Friday, December 12, 2014

Reductio ad Absurdum

[This is a chapter in an unpublished book of mine titled What Does Life Want?]

What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how in-finite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!        
     William Shakespeare in Hamlet

Just as we were coming in for a landing on the Planet of the Robots, a peculiar cyclone very common there—but we didn’t know about these then—caught our ship and caused it to crash. In the process our life-capsule was thrown free and crashed into a nearby jungle. It split open as it fell, but, fortunately, we could breathe the local air. Still, it took us the better part of a day to get used to the gravity and make it back to the crash-site. By then the VN robots were already crawling all over our ship. We tried to communicate with them, but they ignored us. It seems they cannot recognize intelligence in organic forms of life. One of our crew, Josephine—she will be speaking next—thinks that they pay about as much attention to us as Texans do to dust devils. By day they go into a dormant stage—call it sleep—while they recharge their batteries in sunlight. We used their periods of rest to secure as much food and water as we could and hid our supplies in the jungle.

VN robots are descendants of John Louis von Neumann’s self-replicating machines that Dr. Carpov Lovestrange implemented in the 21st century and sent out into space in a mad experiment. These creatures have evolved somewhat and look like spiders about the size of palm pads. Lovestrange was a miniaturizer, as you may recall. They communicate in digital shrills and buzzes that decode into Esperanto. We began to study Esperanto like crazy ourselves to see what they were up to. During the first several days we also stole radio and computing equipment—and then watched in amusement as they gathered and had fits, trying to discover who was stealing all these things and disturbing their careful disassembly of our ship. We would just stand or sit around, watching them work. They saw us as if we were walking reeds or bushes and never suspected us. Later on they set a guard by day, but by that time we had all that we required, and we could monitor not only their speech but also the broadcasts from their distant media.
We gathered right away that our ship was deeply meaningful for them. It was another life-form like themselves, but they called it Mechanism. Later we heard news of this discovery spreading all over the VN world.. Wise robots gathered from all over to try to explain it.

They have a peculiar thing here called the robotic method. Their own reproductive cycles require the meticulous manufacture of many parts, assembled into aggregates, the aggregates into clusters, the clusters into the finished VN. You can’t call it a “baby” because it is the same size as adults, but its silicone memory is still empty at birth. The last thing they do is make and insert the solar battery. Then the young VN is set out in the sun to charge. The next evening it comes alive, and the ants all gather round to chirp and buzz their Happy Birthdays in Esperanto. Touching, in a way.

The robotic method of understanding is the reverse of this process. They began almost at once disassembling our damaged rocket ship. They would take each disassembly and gather around. They would buzz and shrill for nights on end, until the understood the function of the thing at last. Then on to the next disassembly.

We watched this in amazement—and with growing concern. It didn’t look like we would ever get off the Robot Planet. Gloomily we began to settle into a primitive sort of stone-age village ourselves—but with our computers still functioning and our radios tuned to the VN broadcasts in the mornings, which were their evenings.

Day by day we heard ever more hopeful news. The theorists back home and the experimentalists out at our site met every morning for public seminars on the Meaning of Mechanism. Some of them called it Alien Mechanism, in contrast to their own. Some said that all Mechanism was quite similar, all over the cosmos. At last they proclaimed that they had discovered the answer to the puzzle of this form of Mechanism. They understood everything deeply now—rocketry, navigation, propulsion, heating and cooling, the recycling of an internal atmosphere—although that particular function still remained a little problematical—cybernetics, everything. This mechanism had evolved for take-offs and for landings. Their speculations ended there. They never asked obvious questions. Why did this thing lift and land? They seemed not to wonder. Lifting and landing seemed aim enough. Now they knew how it was done. For them the How answered the Why.

