Oh, hi there. I was just reading Peter B. Gillis’ blog (as you all should be too), and something he said started me thinking. Boiled down into sound-bite size, it amounts to this:
I think a break point’s coming. Maybe not just yet, but soon.
But gee, what can I mean by this? Well, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, for the last couple of decades or so we’ve been living in a time of pretty profound materialism. Not a particularly controversial statement, I hope: after all, isn’t it clear that materialists are the Republicans of science?
But maybe that’s putting it a bit strongly; really materialists are the conservatives of science. It’s only when they embrace a dogmatic materialism that they become Republicans.
Let me expand on that slightly. You see, historically the term “conservative” refers to a philosophical perspective which is (at least, superficially) the enemy of dogma: the first conservatives so-called, whatever their underlying political motivations, were ruthless social realists — finding the idealistic generalizations so beloved of the Enlightenment philosophes abhorrent and dangerous, they insisted on specificity: how, for example, could there be any such thing as the universal rights of Man, when there is no “Man”? “Man”, they argued, was a pure abstract; because in the real world there are only men, and they’re all different. There was no Social Contract; there were no intrinsic attributes of any society but the characters of the individuals that made it up. “Reason” was going too far, too fast, when it claimed anything else.
I’m oversimplifying, of course. The dictionary definition of “conservative” as “lover of the status quo” cuts much more deeply into the heart of things than does my description above — though it, too, is a simplification. But I just thought I’d float the idea of conservatism as the foe of dogmatic theory, because that nuance is often lost, these days: in fact the only people who seem to remember it are our modern political conservatives themselves, who naturally wish to wrap themselves in that flag at every available opportunity…and yet it’s quite clear that they are at least as much the blinkered prisoners of dogma as any of their opponents on what we now like to call the Left. They’ve never read Candide, you see — so they don’t know that Voltaire comprehensively demolished that conservative position way back when it first buckled on its armour. And as he pointed out at that time, the notion of conservativism as a pure insistence on specificity was really always just as abstractly general and “dangerous” as the very thing it sprang up to combat. However! The nuance has still been lost, hasn’t it? That ideal of “conservative”, hypocritical as it may have been, was still an appealing one (well, after all it was supposed to be appealing!), and like Chesterton said of Christianity the problem with it wasn’t that it was tried and found wanting, the problem with it was that it was found difficult, and not tried. Certainly it can be a virtue to attend to the specific realities of life-as-lived, just as trying to imagine how life could be better is also a virtue, sometimes…and indeed there are people like this out there, people who are “naturally” conservative in the way they diligently attend to the evident meaning of real objects and their relationships, as found in the actual real-life world. Of course it’s rare you find any of them who possess easily-reducible political points of view: though both the Left and the Right are fond of claiming them as members of their “side”, more often than not this “true-con” style of thinking is impossible to paste onto the political compass we’re accustomed to employ as a crutch, these days. Such people are neither priests of order, nor ministers of equality — where they live in cities, the freedoms they care about are chiefly academic and artistic ones. In the country, they attend predominantly to matters of geography. So if you’ll take my word for it: politics and this sort of specifistic ideal don’t make much of a fit, but that doesn’t mean the ideal is of no value. Rather the opposite.
Little tangent, there. And I’m not saying a flexibly conservative dogma-hater is impossible to locate in the political milieux of the West — but the compass often imposes regularity more than it reveals it, and political parties willing to appeal to specificity, at least in my country, do a fairly half-assed job. Nevertheless, you might be lucky enough to unexpectedly chance on one of these idealistic conservative types, one of these days; and if you do, you may find that they practice a species of conservatism that’s worthy of your respect. At least, you may find they do a little bit more than just pay lip-service to the idea of resisting dogmatic ideologies.
Of course, they’re not exactly on every corner. Even the ones who wear their political motivations on-the-sleeve-but-under-the-sweater are a little less than common, these days. More often you don’t get a real conservative, but a real Republican — by which I mean, someone a lot like the current crop of American Republicans, who do a good job of exemplifying what conservatism looks like once you take out any unbiased suspicion of dogma from it. By any objective standard, it’s really the folks on the Left that have the advantage these days, in that department. Slight though it may be…!
But that’s really not got much to do with the break point I think is coming.
At least, not directly.
