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About this episode:
The human brain is an amazingly complex organ. But can a naturalistic worldview account for the nature of consciousness? And if we live in a physically determined universe, can we speak of free will?
Daniel C Dennett is Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University,USA and a leading naturalist voice in the philosophy of mind. His books include Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon and From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. Dennett has been counted among the four so-called ‘horsemen of the new atheism’. He believes that brains, mind and consciousness can be explained in purely material terms.
Keith Ward is a British philosopher and former Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University as well as being an ordained priest in the Church of England. His books include Why There Almost certainly is a God and More than Matter. Ward holds to an idealist view of the mind, believing that consciousness is the primary reality upon which the material world is dependent and that our existence as conscious self-aware creatures is dependent on an ultimate mind – God.
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More from this season:
- Episode 1: The psychology of belief: Do we need God to make sense of life?
- Episode 2: The future of humanity: Have science, reason and humanism replaced faith?
- Episode 3: The search for happiness: Can we have meaning without God?
- Episode 4: Science, faith and the evidence for God
- Episode 6: Evolution, morality and being human: Do we need God to be good?
Justin Brierley (JB), Daniel Dennet (DD) & Keith Ward (KW)
JB: Welcome to The Big Conversation here on Unbelievable with me, Justin Brierley. The Big Conversation is a series of shows exploring faith, science, philosophy, and what it means to be human, in association with the Templeton Religion Trust.
Today, our conversation topic is; Are we more than matter? Debating mind, consciousness and free will.
The Big Conversation partners I’m sitting down with today are Daniel Dennet and Keith Ward.
Daniel C Dennet is professor of Philosophy at Tuffs university in the USA, well known for his work in the philosophy of mind. His books include, ‘Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon’ and, ‘From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds’. Dan is an atheist and has even been counted among the four so called horsemen of the new atheism. He believes that brains, minds and consciousness can be explained in purely material terms with no need for anything other than a naturalist view of reality.
Keith Ward is a British philosopher who has held various positions including Regus Professor of Divinity at Oxford University. He is currently professor at Roehampton University. He’s a Christian and an ordained priest in the Church of England. His books include, ‘Why there almost certainly is a God’ and ‘More than matter’. Keith holds to an idealist view of the mind believing that consciousness is the primary reality upon which the material world is dependent and that our existence as conscious, self-aware creatures is dependent on an ultimate mind; God.
So Keith and Daniel welcome along to the programme.
We’re going to be talking about consciousness, the mind, free will, huge topics and we won’t be able to do them full justice in the course of the time we have today. But perhaps before we get into it, a little introduction to you both.
Dan, are you happy to wear the label atheist? Is that something you’ve called yourself for a long time?
DD: I’m happy to wear the label. For years I didn’t bother, but then it seemed that, especially in the United States, there was a sort of theocratic boom and it seemed important just to tell people. You don’t have to make a big deal of it, just say, no, I’m an atheist, and you know a lot of atheists. A lot of Americans need to hear that.
JB: In that sense, do you find that your atheism guides you in a specific way or is it a specific outlook on life in any way that atheism…?
DD: It’s just the naturalist outlook. I mean, I don’t believe in anything supernatural. So, take on the burden of explaining all the wonderful things in the world in terms that are scientifically acceptable and go for it.
JB: And does that, for you, equate then to a naturalist perspective, being that all that ultimately does exist is material stuff, matter, energy and so on?
DD: And so on. Yes, information exists. It’s not in a special medium, it always has to be in some physical medium. But you really have to consider information in your theory and this has been recognised by people say, in physics, for many years. Norbert Wiener put it very clearly, it’s impossible to be a modern materialist without adding information to your list. It’s neither matter nor energy.
JB: And when it comes to the philosophy of mind, do you find that, by and large, a naturalist perspective is the dominant one these days when it comes to explaining consciousness?
DD: Certainly in the areas that I work in, in cognitive science and naturalistic philosophy, it’s entirely dominant. There is a backwater movement which has got some adherence which is pushing non-naturalist lines. Pan-pyschism and dualism of various sorts are currently being enthusiastically explored by a few people.
JB: Well, I’m looking forward to the conversation with you. And I think it’s the first time you’ve met Keith and been able to have a dialogue so I’m really pleased to be able to bring you both together.
Keith, I think you’re one of the foremost people, probably in the world, when it comes to an idealist perspective on consciousness and mind. We’ll get you to explain that in a bit more detail in a moment, but you yourself are a Christian. Is that unusual, in the world of philosophy in your experience, to be a Christian?
KW: Well, I’m part of the backwater. In England it’s not really unusual, although I think most philosophers who teach in universities in England aren’t very interested in religion. In truth, on the whole they’re not every interested in large-scale metaphysical views at all so they do different things.
There are quite a number of quite notable philosophers who are either religious or specifically Christian. My colleague Richard Swinburne is one example but there are others. So, it’s quite a large backwater but it’s probably a minority. Well, it is a minority.
JB: I think you’ve both been involved in philosophy of mind for a similar length of time. In fact, I think you both shared a teacher in the past, Gilbert Ryle, who, as far as I’m aware, Keith, was more in line with Dan’s view on the nature of mind than yours?
KW: Well, I don’t think he was in line with either of our views as I understand him because he was very much influenced by someone called J L Austin who is associated with ordinary language philosophy. And I think Gilbert Ryle had always said to me that he didn’t have to know anything about psychology at all.
DD: That’s true, and he didn’t!
KW: But he was interested in the use of the words that people used about it. He’s intelligent, or he knows something, he has dreams. He was interested in the uses of language. And I think, well, I was certainly more metaphysically minded. I wanted to say, ‘what’s stuff made of, ultimately’? But he didn’t think that was very interesting question.
JB: Well, let’s explore your sort of area and your worldview, Keith, if you like, of what stuff is ultimately made of? You’re an idealist; could you explain what an idealist is?
KW: Yes, a lot of people think an idealist is somebody who has rather impractical moral ideals but it’s not that at all. It is saying that consciousness or mind is the best known, most immediately known, and probably ontologically prior – that is the thing which exists in its own sake – and that the material world is, in some sense, a logical construction out of that consciousness.
Interestingly, the person I think we both came across when we were in Oxford, A J Ayer, was an idealist in this sense. He thought that what the stuff of reality is, what he calls ‘’sense data’, which are perceptions really. And perceptions are conscious things and so the British empiricist tradition was always to say, in the 18th century, that all knowledge comes from experience and experience is conscious experience. So, that’s where I start, from that very old British tradition really.
JB: And that, I suppose, in a sense, is true that everything we do know of is mediated by our senses. There is a sense in which we are absolutely bound by sight, taste, touch and everything else.
Is that the sense in which you would say that the consciousness is primary; in that we are ultimately, our experience of everything has to be mediated by consciousness?