Then, to our amazement, they began to reassemble the rocket—hoping, perhaps, that it would come alive. With the greatest of care and precision—staging their own rather clever machines to help them and swarming over our rocket in their thousands—they put everything back together. Their sharp vision saw where damage had curtailed the rocket’s function. They repaired it. They analyzed the nature of our tanks of hydrogen and oxygen, inferred what gases had been stored in our tanks in liquefied form. They built refineries, extracted oxygen from the air and hydrogen from brackish evil pools around the edges of the jungle. They refilled our tanks.

One fine morning, after they had all gone to sleep, we just marched back into our ship, closed the portals, turned on our rockets, and we got the hell off the Planet of the Robots, and here we are again.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, we’ll show you some slides. And after that Josephine will talk about the culture of the VN robots and their peculiarly limited mentation. Not to steal her thunder, in any way, but the original von Neumann model, which, in a way, resembles our cellular construction, clearly failed to anticipate something inherent in organic nature. These mechanical creatures seem content with solving technical problems and, proud of their superb technical gifts, they never even wonder what machines are for.

*   *   *

Some 400 years after Shakespeare’s time, Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, issued his own fatwa, as it were. Writing in The Astonishing Hypothesis, he said: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
Imagine that you are a religious sort of person, and then note the phrasing, the rhetoric. The statement recalls Bertrand Russell’s lament, but adds an edge. First comes the recital of what might be considered of most value to ordinary humans, their joys, sorrows, freedom, and their memories. Next comes a dismissive flourish. “No more than,” Francis Crick says. These words were issued in 1994. By that time modern psychology had long abandoned the notion of free will—but not so ordinary man. But here it is again, tossed away by Francis Crick, again, for emphasis.

The edge one hears in this, the cut of the lash of a whip a religious person is likely to feel, is confirmed by John William Schmidt, one re-viewer of the book. He says: “Crick is confrontational in his approach and challenges religious believers with the idea that there is a scientific view of the soul as being just one more manifestation of brain physiology.”*

Carl Gustav Jung, the famed Swiss psychologist, used to note this attitude in his writings. He spoke of it as the nichts als approach to complex phenomena. The phrase translates to nothing but.

One wonders about the psychology behind such “confrontational” pronouncements. Earlier in his review of Crick’s book, Schmidt provides what might be a clue to motive. He says, “I am in agreement with [J.J.] Hopfield that Crick’s book is a heroic attempt to wrest consciousness from the minds of philosophers and place it in the hands of science.”

I ponder this and my imagination produces interesting images. If this interpretation is correct, we’re not really dealing with science here. We’re not just hearing a learned presentation about the brain and how it works. We might be dealing with an assertion of power and authority. I see things morphing in my mind. Here is the brave little David of science, confronting Goliath in the shape of the Church—and we’re back in the 16th century. Gradually David morphs into an oppressive giant himself. And we’re now into the late 21st century. Meanwhile the church has shrunk into a pygmy holding a bible and singing a hymn. Goliath is about to take his vengeance. All your joys and all your sorrows…

My imagination offers the picture of another confrontation. On one side is a peasant, on the other the tight hose of nobility, the silk and lace, the scented handkerchief held to the haughty nose under the sweeping hat.

All those neurons are really firing in my brain.

The nobleman proceeds. He explains a wedding cake by saying that it is in fact no more than the behavior of vast assemblies of molecules of flour, butter, baking powder, sugar, eggs, and heat. John Blue, the peasant, thinks that Sir Francis is rather missing the point. Even to say that the cake is mere nutrition is to miss the point. But the peasant dare not say it. After all Sir Francis won the Nobel Prize, and the peasant just has a job—if he is lucky.

Statements such as Francis Crick’s can be multiplied ad libitum. One often senses the same animus. As Shakespeare said: “Methinks he protests too much.” The letters of the Shakespearean quotation at the head of this chapter are made up of the letters of the alphabet. The letters are formed by organic pigments clinging by chemical bonds to cooked wood fibers and clay. They are no more than that, etc., etc. We have nothing against the gentlemen and ladies of the paper industry or that part of chemicals that manufactures inks—but the point, after all, is the meaning of the words, not how they got to be where they are. The meaning could not be communicated without the pigments and fibers in our case. They are intertwined. But there is a hierarchy. And if the ladies and the gentlemen of industry rose up in robes and pontificated, saying that the words are nothing more than paper and ink, we’d boo.