Back to materialists in the realm of science, that I’ve likened to Republicans — if only because their style of materialism is rather Friedmanesque. You can see it in neuroscientists and AI researchers: among these (very smart) people, there’s a reasonably large faction that believes (for example) that the phenomenon of consciousness is simply generated by reaching a certain threshold of complexity in a physical system, or by the brute application of autocatalytic feedback loops. But this is a rather intriguing species of religious belief, much like our modern Republican types and their uncritically reductionist Panglossianism regarding the “invisible hand” of the market…in both cases, a belief pretty dismissive of assiduous specificity. Where these political fellows seem to enjoy confusing a market with an economy, their neuroscientific cousins seem equally enamoured of confusing intelligence with thought — but if we can’t resist speaking of intelligence, in this modern age, as a term relating primarily to feedbacked behaviours that produce a certain type of sensitive problem-solving — and I’m okay with that, because we do need a word to cover that behaviour — that doesn’t mean we’re justified in saying a machine is “thinking”, when it’s really only running its program.
Now, the materialist reply to this contention of mine is obviously that when “thinking” is going on in the human brain (by now we can be pretty sure that a lot of it does go on in there, I hope!), that’s nothing more nor less than program-running too…and therefore a difference of degree rather than kind…
However, that’s not actually been shown to be the case, so the retort’s not very effective.
In fact, if anything it has been shown not to be the case.
Despite being predicted by the model. Well, but the model’s just the model after all, isn’t it? The model is itself hypothetical, and therefore most definitely not “proof” all on its own. It can’t prove itself, for heaven’s sake! And really it’s faintly ridiculous to wish it would; because there’s no model that won’t eventually be thrown out, one day. One day, when we know more than we do now…
So let’s consider the possibility, right now: so far, we haven’t got anything like a “thinking” machine, and there’s no guarantee that we ever will. Every time someone’s predicted it, the prediction’s turned out to be plain-and-simple bunk.
So the model may already not be any good.
They used to have a similar problem in biology, you know, when it came to the definition of life — hard stuff to reduce to its essential components, but inarguably a thing, a qualitative difference between the various products of chemistry, that we see every day. And maybe we’re just kidding ourselves about there even being such a thing; however, I’d hasten to point out that we’ve got a word for it, and the word is pretty useful to us. And inside that word I’d argue there’s an implication, that you can’t have life without autocatalytic feedback processes. Hey, just like “intelligence”…!
But, does that make them the same thing?
You can see, I guess, how confusions might arise. We can produce “intelligence” using inorganic materials — not as easily, of course — so it seems like, well, that’s one item on the shopping list crossed off, right? Hey, that wasn’t too hard…and we’ve still got time left on the meter, let’s see what’s in the other aisles of this big-ass store. Oh, look, I found this Costco-sized container of mind-body problem! Say…you don’t suppose…
If we just got this…
Well, can’t we bake a cake, with this?
I mean it says on the box, you just have to add water…
Now, I won’t go too deep into it — this is really just another tangent, you see — but there you’ve got some basic materialism going on right away. You just add water; okay, so it says you probably have to add a lot of water. But what’s the big deal about that? Lots of water it is! And if it doesn’t work out, we can always come back…or, you know, just add still more water...
Yes. But in biology, as I was saying, they eventually gave up on playing around with alternative recipes. Eventually, they figured they were just throwing good water after bad. To break out of the metaphor, eventually the definition of life fell by the wayside as a common theoretical obsession in straight-up biology. A lot more is known about life, now; life is extremely common, extremely interesting stuff…and if you spend all your time wondering if, in the absence of a perfectly strict definition, it can truly be said to exist…well, all that happens is that you waste time with the definition, that might have been better spent on studying the thing. Oh, a little bit of hearsay, there; that’s only what I’ve been told our modern biologists think. But it sounds eminently sensible, to me: if Wittgenstein were here (yes, him again), no doubt he would point out that “life” is not and never was a jargonistic term — and therefore it has no responsibility to us to yield a strict definition. Much as “soul” — no matter how much they argue about it on Star Trek, they fact remains that any word we’ve invented for the purposes of talking about ourselves and our inner states is not going to serve very well as a pair of reductionist tweezers. As I think I’ve pointed out before, it doesn’t matter if some folks deny the existence of “soul” in dogs or cats or gorillas — dogs and cats and gorillas aren’t the language-makers here, we are, and so they have “souls” if we speak of them as having them. It’s magic, really: behold, we say this, and thereby make it so! Abracadabra!
