Why Philosophers Are Obsessed With Brains in Jars

An old philosophical chestnut discussed in The Atlantic.

Words and concepts used by a brain in a vat can’t be meaningfully applied to real objects outside of the brain’s experience, because the ability to have causal interaction with the specific things that words name is inherently how such words acquire meaning, Putnam argued.

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Walker Percy Wednesday 146

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Question: Why does it make scientists uneasy that it appears to be the case that Homo sapiens, a conscious languaged creature, appeared suddenly and lately—when scientists profess to be interested in what is the case, that is, the evidence?
(a) Because scientists are understandably repelled by the theory of the special creation of man by God, in Biblical time, say 6004 B.C. at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday morning.
(b) Because scientists find it natural to deal with matter in interaction and with energy exchanges and don’t know what to make of such things as consciousness, self, and symbols and even sometimes deny that there are such things, even though they, the scientists, act for all the world as if they were conscious selves and spend their lives transacting with symbols.
(c) Because scientists are uneasy with discontinuities, even when there is evidence of such discontinuity in the appearance of man in all his contrarieties. Revealed religion has its dogmas, e.g., thou shalt not kill. But so does science: thou shalt not tolerate discontinuities. The question is which is the more entitled.
(d) Because scientists in the practice of the scientific method, a non-radical knowledge of matter in interaction, often are not content with the non-radicalness of the scientific method and hence find themselves located in a posture of covert transcendence of their data, which is by the same motion assigned to the sphere of immanence. Hence, scientists operate in the very sphere of transcendence which is not provided for in their science. Given such a posture, it is not merely an offense if a discontinuity turns up in the sphere of immanence, the data, but especially if the discontinuity seems to allow for the intervention of God. A god is already present. A scientist is a god to his data. And if there is anything more offensive to him than the suggestion of the existence of God, it is the existence of two gods.

(CHECK ONE)

How can an immanent theory of evolution mounted from the transcending posture of science account for the appearance in the Cosmos of a triumphant, godlike, murderous alien, the only alien in the Cosmos, Homo sapiens, e.g., the scientist himself?
Which is to say only that Darwin was a very great scientist, that Wallace was a little nutty, sometimes obnoxiously occult, but in the end may have been closer to the truth about man.

Thought Experiment: You are a high-school student. In school, you attend biology class where you are taught modern evolutionary theory. On Sunday, you go to church, where you hear the story of creation from a fundamentalist preacher. Then you go to college and hear a liberal professor-theologian who teaches a class on Science and the World’s Great Religions. You speak to the professor-theologian about the dispute between the preacher and the biology teacher. The professor-theologian smiles and says: Both are right. Genesis is a mythical account of the origin of the Cosmos, the origin of life and the origin of man. There is a certain truth in this myth. There are other cosmological myths, each valid in its own way. There is such a thing as mythical truth. Indeed, the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution through mutations and natural selection is in fact more impressive evidence of God’s majesty than the notion that God created the millions of species by separate and arbitrary acts of creation like a child modeling a menagerie out of clay.
The student says: None of you is satisfactory. All of you are unconvincing—and you, the professor-theologian, may be the worst of the lot, satisfying nobody and papering over everything in the name of nothing. How can a myth which you say is untrue in the scientific sense be true in another sense? What is the truth? What I want to know is this, and it doesn’t seem to be too much to ask: whatever the time and place of the appearance of man, whether it was the Late Pleistocene, the Upper Paleolithic, whether in the caves of the Dordogne or the Neander River—please tell me, leaving God aside, apart from Darwin and Wallace, please tell me, not in detail, but only in the most general and schematic way—please tell me how it came to pass that matter in interaction, a sequence of energy exchanges, neurones firing other neurones like a binary computer, can result in my being conscious, having a self, being able to utter sentences which are more or less true and which you can understand. Please excuse my stupidity, but would someone draw me a picture? Or just tell me in principle how this could happen. Or, if there is a soul, please tell me what evidence there is that it exists, and if it does, how it is connected with this compact mass of billions of neurones which is my brain.
How do you think his three elders, the scientist, the preacher, the professor-theologian, each of whom claims knowledge of a certain species of truth, would answer him?
How would you answer him?
(a) Stick with current scientific theory. It is more reliable than religion. Indeed, there may not be any such thing as soul, self, consciousness, and the rest.
(b) God comes first, above all else, therefore above science. Believe in the Bible, and all else follows.
(c) I don’t know the answer. Why don’t you stop complaining and become an anthropologist, a psycholinguist, or a neurobiologist and try to find out for yourself?

(CHECK ONE)

Question (II): The anomaly of objectivism. In view of the proclaimed neutrality of the scientific method toward God and its openness to evidence, how do you account for the objectivist’s dislike of God, even when the possibility of God’s existence is raised by a scientist with the highest credentials?
The following incident occurred at Harvard University, presumably a citadel of objective knowledge. I quote from an article by Charles Krauthammer (The New Republic, July 25, 1981): “Several years ago the great Australian neurobiologist, Sir John Eccles, ended a Harvard lecture on brain organization by admitting that although evolution could account for the brain, it could not, in his view, account for the mind, with its mysterious capacity for consciousness and thought: only something transcendent could account for that. The audience began hissing.”
The anomaly lies in the fact that the Harvard audience, presumably endowed with mind, consciousness, and thought, and presumably with more intellectual curiosity than most, might have been expected to welcome the views of a famous neurobiologist on the subject—particularly in view of the failure of academic psychology even to address itself to these matters.
Why did the Harvard audience hiss Sir John Eccles and not, say, Jane Fonda?
(a) Because God and religion have a bad name, and deservedly so, what with the excesses of the Moral Majority and the fundamentalist attack on science and, especially, the absurdity of “scientific creationism.”
(b) Because, while the scientific method may be officially neutral toward God, scientism, an attitude which extrapolates from the objectivity of the scientific method to an all-construing transcending objectivism, cannot be neutral. There is no room in the Cosmos for an absolutely transcending objective mind and an absolutely transcending God.

(CHECK ONE)

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When Reason Goes On Holiday

Neven Sesardic‘s recent book has really set tongues a wagging (to put it mildly), a book that is freely available here. Below one can hear Nevan talk on the topic. The discussion is all very disconcerting as Joseph Bottum points out in his review.

Maybe God actually “set eternity in the human heart.”

David French in the National Review citing Clay Routledge’s recent article in the NYT.

Religious faith is the evocation of a sentiment (the love, the glory, or the honor of God, for example, or even a humble caritas), to be added to all others as the motive of all motives in terms of which the fugitive adventures of human conduct, without being released from their mortal and moral conditions, are graced with an intimation of immortality: the sharpness of death and the deadliness of doing overcome, and the transitory sweetness of a mortal affection, the tumult of a grief and the passing beauty of a May morning recognized neither as merely evanescent adventures nor as emblems of better things to come, but as aventures, themselves encounters with eternity. — Oakeshott

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Applied Stigmergy: Swarms of Autonomous Aerial Vehicles

Two reports on aerial applied stigmergy which prima facie seems more successful than most of the land-based modeling initiatives I’ve seen. (Report 1) (Report 2).

(1) [t]he first actual experimentation of flying two autonomous swarms of UAVs against one another with no human control, other than sending high level commands or sending a message to engage. We were really trying to understand how different autonomy tactics work against other autonomy tactics.

(2) They are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature

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