News Column

The Charm of Materialism

May 1, 2014

Reno, R R

Humanism is passÉ. "Man is the measure of all things," Protagoras said. Today we add, and computers are the measure of all men. So observes David Gelernter in a fierce essay in Commentary (January 2014), "The Closing of the Scientific Mind." What he has in view is the growing popularity of reductive materialism: Our brains are just meat running software. This is not innocent speculation and sloganeering. "When scientists use this lockerroom braggadocio to belittle the human viewpoint, to belittle human life and values and virtues and civilization and moral, spiritual, and religious discoveries, which is all we human beings possess or ever will, they have outrun their empiricism. They are abusing their cultural standing. Science has become an international bully."

The "master analogy" used by contemporary reductive materialists interprets the mind as software for the computational hardware of our brain's neural physiology. There's something right about that analogy. The experiencing, thinking, interpreting, imagining, deciding mind cannot exist without the brain's hardware, just as software can't function without the computer's hardware. But there are many problems with the analogy.

We know where software comes from. It's created by brilliant computer scientists like David Gelernter. But consciousness? Reductive materialists can't use the master analogy here; consciousness has to come from the hardware itself rather than a creative "programmer." As a result, "most computationalists default to the Origins of Gravy theory set forth by Walter Matthau in the film of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple. Challenged to account for the emergence of gravy, Matthau explains that, when you cook the roast, 'it comes.' That is basically how consciousness arises too, according to computationalists. It just comes." I suppose we can call it an Emergence in the Gaps argument.

There are other dis-analogies that explode the mind-assoftware view. We can transfer software from one computer to another, but not minds from one brain to another. We can run different programs on a single computer, "but only one 'program' runs, or ever can run, on any one human brain." Programs are transparent: They can be read, evaluated, and improved by experts. Not so minds, which are opaque and sometimes very resistant to improvement. "Computers can be erased; minds cannot." "Computers can be made to operate precisely as we choose; minds cannot." (I thought especially of my children when reading that.)

Gelernter goes still further. Our emotions and experiences and thinking are influenced by our bodies. When a male confronts a dangerous situation, his carotid artery swells. Hormones flood into his brain, saturating his consciousness with endlessly complex layers of emotion that cannot be parsed with a software/computer distinction. All in all, "the whole subjective field of emotions, feelings, and consciousness fits poorly with the ideology of computationalism."

Gelernter's many arguments are devastating, reminding me yet again how baffling it is that so many scientists and philosophers affirm reductive materialism. Gelernter has an answer: Our scientific culture has been corrupted. First, there is its academic supereminence. "Power corrupts, and science today is the Catholic Church around the start of the 16th century: used to having its own way and dealing with heretics by excommunication, not argument."

Then there is the general decay of open-mindedness and the rise of a new dogmatism in academic culture as a whole. "We routinely provide superb technical educations ... to brilliant undergraduates and doctoral students. But if those same students have been taught since kindergarten that you are not permitted to question the doctrine of man-made global warming, or the line that men and women are interchangeable, or the multiculturalist idea that all cultures and nations are equally good (except for Western nations and cultures, which are worse), how will they ever become reasonable, skeptical scientists?"

True on both counts, to which I would add a third. Reductive materialism makes an alluring promise to healthy, wealthy, powerful people. To teach that there is no soul and no freedom is to preach a gospel of sorts, good news. For it means no consequences and no responsibility: power without accountability, pleasures without penalties, status without duties.

The debate about whether or not we're computers made of meat is deeply consequential. It concerns our social consensus about who we are and what life is for, which is why Gelernter writes with such ferocity. "When scientists casually toss our human-centered worldview into the trash with the used coffee cups, they are re-smashing the sacred tablets, not in blind rage as Moses did, but in casual, ignorant indifference to the fate of mankind." And not just ferocity, but urgent purpose: "The world needs a new subjectivist humanism now-not just scattered protests but a growing movement, a cry from the heart."

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Source: First Things

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