minds, machines, and meaning

Here’s a popularised piece on some stuff I’ve vaguely been thinking about for a while. It’s not particularly precise, but I quite like the overall layout (if I say so myself). Hopefully it’ll get published in the uni magazine (it didn’t make it into last week’s edition on robots as I left it too late), but we’ll see!

I, robot? (just to unnecessarily mix pop culture references). Image from Wikipedia



Are we mindless machines?

It’s commonly thought that our minds are, in the final analysis, identical to our brains. A popular manifestation of this is to talk about the mind as a kind of computer, blindly taking in information, churning through syntactic processes and somehow spewing consciousness, understanding, meaning and intentionality out the other side. This view of what we are makes a lot of sense at first glance, given a scientific view of the world. After all, if the universe is a closed physical system (and, we’re just following Occam’s razor here!), what place is there for a soul, or non-physical mind?

The actual evidence for physicalism though, falls short of overwhelming, and its assertions regarding the mind face challenges from other observations about the universe, including the apparent irreducibility of both our sense experience and intentionality, and from the existence of free will. The mind-brain identity thesis is a very strong claim, and after the reading I’ve done I remain agnostic on it, though quite strongly inclined to disbelieve – and other more nuanced forms of materialism seem to me to fare little better. It may turn out that re-introducing the concept of mind to the universe in some way would help to make sense of more than we can get out of the collisions of brute subatomic particles; including the very structure of the universe itself!

Even amongst Christians there is a wide spectrum of opinion on what to make of the mind. Some, such as the metaphysician Peter van Inwagen – an adult convert to Christianity – believe in materialism about the human mind. Others, such as retired Oxford philosopher of science Richard Swinburne, argue strongly for mind-body dualism; and others again fit somewhere in the middle. God, as classically thought of, is clearly outside the physical universe, at least in terms of kind, if not location. The idea of a soul distinct from the body however, is less theologically clear-cut – contrary to popular views. What is clear is that the physical nature of human beings is incredibly important – Christians are not, or shouldn’t be, Platonists about the soul. The fact that Jesus rose from the dead in a renewed physical body shows that the afterlife is not purely immaterial, abstract, or ‘other-worldly’. In fact, it is tangible and very real.

In addition to this, our potential for relationship with God is also crucial. Christians agree that we are relational, rational, and morally responsible beings, and have a special dignity, and that these things are tied to having been made, in some sense, in God’s likeness. As such we are not just automata, but neither are we fully autonomous. We are animals and are constrained by various aspects of our nature and environment. We’re also created persons, and ultimately God is behind and within the scenes, shaping the course of history and our lives. I think a Christian view provides a framework which can help make sense of the tension between the constraints and the possibilities, while common nonreligious views are left in direct contradiction – claiming autonomy and self-determination as the ultimate ends (often in conjunction with the language of ‘rights’), while preaching on the other hand that we are merely the products of our genes and environment, marionettes dancing on the strings of our DNA or mere pawns of physics on a speck of dust in a purposeless universe. In a naturalistic world, it appears the individual human actor can only be important in a subjective sense.

A challenge to materialism not yet mentioned is difficulties it seems to raise for our ability to trust our own thought processes, particularly in weighty matters of metaphysics, religion, and the philosophy of mind. If our minds are just matter arranged in such a way as to best facilitate the survival and reproduction of our distant ancestors, which of our beliefs (if any) would we expect to be true? Perhaps those related to survival are safe – but even then, as epistemologist Alvin Plantinga has argued in depth, finding a suitable materialistic account of belief content which links content to behaviour in the right way will prove a challenge. The products of a material ‘mind’ concerning more abstract issues which had no survival value for our Pleistocene progenitors, such as meaning, metaphysics, and our place in the universe, may end up no more trustworthy than belief systems derived by flips of the coin. Perhaps we all do have an inner robot that defines us, but on reflection we can probably all agree that our beliefs on these things require some investigation and thought rather than leaving it up to chance.


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