choosing are me.

    As an amusing aside on the issue of fear of lack of free will, I was in a slightly retro mood and playing Anachronox, and one of the characters preaching on a corner was screaming at the other characters about their lack of free will. "Just try saying something different!"

  17. I would thus have to answer no, because the vast majority of the immediate physical forces that go into the act of me choosing are me.

    Yes, that's the logical end of reductionism. In which case: you are a meat-robot, "you" don't ever get to "decide" anything ever, and your "decision" on whether to visit grandma next week or not is not any different from from bacteria's "decision" to swim toward higher concentration of glucose.

    You see, if everything in physical world is caused by antecedent physical events, it leaves no room for choice. When things happen in the physical world, they are not chosen; they just happen. Choice necessitates outside influence. So either the material world can be influenced by immaterial (I "decided" to write this and as a result of this decision set in motion a complex sequence of physical interactions) or it cannot (I am under illusion that "I" had anything to do with the decision I made; in reality, that's just the way all the matter in universe ended up behaving).

    My solution to this dilemma is that our description of material is incomplete and that there are laws in universe that do not involve causality.

  18. Yes, that's the logical end of reductionism. In which case: you are a meat-robot, "you" don't ever get to "decide" anything ever, and your "decision" on whether to visit grandma next week or not is not any different from from bacteria's "decision" to swim toward higher concentration of glucose.

    In terms of costs and benefits, probably. Only I would argue that due to the vast differences in how bacteria and I are designed, I have a lot more awareness of the thought process (unless someone has evidence of bacteria having brains?). Bacteria might sense glucose, go 'oo!' and move on up. Can it refuse to do so based on other factors? No idea. If so, good for it.

    In deciding whether to visit a relative, I need to depend on various factors, like what I have going on already, my past memories of encounters with her, how much pressure I feel from others to go, price of gas, how likely her imminent death is, etc. And what I forget to consider may or may not factor in, and I may chose/have the illusion of choosing to disagree with some reasons for or against going. I may make up my mind but based on some new input, mood, or situation change my mind 'randomly.'

    I think this has been summarized earlier in the conversation with 'meh,' but whether we have actual free will or just the illusion of it, to me, seems to result in the same thing. Either way, that's the way it is...why bother stressing about it or putting too much psychological stake one way or the other? Probably why I'm not a philosophy major...oh well.

  19. Certainly free will is a major philosophical problem, but I don't think that free will (or "intentionality" as they call it), has that much to do with consciousness or subjectivity problems. The main problem is figuring out how subjectivity can exist at all - "how we can be subjects and not just objects", as stated in Larry's post. I'm beginning to feel that it's a philosophical problem that may never make it to the scientific stage. Science simply doesn't have the tools to deal seriously with these subjective philosophical problems - even though all experience of reality depends on it. And unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), that leaves the door permanently open for all kinds of mysticism and God-of-the-gaps arguments.

  20. DK said,

    My solution to this dilemma is that our description of material is incomplete and that there are laws in universe that do not involve causality.

    Are you trying to describe Probabilistic Causation?

  21. James Goetz asks Are you trying to describe Probabilistic Causation?

    No, of course not. Probabilistic causation is just a probabilistic determinism. As such, it still leaves no room for free will. I already wrote above that probabilities don't change anything conceptually. Either the matter acts the way it does at all times or your immaterial mind can influence the matter. Nothing in between, just these two options.

  22. DK, I'm a dualist, but I see dualism and free will differently than you do. I need to know more of your view to understand it. I might have a better understanding if I knew your view of non-human brains. For example, let's consider dogs. In your view, does dualism apply to dog thoughts? And how does determinism apply to dog thoughts?

  23. To James Goetz:

    In my view, if one takes a truly logical approach, there are only two possibilities: either everything has consciousness or nothing has. With this in mind, your question about dog thoughts: the only difference from humans is a complexity level. If humans have it then apes have some of it too, and then dogs, pigs and crows also have some. Surely enough, just like with everything in nature, there is *never* a fixed border between haves and have-nots - feel free to extrapolate to amoebas and bacteria.

    Within complete reductionism, both dogs and humans are meat-robots only differing from an ant (and from each other) by a more complex behavioral phenotype. In contrast, the "hard core dualism" says that the complexity of the organization translates into different expression levels of the free will. But free will, once again, is an external force able to influence physical world as we know it! If so, it is rather unreasonable to suppose that such a fundamental thing can arise out of nowhere, only as a result of particularly complex interactions within the matter (e.g. human brain). Much more logical is to think that this "magic" ability is an inherent part of all the matter to begin with. Viewed this way, a door knob is also "thinking" (has consciousness and a potential for a free will) but it, being just an alloy, lacks the level of organization that allows it to physically express its consciousness - particularly to the degree sufficient for us to detect it [given our state of knowledge? - hell, maybe a door knob never even "wants" to do anything we can imagine!]

    The biggest take home message from this line of dualist thinking is that if consciousness is not just a curious but useless byproduct of meat-robot functioning and if free will really does exist, any hope to explain it would require a radical overhaul of our world view (comparable, at least, to the newtonian vs modern physics).

  24. DK:

    You are making a huge mistake in your arguments: The fact that you like the idea of free will has precisely zero relevance to the truth or falsehood of that idea, as do our opinions about wether we have free will or not.

    By the way, my answere to your question is "I don't know, and neither do you".

  25. The person that has lost the argument larry is you , seeing as you resort to insults shows that you have no argument, appealing to ridicule is a logical fallacy, if you were secure in your position then you wouldn't have to resort to such behaviours, whats the point in people debating you when you resort to such immature tactics, your behaviour is an admission about the insecurity of your own position,

    deal with it.