But, can we perform the same magic trick on a machine?
“Soul” means “alive”, doesn’t it?
Wittgenstein would probably frown: language may work magic, but even magic’s got rules. And assigning anti-meanings to established words does not really further the goal of perspicuous representation. Anti-meanings are interesting to play around with, absolutely, and they’re not unproductive of insight — but a begged question’s a begged question, regardless. The one thing the model can’t do is prove itself; that isn’t magic, that’s just incoherence.
And: whew! That took a bit longer than I was hoping it would, forgive me.
So on to the subject, now.
You know, just by looking at it, you might not think that the current state of physics is too influenced by the kind of dogmatic materialism I outline above. But, I think it actually kind of is…listen, don’t you smell that whiff of desperation on the breeze, coming from the approximate direction of the Standard Model? The thick, pungent scent…
In a reasonably short time, the Large Hadron Collider will come online. Physicists everywhere (plus amateur enthusiasts like me) wait for its arrival with hunger in their eyes and anticipation in their hearts. And, yes: fear too. Because it seems you can hardly find a physical or cosmological paper these days that doesn’t hobble across its finish line with the lame conclusion: “well, I guess when the LHC comes online, we’ll see if I’m just talking through my hat, or not”. Or, to parse it another way: “Jesus is comin’…better get right…”
Quite a pretty pass we’ve come to. We have so many theories these days, that have never had to stand up under the burden of even a molecule of proof. We have the Higgs Popularity Boson, we have extradimensional gravity, we have primal bottlenecks in universes that obscure those universes’ true ages, we have a hundred exotic theories all clamouring to be Saved on that tremendous day of days, when the LHC finally opens its massive throat and speaks.
And yes: appearances perhaps to the contrary, I’m saying that these theories all have a curious component of dogmatic materialism in them, not dissimilar to the idea of the “thinking” machine.
Because, what is it, that they all rely on?
This is a little hard to get to, so please bear with me. Over the course of the last several decades, a certain style of thinking about physics has come to the fore. No disrespect intended to anyone, but I’m going to call it the style of the engineer — if something doesn’t make sense, you damn well make it make sense: hammer it into shape, glue a piece on the top of it, move the goalposts on the problem if you have to. If you’ve got a bug, find a way to call it a feature. Think outside the box, so you can save what’s inside the box.
In the old days, they called these epicycles. Nowadays we might call it the death-throes of an old Kuhnian paradigm, that doesn’t want to go. Of necessity, any physical theory worth the time spent on it has to concern itself with saving the phenomena, with accounting for real-world observations…but there’s a big difference between saving the phenomena, and rescuing the phenomena. Copericanism saved ’em; epicycles tried to rescue ’em. That’s what we saw the last time an old paradigm went down under the sea.
Is it really too much for me to hope that we’re seeing another one go down, as we speak?
Rooting for icebergs, I guess. Not really fair of me. But suppose for a second this loudmouthed assertion of mine might have the tiniest bit of validity to it: if we are seeing the passing of some old paradigm, what’s its flavour? So happy you asked: in this bound-to-be somewhat controversial view of mine, the dominant flavour in these paradigmmatic End Times is the flavour of simplicity, of standalone entities whose intrinsic meanings are set in high contrast to the weaker, secondary, or even totally absent meanings that form their contextual background…standalone entities and actors that, if they can only be defined, numbered, and labelled, will sum to Total Description. And it’s a mechanistic mode that’s been under attack for a long time now — so long, in fact, that it’s learned to seize some of its besieger’s weapons and turn them back around on him. And you say that’s old news, very old news…but I say, look: isn’t there some real epicyclical flailing going on here? Well, what is the Higgs boson but a simplistic “bestiary” solution to the very mystery that inaugurated the science of physics itself? Flailing, perhaps…anyway it’s a quite fabulously presumptuous idea: all this mystery is really no mystery at all, see I fixed it! It has to do with particles, or something. Now what on earth were you old farts getting your knickers in such a twist about, my God it’s like you never heard of duct tape before. Oh, and you can stop all this wittering about gravity, too — I just moved it over to another universe. See? Problem solved. As to EPR, look, it isn’t that this problem even needs fixing, we just have to say it’s no problem. There, see how easy that was? And now the only thing we have to do to make sure this all passes inspection is to get one little shred of contributing evidence for it. Just ONE. Little SHRED! And then we’re home free.