KW: Yes. There are two main philosophical approaches to this; one is phenomenology which is mostly continental, Europe. And that is, you start philosophy by asking the question; What is it like to experience something? Or what’s the nature of experience? So, you are starting from experience and you would probably never say that you could eliminate that. That’s the starting point. And then you ask; What is it like to fear? What is it like to have anxiety? The whole of existentialist philosophy starts there.
And then there’s a rather different empiricist tradition which concentrates on sense perceptions but doesn’t assume that sense perceptions come through the body. Philosophers of this sort carry out thought experiments; could you have visual perceptions and oral perceptions without a body? Could they exist? And people like me find we think it’s logically possible.
And so that’s a sort of key move. If you start from experience and you are not going to eliminate it, then your problem is, what is the material universe? It’s not the other way around.
JB: So, it’s almost the opposite way around, in a sense, to the view that Dan takes that consciousness and mental stuff is dependent on, if you like, material stuff. Yours is the view, quite the opposite, that consciousness and mental activity comes first and that is…
KW: It certainly comes first in the order of knowledge and then there’s the question, does that mean it comes first in real fact? A person who is an idealist would say, yes, that’s the… certainly a possibility.
JB: We’ll come into talking about why you believe this is the case, but how does this all for you point back to God, ultimately then?
KW: Well, it’s slightly independent. I mean, a lot of idealists wouldn’t use the word God because God has a personal sense about it. And so the philosophy of idealism and its major proponents like Emmanuel Kant and Hegel wouldn’t be God in the sense in which Christians talk about God. It would be something rather more abstract, more metaphysical really.
But I would use the word God, of course. So, my Christian faith is more dependent on various sorts of personal experience than on philosophy. But they have a natural affinity. If you believe in God it’s fairly natural to say, oh, that fits into a view of saying consciousness is a primary element of reality.
JB: And in that sense, is everything that exists, in your view, in some sense, exists because it exists within the consciousness of God?
KW: Yes. And as a hypothesis I would say it has to do that. There has to be some consciousness. That’s the hypothesis.
JB: Thank you very much for helping us to understand the idealist perspective.
In what sense then could you lay out, Dan, your view as a naturalist of how mind emerges from material stuff and natural stuff?
DD: In fact, Keith’s account of idealism provides a very nice background for saying what the difference is. He says that sense experience, conscious experience comes first in the order of knowledge. And it’s first in one sense, you have to be awake and have experiences to start learning about science. But when you do, what you discover is that, not only do your senses deceive you, but sometimes you were wrong about your very own experience. You are not the authoritative, infallible, internal witness that you think you are.
And if you want to understand science, and I think an idealist has two choices; they can either just ignore science, material science, physical science. Or they can somehow couch it within their idealistic framework and then take it very seriously. But if you do that it undermines your idealist foundations in sometimes spectacular ways.
And what we’re learning is that our own experience, the experience that we have untutored and just by being awake, the experience that is first in knowledge according to Keith, turns out to depend on unbelievably complex and fascinating and sophisticated unconscious computations that go on in our brain. So, the naturalist says, well, let’s study that. Let’s see if we can figure out how brains work.
And either you have to deny that brains have anything to do with consciousness or you have to take that seriously. And when you do you begin to discover that consciousness, the consciousness that we all enjoy, is not what we thought it was. It’s not an inner show at all. It’s a way of being in the world and of being knowledgeable and adroit and adept in the world. And the models that we are developing in cognitive science can account for vast stretches of that capacity better than we can.
If I ask you, tell me what you see right now. And you say, well, I see your face and I see your nose… How do you do that? Your lips move, something in your brain gets you talking, you have no access to yourself to have you framed that sentence and how you relied on your current experience. It just seems obvious but, in fact, there is a lot going on inside there that we have to untangle. And when we do that, from a naturalist point of view, the idealist position looks fundamentally backward. It looks like just grabbing the wrong end of the stick.
JB: I’ll let Keith respond to that in a moments time. But what I’m hearing from you there, Dan, is that because we have been able to investigate the material stuff of the brain and see the connections and see that when we do things to the brain, it changes the perceptions people have and their conscious experience and everything else, that it gives us evidence that all of that consciousness is strictly dependent on the physical state of the brain in that sense? (DD: Oh, that’s just obvious)
Nonetheless, it is an extraordinary organ, isn’t it, the brain. When you consider that, on a naturalist perspective even, inanimate atoms have come to reflect upon themselves, it is an extraordinary thing. In that sense, do you feel that there’s still an element of mystery there or are you happy to say, no, I think we really can ultimately…
DD: I think we really can; it’s a puzzle. And it’s what I call the hard question. Not the hard problem, but the hard question. The hard question is, and then what happens? That is, alright, you’ve got this analysis of information coming in from the senses, for instance, and then what happens?
There’s a whole story to be told about how we use it, how it modifies our beliefs, our emotions, our memories, our personalities and what we say next, and what our projects are. And, mostly, even scientists have sort of stopped at consciousness as if that was the finish line. No, that’s not the finish line, that’s only half way through and we have to do, and then what happens? And only when we can explain how consciousness, not only moves our bodies and gets our lips moving, but feeds back on itself and permits us to reflect and reflect and reflect.
And it’s only when you’ve got an account of the actual brain mechanisms that makes this incredible reflective capacity available then you’re really beginning to explain consciousness.
JB: Keith, as an idealist then, what’s your problem with this particular account of the way that the material brain can quite satisfactorily account for all of our conscious states and that sort of thing?
KW: Well, first of all, to begin with, I absolutely think it’s important to take scientific knowledge about the brain and about the world seriously and I do want to do that. I don’t want to include that in some preordained idealist picture but I want to understand how it is that the physical structures of the brain interacts with consciousness.
Having said that, I don’t, either, think that we have infallible knowledge of what’s going on in our minds and consciousness and I agree that a lot of what we are conscious of is caused by the brain. And if something is wrong with your brain then typically something is wrong with what you understand your consciousness to be. So, it’s not an infallible thing consciousness.
But I think it is a thing in the broadest sense, that is to say, if you made a list of the items that exist in the universe and you had electrons and quarks and super strings and whatever – brains of course -you’d also have to add a consciousness because I don’t… I’m not convinced that a study of the brain will ever answer the question how consciousness originates. I don’t see how that could be done because you could say, well, when a brain of some sort is in a certain configuration then consciousness occurs. That seems to me to be a causal relationship which is contingent; it could have been different.
JB: Just explain that a bit more. What’s the problem with the idea of consciousness arising by particular combinations of neurochemicals and so on?
KW: Well, because a combination of neurons and chemicals is exactly that. You could know all about that and not know about there being any consciousness.
Take an example, which appeals to me, about an ant. Think of an ant; Is an ant conscious? Well, I really think we don’t know. I don’t think ants are conscious, personally, but I really don’t know. Now, if I asked that question, I’m asking whether there is something about an ant that physical inspection cannot decide. So, I don’t think any physical inspection of an ant will tell you whether it is conscious. So, that’s how it seems to me.
