There is enough right about David Gelernter’s essay The Closing of the Scientific Mind to make it important to recognize where he has gone wrong. His willingness to call out certain kinds of widely popular modern errors is admirable, but does not preserve him from having made some rather more traditional errors of his own.
The problem is not in Dr. Gelernter’s indictment of reductive materialism. In his terms, I’m a materialist myself, but I sympathize with his complaint. I cringe, sometimes, at the clumsy eagerness some materialists display to throw out subjectivity and anything else that they fear might let the camel’s nose of religion back into the tent.
What Dr. Gelernter has right is that the reductionists have overreached, tending to hammer flat the texture of human experience as it is actually lived and to react with wholly inappropriate fury when someone like Thomas Nagel suggests that there may be phenomena of consciousness that can only be understood from within a frame that includes consciousness.
Thomas Nagel may be right or he may be wrong – but the questions he is trying to ask and formulate are important ones, not to be dismissed out of what Dr. Gelernter describes (with some justice) as “cowardice”.
But Dr. Gelernter’s rebuttal suffers from overreach of its own. He writes as though the reductionists are merely having some inexplicable sort of tantrum, rather than being energized by the terrifying reality behind the camel’s nose. It is 2014 and religious suicide bombers have shrapnel-stormed schoolbuses full of children so often that we have grown numbed to the horror. More prosaically, creationists are trying to ban the teaching of science. Wholesale revulsion against faith-driven thinking is more reasonable – and the reductionist excesses it motivates as a reaction correspondingly less unreasonable – than Dr. Gelernter is willing to admit.
A graver problem is that Dr. Gelernter’s counterargument smells like an attempt to smuggle religious particularism back into the tent while pretending he is talking in a philosophically neutral way. It is hard not to suspect this when he sets up his argument in part by speaking of “religious discoveries” as though we are all expected to believe this is a combination of words that makes obvious and actual sense.
This tendency is further on display in Dr. Gelernter’s attack on Ray Kurzweil’s transhumanism. Whether Kurzweil’s predictions are right or wrong isn’t any more the point here than whether Thomas Nagel’s attempt to rescue subjectivity nails all the details. No: the problem is that when Dr. Gelernter writes sentences like “Whether he knows it or not, Kurzweil believes in and longs for the death of mankind.”, Dr. Gelernter is presuming an authority to define “humanity” that he does not actually possess.
I have a friend who, after cataract surgery, can see into the ultraviolet. And several others with cochlear implants that use microprocessors to feed sound into their auditory nerves. Are these not humans? There are other people experimenting with artificial senses even as we speak – as one example, with coated implanted ball bearings inserted under the skin of fingertips giving them a useful ability to sense magnetic fields. Are *these* not humans?
Where, and on what principles, does Dr. Gelernter propose to draw a line? If his hypothetical “man with stainless steel skin, a small nuclear reactor for a stomach, and an IQ of 10,000” were to appear and assert himself to share the condition of humanity, what position would Dr. Gelernter be in to deny this? And, as an observant Jew who necessarily lives in the shadow of the Holocaust, does Dr. Gelernter really want to be in the position of denying the humanity of any being that claims it?
Behind Dr. Gelernter’s outrage about the supposed inhumanity of Kurzweil’s vision there lurks, rather obviously, the religious notion that [sic] “mankind” is created in the image and likeness of God, and what Kurzweil desires to construct as our future is a species of blasphemy. Without this covert religious premise – without the horror of blasphemy and Godlessness – Dr. Gelernter’s essay dissolves into a disconnected ramble among trends not obviously connected except by Dr. Gelernter’s dislike of them.
This is unfortunate, because it damages Dr. Gelernter’s credibility in arguing a case that genuinely needs to be made. There is something gone very badly wrong when science and philosophy banish the primary data of human experience and emotion from the discussion and ignore the embodiedness of our consciousness. Dr. Gelernter’s plea for cognitive scientists to attend to what he calls “subjective humanism” is much the best-argued and strongest part of his essay. It is a damned shame when a critic of their failure as sharp and well-equipped as Dr. Gelernter then promptly exiles himself to the box marked “religious conservative – epistemologically insane – ignore”.
To actually be in the game, Dr. Gelernter needs to do better than merely attacking what he calls “computationalism” – because there really isn’t anywhere else to land. If the mind and brain are not entirely computational machines causally entangled with the material universe, what else are they? What else could they be, even in principle?
I have shown elsewhere, in my essay “Predictability, Computability, and Free Will”, that the intuitive model of human minds as containing some sort of autonomous uncaused cause, anything that would make them other than computational machines, rapidly leads to nonsense. We can, it turns out, purchase ontological specialness only at the cost of losing any warrant to believe in reliable causation at all.
Therefore, the true challenge before us is to construct a respectful, humane account of subjectivity and “sanctity of life” that fits with computationalism. Dr. Gelernter is right to blast large swathes of computer science, philosophy, and cognitive science for ducking this problem by chucking subjectivity out the window – but he can be no help in fixing this as long as the answer lurking behind his critique is “the breath of God”.
This may sound like a specific objection to religion, but it is not. The real problem with the breath of God, if there is such a thing, is that it’s an uncaused cause that intrinsically destroys our ability to form predictive theories. Even if Dr. Gelernter were to disclaim his religion, any attempt to locate some special cause of subjectivity outside the mechanism would have the same problem; it could succeed only to the extent that it destroys our ability to do any science at all.
My challenge to Dr. Gelernter, then, is to choose: are you a scientist or a believer in acausal miracles? You only get to choose one.