One wonders. What is Big Bad science, creator of the atom bomb, afraid of? Is it angry that, working within its own limiting rules, it can only obtain limited answers? Is it right to smite the little people who try to find some answer to life’s mystery—without the gentry’s by-your-leave? Must they bow heads before their lordships, kiss the gloved hand, and shuffle backwards? Is their humble adherence to consoling faith lèse-majesté?

Writing elsewhere, in Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature, a book trying to prove that life originated in another solar system and was sent to earth by rocket ship, Francis Crick virtually confesses his disdain not only for ordinary people but also for politicians, journalists, and philosophers. Reading him, one sees that he, the lonely scientists, is actually the victim. One feels a tear forming in one’s eye.

 *   *   *

Let’s look a little more closely at reductionism. When Einstein began to develop his theory of relativity, he made the assumption that matter in the universe is evenly distributed in space. That’s a simplification. The actual distribution of matter in the universe, on average, is a reasonable approximation to that assumption, but it’s only true on average and over vast regions of space. The matter in the solar system is not evenly distributed. The vast majority of particles reside inside the sun. Matter thins out after that, bulging here and there into planets. A genuinely even distribution would call for one atom of matter in every cubic meter of space, but the simplification was good enough for Einstein, and he produced great insights into physics.

It is a somewhat radical reduction to say that all language is just sound, but those who begin to study language might wish legitimately to start there—if not to end there. If they end there, that’s reductionism.

Reduction to absurdity comes about when the fundamental relation-ships and consequences of a phenomenon are abstracted away, not just temporarily, to achieve results, but permanently. Thus it is reductio ad absurdum to say that life is nothing more than chemical reactions—or to say that human intelligence is just cellular behavior. Far too much is left out.

Mankind has had this tendency to over-simplify, whatever the motive. Long ago, already, correctives had been fashioned. Aristotle, for instance, analyzed the diversity of phenomena and postulated four kinds of causes to understand things comprehensively. Everything has a material cause, he said. Material causes explain the physical basis of objects. What are they made of? Things have a formal cause, he said. The formal cause of an object is its structure or design. How it is organized. Every object has an agent that causes it to be; the agent can be animate or inanimate. Aristotle labeled this the efficient cause—the maker or the builder. Finally, he said, an object has a final cause. By that he meant its purpose or its function. Until all four causes are adequately determined, a thing or phenomenon cannot be said to be understood. The causes, of course, are all related.

If we apply these categories to life as it is currently defined by science, we get the following:

Material cause:           Chemicals.
Formal cause:             Complexity sustained by energy.
Efficient cause:           Chance.
Final cause:                Survival and Multiplication.

Put in this way, we see some weaknesses in the scientific explanation. At the least we are left feeling incomplete and disconnected. Why would Chance lead to an intentional activity like survival? The ancients taught that an agent’s potency had to be equal to the agent’s act—thus cold could not produce heat and the random could not produce order. Aristotle understood the second law of thermodynamics. I myself have no problem with the material and the formal cause as identified by science. But the urge to survive and multiply seems incompatible with the efficient cause, Chance. The efficient cause appears to be defective. Survival as the final cause of life is equivalent to saying that the final cause of cars is “rolling”—or, as in our little entertainment, to say that the rocket’s final cause is to make take-offs and landings. The cell is much too well designed to let Chance take all the glory. I would feel better if we just labeled the efficient cause “Unknown.” To say that is not to affirm “creation” in the fundamentalist sense. But it allows for a much better explanation later.

