Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Conversation With Richard - Does Matter Equal Existence?

Here is Richard's reply to my piece on the Big Bang experiments:

Hi there Peter,

I have finally found time amidst the hustle and bustle of this busy time of year to reply to your message. Firstly, your first paragraph, it brings me to draw up the question, 'If matter behaves predictably, then why do surprises exist?.. Does this mean it happens outside of our knowledge, or does it happen through another means in something science will never find?' If either is the case, then the scientists are trying to find the answers in the wrong areas, which I suppose agrees with the points you were making towards the end of your message.

I heard about the Large Hadron Collider and was following the news of it's results very closely, until I heard it may not be fired up again for months maybe. How dissappointing. I hope they find some answers when it is next fired up, or maybe the leak it had wasn't an accident, maybe we aren't meant to find any answers to matter and the dark matter yet. I do however hope we do find answers that will build knowledge.

I have another point in difference to your point involving matter. I read that you thought "matter=existence". However, I tend not to agree with this, and take the road of a dualist. From my experience of life, life isn't just about substance, you have to experience it subjectively too. So in short, the mind is just as important as materialism, and together they both equal existence.

I guess in relation to dark matter a million different responses on what it is could make sense. However if it makes up 70% of the universe's energy, surely it could be said that it could be controlling what happens as we know it without realising? If this is the case, life is a constant struggle, and we will never be in control.

I shall leave my response here, and look forward to your response as always,

Richard Debnam


Sunday, 7 September 2008

Conversation With Richard - Big Bang Or Big Whimper?

Hi Richard

I hope you got my email with a piece from Reuters on Dark Matter. I cannot reproduce it here because of copyright restrictions. Nor can I provide a reference to it because pieces by Reuters' journalists only survive a few days and are then removed as yesterday's news. I do find journalists are exceptionally good at reporting on this particular subject and I recommend Reuters as a source of news for anyone. I have it fed to my email box several times a day, all for free.

Dark Matter and things to do with the Big Bang are very much in the news this week, in any case, with the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN on Wednesday. and to celebrate Radio 4 is having a Big Bang Day. This, at least, means that a lot more people are better informed about the state of our scientific knowledge at the present time. I am, therefore, going to take the opportunity to review what I think the state of play is at the present time.

Science, in its various forms, begins from the proposition that the cosmos is made out of substance which, nowadays, is commonly referred to as matter. By very careful observation and experimentation it has been established that matter behaves in quite specific ways, never randomly or unpredictably. The job of all scientists is to detail exactly how this process operates. In order to do this the scientific community put forward various theories to explain a particular part of the story of matter and then set about testing their theory to see how robust it really is. If they find there are problems with a particular theory they will refine it or replace it with a better one. Their belief is that, even though scientific knowledge is changing, it is always moving forward as each new theory is improved upon. The totality of knowledge about matter is growing.

There are, of course, many gaps in the scientist's knowledge. The discovery of Dark Matter is a very good example. Not many years ago the scientific community came to the conclusion that there was another form of matter, as yet unrecognised. This version of matter was invisible and could only be discerned by its gravitational effect, hence the name Dark Matter. It is believed to account for something around 80% of the matter in the universe. Incredibly, we know very little about either it, or it's associated Dark Energy. I have dug out a Reuters piece from 07 Sep 2006, just 2 years ago, reporting on the CERN LHC. The quotes are from Brian Cox of Manchester University:

"We don't know what 95 percent of the universe is made of - which is a bit embarrassing for a subject that claims to be fundamental... There is Dark Matter. It is all over the place but we have no idea what it is."

"There is also something called Dark Energy, and that is an even bigger question. It makes up about 70 percent of the energy in the universe but again we have absolutely no idea what it is."

Now, if that were the end of the story, we could leave the scientists to get on with their quest and wish them good luck. However, in spite of their self-declared ignorance, they claim that what they are doing is the answer to all knowledge, that there is nothing else in the universe except matter or matter like derivatives and that their quest is, in fact, a theory of everything.

Most people understand conventional physics, put crudely how things we can see work. They can extrapolate from that some idea of how the totality of the universe might work in a similar way. However, alongside all of that there has been developing what is called particle physics, which is the science of the small, very, very small. Although sub atomic physics has been around for about a century it is still a huge puzzle to scientists. Initially, it was believed that there were only a few bits inside the atom. Indeed, the very word atom means an indivisible unit. I think the present count is something like 8 but don't quote me - they may have found some more by the time you read this! The frustrating thing is that as well as finding particle physics just gets more and more complicated, there is a serious problem about linking it in with conventional physics. Unfortunately, the maths just does not add up. Here we go again, I hear you say. So, we have hypothetical Dark Matter and hypothetical particle matter and the only way to make sense of the 2 is to posit another missing bit, known as the Higgs boson particle. The problem is about making sense of mass and the Higgs boson would endow the necessary mass. The trouble is, so far, no one has been able to isolate it. Enter LHC. The prize which the scientific community is hoping to win, as I say, is a theory of everything. They wish to join together the science of the large with the science of the small. LHC will examine the basic structure of the universe and, hopefully, explain how the Big Bang happened and what happened then and then, and then.

