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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Does My Thermostat Know That It Is Cold? (More Dennett)

Daniel Dennett and I are kicking back, watching game seven of the Heat-Thunder series (I am in denial) and I say to him, "My thermostat must be feeling chilly."

"What are you talking about?" he asks.

"Well, it just turned the furnace on: it does that whenever it feels chilly."

"That's ridiculous! It's a totally unfeeling machine. Its turning the furnace on is just a mechanical response to the thermometer moving."

"OK, then, how do you explain how humans feel hot and cold?"

"Ah," he responds, "that is trivial: all you have to do is wire together a whole bunch of mechanisms like your thermostat into a very complex network."

Now, there is a pretty obvious logical difficulty here: If the thermostat has zero feeling, how is putting a whole bunch of them together result in a non-zero amount of feeling? As I recall, even trillions of zeroes added together still amount to zero.

Now, there is at least one way to form a coherent theory of a "built-up" mind, and that is panpsychism, represented by, amongst others, Alfred North Whitehead. A panpsychist might say, "Gene's thermostat does feel chilly, just in a very primitive fashion. And the human mind does arise from the matter in the brain, and it can do so because that matter is already, in a very low-level way, capable of thought.

But Dennett has very explicitly closed off that route for himself: "Turing realized that this was just not necessary: you could take the tasks they performed and squeeze out the last tiny smidgens of understanding, leaving nothing but brute, mechanical actions."

So Dennett could not be clearer: A basic circuit for saying, adding two numbers, does not have even a "tiny smidgen" of understanding. But somehow, actual human understanding is supposed to arise from wiring together a vast number of such circuits, or something analogous to them. Eventually, all of those zeroes are bound to amount to something!

So why, despite this difficulty, is this strategy pursued? The answer, I think, is clear: if materialism is true, then somehow mind must arise from a whole bunch of non-mental components.

Well, I think that is an excellent reason to suspect that materialism is false. Now, we might resist that conclusion if we had other good reasons to think materialism is true. But there are no other such good reasons. And there a very excellent cases for materialism being clearly false: I recommend Michael Oakeshott's Experience and Its Modes for one, quite readable, instance of the case against materialism.


7 comments:

  1. You are still making his case dumber than it really is and yours smarter than it is. Who says tying more of the same machine is going to achieve higher functioning? The point is, things we attribute to a human mind are being sequentially reproduced in machines and you have no grounds of rejecting the prospect that others could be by the same process. He makes an extrapolation, but it's a reasonable one. You're just saying "well this function is different because _____ [I'm still not sure what you're filling in the blanks with], so you aren't allowed to entertain an extrapolation."

    I don't think we have a complete grasp on what "the material" is. We only have empirical access to that which we can sense, after all. I don't see where you get warrant not only to invent things beyond the world we can sense, and then on top of that somehow also get warrant to name that "ideal" or "spirit" or whatever you want to call it and know that it's properties are fundamentally different from the material we observe. Reality probably is more complex and extraordinary than the things we have immediate empirical access to, but I don't see why we shouldn't think of that stuff as being in the same class of reality as that which we observe.

    So sure, reality could very well be more complex. But think of how intimately tied to the material this deeper essence of humanity is. When you injure certain parts of your brain you lose these capacities that you for some reason you think transcends material functioning. If it transcends material functioning, why does it seem so closely correlated with the electrical and chemical firings in our brain?

    You write "if materialism is true, then somehow mind must arise from a whole bunch of non-mental components". But what is "mind"? "Mind" is just the label we apply to things that living brains are capable of. Why is it so outlandish to think, then, that "mind" is a creature of chemistry and electricity?

    To think it's a creature of anything else it seems like you'd have to assume your own conclusions.

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    1. Daniel wrote:

      "Mind" is just the label we apply to things that living brains are capable of. Why is it so outlandish to think, then, that "mind" is a creature of chemistry and electricity?

      To think it's a creature of anything else it seems like you'd have to assume your own conclusions.


      I largely agree with you, Daniel, but you seem not to realize that the sentence I put in bold assumes your conclusion too.

      Delete
  2. "Eventually, all of those zeroes are bound to amount to something!"

    The zeros by themselves won't add up to anything. But there could be a psycho-physical (as opposed to physical) law that produces such-and-such forms of awareness when certain physical conditions are met.

    The problem is, there is no way of figuring out what those laws are by examining the physical world.

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  3. And I should say, this is what frustrates me the most - you often talk about materialism in a way that assumes its own conclusions. "Materialism" for you seems to be about four dimensions and inanimate stuff. "Materialism" for you by definition excludes "mind" so "mind" must be drawn out of material stuff. You think we're jumping through hoops to make this work, to cobble this together. All "materialism" really is is noting that nothing we observe really gives us any reason to to think there's anything else there. Things that get talked about as "not being material", like "ideas", aren't written off by materialists as you seem to suggest sometimes. We just think it makes the most sense to think about ideas as a sort of category of associated things or feelings its a label our brain applies to neural firings that we've learned to group together. It's not "immaterial being built up from material", it's "material being built up from material".

    An ideal is just a thing in my brain.

    Rocks don't form ideals. Plants don't either (I don't think). I don't know if animals do. But brains do.

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    1. Daniel wrote:

      It's not "immaterial being built up from material", it's "material being built up from material".

      That's fine if you say that, but to repeat my point, you are assuming your position. *This* is the crux of the argument. If you are defining ideas as "arrangements of neurons" then yes, by jove, you are pretty reasonable for theorizing that neural arrangements "explain" idea formation.

      But, if Gene and I define ideas an immaterial things, then yes, by jove, we are pretty reasonable in ridiculing your attempts to explain them *purely* by the arrangements of neurons, especially when you then say "mere" or "just" in front of your description for emphasis.

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  4. I'm having a lot of trouble understanding the argument being made here: "If the thermostat has zero feeling, how is putting a whole bunch of them together result in a non-zero amount of feeling? As I recall, even trillions of zeroes added together still amount to zero."

    It seems you could use this to argue that a car can't move independently, because you can break it into little pieces that, individually, cannot move.

    It seems fairly obvious that this is simply the wrong analogy. Even if it were true that each neuron or thermostat or whatever has "zero feeling", the way things interact in the brain is not the same as a mathematical sum of zeroes.

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    1. @inthearmchair: You are analyzing this widdershins. Your car analogy would be good, IF I were saying that a computer doesn't think, as can be proved by the fact that its parts don't think. But that is not the case at all. What I am saying is that Dennett's argument is no case for explaining how it *does* think (if it does).

      The proper analogy is this: Dennett says to us, "See this car part that doesn't move?"

      "Yes."

      "Well, pu enough of those parts that don't move together, and that explains how the car moves."

      "Huh?"

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