Putting things in this way, using ancient categories, sharpens our view of how science sees life—and, by one remove, how it sees human consciousness. To the extent that science asserts its findings dogmatically, it also insists on the meaninglessness of the world. If science contents itself with providing provisional conclusions based on sensory data, the results are excellent. But when it attempts to “wrest consciousness from the minds of philosophers and place it in the hands of science,” it is doing something illegitimate.

It’s a trick unworthy of the noble enterprise of science. The haughty lord first defines mind as the wiggling of trillions of cells. Moreover, the lord asserts, it is nothing more than that. Next he adds that the final cause of all this wiggling is nothing more than the survival of the fittest.

John Blue listens to this with an open mouth. Ah, his mind is slow. Slow, slow, slow. But in time, as he listens, things occur to him. If what the haughty lord is saying is the truth, the mighty lord’s own speaking mind is nothing more than the same sort of wiggling stuff. Isn’t it, now? Isn’t it? And the words will only be spoken because they help the lord’s own personal survival.

A light dawns in John Blue’s mind. He is just making a discovery himself. His own trillions of wiggling cells don’t like the haughty lord too much. What John hears the proud lord saying is that the things John values most are nothing, meaningless. Pointless. Contemptible. Nothing that the lord is saying indicates that his cells are better than John’s own. Who’s to sit in judgement between John Blue and Lord Francis? Another mind made up of trillions of wiggling cells?

John Blue has heard enough. There are a lot more people who feel like he does. If little fireflies or little worms are all there is to it, there is no truth, no higher principle, and therefore no point in standing here and listening to the supercilious lord. John Blue turns and walks away, and the lord finds himself speaking to the wind.

Which makes the proud lord angwy.

*   *   *

Narrow doctrinaire science—scientism—fails, both philosophically and socially, by its own logic. Consider the following:

If the human brain has evolved as the most powerful brain on this planet, it must be because it is most fit for life. It reasons powerfully from causes to ends and is not satisfied with partial answers. A murder isn’t solved when the detective writes on his report: “The knife went in and severed the jugular.” The salesman who says, “Hey, this baby rolls,” doesn’t sell too many cars.

Something about this brain, this supreme product of evolution, demands meaning and closure. It wants hope. “There you go again,” Science says, “deceiving yourself. Your hope is nothing but wishful thinking. But I will grant you this—it helps you to survive.” In the usual context, this sounds sophisticated. It sounds knowing and adult. Some people are attracted by this view and wish to associate themselves with it. But many human brains, like the child’s, go right on questioning. “Never mind me,” John Blue says. “Survival can’t be an end in itself. What’s the point? I struggle so that my kid can struggle—so that his kid can struggle? On and on? And I remember. At the last lecture, under this same tree, you said that everything in the world will eventually run down. Not good enough.”

There is a social downside to the reductionist view. If the old philosophy is banished or, relinquishing its preeminence, accepts science’s limitations too, weaknesses appear in our structure of values. The very force of life is disordered if its proudest, noblest product is denied its proper functioning.

Fëdor Dostoevski provided, perhaps, the ultimate reason why we should ask ultimate questions. “If God does not exist,” he said, “every-thing is permitted.” If the universe lacks closure, it lacks all meaning. In a meaningless universe, we’re altogether on our own. We might as well grab all the gusto that we can. You only go round once. The pleasure principle must rule. Ethics become entirely relative. Only naked power can restrain us, ultimately. If those who wield it harshly abuse it, there is no logical reason why they shouldn’t. “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” says Proverbs 29:18. Morality and social order are not so much ends in themselves as by-products of vision. The Why Question is an attempt to find it.

Mankind, a collective of John and Jane Blues, embraces a transcendental model, however abstractly or confusedly expressed. We are forever judging things (ignoring the Logical Positivists). We use transcendental principles of fairness and justice. We reject the doctrine of “might is right.” We adhere to a hierarchical structure of values. We hold those in highest veneration who preached Love as the supreme principle.

Is the universe inferior to us?

* John Schmidt, “Crick’s book about the brain gets a second look,” accessible at ResearchTriangle/System/8870/books/crick.html

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