JB: It’s something you could only experience directly itself in a sense?
KW: That’s a problem for an idealist that you can’t ever experience directly anybody else’s consciousness. But I do think that I experience directly my own consciousness and that I know when I am aware of something, not infallibly, but at least I know when I am aware. And I think that’s something additional to any physical description of what’s happening in my brain.
JB: It sounds a bit like, what Keith’s describing there, I could be wrong, is something along the lines of the hard problem of consciousness?
Dan, do you want to explain what that is and what your response to it is, why you don’t think it’s a problem?
DD: The philosopher David Chalmers dubbed something the ‘Higher Problem’ and it’s just the problem that Keith outlined, that is, what is there in addition to the adroitness of the ant, for David doesn’t settle anything. Is it conscious? And how do we tell the difference between a zombie which is just as animated as Keith there but for all we know isn’t conscious?
And I think this is a subtle trick, like a magician’s trick, which gets our imaginations off on the wrong foot. I don’t think there is a Higher Problem, it’s just Chalmers… a baptism of this Higher Problem which got people convinced there is a Higher Problem. When he first introduced it I said, this is just vitalism reborn. After all there’s the Higher Problem of whether something is alive. How do we know the ants alive? Well, look at it. Well, that doesn’t prove it, it might just be a robot. I mean, maybe it’s a zombie ant, or maybe it’s not even alive.
Now, physicists, biologists, they don’t argue about this. The line between living and not living is not an interesting theoretical line. We’ve learned… well, are proteins alive? Are motor proteins alive or are they just little robots? Are cells alive? How about viruses? Don’t ask. We understand that the complexity gradually creates things which are manifestly alive.
JB: And we don’t have to create a strict cut off…
DD: And there is no élan vital, there is no extra substance that you have to put in there that distinguishes the living from the un-living. As many people thought, those were the vitalists. And I think that Chalmers, and Keith here on his own expression, they’re remaking the vitalist mistake and now they simply moved up a notch and they say, there’s an extra something which is consciousness which has nothing – and Chalmers is very clear about this – has nothing to do with all the things that I study about conscious and nothing to do with the ability to answer questions or to have your memory adjusted or to change your beliefs or become, you know, get converted religiously. All of those things, those are the easy problems of consciousness. The only problem left over is, well, are you conscious? And in that sense, it looks exactly like vitalism.
When I put it to David that that’s what it is he said, no, it isn’t, the problems are entirely different.
JB: Well, we don’t have David here but we do have Keith. So, Keith, what do you make of the way that Dan has laid out the hard problem of consciousness there?
KW: Well, I don’t think vitalism is a problem of any sort. Because, as far as I can see, to describe a thing as living is to talk about its reproductive capacities and its behavioural capacities and that’s okay. And I think you can have a very shady boundary in deciding whether you call a bacterium alive or not.
But consciousness is not like that. It’s not a decision about whether to call something conscious or not, it’s a real fact. You want to know do ants have feelings? And a feeling is something that, I know I have feelings. I started life as a musician so, to me, music is very important. And music is consciously perceived. I mean, if it wasn’t consciously perceived, I wouldn’t be interested in it.
So, whatever is going on in my brain to produce me enjoying music, that doesn’t explain my enjoyment of the music. That’s an inner experience that nobody else can share. How I think of Wagner’s Ring is totally different from the way that some other people think of it. But it’s the same experience, the same things are happening, the same electrochemical wavelengths are going along, the same neurons are firing perhaps…
JB: And is it the case that, in your view, the fact that you could look at a person’s brain when they are listening to Wagner and say, oh, I can see neurons firing and brain chemistry going on… that cannot be equated with the same thing of experience of hearing music?
KW: Exactly. It’s not an identity… there’s no identity between finding blood flow in the brain or electrical activity in the brain and whatever it is that they are enjoying when they enjoy a piece of music.
JB: In that sense, it is a qualitative difference?
KW: It’s a qualitative difference. And also one which is, it’s not like vitalism because it’s not – in vitalism there is nothing extra which makes something alive. You describe it by describing the biological facts – but I do think with consciousness there is something extra. There could be a zombie. There could be a person just like me but wasn’t conscious. There probably could be, somebody could make one.
You get the same problem with a robot. If you made a robot which you couldn’t tell the difference in this famous Turing test, you couldn’t tell the difference between it and a human being, there would still be a question which you couldn’t resolve; is it actually having experiences? And you wouldn’t be able to answer that question.
JB: And this is a live discussion, obviously, with the advent of artificial intelligence and so on.
But, ultimately, when it comes down to it, the fact that you think that you cannot equate a brain state with the actual experience of listening to Wagner or seeing the colour red or whatever it might be, means that, for you, this consciousness is something qualitatively different from the material?
KW: Well, it’s not only that, you see. It’s not just a hypothetical thing. It’s the what makes my life worthwhile is my conscious experiences and how I cope with them. And my brain – I’d go along with whatever people tell me about my brain and that might be very important – but it’s not what I’m primarily concerned with.
I’m fascinated to know what happens in my brain when I listen to Wagner, but what I am primarily concerned with is how meaningful it is to me and the difference it makes to my life. And that is something no physicist can…
DD: But then you should be interested in asking the hard question; and then what happens? So, the music is very meaningful. So, now there’s lots of things going on in your brain which are, in fact, embodying that very meaningfulness, that very responsiveness and the fact that it makes a difference.
And here, if we look at cases of brain damage, we see people who have locked in syndrome or who are in a comatose or vegetative state and there’s all sorts of different varieties of this, if you read Adrian Owen’s wonderful book on this.
And here’s a question for you; Suppose you were in one of those terrible states and you’re listening to Wagner. And if you’re really in a deep coma then I think you would say, well, then I’m not conscious, of course, it doesn’t matter what’s happening in my brain, I’m not enjoying it even.
Alright, so now we raise the level a bit and raise the level a bit, and this is analogous to moving on up through from proteins to the cells and to the ant and so forth. And, at some point – though not at some point that we can point to with a sharp line – we’re going to see a gradual accrual of the very things you’re talking about. The responsiveness, the meaningfulness, how it makes your life worth living. Something can’t make your life worth living unless it has an effect on your brain. It just can’t. And if you understood those then you would see that there was no charmed line where this something extra got added. There’s just more and more of making your life worth living.
And there are almost certainly states that you could be in; for instance, you’re loved ones might say, play Wagner through headphones into his ears this will give him solace. And they may not be able to tell now whether this is giving you solace but if they could read your brainwaves they might be able to say, yes, see, look at that. These are the reactions of a person who can enjoy, who is thrilled by the music even though he can’t talk.
And so there’s every imaginable variant from dead comatose to wide awake thrilled and at no point does a special extra thing called consciousness come into it.
