The Corner

Robocop Replies

All right, Jim, darn it, I’ll bite.

In the hopes of turning down the heat in this exchange …

Didn’t see much exchangement going on myself, but hey.

… let me interject a question for John D.

Hit me.

It is the reigning assumption in the high-rent districts of America and Europe that human consciousness can ultimately be reduced to the physical processes of the brain.

Is it? To borrow from one of Wilde’s characters: “It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.” I don’t actually hang out much in high-rent districts (though I’m always open to invitations!) but my guess would be that their operational metaphysics, as with most human beings most of the time, is naive dualism: mind-stuff in here, matter-stuff out there, the two working on each other somehow, time for a drink.

I can tell you, having just returned from a week’s total immersion in the topic, that the naive materialism you postulate as being dominant in Belgravia and Beverly Hills is very little favored by Consciousness Science researchers. The metaphysic du jour among the academics seems to be panpsychism.

Put bluntly, that humans are machines …

Sorry, I don’t even know what that means. Human beings don’t resemble any kind of machines that I’m acquainted with.

… our minds are flesh-based computers …

I hate to pull rank, Jim, you know I do, but I spent a big chunk of my working life programming computers for a living, and you can just replace “beings … machines” with “brains … computers” in my previous sentence. I can’t see any resemblance between computers and minds at all. As Doug Hofstadter put it very crisply: “They don’t have concepts.” Why we do have concepts, and what exactly the darn things are made of, are deep and interesting questions, to which nobody knows the answers. That’s why curious types like me go to conferences like the one I just linked to.

and our sense of self is the epiphenomenon of firing neurons.

We still talking about what the quality folk believe? Having all that moolah, they won’t miss the $199.95 it will cost them to purchase Prof. Daniel Robinson’s Consciousless and Its Implications from the Teaching Company. That should set them on the right path, or at least get them off the wrong one, if they really believe the thing you say they believe. Which I don’t believe.

If we accept this premise …

Er …

I think it takes some fancy footwork to avoid adopting the kind of relativism that I think Benedict is trying to highlight.

“Fancy footwork”?! Have you ever tried reading RC apologetics? But seriously: does a naive-materialist metaphysic imply “allowing oneself to be carried about with every wind of ‘doctrine’”? Why? I should have thought, matter being ontologically indisputable, that such a metaphysic would lead to an exceptionally rigid system of life. I’ll admit I’m not much of a philosopher, though.

My question is this …

Thank goodness!

… if I am a machine, why is it “wrong” for me to throw a random three-year-old girl in front of a moving car just for the fun of watching her head explode?

Good grief! Why on earth would you want to do that, Jim? Are you all right? Is that what all those naive-materialist types in high-rent districts like to do? Cancel those invitations, please!

Asked differently, isn’t asking whether it is “right or wrong” for a machine to do anything like asking if it’s Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny that brings us presents at Christmas?

You’re losing me. How can you ask a machine anything? Can’t we stick to human beings? (And btw: it’s Santa.)

Now I have a question for you, Jim, in fact a couple.

(1)  If belief in a supernatural origin for the moral sense is essential for moral behavior, how come people who don’t have such a belief manage to behave themselves pretty well? In fact, better? Crime rates are actually much lower in the “relativistic” Europe the Pope deplores than they are in deeply religious countries like Nigeria or Pakistan. Do you have an explanation? In fact, looking round the world, belief in supernatural moral codes seems to correlate well with bad moral behavior. With homicide rates in parentheses: Irreligious Japan (1.1), Hong Kong (0.63), and Iceland (1.03) are much safer places for three-year-old girls than much-more-religious Philippines (4.31), Sri Lanka (6.69), or for that matter the U.S.A. (5.9). Wassup with that, Jim?

(2)  Are you sure you have understood the non-supernatural explanations (like this one) well enough to be able confidently to discard them in favor of the supernatural ones? If you came across a really convincing natural explanation for moral behavior in terms of heritable behavior characteristics, group dynamics in social animals, neuroscience, and genetics, would you drop the supernatural one?

Your argument seems to be of a piece with David Klinghoffer telling us last week that if we accept modern biology, we shall soon be feeling uncontrollable urges to dress up in comic-opera uniforms, persecute Jews, and invade Poland. What a load of goose poop! I know a lot of evolutionary biologists — I live down the road from a whole nest of them — and I can’t think of any place a Jew would be less in danger of persecution. He’d sure be much more at ease than in several religious venues I can think of: the Tehran Grand Mosque, or Trinity United Church of Christ.

Always the same refrain. “If you don’t give up your skepticism / materialism / Darwinism and climb on board the Believer Bus, you’ll turn into an ax murderer!” We don’t, though, and nobody can explain to me why we don’t. Eschewing false modesty, I’ll set my moral behavior against any believer’s. And while I doubt anyone’s done an actual survey, I’d bet that ax murderers as a class are more pious than the average Joe. Why wouldn’t they be, with those great promises of Forgiveness and Redemption?