Friday, July 27, 2012
Now to my friends I am sometimes known as Space Cadet. And although I have never got to the bottom of the mystery of why, exactly, they chose this nickname, I feel that it might be something to do with the long term effects of having all these transporter-thoughts crashing around in my head when I was about twelve years old. I remember the exact Art lesson in which I decided that I didn't exist.
Luckily my grandfather (to whom I owe much in many ways) had read enough philosophy to tell me about "cogito ergo sum". Which is a branch to hang on to when you are swirling down the creek and the problem is not so much no paddle as no water.
So thanks Rene Descartes and Donald Phelan because I think that without that it might have gone badly for my infant psyche. But even now I think I could have a decent go at convincing a jury in a capital case that I have no idea how to tell right from wrong.
My eventual conclusion was "There is a me. But it is the thing that hears my thoughts, not the thing that thinks them. The universe proceeds lawfully. And I get to watch, but I have no influence. Somehow what I am tags along with physical bodies, and if I got duplicated, then presumably it would tag along with one or the other copy, or who knows? Maybe it hops from place to place and time to time and person to person. How would I know? I am the thing that exists now. I have no evidence that I existed earlier. I have no evidence that I will exist later. I have no evidence that such an inner listener exists anywhere else. Maybe I am all alone and only exist for this millisecond and that's it. But whatever. None of this can affect how I act or need affect how I feel. I might as well just imagine that everyone else feels the same and it is all just a big mystery."
As a philosophy that worked out just fine for many years. It sails through the free will vs determinism debate that seemed to so exercise the philosophers of my youth.
It actually had excellent positive consequences. As a twenty year old, I didn't identify with my forty year old self at all. I felt free to raise hell and to do many unwise things. That could have all gone badly wrong, but it didn't. And as a forty year old I'm quite grateful for that, since I've got lots of interesting memories to play with in my private Cartesian Theatre.
Unfortunately it doesn't work. Because if I'm the inner listener who hears my thoughts, but cannot influence them, who the hell is moving my fingers in such a way as to write the theory down?
It took me a while to notice this problem. But when I did, I just gave up and stopped thinking about it entirely. Which is probably the sensible thing to do.
But others are clearly more mad than me, and carried on thinking when I gave up, oh yes...
Recently I have read Daniel Dennett's "Consciousness Explained", and although I am reasonably sure that "Consciousness Denied" would be a better title, it is a riveting book full of cleverness and by the end of it I am actually pretty sure that I myself do not have the Cartesian Theatre that I am perceiving directly as I write.
But I am still sure that I exist. And there is no room for me in Dennett's philosophy. Although it is very possible that I have failed to understand him.
And I only have Eliezer Yudkowsky's word for this, because I have not read David Chalmers' thoughts on this in the original (it's on the stack, ok?), but apparently David Chalmers is also even more mad than I am, because he kept thinking about the inner listener even though he noticed that it didn't just listen, and apparently the theory isn't quite killed by this observation.
But Chalmers has elaborated in great detail just how completely insane the universe would have to be if you had both an inner listener and a zombie brain that thought exactly the same thoughts whether they were true or not.
And that is very insane indeed. And quite complicated, so I'm not going into it.
On the one side, you got Eliezer Yudkowsky and Daniel Dennett, who are proper 'it is all billiard balls' materialists, and who are obviously correct. Except that they are denying the central fact that is the only thing that I directly know about the universe: "I think therefore I am." And I am pretty close to believing that they must be zombies. Except that if they are, how would they be able to let their brains know?
And on the other side, you got David Chalmers, who sounds like his personal experience of the world is like mine. Except that if it is, how does he let his brain know? He says that he doesn't. His brain writes it all down anyway without knowing whether it's true or not. So his theory is exactly the same as Dennett/Yudkowsky, except that it has this extra bit where I exist. Which sounds like an important and necessary bit, even though it leads directly to the complete insanity of the theory.
Earlier, I called Dennett's position 'wrong' and Chalmers' 'mad'. But to be honest I take them both very seriously indeed and I have no idea what to think except that I am very very very confused.
I group the 'wrong' and the 'mad' into the camp 'right-thinking', because they make identical correct-sounding predictions about what we will actually see and feel when we do stuff.
Straightforward Cartesian Dualism. That sounds like it might be right. Except that if we have a transporter then we have an experimental test for it, and I bet it isn't. And if the mind-stuff acts on the world then it doesn't help at all, because it's still lawful billiard balls. But maybe one of the things about primitive mind-stuff is that there's something that it feels like to be it. Pah! No way. That's bonkers too and it's not going to be that easy or we would have sorted it already.
Posted by John Lawrence Aspden at 5:17 PM