KW: Well, I’m not at all happy about that. I agree that, of course, there are different degrees of consciousness. I agree also that the brain works and solves problems and things when you’re not conscious, I agree with that. So, I agree there is a causal connection between the brain. In my view, the brain does exist. I’m not an idealist who says there’s no brain! And the brain gives you access and if it’s working normally it would give you access that we call full consciousness. If it’s unusual in some way then that affects the quality of consciousness.
So, I see this as an access. The brain is an access machine to consciousness. So, to put this quite bluntly, if somebody suffers from Alzheimer’s then their memories are not retrievable by the brain, the brain has no access to those memories, But I actually think those memories continue to exist, but not in the physical brain. That’s my view.
JB: Why do you think that’s such a, you know, well, why do you disagree so strongly with that view, Dan?
DD: Well, Keith talks about the brain gives you access. Who’s this you? You are your living brain, close enough. There’s no extra Cartesian res cogitans that has access through the pineal to some things going on in the brain.
What access has to mean, in a naturalistic context is that, in effect, some parts of the brain have information that is retrievable by them, usable, that modulates their behaviour or not. And these access relations are being mapped out very clearly in these days, there are still some major puzzles, but when you talk about Alzheimer’s for instance, we can talk about the gradual dissolution of paths of access that are normally there and play very important roles.
But there’s never a place where we say, and here’s where the access to you as an ego, as an inner witness comes into the picture. That is the image which is deeply ingrained in our way of thinking. And it’s just time to learn how to disconnect it.
JB: As far as you are concerned then, that idea of personal identity is an illusion. We are simply the accumulated product of our brain states in that sense, if we are anything?
DD: It’s not an illusion in the sense there isn’t a continuing Keith and a continuing Justin. But it is an illusion if you think that there is a sort of an essential nugget which is you, which just happens to be in this body or just happens to be in that body. That idea, which is a very familiar idea from religions…
JB: Theologically we might call this the soul.
DD: We might indeed.
JB: And you’ve written on the concept of the soul. So what’s your view on this idea?
KW: I’m all in favour of the soul. This boils down to a second level. The first level of discussion really was whether there are things like perceptions and thoughts and feelings which you might say could exist as in Buddhism or as in David Hume perhaps as a series of somehow linked perceptions, thoughts and feelings. And so you’ve got this without a selfless series.
The second stage you say, well, is there anything that holds this series together? And I do believe, and idealists and dualists too, though I’m not a dualist, but idealists and dualists both think there is… you have to talk about not just a series of experiences – not infallibly known and not necessarily all connected together – but there is something which enables that to be known as a series.
So, my experiences of things I remember, the things I look forward to and, again, to take an example from music; if I hear the last chord of a Beethoven symphony, I hear it as the last chord of a symphony which is very different from just having an experience of a chord. So, memory is linked somehow and it’s a great problem for people in some Buddhist schools who think of the self as a chain of experiences. (DD: Yes, it is) And you have to say, well, then there must be something which is a subject of experience. So, experiences are possessed by something.
Now, I think Daniel might say the brain or part of the brain and I think, no, it’s nothing physical. You see, that’s the point. So, I wouldn’t call this supernatural but it’s not physical. So, it’s supranatural, that is to say, it doesn’t come within the physical realm of pubic verification.
JB: And the thing, the subject, that is experiencing and remembering and looking forward to, this is the immaterial me in a sense?
KW: Yes, it is.
JB: It is not a material thing. It cannot simply be the brain.
KW: It’s not the brain. So, I strongly don’t believe that I am my brain. I think my brain is part of me, I do think that. And I do think I am essentially embodied. Nevertheless, I do think I am essentially a subject of experiences.
JB: And what’s going on when you’re having – and we can’t avoid this language of I and you and me it’s deeply embedded as you say, Dan – but, nonetheless, you think we are wrong to sort of assume that there is a ghost in the machine as it were?
DD: There isn’t a ghost in the machine. What there is, is information. And information that is organised and that uses memory and anticipation to organise that information.
And that can be considered to be the sort of software that’s running on the brain. And when you learn a new language, you greatly enhance your competences, your talents and your proclivities and everything else. This is like downloading another app to your hardware.
Now, the brain’s a hardware but the organisation of the brain is the software. And that, what we can do as human beings depends very much on the software that we’ve downloaded through culture, on our language, and all our reading and the tricks that we’ve learned and the tools that we’ve learnt how to use, all of that has to be embodied in the brain. But it’s information. It can be passed from person to person. It doesn’t weigh anything. It’s like poetry.
JB: But, sticking with this computer analogy, I guess when I use a computer I can see the hardware, I know what the software does and the way that it processes everything. But there still has to be a me that it means anything to. It won’t mean anything to the computer, it’s just information.
DD: You’re the user of the computer. Who’s the user of the brain? And the answer is the brain. The brain, consciousness is the brain’s user illusion of itself. And it needs it. It needs it in order to simplify the task.
The brain is too complicated in its myriad details and the world is too complicated for the brain to deal adroitly with, so the brain has been designed to have user interfaces inside it that simplify it so that it makes things easy to track, easy to deal with, easy to recall in the same way that the screen on your laptop makes – you don’t want to know the complexities of what is going on inside your computer – so you have this very handy, very effective user interface, so called user illusion. And that’s what consciousness is; it’s a user illusion that is designed by evolution and by learning and by cultural evolution to make our brains capable of getting our bodies through this complicated world.
KW: Yes, see, at that point, I have to say that what you call an illusion is, to me, the most important thing there is.
DD: I’m even going to give you that.
This is Wilfrid Sellar’s concept of the manifest image. There’s the scientific world of quarks and protons and atoms and molecules and so forth. And then there’s the manifest image, the world of people and tables and chairs and music and songs and faces and beliefs and promises and all that good stuff. That’s the most important level. And all of that, the very existence, the very fact that we have these categories is due to this brilliant summarisation and extraction of important details from this booming confusion of atoms that is described as the scientific image.
KW: Well, my sense of the importance of my experience would be vastly undermined if I thought it was really all completely caused by booming conglomeration of atoms.
KW: Well, because that has no purpose. The laws of physics are completely purposeless; they just operate in accordance with whatever regularity there are. So, you lose the notion of purpose, really. Purpose is part of the illusion; in your inner experience you have purposes, but actually the brain doesn’t. So, if you’re going to say, this is produced by the brain, then you are really saying, well, the reality is not purposive, you just think you have purposes.
DD: Well, no. In fact, that’s in some ways the main theme of my latest book, ‘Bacteria to Bach and Back’, because one of the central philosophical themes in that book is showing how a purposeless process – natural selection – in a purposeless physical world, gradually creates purposes. And how we have purposes, our tools have purposes, our limbs have purposes, our eyes have purposes. Nature is awash in purposes. They are not generated from the top down by the great purpose giver, God, they emerge from the bottom up, from a purposeless process. That’s the genius of Darwin’s idea.
KW: Well, I think that’s a heroic project, but I don’t think it’s a possible one.
JB: Tell us why.