I wonder what fate lies in store for my now quite famous quip about astro physics:

"In the beginning was nothing - and then it exploded!"

There are 2 ways of looking at this. The scientific way is to say that matter is all we have and it has to explain everything. If we get bits of it wrong, so what. The quest goes on. All that proves is that we are struggling. The project is still worth while. Crucially, everything is made out of particles.

The other way is to say, yes, understanding matter is worth while but where is the evidence that there is nothing more to it than that? We think in material terms most of the time. Matter=facts. Matter=existence. Matter=real. I am not sure that we can even think of existence without thinking matter. And this is becoming so invasive now that even the likes of feelings are considered to be materially produced. And what of God? I wonder how many people today believe that man created God in his own image and not the other way round. But even so the idea is very material like. God does seem very much like a Dark Person.

We have some knowledge of substance and how it works, but this is very limited. We are getting close to being able to make scientific comments on the moment the Big Bang occurred. Where does this take us? In my view, not very far at all. Science, at the moment, has its hands full trying to understand the process tracing back to the Big Bang. But there must have been something there waiting to go Bang. Where did it come from? And if that traces back to another Bang, or a thousand Bangs... What if the universe is one of many contained within many... where does that leave us?

The answer, I would suggest, is the same as it has always been. Science is not erroding philosophy because science cannot answer philosophical questions. It can only answer scientific questions. The details will change but that fact will not. How do I know this? Because science, patently, is dealing with process - how things work - not where they came from. Follow every scientific process to its logical conclusion and you will find yourself in an infinite regress. Science is not an explanation - it is a method. To be honest, it amazes me that so many people have trouble with this concept. Perhaps my mind is more logical than most. The difference between how matter works and where it came from seem so obviously different to me. Let's try approaching it scientifically. Imagine we have a little package, pre-universe, which is about to explode, and bear in mind, this actually happened, how did it come to be there, just waiting to explode? Let's suppose you say to me "It grew, by a scientific process". We then go through the same process again and we get back to the package that grew into the one that eventually exploded. How did that come to be there?

That is an infinite regress and it is why science cannot explain everything.

I will leave for another time what can explain everything and, indeed, the other points made in your reply. I think we have plenty to consider already!

Peter Rayner


Saturday, 30 August 2008

Conversation With Richard - Why? Why? Why?

As predicted, Richard has replied to my last post to him, the one entitled "It's Science Jim But Not As We Know It". He takes exception to the idea that science is always wrong and argues that it does answer some "Why?" questions very well. He makes a plea for patience in judging science.

On the problem of time and space he points out that everything has an opposite.

Hi Peter,

I've just jogged my memory into the flow of where our discussion was going, and I feel back on track again.

Firstly, I need some help if possible, wherever I look for a reliable cosmological resource on dark matter, it ceases to exist, as I'm not totally sure what it represents, and I remain intrigued into what it is. However, continuing on, I don't fully agree Science is ultimately wrong. Instead, isn't it true of the answers we are trying to find now? Our discussion's ideal aim is to try and find answers to philosophical questions we propose, but I find there are different types of "why" questions, one of them, Science does find an answer to.

If for example, one was to ask, "Why does the Sun dissappear from our sky during the day?" One would simply answer, because the Earth is rotating on it's axis which creates daytime and nighttime. This is the type of "why" question Science can answer in today's scientific knowledge. On the other hand, if one was to ask, "Why do we have daytime and nighttime on Earth?" This is where Science cannot answer, and can either only trial and error until it answers the question properly, or it can just explain, "because it does". Then it begs the question, "Who started daytime and nighttime on Earth, to answer the question of why?" Therefore, Science can answer the "why" inside it's knowledge, but not outside of it. However, Science has proved it can answer the main "why" and "who" questions gradually and somewhat controversially, contradicting faith of strong religions. Therefore I find Science needs patience in order to find an answer, and the way round it, is not to expect an answer to questions we face now, but to patiently contribute and accept that our future ancestors may know the answer before us.

In answer to your point about "..applying finite space to infinity, or time with eternity." I have to say that without one, we cannot know what it's opposite means. For example, if we do not know what infinity means, but you know what finity means, then you can only know from learning about things which could apply to infinity. Which means in order to find a true answer to whether Space is finite or infinite, we have to look at both possibilities in order to not miss something which could lead to an ultimate answer, regardless of Earth and human time that we have created and abide by.

