Even The MacBook Air Is Not Sentient (RJS)

Even The MacBook Air Is Not Sentient (RJS) August 9, 2012

A question that has intrigued me for a long time is the question of “will”. I leave off the word “free” here because free seems to convey a libertarian freedom without constraint. This is nonsense. We a fully embodied creatures and our will, whatever that may be is constrained. Nonetheless there is freedom at some level, or so we all believe, a Free Will. Presented with a cookie on the counter there is “something else”  within and I can decide to eat or not – a real choice, not the mechanistic workings of a computer on legs. Hunger, preference (I don’t care for peanut butter cookies), and a desire not to appear a pig may play a role (or when I was young the admonitions of my mom not to snack before dinner).

Tim O’Connor has an interesting (although academic) article on Free Will on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. But free will is not merely a philosophical question with implications for Moral Responsibility, it is also an inescapably scientific question. The freedom of a will, a mind for action, calls into question a number of scientific concepts and assumption. As such it has been the subject of numerous investigations, a number that will only grow in the future.

Is there a non-physical “mind” that can produce physical effects?

If so, does this break the chain of cause and effect?

Can an ephemeral thought be considered a physical cause?

One of the famous experiments thought to put a nail in the coffin of free will is the that of Libet et al. published in the journal Brain, 106, 623-642 (1983). In experiments reported here the researchers found that EEG recordings revealed a signal that appeared in the brain on average 350 milliseconds (ms) before the “intention” to act, which in turn preceded the actual action by some 200 ms, on average – before the action. The brain prepares to act before the decision to act, suggesting the decision does not control the action, but is a consequence of the action.

A recent study published in PNAS last Friday, online prior to print calls into question some of the conclusions of the study by Libet, not the data as far as I can tell, but adds new data and refines the interpretation. In particular this study suggests that the readiness potential may not be a specific indicator of action. You can read the abstract, or this commentary on the study: Brain might not stand in the way of free will.

But these kinds of experiments don’t answer all questions about Free Will either. It is a topic demanding a more rambling and extended consideration. I recently picked up a book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist by Christof Koch, a Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology at CalTech. An article he wrote for Scientific American provides a sketch of some of his thinking: How Physics and Neuroscience Dictate Your “Free” Will.

In the opening chapter of his book Koch reflects on questions like pain and beauty and the role of consciousness and sentience in the cosmos. Pain and beauty are not concepts that are obvious from the laws of physics, the properties of chemicals, or even the biochemistry of the cell. These are concepts that require or seem to require, a view of animals, and especially humans, as something more than computers made of meat.

Suppose that I coupled a temperature sensor to my laptop and programmed it in such a manner that if the room became too hot, the word pain would appear on the screen in big red letters. But would “pain” feel like anything to my Mac? I’m willing to grant many things to any Apple product, especially coolness, but not sentience. (p. 2)

Koch is not a Christian, and views science as incompatible with religion although he was raised as a Roman Catholic. In the second chapter he discusses something of his walk away from religion. I’ll come to that in the next post. He takes a rather common view these days:

Religion and science are two modes of understanding the world, its origin, and its meaning. Historically they have opposed each other. Ever since the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, religion in the West has been on retreat, losing one battle after another. … But the worst blow was delivered by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. It removed humans from their God-given dominion over earth and replaced the epic story of Genesis with a tale stretching across eons, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (p. 4)

This book is something of a memoir describing his wanderings through science, including his move away from religion. Yet he considers himself a romantic reductionist because he seeks quantitative explanations for consciousness yet still insists on meaning. The term romantic reductionist and hence the subtitle of his book comes from …

my insistence that the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky above us and deep within us. Meaning in the sweep of its cosmic evolution, not necessarily in the lives of the individual organisms within it. (p. 8)

“Confessions” harks back, he suggests, to the Confessions of St. Augustine who initiated the genre, with a somewhat different focus and end.

I am going to post on this book, not because I think it portrays the relationship between science and the Christian faith accurately, but because I find the questions of consciousness, the relationship between brain and mind and the possibility of Free Will, even a modicum of true freedom, to be powerful questions worth exploring and starting a discussion.

Does neuroscience present a problem for Christian faith? Why?

Do you think we have a will with even a dab of freedom?

If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

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