KW: Well, because purpose, if you think, something philosophers call intentionality, what you’re thinking of there is you have an idea in your mind and you’re going to, say, write a book next year. And so you think, you have an idea in your mind, you’re writing a book next year. This idea refers to something that is future, it’s not something that is actually present.
So, you don’t give it a complete description of the idea but just describing what’s actually in your mind at the moment because it has to refer to the future. And it’s very difficult. I think, for a materialist or a naturalist to say what it is about physical processes which don’t refer to the future because how could they? What would that mean?
The concept of something in your present behaviour being determined by the thought of something which doesn’t exist in the future and the purpose is you trying to get that. So, the idea it looks to the common sense as though your idea is having a causal effect but your idea of the future is having a causal effect. And I don’t think a physical description can cope with that idea which is about… it’s the aboutness.
JB: I mean, we’ll come back to in a moment, Dan, but from your point of view, Keith, what I’m hearing is that the idea of purpose has to have a reality to it. That it simply can’t have a purely physical explanation.
KW: Even Daniel says it emerges, the sense of purpose emerges from a non-purpose background. And I think it’s such a different concept, it’s’ the idea of causation by an idea of the future which is very different from causation by being pushed from the past.
JB: And what other problems for you emerge as we do away with, as it were, your concept of personal identity. Because, I mean, this might be a good point at which to start talking about free will and moral agency and that sort of thing?
KW: Well, along with purpose the other thing that correlates with it is the idea of value. Now, at this point, again, we might have a disagreement here because I do think that one of the important things about human life is that there are values which we don’t invent. So, that’s a basic philosophical option, I think, that you say, values are objective in the sense that some things really are worthwhile and of value even if nobody thinks they are. And that in thinking of a moral value, you ought to be charitable for example. That is true. I think that’s a moral truth. And you can discover that it’s true; you ought to be charitable. It’s not something you decide or invent. So, that’s another basic philosophical… it’s an option, really.
But if you go for the option of there being objective values that correlates with purposes, your purpose is to achieve something of value. So they go together; purpose and value. And I can’t see that they would enter into any physical description of the brain or of anything else.
JB: And so, in that sense, this value that you believe exists independently of our brain states or anything else…
KW: The word ‘independently’… I mean, there is that causal connection…
JB: But it’s objective, as you say.
KW: But it’s objective. I would believe – and I think again it’s not decidable, neutrally– but I believe that there are moral obligations on people, whether or not they think there are and that is a truth about the universe.
JB: Can this only make sense when we’re talking about a personal identity, the idea that we are a person who exists through time and is not in a sense just a…
KW: A value is not part of a physical catalogue of things. And it correlates with a purpose. So that correlates with agency and that correlates with the idea of a subject self which is other than just a stream of experiences which are actually aimed to produce values. All those things connect together.
JB: I think this will take us into the whole area as well of determinism and free will…
DD: Well, can I just respond to Keith’s line about purpose?
JB: Please do respond.
DD: What he’s adopting is, I think, quite clearly a top down theory of purpose. He doesn’t think it can bubble up from purposeless processes the way Darwin and people who are Darwinians like me would say. And he says he doesn’t see how this future-looking purpose could ever be accounted for in terms of something like the Darwinian purpose, the Darwinian process.
You should learn about Bayesian predictive coding. It’s the big bandwagon in cognitive neuroscience right now which was precisely how the brain is always, always anticipating, projecting, forming hypotheses, in effect, about what’s going to happen next and then checking those hypotheses against the data coming in. This is how our brains get the adroitness and the real time capacity that they do. They are always, they’re designed to look ahead. They’re designed by Darwinian processes to anticipate the future based on the experience of the past.
And since the future isn’t always just like the past they make mistakes. But they are also designed for those very mistakes to feedback into the system and correct those mistakes. So the brain operates as a generator of anticipations which were then tested against the world which, and it’s a constantly revising, sort of a moving target about trying to get the immediate future right and then, of course, that in turn permits us then to have long-range goals in the future.
Another thing you said, Keith, is that you thought there were values that are not, as it were, ‘human’, as maybe humans didn’t realise that they had these values. But there’s no reason why something that is ultimately a human construction, a human artefact, can’t have surprises in it.
The game of chess is certainly a human construct and yet people are still learning things that you can and can’t do in chess. There’s plenty of discovery in even something as simple as chess. And the idea that the moral code that we have evolved over the last, let’s say, 50 thousand years that it’s been changed, it’s been improved – no help from religion there by the way. Religion has dragged its feet along the way, all the improvements from old testament morality today have been hard won by rational argument and largely fought by the churches – but we’ve learned better, we’ve constantly improved our sense of morality and that can go on in the future. And we may learn.
JB: Doesn’t he word improve suggest there is some objective standard to which we are heading?
DD: Oh yes. And in the same way that there’s a… to give a very simple – I want to deliberately have a simple example – when they added the castling rule to chess they improved the game of chess. Why? Well, because people, who are the chess players, found the game too slow if you didn’t have this. It just made the game more wonderful, more interesting. And, similarly, there are practices which were not only condoned but even required in Old Testament morality which we completely shun today. We would never dream of behaving that way.
JB: There’s a few things to respond to there.
KW: Well, can I just take chess there because computers can play chess very well, of course, and they could beat me any day of the week. But I don’t think a computer would say, well, I play chess because it’s more interesting and it gives me a sense of imaginative creativity.
DD: That’s right, but so what?
RW: Well, so I don’t think computers play chess unless they were made to. People play chess for fun. And that’s not something that machines do, they don’t do things for fun.
DD: Not yet.
KW: Well, I think what you’re doing is taking a bet on the future. You’re saying, I bet that brain science will develop in such a way that it will show that all these things can be done perfectly well by a machine. I suppose my bet is that’s not going to happen. And that you could get a zombie which acted like a robot and like a human being but still felt and experienced nothing and didn’t get thrilled by things that were happening or invent new moves because they were excited.
DD: It would just appear to be thrilled. It would guide its life by it’s being thrilled by this.
KW: Yes, but that still wouldn’t be the same.
DD: I just wanted to make sure your zombie was indistinguishable from a normal conscious human being.
KW: It’s externally and publically indistinguishable but internally it is distinguishable. You’d never know because it was probably trained to tell you that it had deep feelings so you still couldn’t tell.
JB: We’re getting into the whole area of artificial intelligence in a sense, but coming back to your view that the objective moral realm exists and I think on Dan’s view we can simply explain that by an evolutionary history which helps us to interact better and so on and that we don’t discover these things, they’re simply emergent, like everything else in our experience.
And he has critiques obviously of religion and the Old Testament in terms of saying we can certainly see we are better off now with the morality we have developed over thousands of years.
KW: Of course. I mean, I have to say that I think Jesus had something to do with that improvement and that we haven’t yet managed to live up to any of the things that he said about it. So, I mean, religion, yes, okay, it’s a very ambiguous phenomenon, but if religion is about the person who taught something like the Sermon on the Mount, we’ve got a pretty improved…
DD: I’d happily accept that he was a very clever man. And a very good man.