I see Science, truth and our life-reflective curiosity as a jacket that is unzipped. We all wear different jackets, due to our diverse interests. Some people couldn't care about if there are other dimensions to life, so their jacket is done up very quickly, but then there are others of us who want to know about the unknown, making our jackets a whole lot bigger. The more Science finds a true answer to what originally seemed an unanswerable question, the jacket zips up, and completes part of the gradual journey science is made for, to chase true answers to curious questions or challenges we propose, whether involving everyday life, an afterlife, a parallel life or any other possible different dimensions which occur from the human mind. Therefore once our jackets are zipped right up, we continue in our course of paradoxical Earth days of eat, drink, and sleep to keep us alive until our dying day. Some of us need to wait longer for our jackets to be zipped up, and the obvious need to abide by our materiality in everyday life at the same time as zipping up our jacket.

I look forward to your response as always,

Richard Debnam


Sunday, 24 August 2008

A New Hope?

This is the end of my journey through philosophy, courtesy of Facebook. There are no more posts to transfer across. My plan is to make one last post on Facebook, which refers anyone interested to this blog.

Although the journey through Facebook is ended, the philosophical quest, itself, goes on. The point at which I stopped was as far as I have gone and, I believe, as far as anyone has gone. Richard is still to reply to that all defining post and it may be that that will be the next event. I will ask him. Beyond that I think I need to take stock of what has been said and what is missing. After all, I began in an orderly fashion but long since lost the well prepared script! In the year I was born, Gilbert Ryle wrote his seminal book "The Concept of Mind" and I am ever conscious that I have, until now, made no reference to him. He represents one end of the spectrum of argument, being a hard line materialist. Descartes represents the other end, as a dualist and many fall in between the two.

The academic in me wants to define each contributor carefully. If I do that then I will, in all probability, contribute nothing new to the debate, except a magnificent work of reference! So, without too much delay, I will press on to the edge of the goldfish bowl...

Peter Rayner


An Afterlife? - Wave If You're There

Another one of my diversions. This one concerns some brief postings by Kim. You can read the full text here. Kim speculates about the idea that the Spirit uses waves to communicate. I picked up on her concern that there would need to be "a translating medium" and replied to her because this seemed so reminiscent of Descartes. It provides a summary of what Descartes thought and also what the central issues are in the philosophy of mind.

Kim's posts were made on 18 Jul 2008 at 08:36 and 08:43am. My post was made on 18 Jul 2008 at 04:13 pm:

Hi Kim. I am not surprised that you are struggling with your ideas but at least you can console yourself with the knowledge that you are in the greatest of company. I would like to pass on a few observations of your post in the hope of advancing your ideas which I do find intriguing. You may or may not be aware that you have expressed ideas which are very similar to those of the great philosopher, Rene Descartes, who also struggled with the same material.

Descartes, like you, argued that there is an essential self which is not material and which inhabits our bodies. Matter does not have this self awareness but it does have attributes and so can do things. This is not the same as having life. He believed that the self has no attributes, no physical characteristics because its essential quality is its own existence. To be alive is to able to say "I am me" and we can never say "I am you" even if you and I share similar qualities. We can never be another person. In contrast physical matter is defined by its attributes and abilities. Essentially, he described a "ghost in the machine".

Also, like you, Descartes believed that there had to be some kind of interface which allowed the mind and body to relate to each other and rather oddly he believed that this was located in the pineal gland. Although that is obviously not the case, it is intriguing that you share his worry!

I suppose the central issue is whether selfhood is really a physical thing all along and consciousness and self identity is just a manifestation, an illusion, if you will, which can wholly be explained by physical processes or whether ultimately it is not possible to provide an adequate explanation of life by re-arranging matter to form being. The scientific approach provides a very powerful case for matter being the answer to everything. Set against that is the fact that things we associate with being, such as the ability to have free choice and intentions do not easily fit into an entirely physical universe. How can the strict rules of matter allow us to make decisions? Would that not cash out as no more than a string of inevitable occurences entirely governed by the detailed actions and reactions of material processes? Also, how can matter, alone, account for why as well as how the universe came to be?

Just a few observations which I offer in the hopes of clarifying your thinking and encouraging further ideas. Good luck!

Peter Rayner

Kim replied that our brains are, in some respects, like computers and went off to do some thinking. I referred her to our series of posts, now re-produced in this blog.

Kim's post was made on 18 Jul 2008 at 04:28 pm. My reply was made on 18 Jul 2008 at 04:33 pm:

Hi Kim. You might like to look back over my discussions with Richard in which we discuss intentionality and how computers think with particular reference to John Searle's chinese room illustration.

Peter Rayner


An Afterlife? - It's Science Jim But Not As We Know It

In this post I look at what science has to offer and where it falls down. I suggest that science is good at analyzing the known universe but fails when we ask it to explain anything beyond that. Our understanding of time and space suggest that they are paradoxes which we can't live with, scientifically, but can't live without, either. This suggests that we need to find something very big which is currently missing from our understanding. It would have to be non material to avoid an impasse. In order to identify it we may have to ask "why" rather than "how".

