21 March 2015

Monistic and Dualistic Epistemologies, Consciousness and the Fiction of Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence is all the rage at the moment as the Computer Revolution prepares to take a leap into its next phase of development. However like the race for space exploration there are serious problems that have not been resolved, that will leave the quest for Artificial Intelligence (AI) much like the dream of manned deep space exploration... the realm of science fiction.
AI is predicated on a monistic view of consciousness and thus a rejection of Epistemological or Substance Dualism, the differentiation between brain and mind as well as subject and object.
There are several forms of monism, one of which will prima facie seem irrelevant to the discussion. Idealistic Monism posits the only reality is that which exists in the mind. As in all philosophical systems there is a certain circularity, but generally speaking, Idealism is not on the table when it comes to questions concerning AI. A further examination will prove otherwise.
The epistemological monism we speak of references the notion that consciousness, cogitation and thus cognition are essentially materialistic functions. Modern Materialists and Physicalists believe that consciousness results from nerves responding to sensory data. When a brain (for in this way thinking mind is equal to brain) develops to a certain level of complexity (quantity) in terms of functions, then it leaps into a state of self-awareness. Consciousness is thus material, nerves sending signals, and the resulting magnitude of processes reaches a point where they are able to relate to each other in a new and abstract way. An evolutionary leap is made as it were. Consciousness is just complexity or quantity, not something qualitatively different from matter and material processes.
Thus it is argued that machines will also eventually reach this point and a computer will no longer be a machine processing functions, a grand calculator performing programmed equations, but a self-aware, sentient and conscious entity or being.
This of course is an oversimplification as there are many variances in the explanation of consciousness. Historically the Neo-Realist revival of Direct or Naive Realism differed somewhat with the later and even more radically empiricist Logical Positivists but all of these camps (at a basic level) agreed on forms of epistemological monism. Even the Neutral Monists who do not equate the mind with strictly the material... but argue instead the universe is comprised of something else (a tertium quid) of material that is neither fully mind nor matter... in the end they are still monistic in their understanding of epistemology by reducing both subject and object to non-dualist bundles of sense-data.
We can reach even further back to the argument that Epistemological Dualism, the differentiation between the mind and the thing perceived leads to subjectivism and scepticism. Scottish Common Sense Realism and the later Naive Realists are also monistic in their approach to these questions. The Scottish school did not think in materialist terms but insisted there was no distinction between what something is ontologically and what it is perceived to be by the mind.
Some have found it ironic that the school of Scottish Common Sense Realism which greatly influenced American political, sociological and even theological thought could share essential attributes of perception with all adherents of monistic Naive or Direct Realism. In a sense over time it morphed into Neo-Realism, a form secular Scientism, a philosophy that ended up attacking the objectified ideas that American society and many of the foundations 19th century theology rested upon. In effect it could be argued the Direct/Common Sense Perception approach of Scottish Realism sowed the seeds of its own destruction. You can almost see this occur in the history of Princeton Seminary and many of the 19th century ecclesiastical struggles. Many of the theological stalwarts of this period adhered to Common Sense Realism and when several varieties of Scientism arrived on the scene and challenged them on their own epistemological ground, they were left all but defenseless. They had tied their own hands.
Enlightenment Empiricism ultimately destroys metaphysics or at the very least generates agnosticism. The rational tests, the adherence to Naive Realism subjects Revelation (which is metaphysical) to tests of verification that it cannot pass, nor is it meant to.
While it is not surprising that Enlightenment Secular Humanism developed this type of thinking, an example of man attempting to suppress metaphysical reality and the guilt/anxiety that comes with it, it is harder to understand why Christians embraced this way of thinking. In attempting to answer the scepticism generated by men like Hume, Scottish Common Sense embraced an epistemology that neither honoured Scriptural anthropology nor could it withstand the test of time and scrutiny. Its realism proved naive in more ways than one.