KW: And a good man?
DD: But not perfect.
KW: So, for me, goodness is a quality of the universe. That is to say that – not that the universe is perfect ,I don’t mean that – I mean that the obligation to seek goodness is a fact about the universe. And I can’t put that into a physicalist account of the universe. I can’t see how it would fit. Whereas, well, if I can introduce the word God at last, I think if you had the mind of God, the mind of the creator, then the obligation to achieve true goodness, not some arbitrary command that God made up, that obligation would fit into a picture of the universe as founded on a morally obliging reality which would be a mind and it wouldn’t be a brain. I mean, nobody thinks of a cosmic brain.
So, I think if you’re wanting to rule out the idea of god by definition by saying there couldn’t be such a brain, I agree, there couldn’t.
So, that coincides with the question, just a thought experiment, well, could there not be a mind which did not, like human minds, depend upon good functioning of a brain? And I don’t see why not.
DD: Well, I’ll go along with you on that. Alright, I don’t think I can offer an a priori, knockdown proof that there couldn’t be a disembodied mind but I don’t see how a disembodied mind of God could ground morality at all.
Why should we care what a disembodied mind thought we should do? I mean, if I tell you, Lucile says that you shouldn’t do that. Well, who’s Lucile? And, in fact, what could matter more than what we human beings, after careful consideration, and in concert, what we decide this is what’s worth living for.
Why doesn’t that… what could trump that?
KW: Oh, I think God could trump that.
KW: If Lucile was actually perfectly good herself and created us and had a purpose for us which would fulfil everything about our lives, then if Lucile said, do this, we’d say, that’s probably…
DD: Yes, indeed, but that makes Lucile, you just defined the answer this isn’t, you’ve just helped yourself to a problem solver by defining it as a problem solved.
KW: Well yes but I didn’t make this up, it’s been around since the start of the human race.
DD: Well, somebody made it up.
KW: But the idea of God is like the idea of a quantum reality. Somebody made it up but that doesn’t mean that it’s not true.
JB: Let’s move on to free will. We really must touch on this before we have to close our conversation.
Now, would you describe yourself as a determinist, Dan?
DD: Yes, in all that matters. I mean, I’m happy to go along with the physicists and say that there’s quantum indeterminacy, but I don’t think it makes any difference for free will.
JB: And determinism is essentially the view that everything can be explained by the previous states of things and that, in a sense…
DD: Careful, you have to say that very carefully because there’s explanation and there’s explanation. Flip a coin, a fair coin. Nobody can predict whether it’s going to come down heads or tails. Nobody can predict it – not because it’s quantum unpredictable – but because the forces acting on that coin involve the position of electrons at the edge of the visible universe. It’s just beyond calculation.
Now that’s an epistemic point. But the coin will be a random flip all the same. So, is it an undetermined coin flip? No. Is it a random coin flip? Yes.
JB: But, in a sense, if you could, in principle, describe every single force that’s acting on that coin then you could predict which side it would come down.
And, in a sense, when it comes to the question of the mind and consciousness and free will, the view that everything is ultimately determined by the physics of the universe means that a lot of people have a question mark over what that does for us; the fact that we think of ourselves as free agents, moral agents, even the very act of reasoning and having conversations, if it’s all, in a sense, been determined, there’s a real question that arises of can we make sense of anything then if, in fact, everything we do, say, think, feel has, at some level, been decided a long time ago by the physical attributes of the universe simply rolling out in a predetermined way?
So, you’re a compatibilist when it comes to your view of free will. Perhaps you would like to explain how you come to terms with this question around free will and determinism from a compatibilist point of view?
DD: Yea, the notion of freedom that is incompatible with determinism is not the notion of freedom that matters. The notion of freedom that matters is the engineering notion of freedom, the notion of degrees of freedom.
Right now, you have many degrees of freedom. There are lots of different ways in which you can move your parts, you can move your lips, that’s nothing to do with determinism. And what we want to do is look at which systems in the world are autonomous and which systems in the world are, in fact, being controlled by some other controller. And if I have a drone and I’ve got the little box I am in control of that drone. It is not autonomous. Its activities are being determined by me. They’re being controlled by me.
However, I may be able to throw a switch which makes it autonomous. It is no longer in my control, And it is then no longer in the control of anything else except itself. It’s the causes raining down on it and the gravity and the wind and all the rest of that. Those, let us suppose, have been determined since time immemorial. It doesn’t matter. An autonomous system can be designed to deal with those. In fact, it depends on the reliability, on the predictability of all of those forces. And to some degree it samples those in order to improve its control over the situation.
Now, what we want to be, as free agents, is we want to be autonomous. We don’t want somebody else pulling our strings.
I have a little cartoon of a puppet that’s making its legs move by pulling strings on its legs. That’s what we are; we are self-controllers. And it’s really a bad trick of the imagination to think that if determinism is true then nature is pulling our strings because nature is not an agent. Nature doesn’t care. Nature doesn’t have foresight about what it wants us to do.
JB: So, there’s a sense in which, then, we have freedom in the sense that’s meaningful for us?
JB: But if we simply were able in some way to rewind the clock 30 seconds, would we have exactly the same conversation, with exactly the same words, with exactly the same movements because that is what would have had to have happened? Are we determined in that sense?
DD: If we could rewind the clock perfectly, yes. But that’s not interesting. There’s a famous footnote in J L Austin’s work where he talks about lining up a putt on a putting green. And he strikes it and he misses it and he says, well, I could have made it. And he says, and this does not depend on anything that… if I tried harder, something like that. On that very occasion with exactly that situation, I could have made it.
And then he says a very important thing. He says, and experiments can prove that. Well, what? Quantum mechanics experiments? No. Clearly what he has in mind is, he could line up the putt ten times in a row right there, and his friend says, well let’s see, and sure enough, 8 out of 10 times he makes it. But those precisely aren’t the same occasions.
JB: No they’re not.
DD: But that’s what matters. What matters is the robustness of our abilities. If you could make that putt under umpteen different circumstances, highly reliably, then there’s a sense in which you could have done it otherwise. And if not then you couldn’t have done it. And that’s the sense that matters and it is neutral with regard to determinism.
JB: You’re not a determinist are you, Keith?
KW: No. I’m a libertarian in this respect which means, in exactly the same situation, at least two different alternative futures are possible.
JB: So, if you rewound the clock and did the putt again under exactly the same conditions you could in theory get a different outcome?
DD: Why would that make a difference?
KW: Well, it wouldn’t as such make a difference, but if you thought that you have an alternative set of futures and that is under your control which one of those happens, that makes a difference.
DD: Yes, but I believe that.
KW: No, you don’t say that, because you say if you perfectly rewound it…
DD: Well, but you can’t do that.
KW: No, you can’t do that.