My post was made on 14 Jul 2008 at 04:25 pm:

Hi Richard. This is really getting tricky now so I think we need to just backtrack a little. You will be relieved to know that I do not believe there is an alternate universe out there inhabited by some geyser called God, although we could have a different conversation about string theory but not now, please, not now. I think we are both agreed that we have quite enough on our hands trying to make sense of the one world we do know. In trying to make sense of it we have identified what most people feel happy to call "matter" and we believe that matter behaves in predictable ways which we can discover by applying techniques which we call science. I have no problem with that. However, these intrepid scientists often claim that everything can be explained by science. I have a couple of problems with that.

Firstly, science is about process, by which I mean it attempts to make sense of matter, starting from how we find it behaves in our current environment. It projects forward and backwards but it never goes completely beyond that spectrum. The furthest back it goes is to around the Big Bang or thereabouts. In formulating its theories it posits various explanations which it then tests out with experiments. Eventually, these experiments hit upon problems which cannot be explained by the theories it is trying to prove and so another scientist has to posit a different theory which, therefore, requires a further set of experiments. This so called scientific revolution proceeds by a process of trial and error, with the ultimate aim of one day understanding everything there is to know about how matter works.

Therefore, at any one time, current scientific understanding is about to be superceded by the latest scientific revolution. In other words science is, by definition, always wrong. It is, simply, a part of the process of understanding matter and very imperfect at it. Only a few years ago our fearless scientists discovered a form of matter which it called "dark matter" and subsequent investigations revealed that it accounts for about 85% of the matter in the universe. Moreover, virtually nothing is known about it. Now, our understanding of matter is very limited and our understanding of dark matter even more limited so we can hardly look to science to give us anything approaching knowledge which will, in the foreseeable future, be adequate enough to explain even what is going on in the material universe, let alone anything further than that. Yet the scientists confidently tell us matter will explain everything!

But there is a further problem. As long as science confines itself to the process side of science, all is well. What happens when we try to take that process to its ultimate? We all rely on 2 very important concepts in our understanding of matter and they are "time" and "space". I have tried to think scientifically without applying these concepts but I can't. Even using Einstein's theory of relativity there does seem to me to be a fundamental problem. Both these ideas are about measurement, finite measurement. If we can measure time and space then we can, logically, project this measurement into infinity. Travel, if you will, beyond the edge of the universe. Project time back before the beginning of time. At this point both ideas become paradoxes. It does not make sense to juxtapose finite space with infinity or time with eternity.

I draw 2 conclusions from this. The first is that the current scientific language is fundamentally inadequate. It not only does not but cannot explain what it sets out to explain. Secondly, there is something missing which is so huge that it blows an almighty hole in our understanding of everything.

Arguing from ignorance is not something any of us like to do, but I think it is the position we are in. So, how far can we go? Well, my answer is that there must be something radically different which explains what is going on, not more of the same. An alternate universe inhabited by God would not cut it. That would be just another material universe and would, therefore, re-create the infinite regress we already have encountered. So, we are looking for something non material, in order to escape the problems of materialism.

We are, of course, surrounded by things which are non material, but we are also surrounded by people who want to make out that they are, in fact, material. As long as we base our thinking on the material, the logical impasse will persist.

As you say, some very different issues arise when we replace the "how" of science with, for example, "why" and it may be that we have to answer these non scientific questions in order to have a context for the mere process of science.

Peter Rayner


An Afterlife? - Legoland or Never Never Land

Picking up on Richard's idea of a spectrum, I look at the problems of trying to fit everything into a single unity and the alternative, which is to invoke another realm to deal with what does not make sense in this realm.

My post was made on 07 Jul 2008 at 08:39 pm:

Hi Richard. You talk about a spectrum with materialism at one end and experience at the other. I like the idea that everything is ultimately hooked up and forms a complete system but I'm not sure that the evidence is compelling. It is, of course, the view which dominated philosophy 100 years or so ago known as Post Kantian Hegelian Idealism or just Idealism for short. The idea was that everything was a part of the Absolute and it did seem to solve a lot of problems at the time, not that I was around then, I hastily add. It also created some problems as in the case of the theologian who was accused of denying the divinity of Jesus. His reply was "I have never denied the divinity of any man!" In an age in which we think materially and mathematically it is easy to believe that all matter originates from one atom which explodes and starts a huge reaction and results in the cosmos. I suppose you could argue that seemingly non material entities were, in fact, made of the same atoms but they are so arranged as to look different. I dare say the makers of Lego would be overjoyed to think that we live in a Lego universe in which you can make anything from a box of building bricks. However, I don't buy it. This is more process stuff and I think the logic of it is that everything is made of matter, but some things just don't look as if they are. It is naive materialism in disguise. What I am trying to assert is that process is what matter does and understanding is what process and matter can't do. Therefore - and it's the biggest therefore in philosophy - matter is not the only thing to exist. Moreover, matter does not explain a lot of things with which we are familiar. In particular, it does not explain the grand scheme of things. As long as matter goes on recycling itself, all is well. However, the issue of beginnings and endings does not make sense in a world of matter alone.