In truth Scholasticism only temporarily retreated in the face Renaissance Humanism. The Enlightenment in many ways returned to the method minus the synthesis with either ecclesiastical or Scriptural authority. Christians in the 17th century and after felt compelled to re-embrace this methodology as to not abstract revelation and Christian faith from the larger social and political questions mandated by their adherence to the notion of Christendom, a cultural expression of the Church/Kingdom, and to retain a degree of continuity with the fundamental tenets and frameworks of historic orthodoxy.
It ought to be contended that this embrace of direct realism reflects not only an unrestrained hubris in man's ability to form coherence but also a perilously low view of the noetic effects of sin. They behave in a Thomistic fashion as if the mind is not quite fallen and that we as creatures can know things as God knows them, as if we're not wholly dependent on Him to provide for us a relational context. It's as if man can autonomously probe the universe, revelation is put under scrutiny and dissected. It seems a rejection of the doctrinal content of Acts 17.27-29 which Paul roots in the Resurrection, something that cannot be empirically verified or experienced by Common Sense.
Christians ought to have known better and understood the fall affects our minds, and thus our perceptions are flawed and distorted. Our senses and notions of relation are inseparable from ethical judgments and metaphysical commitments. As sinners living in a fallen world, we can perceive the real but we cannot rightly judge it and instead create idols to meet our needs, assuage our guilt and rationalize our actions.
The mind shapes our knowledge of objects, forms them into complex notions, relates them to other objects and ideas and like it or not judges them by ethical formulations rooted in our fallen metaphysical categories. We can perceive there is something more, even a universal standard and Judge and yet we cannot know what they truly are in terms of ontological reality and how they relate to the wider universe which would include the spiritual (metaphysical) reality we cannot experience at all apart from Divine (Spirit) action. We create relations, but our relations are necessarily reductionist. Our knowledge is sufficient for temporality, but if reality is metaphysical, then our understanding of objects as they really and truly are in the universe and how they relate is something we cannot rightly know of ourselves.
Nature and experience, our Common Sense will in the end lead only to Scepticism. This is not a cause for dismay as we have Good News. Through Scripture we can formulate a limited analogical Realism.
Yet, those that adhere to the Aristotelian, Scholastic and broadly speaking Empiricist way of thinking and bring it with them to the experience of revelation will in the end distort and destroy it. They will judge it by the categories of experience. They may not reach that point themselves, but they will have planted the seeds their intellectual descendants will harvest, and that's indeed what happened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Large segments of the Church and its apologists have still to this day failed to learn the lessons from these episodes and continue to try and argue for the Bible based on Empirical frameworks.
There are also ethical aspects to this form of epistemological monism as man must wrestle with questions of conscience and guilt. Man attempts to assuage ethical doubts and rationalize social behaviour in the attempt to create an absolute coherence.
Rejecting these aspects of consciousness from a theological standpoint is to reduce man's problem to little more than a defect in reasoning and the process of cognition. It is no surprise the 'faith' corrective over time was reduced to little more than intellectual categories.
The telos of Common Sense Empiricism or Naive Realism is a secular monism which ends up embracing an impoverished view of existence and what distinguishes humans from other matter.
For agnostics, the embrace of this form of Monism approaches a type of pantheism that cannot distinguish individuality, personality, let alone humanity from other bundles of sense-data/phenomena. It's ironic because in many ways these schools of thought historically rest on a rejection of Idealism. That was one of the primary concerns of Bertrand Russell, that philosophy had taken a wrong turn with Kant in embracing Idealistic mind-dependent frameworks. The entire Analytic School heavily influenced by Russell rests on this notion and yet it has not been able to keep to it, much in the same way Kant couldn't rescue Empiricism from leading to subjectivity, circularity, relativism and thus scepticism. He tried to argue subjectivity could be divorced from scepticism through a transcendental scheme, but the subsequent history of Idealism proved just another road to despair and subjective quests to find some kind of coherence or meaning.
