Does Mind Matter?

 

Who would not think, to see us compounding everything of mind and

matter, that such a mixture is perfectly intelligible to us?  Yet

this is the thing we understand least; man is to himself the greatest

prodigy in nature, for he cannot conceive what body is, and still

less what mind is, and least of all how a body can be joined to a

mind.  This is his supreme difficulty, and yet it is his very being.

Blaise Pascal1

(17th Century)

 

 

Kasparov himself, in explaining how he eventually beat the machine, wrote, I changed slightly the order of a well-known opening sequence.  Because it was unable to compare this new position meaningfully with similar ones in its database, it had to start calculating away and was unable to find a good plan.  A human would have simply wondered, ‘what’s Garry up to?,’ judged the change to be meaningless and moved on.2 Was this the limit for a machine?  Will there always be that gap between calculation and consciousness or have we just not had enough time to put a mind into this machine?

To many, these issues of the technology age signify the end of the reign of materialism over the soul of man.  George Gilder of the Discovery Institute wrote, “For the central fact of the twentieth century is not the overthrow of the mind, but the overthrow of matter.”3 He refers to the demise of the last two hundred years of scientific thinking that man is just a glob of protoplasm that learned to speak.  He goes on to say, “From Marxism to behavioralism, from routine evolutionism to logical positivism, from deconstructionism to reflex psychology, scientists and scholars produced an unending stream of theories that reduced man to a mechanism.”4 The old naturalistic view is that as man and his brain organism evolved, the idea of consciousness was produced by the advanced brain.  But now, with the coming of quantum physics and the separation of matter and energy (a subject for another time), Gilder says, “We find a high drama of richly intelligible activity where electrons combine and disappear without occupying conventional time or space, and things obey the laws of mind rather than the laws of matter.”5 That is to say, materialists can account for the matter in the universe but they cannot explain where the intelligence, consciousness or thought come from.

So when this month’s issue of Time Magazine asks the question “Can Machines Think?,” they are equally asking, “Does man have an immaterial part to him that we will never be able to build into a machine? Does man have a soul?”  Time highlights two robots, Cog and Cyc, which are stretching the limits of “AI” (artificial intelligence) but has to conclude, “With AI, the tenets of strict materialism are being realized–and found, by some at least, incapable of explaining certain parts of human experience.  Namely, the experience part.”6

In more common language this is like asking, “Will computers become so complex that eventually they will develop (or evolve) their own conscious will and take over?”  After all, we already speak of computers being ill with a “virus.”  Time reports that next month an ecobiologist in Japan will release a tiny self-reproducing program onto the Internet (an experiment called “digital biodiversity reserve”), a “virtual organism” which will quickly “populate the network and begin to evolve.”7 (Insert Twilight Zone music here)

A few years ago, Neil Postman wrote of this concern.  He said, The computer, it is implied, has a will, has intentions, has reasons—which means that humans are relieved of responsibility for the computer’s decisions.  Through a curious form of grammatical alchemy, the sentence ‘we use the computer to calculate’ comes to mean ‘the computer calculates.’  ‘The computer shows’ or ‘the computer has determined.’  It is Technopoly’s equivalent of the sentence ‘It is God’s will.’8 This directs our attention to the question of moral authority.

Has this latest form of art, the technological machine, illustrated for us and convinced us that man is a machine as well?  Just as the computer has evolved to the point where wires, chips and plugs actually think for themselves, so man has evolved to the point where tissue, blood and mucus have developed consciousness? Ravi Zacharias writes, “Fyodor Dostoevsky predicted that at first art would imitate life, then life would imitate art, and finally, that life would draw the very reason for its existence from art.”9 The materialist, anyway, has long thought that the mind came from a brain, not the brain from a Mind.

The good news is that the more science has tried to produce consciousness from matter, the less it has succeeded.  The new experiments with robotics, computers and even quantum physics have only shown that mind, consciousness and “being” stand apart from the material universe and cannot be explained by it.  But C.S. Lewis warned us fifty years ago, The extreme limit of this self-binding is seen in those who, like the rest of us, have consciousness, yet go about to study the human organism as if they did not know it was conscious.  As long as this deliberate refusal to understand things from above, even where such understanding is possible, continues, it is idle to talk of any final victory over materialism.10

Perhaps one day we will learn, as Time mused, you don’t invite a forklift to a weightlifting competition!  But more is at stake still, with our materialistic generation than chess matches and tests of strength.  We have been conditioned in every modern way possible to live in this world as though there is no other.  We have, in the now familiar words, created God in our own image.  In a very real way, to the materialist, the only god there is, the only real consciousness, is a product of the material world.  Our soul is only an unexplained energy field produced by selective evolution.

Jesus said, “A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:15).  He then added a parable of a rich man whom we could rightfully call a materialist.  He lived only for the material things which he could collect and finally thought, “I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry” (vs 19).  Can there be any doubt that our materialistic age has adopted this attitude?  (Don’t we often define heaven or eveen spirituality by the absence of material things rather than by the presence of the spiritual?)

Jesus had an answer for this man and for every age of materialism:  “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?” (vs 20).  Then He said to the disciples, “The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment” (vs 23).  God has devised a final exam for the question of mind and matter.  It is called death.  You can guess at the answer, or ignore the evidence but you can’t skip the exam!

I return to Pascal for this final observation:  Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.  There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him.  But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him.  The universe knows none of this.

Thus all dignity consists in thought.  It is on thought that we must depend for our recovery, not on space and time, which we could never fill.  Let us then strive to think well; that is the basic principle of morality.11

 

Rick Shrader

 

Notes:

1. Blaise Pascal, Pensees (London: Penquin Books, 1966) p. 94.

2. “Can Machines Think?” Time, March 25, 1966, p. 55.

3. George Gilder,”The Materialist Superstition” The Intercollegiate Review, Spring, 1996, p. 8.

4. Gilder, p. 7.

5. Gilder, p. 11.

6. “Can Machines Think?” p. 55.

7. “Can Machines Think?” p. 58.

8. Neil Postman, Technopoly (New York: Vintage Books, 1993) p. 114-115.

9. Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994) p. 73.

10. C.S. Lewis, The Weight Of Glory (New York:  Macmillan, 1980) p. 72.

11. Pascal, p. 95.