On being a ghost in a soft machine (The strangeness of being human #26)

by John MacBeath Watkins

There was a time when the term "computer" was a job title for a human being. Now it is the name of a machine. But what if the human being was a machine, as well?

In Rabbit at Rest, this passage addresses the matter in discussing Rabbit's heart surgery:
  "...what's wrong with running your blood though a machine? What else you think you are, champ?"

  A god-made one-of-a-kind with an immortal soul breathed in. A vehicle of grace. A battlefield of good and evil. An apprentice angel...

  "You're just a soft machine," Charlie maintains.
The term "soft machine" comes from a William S. Burgess novel by that title, in which people are programmed by Mayan priests using sounds, until a time traveler disrupts the system.

Gilbert Ryle famously derided René Descartes' mind/body dualism as "the ghost in the machine."  He claimed that the idea of the mind's actions being parallel to the body's and interacting in some unknown way was nonsense. He proposed that the thoughts of the mind are no more than the actions of the brain.

Since Ryle's The Concept of Mind came out in 1949, the work of neurologists and social psychologists
A soft machine.
suggests that Ryle was correct. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, has called us "biochemical puppets." Paradoxically, he argues that awareness of the physical determinism he proposes increases our freedom because it allows you to "grab hold of one of your strings."

This seems at odds with his statement about triple murderer Joshua Komisarjevsky:
"If I had truly been in Komisarjevsky's shoes on July 23,2007 - that is, if I had his genes and life experience and identical brain (or soul) in an identical state - I would have acted exactly as he did. There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this.”
So, Komisarjevsky could not have been anything but the monster he was, but we can have greater freedom because we know we are unfree? If that's supposed to make sense, do I have to be sober?

I find arguments over free will dull. Either we have it or we don't, and if we don't, neither side's argument can be attributed to their own volition. If we don't have free will, no one is responsible for bad acts, no matter how reprehensible.

I propose two ways out of the reductionist dilemma of the mind: First, a sort of Pascal's Wager about free will, second, an alternative form of dualism.

Blaise Pascal argued that you might as well believe in God, because if you don't and you are wrong, you will suffer an eternity of suffering, and if don't believe in God and you are right, you will have wasted a few Sunday mornings going to church, which is far less harm that an eternity in Hell.

If I believe in free will and act as though I have it, and I'm wrong, I was destined to act as I did, and couldn't help it. If I act as if there is no free will and there is, there is much I might have done that I will have not bothered to do.

I suggest even those who claim to believe in predestination or in a mechanistic biological determinism act as if they've taken the sensible side of that wager, including Sam Harris. He makes conflicting statements on the issue because he is uncomfortable with the ambiguity of not knowing, and tries to come down hard on one side, but he's not really comfortable with the implications of his own reasoning.

I say we don't really know if we have free will, and may as well act as if we have it.

The new sort of dualism I suggest to replace the mind/body dualism of Descartes is a sort of hardware/software dichotomy. This will be familiar to those who have been reading the series of posts I've labeled "the strangeness of being human." Much of what we are is the software of the mind -- memes that make up the structure of our thought.

Of course, it's more complicated than the relationship between an operating system and a motherboard. The long, slow process of learning everything we expect an adult human to know physically shapes the brain as well as the beliefs and logic of that person. But that, too, can change as we play with ideas and create new memes.

A truly great book leaves us changed because we read it. An important person in our lives changes who we are. A brain tumor can change our personality, and removing it can restore the person we were. The kindness of a person of another race can make us less racist, the angry broadcast of a racist person can make us feel we have permission to be more racist.

There are things that can change who we are, and if we act as if we have free will, we can control, to at least some extent, what influences we expose ourselves to and which we accept or reject. At least, I'm betting that's the best way to act.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self