Ironic as it may be, it must be argued the monistic understanding of consciousness and the world is in the end a form of Idealism. For the sake of the discussion and the way in which the categories are normally framed, the Materialists are the polar opposites of the Idealists. But not a few thinkers have realized that some form of mental framework and contextualization necessarily governs every attempt to structure reality. It's inescapable. Absolute Objectivity is outside the realm of human possibility. All systems are ultimately mind-conceived, subjective and therefore faith based resting in some form of question begging foundational circularity. We are trapped by Idealism, a reality formed by our fallen minds seeking coherence.
This is reality status lapsum, the state of thing in a fallen world, but not ultimate reality. This is the labyrinthine trap we are stuck in. Epistemological Dualism (especially a Christian understanding of it) to some extent recognizes this and provides a matrix in which we can say that we 'know' things in part, but can never know them comprehensively or coherently. It acknowledges our mind-dependence but avoids solipsism. It rightly acknowledges that truth corresponds to reality, but we can't attain to it. Coherence is not the answer for it will always lead to reductionism and idolatry. Embracing revelation we can understand the nature of reality, our place in it as well as our intellectual limitations.
Consciousness is not the firing of neurons reflecting or interacting with stimuli. The physiological aspects of consciousness are like a tree blowing in the wind. The materialist and monist schools of thought tend to believe the tree moving is the wind itself. They have left out a critical aspect of existence and reduced humanity to something akin to mechanism or beast. And in the end attempting to say that we directly experience the moving tree also falls short because in order to experience it we must possess some form of innate ideas in order to contextualize it and we must utilize some form of indiscernible mental faculties to relate it. Two individuals will 'experience' the wind-blown tree in different ways belying the notion of objective, simple or trustworthy empirical sensation. The philosophical attempts to intervene and derive pure non-reflective experience in order to discern reality, or even the quasi-Idealist notion of Panpsychism are not only reductionist in their realism, they are just plain naive regarding the scope of the question and the nature of their claims. In the case of Panpsychism, despite its claims and aspirations it can hardly be labeled scientific and verifiable.
Those interested in probing the question of consciousness and a criticism of the idea that a machine can experience it as well as truly engage in cognition, should look into Searle's criticism of Turing. As Christians we know better, but it's interesting to observe secular criticisms. Even many a fallen man, even a modified Monist like Searle can see the absurdity in the proposition of AI as well as Panpsychism. The proposition of AI does not rest on inductive science but in philosophical commitments and considerations. It assumes Monistic Materialistic Scientism, which despite its claims is ultimately an idealist construct, a philosophy to be rejected.
The Critical Realist AO Lovejoy all but demolished the Monism of New (Direct) Realism as well as the Radical Empiricism of William James in his book 'The Revolt Against Dualism'. A difficult read but helpful in demonstrating that even the lost Realist can discern epistemology is necessarily Dualistic and Complex. And it's somewhat gratifying to read such devastating critiques of Bertrand Russell and AN Whitehead, giants within the now dominant Analytic camp.
It must be restated that it is surprising that so many Christians and in particular apologists evidently don't realize they're still traveling on the road that led 'us' to this point. All Christians reject Materialism but not a few embrace Monistic epistemologies.
Today it would seem that in the intellectual world, Scientism or some form of Physicalism is embraced as the absolute, a process by which humans can evolve. Utilization and knowledge of nature become the quest for the absolute, as man seeks to find meaning in a collective process of becoming, creating his own universe and becoming his own god. The great enemy to man's happiness is social or moral alienation (guilt). Psychology becomes the priesthood in this humanistic framework.
The imperative of becoming drives the narrative and with it comes an elimination of all categories of thought which would negate the project on philosophical grounds. Evolutionary Trans-Humanism and AI are virtually religious commitments rooted in a long tradition of physicalist monism and the rejection of metaphysical categories and realities.