The whole idea of something "other than" or just different provides, I think, a more attractive solution to these weighty philosophical problems. It takes us into the same logical territory as religion has been in throughout history. The basic idea of God is that he is "other than" and has to cross over or transcend into our world in order to communicate with us. Now, I would not go so far as to argue for the existence of God as an entity. I do think that is a bridge too far. But I do think there is a realm unreachable and unfathomable, and part of my thinking is directed by the nature of our own world and our own experiences.

In itself the non material is not that difficult to get your head around. We can all understand, for example, the concept of language. It is very evident and clearly, in essence, non material, although we communicate it through material channels. The problem, I think, that arises, is that we think about things as having existence and that is a more perplexing word. We use the word existence in just about every conceivable way. Matter exists. Ideas exist. But what is existence?

Well, I don't know how much sense you will make of this but I'm going to pause now to get your response.

Peter Rayner

Richard's response is uncompromising in its rejection of any kind of other world explanation although he accepts that such a thing cannot be disproved. He does, however, turn the issue from "how" to "why".

Richard's post was made on 14 Jul 2008 at 09:41 am:

Hi Peter, I find myself having to think twice before I post this just to make sure I've taken in everything, and I appreciate you informing me about what my thoughts were, as I haven't learnt or read much of the post-Kant era of Philosophy. Without going off in a tangent, I find myself in a position at the moment where I am going to respectively disagree with you about your point involving "other than" and "God".

I think for the universe to work properly, if there is a "God", then I do think if this God is untouchable and in a transcendent universe to our own, then anything from our universe should be able to transcend into the other world beyond what we know. As Albert Einstein said, "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

However, if the transcendent beings including God and spirits of the dead (I won't argue for the dead people's existence), are in another universe, and people in our material world do come across them, then what is to say our worlds aren't as far apart as we think? Another thought that crops up is that if this does happen, would we actually know if we were in a different world to our own? Because when we dream whilst asleep, we are in a different dimension to what anyone else can experience this could be linked to another world apart from our main conscious material world, and I thought that the human mind and the unconscious part of the brain could be the key to unravelling the mystery involving other worldly type experiences people have.

As well as these thoughts though, I do have doubts about whether one can actively appear in God's world [if it does exist], without having to morbidly and reluctantly sacrifice life in the world we know. Which from my perspective, it's a sacrifice I would never be willing to make whilst I am me!

Descartes touches on the topic of existence, famously saying "I am I think I am, therefore I am" which I think is the best possible answer anyone can come up with without some form of Godly entity confirming and explaining to everyone what existence actually is. Which is obviously a very highly unlikely occurence.

In some form of conclusion, to wrap up my post, and in order to pause to await your response, I am reluctant to agree with an existence of another world, but at the same time I don't want to pass it off either, as it could be a possibility as much as it doesn't exist. However, existence I think is exactly what it is, how, who, when and what we know. Without existence there is nothing, and the more science evolves, the more I think existence is less doubtful. The question I would ask is why do we exist?.. I think we find we've gone around in a circle in our thoughts. lol

Richard Debnam


An Afterlife? - Doing and Understanding

As we approach the interface between material and non material I try to pin down the difference between a computer processing and a human understanding. You can read the original here.

My post was made on 06 Jul 2008 at 06:20 am:

Hi Richard. I have let your post "sink in" to my brain because I think we are close to the critical issues and I don't want to spoil it with rashness.

I believe the question posed by the Chinese room is about the difference between doing and understanding at the first level, of which there are several. The point is that however well the computer runs the Chinese language program, it will never understand it. All it can do is process. Now, if you analyse this process you will find that the computer uses various software and hardware devices to achieve its objective. Similarly, if you analyse the human you will identify various brain processes, chemical processes and physical processes which also achieve the same end. So are they identical? Both are capable of processing. However, the computer can only process, the human has something more to offer.

So far, so good. Now it gets tricky.We know that the human has "understanding" of the process but it is not clear what this means. Certainly, you won't find understanding by dissecting the brain. So, we seem to be moving toward a description which is non material. You cannot locate an understanding. You cannot build one or buy one in the shops. So can you understand something without having a body to understand it in? Now there's a question!

I was going to say a lot more but reading my post thus far I think I should pause for some reaction to that point. I can't wait!

Peter Rayner

Richard's response is to agree with much of my post. However, he suggests that understanding is one end of a spectrum with materialism at the other.

