Are Minds like Witches? The Catastrophe of Scientific Progress (by Ben Cain)

by rsbakker

machine brain

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As scientific knowledge has advanced over the centuries, informed people have come to learn that many traditional beliefs are woefully erroneous. There are no witches, ghosts, or disease-causing demons, for example. But are cognitive scientists currently on the verge of showing also that belief in the ordinarily-defined human self is likewise due to a colossal misunderstanding, that there are no such things as meaning, purpose, consciousness, or personal self-control? Will the assumption of personhood itself one day prove as ridiculous as the presumption that some audacious individuals can make a pact with the devil?

Progress and a World of Mechanisms

According to this radical interpretation of contemporary science, everything is natural and nature consists of causal relationships between material aggregates that form systems or mechanisms. The universe is thus like an enormous machine except that it has no intelligent designer or engineer. Atoms evolve into molecules, stars into planets, and at least one planet has evolved life on its surface. But living things are really just material objects with no special properties. The only efficacious or real property in nature, very generally speaking, is causality, and thus the real question is always just what something can do, given its material structure, initial conditions, and the laws of nature. As one of the villains of The Matrix Reloaded declares, “We are slaves to causality.” Thus, instead of there being people or conscious, autonomous minds who use symbols to think about things and to achieve their goals, there are only mechanisms, which is to say forces acting on complex assemblies of material components, causing the system to behave in one way rather than another. Just as the sun acts on the Earth’s water cycle, causing oceans to evaporate and thus forming clouds that eventually rain and return the water via snowmelt runoff and groundwater flow to the oceans, the environment acts on an animal’s senses, which send signals to its brain whereupon the brain outputs a more or less naturally selected response, depending on whether the genes exercise direct or indirect control over their host. Systems interacting with systems, as dictated by natural laws and probabilities—that’s all there is, according to this interpretation of science.

How, then, do myths form that get the facts so utterly wrong? Myths in the pejorative sense form as a result of natural illusions. Omniscience isn’t given to lowly mammals. To compensate for their being thrown into the world without due preparation, as a result of the world’s dreadful godlessness, some creatures may develop the survival strategy of being excessively curious, which drives them often to err on the side not of caution but of creativity. We track not just the patterns that lead us to food or shelter, but myriad other structures on the off-chance that they’re useful. And as we evolve more intelligence than wisdom, we creatively interpret these patterns, filling the blanks in our experience with placeholder notions that indicate both our underlying ignorance and our presumptuousness. In the case of witches, for example, we mistake some hapless individual’s introversion and foreignness for some evil complicity in suffering that’s actually due merely to bad luck and to nature’s heartlessness. Given enough bumbling and sanctimony, that lack of information about a shy foreigner results in the burning of a primate for allegedly being a witch. A suitably grotesque absurdity for our monstrously undead universe.

And in the corresponding case of personhood itself, the lack of information about the brain causes our inquisitive species to reify its ignorance, to mistake the void found by introspection for spirit or mind which our allegedly wise philosophers then often interpret as being all that’s ultimately real. That is, we try to control ourselves along with our outer environment, to enhance our fitness to carry our genes, but because our brain didn’t evolve to reveal its mechanisms to themselves, the brain outputs nonsense to satisfy its curiosity, and so the masses mislead themselves with fairytales about the supernatural property of personhood, misinterpreting the lack of inner access as being miraculous direct acquaintance with oneself by something called self-consciousness. We mislead ourselves into concluding that the self is more than the brain that can’t understand its operations without scientific experimentation. Instead, we’re seduced into dogmatizing that our blindness to our neural self is actually magical access to a higher, virtually immaterial self.

Personhood and the Natural Reality of Illusions

So much for the progressive interpretation of science. I believe, however, that this interpretation is unsustainable. The serpent’s jaws come round again to close on the serpent’s own tail, and so we’re presented with yet another way to go spectacularly wrong; that is, the radical, progressive naturalist joins the deluded supernaturalist in an extravagant leap of logic. To see this, realize that the above picture of nature can be no picture at all. To speak of a picture, a model, a theory, or a worldview, or even of thinking or speaking in general, as these words are commonly defined is, of course, forbidden to the austere naturalist. There are no symbols in this interpretation which is no interpretation; there are only phases in the evolution of material systems, objects caught between opposing forces that change according to ceteris paribus laws which are not really laws. Roughly speaking—and remember that there’s no such thing as speaking—there’s only causality in nature. There are no intentional or normative properties, no reference, purpose, or goodness or badness.