(…So come on, Large Hadron Collider…gimme that shred, baby…)
It does sound a little bit like going all-in on those poker shows, doesn’t it? Bluffing behaviour, while you wait to see if your negative election ads worked. Or perhaps, while you wait to see if the economy picks up after that big tax cut you threw at it. Or even, waiting for your computer to pass the Turing test you’ve rigged up for it, and possibly address you as “Dave”?
Only problem is…
Have you read Alan Turing’s famous test questions?
They’re really quite ingenious.
And again, it’s a matter of specifics. They are specific questions, and they’re ingenious, and I don’t know if the type of computers we’ve got now could ever pass that test. Not if they were as big as a planet. Because we should face facts: we don’t know how to make a computer that thinks. We only know how to make bigger computers, with more “intelligent” behaviours loaded into them. The computational power of the machines we’ve got now already puts our human powers of intellection to shame in some areas, and may soon eclipse us in the others as well, and eventually the question becomes…
Jesus, how advanced does one of these things have to bloody well be, anyway?
Man, what’s it gonna take?
In my view, it’ll take nothing less than an actual, specific, theoretical breakthrough. But the important thing about that statement, is that what it really means is “I have no idea what it’s going to take.” I mean it’s all very well to say “breakthrough, breathrough…all we need is a breakthrough“…but there’s that Inner Engineer talking again, I’m afraid. Breakthoughs aren’t things; you can’t go down to the butcher’s and order half a pound of sliced breakthrough, for heaven’s sake…
That is…not unless the name of your butcher is Large Hadron Collider, right?
So much validating proof required, from such a ridiculously powerful Big Machine…just as though the more powerful it is, the more productive of breakthrough it’s bound to be. But this is like saying that you wouldn’t bet double-zero on a roulette wheel unless the potential winning payout was five times as big…in other words, if the odds of winning were five times worse. This kind of thinking, by the way, is a pet peeve of economists the world over…
So, make of that what you will, I guess.
In any case, since we’re talking about thinking, we should probably be willing to allow that, like “breakthrough”, it is not a generic product. Whereas “intelligence” arguably is…it seems likely that the common sense of intelligence these days has a lot to do with behaviour that is anticipatory, if not always genuinely adaptive, and that seems to indicate that the goal of designed intelligence is to become as independent and broadly-applicable — as generically useful — as possible. Now, the good thing about this goal is that you can easily whip up about a hundred-thousand pretty decent yardsticks for measuring it. So hurray! But thinking, being quite a non-generic activity, is much harder to prop up against a yardstick. In fact it’s entirely possible that thinking isn’t, strictly speaking, good for anything. Sure, Archimedes sat up yelling “Eureka!” in the bathtub…fine. Well, great! And I thought of dipping a banana into my lobster bisque the other day. Archimedes and me, we’re clearly both geniuses. But are our ideas, strictly speaking, “good for anything” in and of themselves? The original inhabitants of Tasmania (I believe it was) stopped bothering to make fire after a while, and so the skill was not preserved — and you never know, they might’ve had their own Archimedes. Maybe they even had a couple of them. But the fire never came back.
And do you know how to make fire?
Or even…a cake?
But maybe you don’t like cake.
The neuromaterialist clique, as I mentioned, will tell you that thinking is just your brain “running its program”, just like a computer runs its program, like the phone system runs its programs, like everything runs its programs…and that the basis of all phenomena lies in computation. In an abstract way, superficially, that may be true. But having said that, have we really said anything at all? “In the abstract, these things kind of look the same.” All right…but so what?
Lining up to use the Large Hadron Collider, and dying to try to prove themselves true, are a bunch of theories that, for want of a better usage, I’m going to say look like physics. They may not be physics, but they could be physics. They look like it; they use the same toys. They follow in the same path.
But it’s my belief that real physics is already quite a ways down the path in front of them.
Well, I can hope.
Proof’s in the…uh, pudding, I guess. Yes: pudding.
My, what a relief it is to get back to a real (if slightly scatterbrained) post! I think I went a little post-happy over the last few days, just yanking stuff out and slapping it up there. I feel rather like I’ve been lining up to use the LHC myself.
Ha ha ha.