More and more lately, I hear from those who would reduce man to a machine. Certain outspoken scientists proclaim life as random, the result of chemical interactions and natural processes, and free will as an illusion. As I have stated before many neuroscientists are seeking to unlock the mystery of the brain and explain away consciousness. Others are convinced that we have evolved logic and can now leave primitive emotion behind. Occasionally this logic is overpowered by the primitive structures labeled by Arthur Koestler as the Ghost in the machine, a derogative term for mind-body dualism. Apparently, the Vulcan race is what these fellows aspire too. We could solve all the problems of the world if we could just be strictly logical, and lose emotion. It seems simple enough doesn’t it?
The problem is, what is it that drives scientific inquiry? Is not inquisitivity and wonder themselves emotions? In fact, it appears that certainty itself is an emotion. Indeed, it appears we are finding that cognition and emotion, thinking and feeling themselves are inseparable.
It makes me wonder what is behind this drive to explain life and consciousness themselves away. It seems to me that a different emotion is at play. No longer curiosity or wonder, I think it is fear. I think there are a certain subset of the scientific community who fear uncertainty. They hate it, it repulses them. The idea that we just might not be able to unlock every secret of life, every secret or the brain, or every secret of the universe is repellent. Above all they want the universe to be understood, objectively and factually. Thus, consciousness becomes a neurologic side effect, Life a biological and chemical side effect, and everything is explained, end of story. As for the why, if you can’t explain it, it just is.
Mathematics has been an incredible tool for predicting, understanding and describing the universe. It is remarkable that it works as well as it does. However, like everything else, it has limits. On an intriguing episode of Speaking of Faith (aren’t they all?), an Astrophysicist, Janna Levin, describes how the scientist Godel discovered through a quirky math equation that some things in the universe can only be described from a point of view outside of it. It’s complex and I can’t really explain it from memory but at the time I was bowled over. Could it be that the mysteries of life are something that can only be understood from outside themselves?
I wonder what becomes of us once we envision man as machine, chemical reaction, and complex web of neural reactions. What happens when we learn to create intelligence itself, artificially. What happens when we can rebuild a brain or reprogram it with deep brain stimulators or artificial neural circuits? What are we then? What do we become? What is left to help us understand what it is to be human? I can see something frightening and ugly within human nature, fear, war, and cheapening of life.
Sometimes it seems as though the history of war is older that history itself. What is it that allows us to kill one another? You don’t see anything like this with other animals that I know of. War and destruction of our own race seems a uniquely human capability. I think the key to doing it lies in our ability to reason. We reason that “we” are fundamentally different than “they”.
Every war, in order to make soldiers capable of what they do, comes up with derogatory, dehumanizing names for the enemy. In WWII it was the Krauts and Japs against us. Verheisen, or vermin, became the German term for Jews enabling the Holocaust. In Rwanda, cockroaches, in Viet Nam= the gooks, In Iraq= the Tajis, thus enabling Abu Ghraib. Calling someone a Nazi or a terrorist makes it easier to see the other side of our geopolitical spectrum as monsters, less than human, evil.
We are very good at this. It allows us to reason aside our natural inclination to civility, citizenship and empathy. We are then allowed to act in a coldly, logical way to take the enemy over, to destroy them and to obtain our political ends. It all has a definite cold, hard logic.
I fear the same logic could take over if we were to eliminate the ghost in the machine, the spiritual, the mystery, the sense and awe and wonder we get, or I get anyway, when pondering life, meaning and the universe. If man is envisioned as machine, man is easy enough to not worry about, right? You could argue we all need each-other and a cohesive society to survive, but hey, if I am the only one smart enough to understand man is just a machine, then its okay if I use society to get what I want, isn’t it? You know, dig a pit for my neighbor, use others, those sorts of things. Can’t we become the special people in society described by Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Certainly he was just trying to reason himself to logic beyond emotion. Alas, poor Raskolnikov fell prey to his emotions. He just wasn’t quite logical and special enough.
Certainly many of those trying to explain away religion, myth, and spirituality develop a certain contempt for it. Just look read some of the writings of Dawkins, Harris or their acolytes on the web. The ridicule and contempt is enormous and the polemic tone unmistakable. As a physician with a healthy sense of reverence for life, I would hate to see the same become of the human body or the brain. I fear it would undermine our profession. I fear we could destroy ourselves.
Hopefully I am just a melodramatic alarmist, but I look at these things things and I fear. So I write and I fight back with the unempiric truths burned into my soul by the spirit of God.