Thursday, January 06, 2005

Q: What do you know but can't prove?

A: There are a lot of idiots filling the halls of academia, and I'm not talking about the students.

A buddy provided a link to this blog post the other day that ruminates essentially "Where have all the intellectuals gone?" I read it with interest as it was thoughtful and stated well, but surfed away with a mental shrug, as I typically do with most posts lamenting the good ole days of any sort, because the good ole days for us are pretty much any moment in the past when we were happy, and the good ole days for our kids are probably happening right now. Things are not necessarily getting worse or better on the macro level of human existence. They are pretty much chugging along with the same constant that has pretty much been the case for all recorded human experience, pretty much: we are born, we grow up, find a way to survive, have children, enjoy some things while enduring others, then we die, leaving others to carry on in life. Cha cha cha.

Yet, I read this monster of collective thought with a continual sinking feeling that perhaps the fellow I reference above might be right. If this represents the core of our intellectual thought these days, dear Lord we are in an intellectual drought! (Intellectual ice age?...) (And why is it overloaded with scientists? Science is only one aspect of the exploration of the human condition, and therefore only one way out of many towards understanding it.)

Belief in God is attacked over and over as a self-delusion, which once overcome, will result in the Star Trek universe of universal human achievement and cooperation whose monetary system is knowledge and not money, where hopefully the girls will take to wearing spandex 24/7 and actually date us. (Sigh.) Granted, the nature of the question posed typically leads to ontological thrashing about. Still, the utter lack of understanding of belief in God is as tiring as it is troublesome. The straw man that belief in God somehow is the main obstacle to human potential needs to go up in flames like Burning Man doused with gas and stoked with a flamethrower. Yes, fundamentalists of all ilks (including atheism) can be a problem, but they are not THE problem. If these poltroons can't get past that one simple realization, how are we to trust anything else they say? (To put it simply, boiling down everything to the supposed veracity of one's belief system is bogus reductionism that will only lead to false assumptions and results. Stop it, ya'll.)

Some of these folks are still struggling with the Descartes mind/body dynamic, for crying out loud! (The world outside of me DOES exist! It's not just an illusion of mine! .... Gad.) Which reminds me, what the hell is Susan Blackmore doing on this list? Her attempted scientific explanation of the near death experience was just goofy. I wrote her personally to ask that if the white light at the end of the tunnel is really an illusion caused by our visual cortex as the neurons are firing randomly in the throes of oxygen deprivation death, how does the brain manage to create and store clear memories of supposed events that occur after the person goes into the white light? Her response was (and I paraphrase) "I am no longer exploring that topic." Perhaps she just wanted to avoid a protracted debate with someone she supposed was a crank, but still, what a silly response. Said cranks would be more likely to leave her alone if she merely wrote, "You have a point. Now go away."

That larger critique aside, I totally agree with Kai Krause's post. (There is no direct link to each person, so just plug his name into "Find" to pop down it.) Oh, and I also agree with Elizabeth Spelke's suppositions, but not her conclusion. Differences will always remain differences no matter how much we are alike underneath.

I specifically disagree with all those who suppose we will "figure out" the mechanism of human consciousness in any re-creatable way, meaning I'm sure we will not be able to create a sentient machine. The mysteries of the construction of a well-balanced, reasonably sane human mind (or any self-aware consciousness) are so vast (with thousands of physical and experiential puzzles to solve, just to get started) that it is an intractable problem, imho. We will come up with a machine that mimics a conscious being, but it will not actually be self-aware. To put it another way, we will have robots that talk to us and do housework someday, but it will be no more of a being unto itself than the typical automobile is.

Again, to be fair, atheists believe there is enough inherent self-organization in nature that allowed us to evolve from, well, lumps of mud, to what we are now, so it follows that we can discover or at least leverage enough of that inherent self-organization to recreate ourselves in mechanical/artificial form. I submit that even if inherent self-organization is the case, the complexity of a human mind, which is forged partially from inherited features and partially from experience and learning, is not something easily duplicatable, since the mix of hardwiring and experience has to be more or less precisely right. If not, you get insanity, autism, or a mind so hopelessly scrambled as to be useless.

To follow that vein, say we did create something that was able to do abstract thinking on its own and form some sort of consciousness. Since it would not have our emotional structures, our instincts for seeking of pleasure and avoiding pain, and all of the other built in, little understood mojo that gives us enough intellectual oomph to stroll out to the car, check for children in the way, and drive to work whilst combating road rage and gray panthers whose licenses should have been yanked long ago, what kind of alien mind would it be? Would it be even something that we could relate to, or that could relate to us? I have my doubts, obviously.

But then, to property qualify or disqualify myself, I am one of those who think that some problems are so complex as to be intractable. Even though they are solvable somehow, because we exist after all, we have limits to our perception and therefore our ability to work with and influence things (and don't even get a quantum physicist started on THAT), so we probably won't be able to do the things required to achieve the desired result. For example, the limit of our perception "upwards" is about 80 billion light years across, which is the observable region of our universe (according to one of the guys in the monster article), and "downwards" it stops at the molecular level. We can sorta take pictures of atoms, but not really, and we can mess with them to a pretty amazing degree, but what we don't know about their behavior and structure is still vastly outweighs what we do know. And, I don't think we can ever get to a sufficient understanding to influence and understand matter to the extent we need to in order to create sentient life ourselves. I think we will figure out fusion to the extent that we can use it as a power source. I think we will eventually understand biology enough where we can fight (but never "cure") cancer in more humane ways than we do now, and with greater success. We might figure out how to fight viruses directly, and not rely on triggering our immune systems to do it for us, but that is way off, and it will be about as far as we can go in that direction. And, we will make marvelous machines; they just will never swing their baby blues our direction and ask to be picked up and held - unless we program them to do it.

Note that I haven't dragged God or miracles into any of that discussion. When it comes to our ability to understand our world, I don't think God comes into it, really. Yes, He created it and influences it, in my opinion, but He does not intercede when we are trying to understand and influence the atom. He's got bigger fish to fry. As far as our scientific endeavors go, we're on our own.


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