Richard's post was made on 06 Jul 2008 at 03:21 pm:

Hi Peter, I'll get stuck in straight away and say that I believe we are in agreement from your first paragragh. However, I'd like to add something if I may. I think the difference between when a computer processes, and when a human processes, on average, the computer is more reliable. A human is susceptible to errors of calculations, and a human's memory can also be brought in doubt sometimes. I think a computer is like paper people used to process calculations on before computers existed, except with the growth of technology, humans have brought in a new tool to speed the processing up, by making it process itself, after a human has ordered it to do so.

Peter, I have to say I like your third paragragh, it brought a smile to my face because we both know it is true, it cannot be rejected, and causes it to be more tricky. However, I do have a response. I think that although understanding isn't a physical attribute, it is on the other end of the spectrum from materialism, and that would be experience. From the day we were born, we can naturally tell if someone understands us. Before we can talk, we cry until we know our parents understand us so they know what we want. Everyday as we grow older our understanding grows as we learn, which is why it is dependent on experiences, something computers do not have as it does not have a mind of it's own. Understanding is what makes human languages work, which involves everything. Without it, everyone would be confused.

In response to your question, until the day computers can interact with humans from their own approach, without human command, with something different from what it is programmed to do, then from my experiences so far, I can safely say I've not come across anything that understands without having a body to understand it in.

I've just looked back and realised how much I've said, which I grossly underestimated! I look forward, as ever, to the continuity of this discussion.

Richard Debnam


Saturday, 23 August 2008

An Afterlife? - The Chinese Room

This post consists of a detailed description of the analogy of the Chinese Room by Prof John Searle. It concerns the difference between a computer thinking and human intentions. It then describes Searle's wider orientation as a member of the group of philosophers who argued the case known as The Identity Hypothesis.

My post was made on 29 Jun 2008 at 09:30 am:

Hi Richard, sorry to be a while replying - life got a bit busy.

I'm not sure whether we are both referring to the same Chinese room analogy. I think we probably are, but, for the sake of clarity I'll go through the whole story. The scenario was invented by Prof John Searle who was a trendy philospher in my student days. Alas, he is now 75 and no longer on the "A" list. Perhaps he should have a word with Pete Townsend to see how to become an everlasting hero! Anyway, to quote from his wikipedia entry (to save me explaining it myself):

"Searle asks his audience to imagine that many years from now, people have constructed a computer that behaves as if it understands Chinese. The computer takes Chinese characters as input and, following a program, produces other Chinese characters, which it presents as output. Suppose that this computer performs this task so convincingly that it easily passes the Turing test. In other words, it convinces a human Chinese speaker that the program is itself a human Chinese speaker. All the questions the human asks are responded to appropriately, such that the Chinese speaker is convinced that he or she is talking to another Chinese-speaking human. The conclusion that proponents of artificial intelligence would like to draw is that the computer understands Chinese, just as the person does.

Now, Searle asks the audience to suppose that he is in a room in which he receives Chinese characters, consults a book containing an English version of the computer program, and processes the Chinese characters according to the instructions in the book. Searle notes that he does not understand a word of Chinese. He simply manipulates what to him are meaningless squiggles, using the book and whatever other equipment is provided in the room, such as paper, pencils, erasers, and filing cabinets. After manipulating the symbols, Searle will produce the answer in Chinese. Since the computer passed the Turing test, so does Searle running its program by hand: "Nobody just looking at my answers can tell that I don't speak a word of Chinese," Searle writes.

Searle argues that his lack of understanding goes to show that computers do not understand Chinese either, because they are in the same situation as he is. They are mindless manipulators of symbols, just as he is. They don't understand what they're "saying", just as he doesn't. Since they do not have conscious mental states like "understanding", they can not properly be said to have minds."

Searle was interested in the idea of intentionality and, indeed, wrote a book called "Intentionality". As you can see he is saying that it is one thing to look at process and quite another to to look at understanding and intentions. No matter how sophisicated the science, can it ever be more than process? In my view the answer has to be "No". I think the point here is that science is invented by people to understand the processes of the real world. But it in no way explains anything beyond "How?"

I have noticed that many of the writers in this forum seem to think that science and matter are one and the same. If we accept that matter is a reality, that still leaves open the question of what science is and how accurate it is. I would suggest that science can never be more than a set of constructs attempting to explain a process. Moreover, it does not really require us to exclude other languages which explain other phenomena. For example, poetry, art, love, human experiences all have well developed means of communication. If they are just processes, like the chinese characters, then what is the point of them?

I suppose the obvious question which this line of thinking poses is "What is the point of science?"

Just to head off those out and out materialists who lurk around this forum, Searle is one of a group of philosophers, myself included, who believe what has come to be known as "The Identity Hypothesis". The idea is that once a line of thinking has developed into a permanent body it cannot be pushed back into its former identity. So, if you try to explain a crackling fire in scientific terms then you lose the point of it in a poem. Another like-minded philosopher called it the Humpty Dumpty Argument because once Humpty was broken into thousands of pieces "...not all the King's horses, nor all the King's men, could put Humpty together again."

