On discovering you’re not an Android

We could then provide neuron simulation kits to make users experience or believe all sorts of things. We can make everyone equally intelligent, since they would then know all true things (given the right kits), or courageous or just and so on.


Over at Gene Expressions, we learn this alarming fact:

The idea that the self, or the conscious mind, emerges from the workings of the physical structures of the brain – with no need to invoke any supernatural spirit, essence or soul – is so fundamental to modern neuroscience that it almost goes unmentioned. It is the tacitly assumed starting point for discussions between neuroscientists, justified by the fact that all the data in neuroscience are consistent with it being true. Yet it is not an idea that the vast majority of the population is at all comfortable with or remotely convinced by. Its implications are profound and deeply unsettling, prompting us to question every aspect of our most deeply held beliefs and intuitions.

Although I have great respect for the intelligence and learning of scientists, they persist in being philosophically naive. Materialism leads to empiricism which leads to Kantian scepticism which leads to idealism, the very opposite of the starting point. A methodological assumption that is appropriate for neuroscientists is not tantamount to a proof of its universal validity.

Astronomy, for example, assumed that the motion of the planets could be explained by matter and the force of gravity. That assumption worked very well and astronomers built up a large inventory of observations of planetary motion. Unexpected anomalies in those observations led to the discovery of more planets beyond Saturn, which would have been inexplicable had astronomers assumed there were only six planets. Neuroscientists are at the incipient stage of building a library of observations. There is a lot to do if they hope to explain all subjective inner states of consciousness by means of material electrochemical processes. But that is the first problem they face: they do not accept the reality of inner states of consciousness, but rely on what the experimental subject reports.

all those kinds of experiments have, of course, been done on human beings, tens of thousands of times. Functional magnetic resonance imaging methods let us correlate the activity of particular brain circuits with particular behaviours, perceptions or reports of inward states.

Since inner states cannot be directly observed by any apparatus, the scientist relies on the “report” of the experimental subject. Let’s say, for example, that when his neurons are stimulated a certain way, the subject reports, “I felt a pleasant sensation accompanied by a vision of yellowish colours.” Does the scientist then take out his oscilloscope to analyze the report in a scientific manner? Of course not. He relies on his own subjective experience of pleasantness and yellow to imagine what the subject reported. On the assumptions of the neuroscientist, we must conclude that when the subject’s neurons are stimulated in a certain way, the subject will then emit sound waves of a certain frequencies and duration, which will then stimulate the corresponding neurons in the brain of the neuroscientist. Maybe for Occam this seems like the simplest explanation, but for the rest of us, something rather essential seems to be left out.

A second difficulty is that, for the neuroscientist, inner states don’t really exist. This is truly awkward, since his goal is to explain the experience of inner states by bio-electro-chemical processes. But we are invited to participate in this thought experiment:

Imagine you came across a robot that performed all the functions a human can perform – that reported a subjective experience apparently as rich as yours. If you were able to observe that the activity of certain circuits was associated with the robot’s report of subjective experience, if you could drive that experience by activating particular circuits, if you could alter it by modifying the structure or function of different circuits, would there be any doubt that the experience arose from the activity of the circuits?

This presumably demonstrates that inner experiences are not necessary to produce a “report” of them. However, the human subject believes he is reporting an actual experience. The usual solution is to call it an epiphenomenon, that is, a meaningless side effect of the bio-electro-chemical process, much like our experience of the rising and setting of the sun. The epiphenomenon cannot exist, otherwise it would have effects. But the scientist rules that out from the start.

A third problem is the notion of truth. Material processes are neither true nor false. Those are logical, not physical, categories of thought and apply only to propositions. So our neuroscientists observes the effects of his experiments and concludes with the theory: “All inner states of the mind are the result of material processes in the brain.” He wants to convince us all that this is true.

Presumably, since a thought is an inner state, the report of a thought is the result of a material process. Let’s call the neuroscientist’s theory proposition A. So when I have a thought of A, that is the result of a material process. Yet so is the thought of not-A. So how do I determine which is true? That requires another thought: “A is true”, which is the result of a different process, as is its opposite, “not-A is true”. Hence, the scientist can stimulate my neurons and make me believe either proposition. There is no reason to convince me by arguments. Obviously, an argument is a report that stimulates the neurons of the hearer to believe the argument, at least in those brains trained to “understand” the argument, whatever that may mean. But very few have the intelligence and resources to become neuroscientists. Hence, we can shortcut the process and just provide them with a neuron stimulation kit. We could then provide neuron simulation kits to make users experience or believe all sorts of things. We can make everyone equally intelligent, since they would then know all true things (given the right kits), or courageous or just and so on.

I will leave the neuroscientist with another thought experiment. He will hook the human experimental subject up to his apparatus. Before each experiment, he will tell the subject what the subject will report. The scientist will then stimulate the subject’s brain and wait for his report. Eventually, the subject will be convinced that the scientist’s theory is correct since he is able to anticipate the subject’s reports in advance. He will, won’t he?

5 thoughts on “On discovering you’re not an Android

  1. Beyond the philosophical issue, I proposed what I believe to be a scientific test. I don’t know of any such test proposed by a neuroscientist; if there is one, I would like to know.

  2. Perhaps there is a connection between homosexuality and a this-is-all-there-is view of life – which could shed some light on Bacon’s alleged condition and his “philosophy” – abusing the term here.

  3. Any system or mechanism will always be less complex than its creator.

  4. It makes you wonder, Golgonooza, about the inner states of awareness of some people. Perhaps their consciousnesses are rather bland so their theories seem plausible. Tomberg gives the example of the materialist reading a book. He believes the letters wrote themselves, then combined themselves into syllables as the result of chemical reactions of the ink. The letters and words are then nothing but epiphenomena of the ink.

    Yet this way of thinking is considered cutting edge and its adherents call themselves “bright”.

    Ultimately it is the result of an incorrect understanding of the Traditional notions of syntax and semantics. The materialist only accepts syntax and denies semantics. Unfortunately, that denial is not possible in practice, so semantics always creeps in … words actually “mean” something.

    This is a throwback to Hilbert’s challenge to produce an automaton that proves mathematical theorems. In effect, mathematics must be reduced to syntax alone, without semantic meaning. Godel showed that no such automaton is possible, but news travels slowly. Beyond that, of course, materialism is a continuation of Bacon’s project of eliminating formal and final causes. In this view, phenomena are what they are and have no meaning or objectivity beyond that. It is successful as a methodological assumption but not as a guide to life.

  5. Again, excellent post Cologero. Another critique of the reductive materialist or functionalist theory of mind comes from Searle’s Chinese Room argument. Imagine someone who knows only English sitting in a room alone with a rule book in English for manipulating strings of Chinese characters. Someone who passes a question into the room from outside in Chinese will get an appropriate answer back in Chinese and it will look to them as if the person in the room understands it. But inside the room, the person is just using a rule book to construct the characters and understands no Chinese. It is often used as an argument against the possibility of AI. But also it implies that meaning is not equivalent to the sum total of physical processes that convey it.

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