In the unenlightened mode of affecting material systems, this “means” that if you interpret scientific progress as entailing that there are no witches, demons, or people in general, in the sense that the symbols for these entities are vacuous, whereas other symbols enjoy meaningful status such as the science-friendly words, “matter,” “force,” “law,” “mechanism,” “evolution,” and so forth, you’ve fallen into the same trap that ensnares the premodern ignoramus who fails to be humbled by her grievous knowledge deficit. All symbols are equally bogus, that is, supernatural, according to the foregoing radical naturalism. Thus, this radical must divest herself not just of the premodern symbols, but of the scientific ones as well—assuming, that is, she’s bent on understanding these symbols in terms of the naïve notion of personhood which, by hypothesis, is presently being made obsolete by science. So for example, if I say, “Science has shown that there are no witches, and the commonsense notion of the mind is likewise empty,” the radical naturalist is hardly free to interpret this as saying that premodern symbols are laughable whereas modern scientific ones are respectable. In fact, strictly speaking, she fails to be a thoroughgoing eliminativist as soon as she assumes that I’ve thereby said anything at all. All speaking is illusion, for the radical naturalist; there are only forces acting on material systems, causing those systems to behave, to exercise their material capacities, whereupon the local effects might feed back into a larger system, leading to cycles of average collective behaviour. There is no way of magically capturing that mechanistic reality in symbolic form; instead, there’s just the illusion of doing so.

How, then, should scientific progress be understood, given that there’s no such things as scientific theories, progress, or understanding, as these things are commonly defined? In short, what’s the uncommon, enlightened way of understanding science (which is actually no sort of understanding)? What’s the essence of postmodern, scientific mysticism, as we might think of it? In other words, what will the posthuman be doing once her vision is unclouded with illusions of personhood and so is filled with mechanisms as such? The answer must be put in terms, once again, of causality. Scientific enlightenment is a matter (literally) of being able to exercise greater control over certain systems than is afforded by those who lack scientific tools. In short, assuming we define ourselves as a species in terms of the illusions of a supernatural self, the posthuman who embraces radical naturalism and manages to clear her head of the cognitive vices that generate those illusions will be something of a pragmatist. She’ll think in terms of impersonal systems acting and reacting to each other and being forced into this or that state, and she’ll appreciate how she in turn is driven by her biochemical makeup and evolutionary history to survive by overpowering and reshaping her environment, aided by this or that trait or tool.

Radical, eliminativistic naturalism thus implies some version of pragmatism. The version not implied would be one that defines usefulness in terms of the satisfaction of personal desires. (And, of course, there would really be some form of causality instead of any logical implication.) But the point is that for the eliminativist, an illusion-free individual would think purely in terms of causality and of materialistic advantage based on a thorough knowledge of the instrumental value of systems. She’d be pushed into this combative stance by her awareness that she’s an animal that’s evolved with that survivalist bias, and so her scientific understanding wouldn’t be neutral or passive, but supplemented by a more or less self-interested evaluation of systems. She’d think in terms of mechanisms, yes, but also of their instrumental value to her or to something with which she’s identified, although she wouldn’t assume that anyone’s survival, including hers, is objectively good.

For example, the radical naturalist might think of systems as posing problems to be solved. The posthuman, then, would be busy solving problems, using her knowledge to make the environment more conducive to her. She wouldn’t think of her knowledge as consisting of theories made up of symbols; instead, she’d see her brain and its artificial extensions as systems that enable her to interact successfully with other systems. The success in question would be entirely instrumental, a matter of engineering with no presumption that the work has any ultimate value. There could be no approval or disapproval, because there would be no selves to make such judgments, apart from any persistence of a deluded herd of primates. The re-engineered system would merely work as designed, and the posthuman would thereby survive and be poised to meet new challenges. This would truly be work for work’s sake.

What, then, should the enlightened pragmatist say about the dearth of witches? Can she sustain the sort of positivistic progressivism with which I began this article? Would she attempt to impact her environment by making sounds that are naively interpreted as meaning that science has shown there are no witches? No, she would “say” only that the neural configuration leading to behaviour associated with the semantic illusion that certain symbols correspond to witchy phenomena has causes and effects A and B, whereas the neural configuration leading to so-called enlightened, modern behaviour, often associated with the semantic illusion that certain other symbols correspond to the furious buying and selling of material goods and services and to equally tangible, presently-conventional behaviour thus has causes and effects C and D. Again, if everything must be perceived in terms of causality, the neural states causing certain primates to be burned as witches should be construed solely in terms of their causes and effects. In short, the premodern, allegedly savage illusion of witchcraft loses its sting of embarrassment, because that illusion evidently had causal power and thus a degree of reality. Cognitive illusions aren’t nothing at all; they’re effects of vices like arrogance, self-righteousness, impertinence, irrationality, and so forth, and they help to shape the real world. There’s no enlightened basis for any normative condemnation of such an illusion. All that matters is the pragmatic, instrumental judgment of something’s effectiveness at solving a problem.