So the science of material reality is just one of many ways of explaining the world around us and the experiences we have. No one language is sufficient.

All that without even considering the implications of consciousness as "non scientific" but still very real. I think I had better pause there to get some reactions.

Peter Rayner

Richard's response is to distinguish between "objective essence" and "formal essence" which seems to be another way of describing the difference between computer and human thinking.

He also considers meaning and science as things that happen in life which need to be explained.

Richard's post was made on 29 Jun 2008 at 06:21 pm:

Hi Peter, reading all of the last post I can safely say we're thinking of the same one. I have a few questions and answers of my own in response to it.

I still think that regardless of whether the person in the Chinese room understands Chinese or not, he can still relate to a human language that he can speak, this gives the Chinese language some form of meaning, instead of meaningless "squiggles". This contrasts with the case involving computers, as they are merely regurgitating what humans have programmed them to do. Computers can know grammar, spelling and dictionary meanings of words, but they have no mind or instinct to actually relate to how a language works in everyday life, slang words for example would seem like nonsense to computers, but some people abide by it by talking their own way. The best way to describe this in philosophical terms is that computers hold the "objective essence", knowing the idea of a language, but never have the "formal essence" of the language, which is what the language actually is.

I also find that scientific definitions and poetry can work together, because if you read a poem and you come across the word "fire", and you didn't understand what it was, and never experienced fire, then you would only look up its meaning in a dictionary or ask someone to find out it's meaning. Therefore, you have to have a sound understanding about what the poem's words mean to understand the point of the poem, which without scientific definitions or a working understanding of "fire", then it would just seem like a crazy random rambling that someone decided to put together.

Another response I have is that one concept we have to grasp in order to understand science, is to know things can happen above anyone's understanding. An example that comes to mind are radio waves that we send out to space. Law of gravity says on Earth "what goes up must come down", however we have sent radio signals into space for a long time, and the radio waves never bounce back to Earth, they continue to run deeper into space, this contradicts the law of gravity. If we didn't know what radio waves were and went out into space, received an alien signal and it turned out to be british world war II songs for example, it would be very hard and quite baffling to work out how it got into space without knowing that radio waves defy the law of gravity.

This continues onto my conclusion of what the point of science is, well.. It's a way of understanding what happens, and it is everyday life, without science unexplained things would be happening every second of the day, and people would react differently to how these random acts occur. It is from these reactions of the people that poetry lies, meaning "what happens+understanding of meaning=reaction" and equally, "what happens+reaction=understanding of meaning" However much this is juggled about it still all remains balanced and equal, you can't have one without the other.

Science and reactions are part of what happens in life, they just happen naturally, sometimes without a meaning, and most certainly without responsibility sometimes. I see science and reactions as a spectrum, at opposite ends they work together to form what we do, and how we live our lives... I apologise if this is too long-winded, but I look forward to seeing your response to mine all the same.

Richard Debnam

My reply is self-explanatory. It was made on 30 Jun 2008 at 06:34 am:

Richard you never cease to amaze me. None of this is what I expected and yet I can't dismiss it even though it is not standard philosophical response to the points I have made. Once again I find myself needing to think before replying to you. Long may it continue. I will think awhile before replying. Stay right there, buddy.

Peter Rayner

Richard's reply is also self-explanatory. It was made on 30 Jun 2008 at 11:50 am:

Hi Peter, yeh.. I found that I tend not to agree with the standard philosophical responses I read and come across, instead I try to think up what my mind tells me is right and I come up with alternate ones that are "outside the box" so to speak. No worries mate, patience is a virtue so they say. In the mean time, I have decided to add you as a friend, because I haven't come across a discussion as interesting as ours for a while.

Speak to you soon.

Richard Debnam


An Afterlife? - Science Has All The Answers

Another of my diversions follows, this time involving 2 other correspondents and so, once again, I am in the position of having to summarise their part of the debate. You can, however, read the exchange in full in its original location.

Gareth joined the discussion by pointing out that there are lots of things we don't know but that would just produce a long and imaginative list of unlikely items. Just as there is unlikely to be an invisible lizard living on his shoulder, so he can dismiss ideas of God, the soul, an afterlife and other anti-scientific ideas. He called this rationalism.

Gareth's post was made on 18 Jun 2008 at 02:38 pm. My reply was made on 18 Jun 2008 at 04:27 pm:

Hi Gareth. It always amuses me to find someone who dismisses an invisible lizard with a leap of faith, but thinks he's a rationalist, because it is rational to hold that the entire universe was caused by an exploding dot which is so powerful that it gives mankind the ability to make free decisions and have intentions. And as for logic I wonder if you have ever heard of either inductive or deductive logic or pondered what happens when cause and effect in science trace backwards into an infinite regression. Oh, and by the way, Gareth, that's not a lizard on your shoulder - it's a chicken - or is it an egg?

