January 2005 Archives

Continuing from The Edge, the fundamental question, what is a human being? Is addressed inadvertently by:
Psychologist, Harvard University
In the not too distant future, we will be able to construct artificial systems that give every appearance of consciousness-systems that act like us in every way. These systems will talk, walk, wink, lie, and appear distressed by close elections. They will swear up and down that they are conscious and they will demand their civil rights. But we will have no way to know whether their behavior is more than a clever trick-more than the pecking of a pigeon that has been trained to type "I am, I am!"
Gilbert starts with his radical thesis: that computing will mimic consciousness to the point where the ordinary person is fooled. This he posits as a psychologist. Many programmers, on the other hand, doubt it can ever be done. Quite a few attempts have been made, but even using just text interfaces humans are not fooled for long, especially if they are looking to find the machine. Magnify the problem by several orders of magnitude to replicate the other sensory input - all the non-verbal cues etc. - and it becomes apparent that Gilbert seriously undervalues what it means to be human. This is evident from his next statement: "We take each other's consciousness on faith because we must, but after two thousand years of worrying about this issue, no one has ever devised a definitive test of its existence." Consciousness can't be "proven" to exist, so it will be easily replicated? The underlying assumption is articulated in the next sentence: "Most cognitive scientists believe that consciousness is a phenomenon that emerges from the complex interaction of decidedly nonconscious parts (neurons)…" If neurons are primary, then consciousness is a byproduct of matter. Philosophically this is simple materialism.
It is interesting that Steiner posited a separate sense, the highest of the 12, that he called the "ego-sense", the thing that allows you to recognize the existence of other human beings. This is one way to explain how consciousness recognizes consciousness without debasing humanity to simple arbitrary fluctuations of neurons.

It turns out that the NY Times' article "What scientists believe but they can't prove" is an extract of a far larger essay collection at an online magazine called The Edge. There are further articles there, and a surprising number on the nature of consciousness and the relation of language to consciousness. Another one I found fascinating was:

Interspecies coevolution of languages on the Northwest Coast.
GEORGE B. DYSON - Science Historian; Author, Project OrionDuring the years I spent kayaking along the coast of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, I observed that the local raven populations spoke in distinct dialects, corresponding surprisingly closely to the geographic divisions between the indigenous human language groups. Ravens from Kwakiutl, Tsimshian, Haida, or Tlingit territory sounded different, especially in their characteristic "tok" and "tlik."
I believe this correspondence between human language and raven language is more than coincidence, though this would be difficult to prove.

This is fascinating from a number of levels. For one, how many people today are aware of the sounds birds make anymore? How many people would notice that ravens in different regions make slightly different sounds? Add to that the requirement of being familiar with the various northwest indigenous languages, and how many people could even notice the above fact, much less make any conscious connections?

Another quote from the NY Times' article on what scientists believe but they can't prove.

Alison Gopnik
Psychologist, University of California, Berkeley; co-author, "The Scientist in the Crib"
I believe, but cannot prove, that babies and young children are actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their external world and internal life, than adults are. I believe this because there is strong evidence for a functional trade-off with development. Young children are much better than adults at learning new things and flexibly changing what they think about the world. On the other hand, they are much worse at using their knowledge to act in a swift, efficient and automatic way. They can learn three languages at once but they can't tie their shoelaces.
And I believe, but can't prove, that this is another case of mainstream scientists grasping towards what Waldorf educators have been taught for the last 80 years. Steiner was an expert of sorts on the nature of consciousness. In fact, all of anthroposophy is a study in the levels of consciousness. Steiner referred to levels of consciousness in many lectures, and in detail especially in the first several years of his Anthroposophical work (see among others the lectures of 26 September 1905, 10 June 06, and 1 June 1907).

View from the other side


The very next opinion in the NY Times' article on what scientists believe but they can't prove is a striking contrast.

Nicholas Humphrey
Psychologist, London School of Economics; author, "The Mind Made Flesh"

I believe that human consciousness is a conjuring trick, designed to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery. Who is the conjuror and why is s/he doing it? The conjuror is natural selection, and the purpose has been to bolster human self-confidence and self-importance - so as to increase the value we each place on our own and others' lives.

This is really interesting. Humphrey is arguing that he is irrelevant, the fact that he thinks is irrelevant, and by extension all culture is coincidental. The only force in the universe is "natural selection", here virtually personified as a being, performing a trick - making a bunch of dumb apes in a purposeless system imagine that their existence has meaning. The idea is quite clever, and his formulation is catching. But it does seem a lot like projecting an existential crisis onto the entire universe. His book title speaks more than the author perhaps intended; he is really trying to negate the mind by reducing it to matter. His position is the most basic philosophical materialism, and it is interesting to note that this is one of those things that he admits to believing but not being able to prove.

The NY Times ran a great article about what scientists believe but they can't prove. It yielded some great things from an Anthroposophical perspective, such as:

Donald Hoffman
Cognitive scientist, University of California, Irvine; author, "Visual Intelligence"

I believe that consciousness and its contents are all that exists. Space-time, matter and fields never were the fundamental denizens of the universe but have always been, from their beginning, among the humbler contents of consciousness, dependent on it for their very being.

The world of our daily experience - the world of tables, chairs, stars and people, with their attendant shapes, smells, feels and sounds - is a species-specific user interface to a realm far more complex, a realm whose essential character is conscious. It is unlikely that the contents of our interface in any way resemble that realm.

Indeed the usefulness of an interface requires, in general, that they do not. For the point of an interface, such as the Windows interface on a computer, is simplification and ease of use. We click icons because this is quicker and less prone to error than editing megabytes of software or toggling voltages in circuits.

Evolutionary pressures dictate that our species-specific interface, this world of our daily experience, should itself be a radical simplification, selected not for the exhaustive depiction of truth but for the mutable pragmatics of survival.

If this is right, if consciousness is fundamental, then we should not be surprised that, despite centuries of effort by the most brilliant of minds, there is as yet no physicalist theory of consciousness, no theory that explains how mindless matter or energy or fields could be, or cause, conscious experience.

This is philosophically compatible with Steiner and Idealistic Philosophy in general. In fact, it is strikingly similar to Steiner's claim that the spiritual world is the "real" world and the physical world, while also real, is a reflection of the spiritual world. Interesting also is the conclusion by Hoffman - not stated explicitly, that the proposition is not provable by physical science.

My Peter Staudenmaier Page


In googling around I found a site that referenced my Peter Staudenmaier page. (It's over at http://fire.prohosting.com/anthro2/Peter_Staudenmaier.htm. There Jeff Smith takes me to task for "holding a grudge" against Peter Staudenmaier. He quotes some of my writing at length, and looking at it like that, I realized that it was a bit of a rant, and not really the best way of presenting things. So I moved it off to a separate "rants" page, and tried to redo the Peter Staudenmaier page to be more factual.

A few people have actually written me about my Defending Rudolf Steiner site. Some have objections, others express appreciation. Googling around I found a few people linking to it. One amusing site is Jeff Smith's ramblings. Jeff seems to be thinking out loud as he read through the site. I'm not sure that he got all my points (he even admits to have not read much of it) but also does not appear to have any serious criticisms.

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