JB: It’s a thought experiment, obviously, but I think your view is, Keith, as a libertarian when it comes to free will you believe we do have genuine free will to…
KW: I think one of the rules in English law, and I think in American law too, is that you can only be guilty of something if you could have done otherwise. Now, that’s precisely the J L Austin quote you use. But I think lawyers would interpret this to mean, at that time, he didn’t have to do the things he did. Nothing made him, not even himself. He didn’t make himself do that. He should not have done it he did what he should not have done. Now that’s the problem that people like me struggle with; is guilt attributable to what people do?
JB: Because if there’s a sense in which, you know, people are determined at some level by their physical chemistry or their previous brain states, or just the physics of the universe there’s a sense in which they cannot be culpable for doing things wrong if they were bound to do those things.
KW: If somebody said to me – and people have believed this – that God sends people to hell but he’s created them in order to send them to hell, I would feel morally affronted by that. But my moral affront would be based on the fact that if people do go to hell it must be their own choice and not God’s choice. So, now you do have somebody pulling the strings, it’s not just nature, on this sort of view, there is a personal being who’s doing that to you and you feel affronted that that being should not have done that. And I think a libertarian would say, because Gods not like that anyway, but people should not do the things they do.
And there is also the David Hume point that actually determinism is just unprovable because you can’t show that everything has to happen the way it does.
DD: Unfortunately for the libertarian, if a free choice really involved the conditions you say, then how could you be responsible because you can’t determine which choice you make. That is, all of your previous education does not determine. In other words, I assume that you’ve been raised to be a very moral and non-violent man (KW: Non-violent, yes) And if we were to hand you a gun right now and I would seek to suggest to you, well, why don’t you shoot Justin in the arm? Just to prove you have free will, shoot him in the arm.
KW: I might surprise you!
DD: You might, but you won’t. And you won’t because you know better and your prior experience makes this… I bet very, very large sums of money you’re not going to do it and it’s going to be a free choice and you just better hope that it’s not an undetermined choice because if it were then you might suddenly find yourself doing it, in spite of all of your previous…
KW: Ah, my view is not that you would find yourself doing it, but that you could decide to do it which is very different.
DD: Well, who is the you who that’s doing the deciding?
KW: I’ve got a you, you see, you might not have a you. You’ve just got a brain. I’ve got a you. So, I’ve got a self. The subject self which I’ve got is the soul, in Christian terms, is also an agent self, so it has a certain agency which it decides between courses of action. So, it is not determined by its past behaviour – I would not actually shoot Justin – but there are things that I would do to Justin if you asked me to (JB: I’m feeling worried here but, yea, carry on)
Well, I might decide, for example, if you say could you inflate how much it cost you to get here by train and so make a bit of money on the side. I might have realistic problem with that.
JB: You might not be the most moral person.
KW: I might not be as moral as you think I am. So I might say, well, I decide to do this and maybe nothing would make it the case that I was going to decide in a particular way, I would at that moment make a decision.
JB: And when Dan says, well, the fact that you were brought up to be a moral person and you’ve got a good education and so on. For you, those things aren’t determining things even if they strongly influence the way that you do lead your life but they’re not, in a sense, determining the outcome?
KW: That’s true, though I agree with a generally Aristotelian view that habit actually constrains virtues so that if you have learned to always be honest in your life there is better chance you would continue to do an honest thing. But, nevertheless, there are tipping points and when people are put in crisis situations, as they can be, then I think at that point…
JB: So, I think the type of determinism we are talking about is different as far as Keith is concerned. It’s not a hard determinism in the sense of the type of physical determinism that perhaps you believe ultimately governs everything, Dan. If Keith has been raised in a moral environment that’s an influence rather than a determining factor of how he will behave. He could still do otherwise.
DD: Yes, and if he did otherwise, we’d want to know what determined him to do otherwise.
KW: I’d say I just decided.
DD: Well, but a decision can’t happen without something happening in the brain. And either that thing that happened in the brain was undetermined, was a quantum event of some sort that was really an amplification of a quantum event or it wasn’t. I find that I don’t see why it makes any difference?
One way I’ve put this, I’ve said, suppose – you’re really going to hate this example, Keith – I give you two robot babysitters, these are going to take care of your grandchildren, so you really care about whether they’re any good. Robot A is deterministic but has a random number generator which it uses all the time to get itself out of situations in its calculations. And it’s wonderfully caring and adroit and in foreseeing and it’s really expert at caring for grandchildren.
Robot B has exactly the same software running on exactly the same hardware but instead of having a pseudo random number generator it has genuine radian randomness so that it… there is a sense in which it is undetermined while the behaviour of A is determined. Now, tell me if you had to entrust the lives of your grandchildren to one of these, would you have any reason to prefer Robot B over Robot A?
KW: You’d prefer A. But that’s because…
KW: B is going by randomness and I don’t want people to be random.
DD: Well, if it’s undetermined then it’s random.
KW: No, it’s not. I think one should use the expression sufficiently determined. And if something is sufficiently determined then if you have this set of causes you are bound to have this effect. I think not sufficiently determined and I think a person – this is where morality becomes very important for me that people are guided by whether they are going to do something because it’s right or not. And if you could make a robot, which could consider moral questions…
DD: Both A and B do that.
KW: Do they?
DD: Oh yea.
KW: That’s what I doubt. I doubt if a robot could consider the reality of an issue and if it did I would treat it as a person.
DD: So would I, if it could.
JB: Apart from the moral issue, for me, one of the interesting questions that the idea of determinism raises is whether we can speak of reason and rationality. Now, you’re an atheist, Dan, but if all our past events are physically determined at some level, isn’t your decision to be an atheist simply an accumulation of those past events and you haven’t in a sense decided to be an atheist you are simply a product of a set of determined events?
DD: What kind of an accumulation is it? It’s been accomplished by machinery that has been designed by evolution over billions of years to do a very good job of telling truth from falsehood and of not drawing unlicensed conclusions.
Think of an eagle for a moment; an eagle’s eye, very high fidelity, very high accuracy. It is a brilliant truth discoverer about the things that matter to eagles and it puts them to great use. We have wonderful senses too and we can, but not only do we rely on them, we have learned how to improve on them in hundreds of ways. We have eye glasses and telescopes and microscopes and all sorts of scientific devices and methods, truth-seeking methods. Now, it’s undeniable that we use those, not perfectly, but my decision to be an atheist is a product of that whole development of truth seeking processes. And that’s why it is…
JB: But Keith is obviously also a benefactor of all those same processes down through the millennia and he’s chosen to be a Christian. So, in some sense, isn’t ultimately, if everything is ultimately determined that you were going to be here and have this conversation – you know, if you rewound the clock perfectly it would all happen in exactly the same way – isn’t your decision to be an atheist, Keith’s decision to be a Christian, ultimately is simply a factor of that? There’s no ultimate sense in which we’ve freely chosen anything in our life and therefore can we speak of the reasons and the truth-seeking and so on?