Peter Rayner

Gareth made a spirited reply by stating that he believed in science because it is supported by data and that the whole point of science is to explain everything. Otherwise we are at the mercy of superstition and dogma.

Gareth's post was made on 19 Jun 2008 at 12:57 am.

Tim replied to Gareth with a moral argument for life after death. He suggests that if people just die then it's "not fair". He suggests a moral force which makes some things true and others false and if there is no such force then he asks what it means to say something is true.

Tim's post was made on 19 Jun 2008 at 01:37 am.

Gareth replied to this somewhat oddly claiming, on the one hand, that there is nothing outside the structure which we impose and, on the other, that we are bound by data.

Gareth's post was made on 19 Jun 2008 at 03:08 am.

Tim came back with the claim that the universe has its own moral structure and that there is such a thing as truth which we are, therefore, morally obliged to follow. He challenges Gareth to show why anyone should believe his theory of truth.

Tim's post was made on 19 Jun 2008 at 04:08 am.

Gareth's reply, again somewhat oddly, is to seek the physical whereabouts of this moral structure. He then presents us full on with his, dare I say it, dogma that science has to be everything, although we are not told why this is so.

He then reveals his utilitarian view of morality, namely, that we make rules in order to run societies.

Gareth's post was made on 19 Jun 2008 at 05:35 am.

My reply to these exchanges follows. It consists of an attack on the "science is everything" theory by arguing that science is merely an attempt to understand the process which followed the big bang. Also, our knowledge of the "matter" which resulted from this is very limited. Furthermore, we think in time and space, yet both these concepts would seem to be paradoxical. Human beings behave, habitually, in ways which science is unable to explain by their expressions of intentional behaviour. There is a further problem inasmuch as science proceeds by testing its own theories to destruction and is, therefore, always based on uncertain knowledge. Finally, the implication of the entirely materialistic world is determinism.

My post was made on 19 Jun 2008 at 05:46 am:

Hi Gareth. Thanks for seeing the funny side of it but get serious now, we must.The data you refer to is a theory about process, that's all. It is an attempt to make sense of an expanding universe. The theory struggles to take account of dark matter which, it seems, accounts for some 80% of the stuff of which the universe is made and about which we know very little. It also requires us to believe that our theory requires the concepts of space and time both of which have to be made to disappear up their own black holes in order to avoid a double infinite regress. If space measures limited distance then what lies beyond the furthest point? If time began with the big bang then where did the matter in the big bang originate? I can see that science is making progress within the confines of how stuff works within our world and universe of worlds but I don't see it getting close to the big issues of how the process first began and for that matter why. Nor do I see how mere matter leads to human will and action. How do we come to have intentions? Matter can't do that. You say nothing lives outside science. I say we human beings live outside science - all the time. Almost everything we get up to is outside science. We need to get our lives back. You say the remit of science is to explain everything. I say the ultimate remit of science is to explain the process of matter, just like a builder constructs a house. He knows everything about it in process terms but the truth is he is following someone elses plan - another issue entirely. But there is a further problem with science. The way in which science proceeds is to posit a theory and test it to destruction. The well known phenomenon then takes place - the scientific revolution - followed by a new theory which is then, itself, tested to destruction. Fine for the scientists, useless for epistemologists because the inevitable conclusion is that science, by definition, is always wrong. Worse still, even if you suceed in doing away with everything except matter then how do you avoid living in a deterministic world in which everything has already been decided by the mother of all explosions?

Peter Rayner

I then replied to Tim, agreeing with his right to pose the moral universe proposition.

My post was made on 19 Jun 2008 at 05:58 am:

Hi Tim. I love your line of thinking. This is so far removed from the hard materialism of your opponent that it simply cannot be consumed by science. Why not pose the question "What if we live in a moral universe?" Does that not so clearly point out the limitations of science which has to exclude it, not because it's wrong, but because it's not scientific. A perfectly valid question, nevertheless.

Peter Rayner

Tim then decides to look at the utilitarian argument and asks what if it turns out that society works better if people believe in an afterlife. On utilitarian grounds we would have to believe in it, even if it were not true.

Tim's post was made on 19 Jun 2008 at 06:24 am.

Gareth's reply was to re-assert his view that science can and will, one day, explain everything. He also indicated that a further big bang along exactly the same lines would produce the same results and that would not make the world deterministic although he offers no explanation for this statement.

Gareth's post was made on 19 Jun 2008 at 06:28 am.

Gareth made 6 more posts, starting with a reply to Tim's moral argument but all his replies are basically a denial of anything outside his view that science has all the answers.

The discussion then returned to the analogy of the chinese room...