Thursday, September 20, 2007

Why people are more than biological machines

Imagine a program which reprogrammed and developed its own programming based on inputted information. The original program could be quite simple – as simple as that first sentence, in fact. Yet very quickly the complexity of the program would exceed its initial complexity. This program would, in a way, be alive.

This, I believe, is an appropriate analogy of the human mind. This effect is why I believe our thoughts can in some way transcend our biology. Our thoughts are not constrained by our DNA, our biology, and our physical environment because we are to greater or lesser extents metacognitive. We think about how we think, and can change how we think accordingly – just like the above example of the self-programming program. We are an example of complex adaptive systems - and very complex ones at that.

The reason I thought all that is because I’ve just heard that some people reduce thought and will to naturalistic, socio-biological phenomenological effects. The conclusion of such argumentation is that ethics and morality has evolved by socio-biological mechanisms, and that we are basically just biological zombies, robots, or animals. Because we are metacognitive, I believe our thoughts are not solely determined by biology and social phenomena. We are human, I think, precisely because we have this capacity to transcend the physicality of the atoms, proteins, cells and organs that make up our physical bodies. Instead, we can engage with ideas and thoughts which don’t exist in physical stuff – but which exist nonetheless. Perhaps even more amazingly, we can experience life consciously, rather than simply being biological machines with no self-awareness of our existence. Our cognitive processes emerge into a level above merely biological processes. In other words, I think that what it means to be human cannot be reduced to the atoms, proteins and biological processes in us. Recent advances in artificial intelligence (e.g. the controversial HTM) do seem to provide support for the idea that intelligence can indeed emerge from complex adaptive systems composed of natural, physical components.

We are somewhat like words – on a physical level, words are just markings on a page, but on another level, words convey meaning far beyond their physical nature. Another analogy would be one of Beethoven’s great pieces of music; on one level it can exist as written music, but it is not confined to that level of existence. It can be played and heard. It can be transcribed to other sheets of paper, and in doing so it transcends the physicality of the original written score. There are many examples of a system of physical or “natural” components creating more complexity than the sum of the physical components themselves. People, I think, are a very complex example of the same thing. And we are even more complex because we change our "program" based on the inputs we receive – both of physical things and of ideas that exist somehow beyond the physical realm.

This, I think, is why being human is so wonderful.

1 comment:

Kerry said...

I really appreciate what you have said re what it means to be human. And I love your analogy with "words". It is interesting is it not, that the divine "logos" is not just the "word" but even extends its meaning to thought and reasoning (from which we get the word logic). All of which are relevant in your analogy- we are indeed made in his image and these characteristics truly distinguish us from mere biological animality. When P.Berger penned these words he distinguished between the bondage of mere animality and true humanity- "Unlike puppets we have the possibility of stopping in our movements, looking up and perceiving the machinery by which we have been moved. In this act lies the first steps towards freedom." Peter Berger Sociologist.-If you have a look at this page it is an excerpt from C.S. Lewis's "God In The Dock" has interesting points with regard to thinking.