Saturday, November 23, 2013

There is no disembodied computation

A review of John Searle's Mind.

Douglas Hofstadter had a few tart words about John Searle in his book "I am a strange loop", which was odd, since Searle seems to have a rather congenial position on the philosophy of mind, on the whole. This motivated me to read a book I happened across recently, John Searle's 2002 "Mind". This appears to be his final summation on the subject of the mind, and does turn out to have some very odd positions, which I will ignore for lack of space (free will and quantum mechanics, especially).

He pulls the common philosopher's trick of defining all other positions in very unflattering ways, and then charges in with his own position, which in comparison seems reasonable and correct. Which on the whole, I think it is, actually. He claims that dualism and materialsm are both wrong. Well, what other positions are there?

The philosophy of mind has indeed been a mess, due to intuitions so overwhelmingly strong that they swamp reason. And also due to the unique ontological status of subjectivity, which makes many thinkers despair of our ever being able to "explain" it from the customary third-person scientific perspective.

The most popular position, by far, historically, has been dualism- the idea that while our brains may be necessary for thinking, as perhaps a radio is necessary to hear radio transmissions, the real thinking and perhaps feeing goes on somewhere else, in a "soul", which with any luck will go marching on when we die. It is the natural position of any thinking person, since thinking seems effortless, immaterial, abstract, and entirely ungrounded in any mundane matter, much less something as gross as the brain. Remember that the Egyptians regarded the brain as just so much snot, to be drained and discarded asap while they preserved all the other really important parts of the body for its rich afterlife.

In the other corner is materialism, which follows the overall trend of scientific observations in the many relevant fields to the conclusion that our minds are entirely a product of our brains, that brains operate within the known parameters of chemistry, and that there is nothing "supernatural" or otherwise shifty going on in there. The universe causally closed, everything happens for mechanistic reasons, and that applies to the brain/mind as well. How exactly the sensations of consciousness arise from these substrates is not yet known, but can be (and is being) studied with the standard toolchest of science. Which will (by this theory) eventually give us a thorough theory of consciousness that at least lays out all the neural correlates of mental activity and a full theory of how they function dynamically... even if it does not allow observers to experience someone else's consciousness, which seems a rather high bar, really.

Searle makes what seems to be an extreme attribution, which is that materialists do not think that consciousness exists (the eliminativists, for instance). This applies to some, surely, but can hardly apply to all those materialists who are studying consciousness in the lab. So on the face of it, this move seems specifically designed to give Searle a provocative statement to make, to whit that all materialists are wrong. Then he swoops in with his own formulation, which is "biological naturalism". And you could be forgiven for thinking that this is identical with a materialism that does not think that consciousness is a bunch of hooey.

He does have various useful ideas, one of which is about reductionism. His position assumes (as do all materialist positions) complete reductionism, in that brain processes are composed of (can be fully reduced to), biological phenomena like neuron firings, channel openings, population rhythms, etc., and that each of these phenomena are composed of chemistry in action, which in turn *is physics and quantum mechanics in action, etc., down the rabbit hole. Higher levels of explanation have their own synthetic properties and logic, but do not rely on novel properties of the universe unavailable to the lower levels.

But all this does not amount, in Searle's view, to something he terms ontological reductionism. Just because something is caused entirely by a level we regard as lower or more fundamental doesn't mean that it is only and "nothing but" that other level. The first-person, interior experience is in some clear and axiomatic way intrinsically different from the third-person view of the same processes (by way of a brain scan, perhaps). This is a form of perspectivism, and puts a stop to conceptual reduction, in some respect. When consciousness, whatever substrate it is based on, looks inward, it sees nothing, and indeed knows nothing, of any substrate. When it is impaired, such as in dementia, it winks out and disappears, without having been, to its own perspective, been "explained" by any simpler principle or level of reality.
"The real problem with all forms of reductionism, as we will see, is that they are confronted with the question, Are there two phenomena or only one? In the case of water, there is really only one phenomenon. Water consists entirely of H2O molecules. Ther are not two different things, water and H2O molecules. But when it comes to identifying features of the mind, such as consciousness and intentionality, with features of the brain, such as computational states or neurobiological states, it looks like there have to be two features, because the mental phenomena have a first-person ontology, in the sense that they exist only insofar as they are experienced by some human or animal subject, some "I" that has the experience. And this makes them irreducible to any third-person ontology, any mode of existence that is independent of any experiencing agent. Calling attention to the difference between the first-person ontology and the third person is really the point of all these argument against this sort of reductionism."

It is like saying the ecology is reducible to chemistry, with the caveat that ecology has its own ontological rules and existence.

I am not sure that I have portrayed Searle's view justly. But it seems reasonable enough as an attempt to dissolve the assumption that he points out has been rampant in philosophy as it has been in lay thought about the mind- that the mind and body are two different things in some fundamental way, rather than in a perspectival way that is so easily consonant with materialism and everything else we know about the world.

I would add another comment to this, which is that all computation appears to be embodied. That realm of abstractions, whether one takes it as real in a Platonic sense and something we discover, or as a synthetic exercise of human creativity making its best simplifications out of material reality, it does not compute on its own. Only in computational devices, like our minds or computers, or in material reality itself, do such rules, whatever their intrinsic nature, manifest on any active level. What is being learned about our brains at many levels reveals the mechanics of our various sensory and cognitive pathways in ever-increasing detail, making of the soul something much like god- a fugitive concept that exists only in the narrowing gaps of what we do not yet know; denizens of the inner or outer worlds, respectively.

"Assuring people that they can get a positive rate of return on safe assets means promising them something the market doesn’t want to deliver – it’s like farm price supports, except for rentiers."
"David Winston, a Republican pollster close to House leaders, said that especially in a slow-growing economy, lawmakers have a hard time selling voters on proposals like fixing Social Security to avoid shortfalls in the 2030s.
‘That pressure isn’t there,’ he said. ‘People are more like, ‘I’m in a job where I’m clearly underemployed. How did this happen? How do we resolve underemployment as a problem, as opposed to dealing with Social Security in 2033?’" 
"Conclusion: The NAIRU as estimated is a very dangerous concept for the well-being of ordinary people."
"... it’s clear that the shift to 401(k)s was a gigantic failure."
"For one thing, there is a complete absence of thoughtfulness in Summers’s talk about what could account for the fact that the financial sector needs to loan households vast amounts of money just so that they can afford to buy all of the output they produce. That reality seems passing strange, doesn’t it? Why rising household debt instead of rising household income?"
  • Economic graph of the week: a discussion of the relationship of governmental debt to economic growth, across many countries. Not much of a relationship, really. And the curves only really start heading down about 5X GDP, which is far, far beyond where we are now. Up to about 3X GDP, the effects are uniformly positive- i.e., not a "burden".

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