DD: Maybe there’s an ultimate sense of freedom in which neither Keith nor I nor you are free, but that’s not one that cuts any ice when it comes to the question of whether we have reasons.
JB: What do you think about this, Keith?
KW: I think reasoning is difficult. Indeed, I think it’s impossible to account for in purely physical terms because to try and think about something, to decide whether or not it’s true, the hard problem of some sort, that is not like handing it over to your brain to solve. It’s like doing some really hard thinking.
And that’s the problem, that seems to be a directed process that there is a you which is – and I don’t think it’s just the brain, the physical brain, you use a brain – so this is what it comes down to, I think the person, the self, the soul, uses the brain and if the brain’s not operating properly it will probably come up with the wrong answer. But if the brain is operating properly it still has freedom, in fact, that’s what the brain exists for. So, I think that the soul is very dependent on the brain and I don’t deny that at all.
DD: I don’t deny it.
JB: But you deny a soul though, obviously?
DD: No. In fact, I was interviewed once by an Italian journalist and the headline in the Corriere della Sera the next day was, ‘Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots’. And that’s right. We do have a soul. A colleague of mine wrote a book with the, I think very bad title, ‘My Brain Made me Do It’. Well, what else would you want to make you do it? That’s you! You wouldn’t want somebody else’s brain to do it.
JB: Why isn’t it ultimately your brain that made you do it in your view, Keith?
KW: Because I think I use my brain.
JB: There’s a me using the brain?
DD: You are a dualist.
KW: Well, that’s such a dirty word. But, yes, I do believe there is something other than the brain which ultimately makes human choices and finds human meaning and has human purposes. Yes, I do.
And, of course, millions of people think that reality connects us to without the physical brain because when you die you’ve obviously got the physical brain left and belief in immortality I don’t think is a possible belief. Let me put it at its minimum; I think it is possible to exist without this brain and this body.
DD: So do I.
KW: Ah. But you can’t be a materialist and think that?
DD: No. It’s the information.
JB: The information could be put into something else?
DD: If the information in my brain were perfectly encoded and this brain died it could be uploaded and I would go on living.
JB: It would still have to exists in some physical, material way?
DD: It would have to exist in some physical medium.
KW: Because at that point you have to ask what you mean by physical, because now that we have dark energy and dark matter and…
DD: It has nothing to do with dark energy.
KW: Well, it has something to do with it because, by physical, do you mean something in this space and time having these dimensions and mass, etc.?
KW: Well, perhaps not, perhaps if you can download it into a piece of silicone, perhaps you can download it into dark matter or something?
DD: Well, probably you could. But I think one of the things we know about robots that makes them profoundly unlike moral agents is that they are potentially immortal because you can download all the software.
JB: You can just keep uploading it into fresh hardware.
DD: You can back them up and then reboot them and that’s a sort of immortality.
KW: But you’ve got information without any…
DD: You’ve got to have it on a hard drive.
KW: On a hard drive?
DD: Look, this is a really important moral point; I think you should never sign a contract with a robot because – where it’s acting on its own, not as a surrogate for somebody else – because robots aren’t people. They aren’t fragile, they aren’t mortal like us. They can just be rebooted the next day. You can’t threaten to punish a robot, you can’t extract an or else. When a robot makes a promise you’d be a foot to accept it.
KW: I mean, didn’t you just say that we could be rebooted as well, in principle?
DD: I did, yes. So, I was agreeing with you that there is a certain sort of immortality in a purely materialistic way.
JB: In a purely material way, there’s a form of immortality, digital immortality, in a sense that would be possible.
DD: In principle. I think it’s preposterously impossible in fact.
KW: You have Beethoven’s symphonies on digital things with strings of 0s and 1s and you say, well, there’s the information, so Beethoven’s symphony is immortal. You’d need to have… that somebody could hear before it was Beethoven symphony.
JB: Which brings us back to where we started. Why don’t we wrap this up, gentleman, because I could go chatting to you all day but time is against us.
I just wonder at the end of the day whether both of your worldviews that you come to this area with, obviously, are going to influence the conclusions you make.
So, Keith, you’re a theist ultimately. You’re an idealist. And you interpret, in a sense, the world through that lens and through the idea that there is ultimate purpose, there is ultimate value and that explanations cannot simply be physical but there can be, in a sense, purposive explanations for the things we do and that kind of thing.
So, in a sense, you’re bound to impose then on the physical world that you do obviously recognise is there, that element, that theistic way of looking at life, that is full of purpose and a kind of metaphysical view of reality.
KW: Well, that’s right. When you say ‘imposed’ that sounds rather brutal, but that’s where I think things are.
JB: Well, it’s the filter through which you naturally…
KW: It’s the filter through which I see things.
JB: And that is, in a sense, what a worldview is. And when you see what Dan does, do you equally see that he has a naturalistic filter by which he then presumably, in your view, reduces all of that stuff to…
KW: I think these are both highly defensible philosophical views which I why I don’t think philosophy answers our ultimate questions.
JB: You don’t think the idealist view is obviously as defensible as your naturalist view?
DD: I think there’s a certain gratuitous mystery about it. And the things that Keith thinks are, and had better remain mysterious, can, in fact, be accounted for quite adequately in a naturalistic framework.
We can make sense of purpose, we can make sense of beauty, joy, love, promising, death the urge for immortality. All of these things have naturalistic accounts and when we’ve given them it doesn’t diminish the wonderfulness of life or the wonderfulness of people at all.
KW: I’d just like to ask one question; do you regard this as work in progress yet to be done to complete this programme?
DD: Oh, sure.
JB: in that sense, do you have faith in the naturalistic project, that it will ultimately describe everything?
DD: Faith in the same sense that I have faith in engineers to make bridges in general that don’t fall down, that’s why I don’t tremble in fear when I cross a bridge. It’s a faith based on evidence.
JB: And many people do accuse a naturalist perspective as being reductionist as ultimately beauty, truth, love is all, ultimately, reducible to chemicals?
DD: Reducible is just a bad word here. There are levels and levels and levels of explanation. And you can’t, look, you can’t explain dollars – to take something very mundane – you can’t explain the economic value of the dollar or a pound using atoms and electrons. That’s just the wrong level at which to explain it. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything, as it were, metaphysically irreducible about dollars, it just means that if you want to explain them you go to the appropriate level to explain it.
JB: And, for you, when it comes to explanation, ultimately you find that you are more satisfied with a view that goes beyond the naturalist view, Keith?
KW: I think for me the most important kind of explanation is explanation of behaviour in terms of value; that behaviour is explicable in terms of seeking to realise a value. That’s what important in my life and I can’t see that what is most important in my life is really an illusion or that my sense of being a continuing self which makes these decisions is an illusion. And for that reason I’m reluctant to say that I am just my brain.
JB: Well, certainly neither of you have been brainless today. It’s been a really fascinating discussion, thank you very much both for being with me on the programme today. Really excellent conversation, my guests today have been Dan Dennet and Keith Ward.