Yes, if there’s no such thing as the meaning of a symbol, there are no witches, in that there’s no relation of non-correspondence between “witch” and creatures that would fit the description. Alas, this shouldn’t comfort the radical naturalist since there can likewise be no negative semantic relation between “symbol” and symbols to make sense of that statement about the nonexistence of witches. If naturalism forces us to give up entirely on the idea of intentionality, we mustn’t interpret the question of something’s nonexistence as being about a symbol’s failure to pick out something (since there would be no such thing as a symbol in the first place). And if we say there are no symbols, just as there are no witches or ghosts or emergent and autonomous minds, we likewise mustn’t think this is due merely to any semantic failure.

What, then, must nonexistence be, according to radical naturalism? It must be just relative powerlessness. To say that there are no witches “means” that the neural states involved in behaviour construed in terms of witchcraft are relatively powerless to systematically or reliably impact their environment. Note that this needn’t imply that the belief in witches is absolutely powerless. After all, religious institutions have subdued their flocks for millennia based on the ideology of demons, witches and the like, and so the pragmatist mustn’t pretend she can afford to “say” that witches have a purely negative ontological status. Again, just because there aren’t really any witches doesn’t mean there’s no erroneous belief in witchcraft, and that belief itself can have causal power. The belief might even conceivably lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which case something like witchcraft will someday come into being. At any rate, the belief in witches opens up problems to be solved by engineering (whether to side with the oppressive Church or to overthrow it, etc.), and that would be the enlightened posthuman’s only concern with respect to witches.

Indeed, a radical naturalist who understands the cataclysmic implications of scientific progress has no epistemic basis whatsoever for belittling the causal role of a so-called illusion like witchcraft. Again, some neural states have causes and effects A and B while others have causes and effects C and D—and that’s it as far as objective reality is concerned. On top of this, at best, there’s pragmatic instrumentalism, which raises the question merely of the usefulness of the belief in witches. Is that belief entirely useless? Obviously not, as Western history attests. Is the belief in witches immoral or beneath our dignity as secular humanists? The question should be utterly irrelevant, since morality and dignity are themselves illusions, given radical naturalism; moreover, the “human” in “humanist” must be virtually empty. What an enlightened person could say with integrity is just that the belief in witches benefits some primates more than others, by helping to establish a dominance hierarchy.

The same goes for the nonexistence of minds, personhood, consciousness, semantic meaning, or purpose. If these things are illusions, so what? Illusions can have causal power, and the radical naturalist must distinguish between causal relations solely by assigning them their instrumental value, noting that some effects help some primates to survive by solving certain problems, while hindering others. Illusions are thus real enough for the truly radical naturalist. In particular, if the brain tries to discover its mechanisms through introspection and naturally comes up empty, that need not be the end of the natural process. The cognitive blind spot delivers an illusion of mentality or of immaterial spirituality, which in turn causes primates to act as if there were such things as cultures consisting of meaningful symbols, moral values and the like. We’d be misled into creating something that nevertheless exists as our creation. Just as the whole universe might have popped into existence from nothing, according to quantum mechanics, cognitive science might entail that personhood develops from the introspective experience of an inner emptiness. In fact, we’re not empty, because our heads are full of brain matter. But the tool of introspection can be usefully misapplied, as it evidently causes the whole panoply of culture-dependent behaviours.

What is it, then, to call personhood a mere illusion? What’s the difference between illusion and reality, for the radical naturalist, given that both can have causal power in the domain of material systems? If we say that illusions depend on ignorance of certain mechanisms, this turns all mechanisms into illusions and deprives us of so-called reality, assuming none of us is omniscient. As long as we select which mechanisms and processes to attend to in our animalistic dealings with the environment, we all live in bubble worlds based on that subjectivity which thus has quasi-transcendental status. To illustrate, notice that when the comedian Bill Maher mocks the Fox News viewer for living in the Fox Bubble and for being ignorant of the “real world,” Maher forgets that he too lives in a culture, albeit in a liberal rather than a conservative one, and that he doesn’t conceive of everything with the discipline of strict impersonality or objectivity, as though he were the posthuman mystic.

What seems to be happening here is that the radical naturalist is liable to identify with a science-centered culture and thus she’s quick to downgrade the experience of those who prefer the humanities, including philosophy, religion, and art. From the science-centered perspective, we’re fundamentally animals caught in systems of causality, but we nevertheless go on to create cultures in our bumbling way, blissfully ignorant of certain mechanistic realities and driven by cognitive vices and biases as we allow ourselves to be mesmerized by the “illusion” of a transcendent, immaterial self.  But there’s actually no basis here for any value judgment one way or the other. From a barebones scientific “perspective,” the institution of science is as illusory as witchcraft. All that’s real are configurations of material elements that evolve in orderly ways—and witchcraft and personhood are free to share in that reality as illusions. Judging by the fact that the idea of witches has evidently caused some people to be treated accordingly and that the idea of the personal self has caused us to create a host of artificial, cultural worlds within the indifferent natural one, there appears to be more than enough reality to go around.