The Mill to Power

Reading about Searle’s Chinese Room Argument at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I came across “Leibniz’s Mill” for the first time. At least, I think it was the first time:

It must be confessed, however, that perception, and that which depends upon it, are inexplicable by mechanical causes, that is to say, by figures and motions. Supposing that there were a machine whose structure produced thought, sensation, and perception, we could conceive of it as increased in size with the same proportions until one was able to enter into its interior, as he would into a mill. Now, on going into it he would find only pieces working upon one another, but never would he find anything to explain perception. It is accordingly in the simple substance, and not in the compound nor in a machine that the perception is to be sought. Furthermore, there is nothing besides perceptions and their changes to be found in the simple substance. And it is in these alone that all the internal activities of the simple substance can consist. (Monadology, 1714, section #17)

Andererseits muß man gestehen, daß die Vorstellungen, und Alles, was von ihnen abhängt, aus mechanischen Gründen, dergleichen körperliche Gestalten und Bewegungen sind, unmöglich erklärt werden können. Man stelle sich eine Maschine vor, deren Structur so eingerichtet sei, daß sie zu denken, zu fühlen und überhaupt vorzustellen vermöge und lasse sie unter Beibehaltung derselben Verhältnisse so anwachsen, daß man hinein, wie in das Gebäude einer Mühle eintreten kann. Dies vorausgesetzt, wird man bei Besichtigung des Innern nichts Anderes finden, als etliche Triebwerke, deren eins das andere bewegt, aber gar nichts, was hinreichen würde, den Grund irgend einer Vorstellung abzugeben. Die letztere gehört ausschließlich der einfachen Substanz an, nicht der zusammengesetzten, und dort, nicht hier, muß man sie suchen. Auch sind Vorstellungen und ihre Veränderungen zugleich das Einzige, was man in der einfachen Substanz antrifft. (Monadologie, 1714)

We can see that Leibniz’s argument applies to mechanism in general, not simply to the machines he could conceive in his own day. He’s claiming that consciousness isn’t corporeal. It can’t generated by interacting parts or particles. And intuitively, he seems to be right. How could a machine or mechanism, however complicated, be conscious? Intuition would say that it couldn’t. But is intuition correct? If we examine the brain, we see that consciousness begins with mechanism. Vision and the other senses are certainly electro-chemical processes in the beginning. Perhaps in the end too.

Some puzzles arise if we assume otherwise. If consciousness isn’t mechanistic, how does it interact with mechanism? If it’s immaterial, how does it interact with matter? But those questions go back much further, to Greek atomists like Democritus (c. 460-370 BC):

Δοκεῖ δὲ αὐτῶι τάδε· ἀρχὰς εἶναι τῶν ὅλων ἀτόμους καὶ κενόν, τὰ δ’ἀλλα πάντα νενομίσθαι.

He taught that the first principles of the universe are atoms and void; everything else is merely thought to exist.

Νόμωι (γάρ φησι) γλυκὺ καὶ νόμωι πικρόν, νόμωι θερμόν, νόμωι ψυχρόν, νόμωι χροιή, ἐτεῆι δὲ ἄτομα καὶ κενόν.

By convention sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void. (Democritus at Wikiquote)

Patterns of unconscious matter and energy influence consciousness and are perhaps entirely responsible for it. The patterns are tasteless, soundless, colourless, scentless, neither hot nor cold – in effect, units of information pouring through the circuits of reality. But are qualia computational? I think they are. I don’t think it’s possible to escape matter or mechanism and I certainly don’t think it’s possible to escape mathematics. But someone who thinks it’s possible to escape at least the first two is the Catholic philosopher Edward Feser. I wish I had come across his work a long time ago, because he raises some very interesting questions in a lucid way and confirms the doubts I’ve had for a long time about Richard Dawkins and other new atheists. His essay “Schrödinger, Democritus, and the paradox of materialism” (2009) is a good place to start.


Elsewhere other-posted:

Double Bubble
This Mortal Doyle
The Brain in Pain
The Brain in Train

This Mortal Doyle

Challenger chopped and changed. That is to say, in one important respect, Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Professor Challenger lacked continuity. His philosophical views weren’t consistent. At one time he espoused materialism, at another he opposed it. He espoused it in “The Land of Mist” (1927):

“Don’t tell me, Daddy, that you with all your complex brain and wonderful self are a thing with no more life hereafter than a broken clock!”

“Four buckets of water and a bagful of salts,” said Challenger as he smilingly detached his daughter’s grip. “That’s your daddy, my lass, and you may as well reconcile your mind to it.”

But earlier, in “The Poison Belt” (1913), he had opposed it:

“No, Summerlee, I will have none of your materialism, for I, at least, am too great a thing to end in mere physical constituents, a packet of salts and three bucketfuls of water. Here ― here” ― and he beat his great head with his huge, hairy fist ― “there is something which uses matter, but is not of it ― something which might destroy death, but which death can never destroy.”

That story was published just over a century ago, but Challenger’s boast has not been vindicated in the meantime. So far as science can see, matter rules mind, not vice versa. Conan Doyle thought the same as the earlier Challenger, but Conan Doyle’s rich and teeming brain seems to have ended in “mere physical constituents”. To all appearances, when the organization of his brain broke down, so did his consciousness. And that concluded the cycle described by A.E. Housman in “Poem XXXII” of A Shropshire Lad (1896):

From far, from eve and morning
  And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
  Blew hither: here am I.

Now – for a breath I tarry
  Nor yet disperse apart –
Take my hand quick and tell me,
  What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
  How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
  I take my endless way. (ASL, XXXII)

Continue reading This Mortal Doyle

Double Bubble

The most mysterious thing in the universe is also the most intimate: consciousness. It’s an inti-mystery, something we experience constantly at first hand and yet cannot describe or explain. We are each a double bubble: a bubble of flesh and a bubble of conscious experience. The second bubble bursts regularly, when we sleep. Sooner or later, the first bubble will burst too, when we die. And that will be it for the second bubble, the bubble of consciousness. Or will it? Can consciousness survive death? Can it exist without a material substrate? Or without a particular kind of material substrate: the soggy, sparky substance of the brain? Can the clean, dry metal of a computer be conscious? Who knows? The double bubble attracts lots of double-u’s: what, where, why, when, (w)how. What is consciousness? What is its relation to matter? Is it king or courtier? Where does it exist? Why does it exist? When? And how?

Continue reading Double Bubble