Posts tagged ‘Hume’

Or perhaps Chomsky’s endorsement of Isaac Newton’s mysterianism.  We tend to think of Newton as bringing physics to a triumphant state of perfection, one that lasted until Einstein, and with qualifications, still stands. Chomsky says that in fact Newton shattered the ambitions of mechanical science, which have never recovered; and in doing so he placed permanent limits on the human mind. He quotes Hume;

While Newton seemed to draw off the veil from some of the mysteries of nature, he shewed at the same time the imperfections of the mechanical philosophy; and thereby restored her ultimate secrets to that obscurity, in which they ever did and ever will remain.

What are they talking about? Above all, the theory of gravity, which relies on the unexplained notion of action at a distance. Contemporary thinkers regarded this as nonsensical, almost logically absurd: how could object A affect object B without contacting it and without and internediating substance? Newton, according to Chomsky, agreed in essence; but defended himself by saying that there was nothing occult in his own work, which stopped short where the funny stuff began.  Newton, you might say, described gravity precisely and provided solid evidence to back up his description; what he didn’t do at all was explain it.

The acceptance of gravity, according to Chomsky, involved a permanent drop in the standard of intelligibility that scientific theories required. This has large implications for the mind it suggests there might be matters beyond our understanding, and provides a particular example. But it may well be that the mind itself is, or involves, similar intractable difficulties.

Chomsky reckons that Darwin reinforced this idea. We are not angels, after all, only apes; all other creatures suffer cognitive limitations; why should we be able to understand everything? In fact our limitations are as important as our abilities in making us what we are; if we were bound by no physical limitations we should become shapeless globs of protoplasm instead of human beings, and the same goes for our minds. Chomsky distinguishes between problems and mysteries. What is forever a mystery to a dog or rat may be a solvable problem for us, but we are bound to have mysteries of our own.

I think some care is needed over the idea of permanent mysteries. We should recognise that in principle there may be several things that look mysterious, notably the following.

  1. Questions that are, as it were, out of scope: not correctly definable as questions at all: these are answerable even by God.
  2. Mysterian mysteries; questions that are not in themselves unanswerable, but which are permanently beyond the human mind.
  3. Questions that are answerable by human beings, but very difficult indeed.
  4. Questions that would be answerable by human beings if we had further information which we (a) either just don’t happen to have, or which (b) we could never have in principle.

I think it’s just an assumption that the problem of mind, and indeed, the problem of gravity, fall into category 2. There has been a bit of movement in recent decades, I think, and the possibility of 3 or 4(a) remains open.

I don’t think the evolutionary argument is decisive either. Implicitly Chomsky assumes an indefinite scale of cognitive abilities matched by an indefinite scale of problems. Creatures that are higher up the first get higher up the second, but there’s always a higher problem.  Maybe, though, there’s a top to the scale of problems? Maybe we are already clever enough in principle to tackle them all.

If this seems optimistic, think of Chomsky the Lizard, millions of years ago. Some organisms, he opines, can stick their noses out of the water. Some can leap out, briefly. Some crawl out on the beach for a while. Amphibians have to go back to reproduce. But all creatures have a limit to how far they can go from the sea. We lizards, we’ve got legs, lungs, and the right kind of eggs; we can go further than any other. That does not mean we can go all over the island. Evolution guarantees that there will always be parts of the island we can’t reach.

Well, depending on the island, there may be inaccessible parts, but that doesn’t mean legs and lungs have inbuilt limits. So just because we are products of evolution, it doesn’t mean there are necessarily questions of type 2 for us.

Chomsky mocks those who claim that the idea of reducing the mind to activity of the brain is new and revolutionary; it has been widely espoused for centuries, he says. He mentions remarks of Locke which I don’t know, but which resemble the famous analogy of Leibniz’s mill.

If we imagine that there is a machine whose structure makes it think, sense, and have perceptions, we could conceive it enlarged, keeping the same proportions, so that we could enter into it, as one enters a mill. Assuming that, when inspecting its interior, we will find only parts that push one another, and we will never find anything to explain a perception.

The thing about that is, we’ll never find anything to explain a mill, either. Honestly, Gottfried, all I see is pieces of wood and metal moving around; none of them have any milliness? How on earth could a collection of pieces of wood – just by virtue of being arranged in some functional way, you say – acquire completely new, distinctively molational qualities?

scroogeA ghost? Humbug! Yet it was the same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.

Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.

No, nor did he believe it even now. Though he looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief bound about its head and chin, which wrapper he had not observed before; he was still incredulous, and fought against his senses.

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t,” said Scrooge.

“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?”

“I don’t know,” said Scrooge, “have you read Hume, Jacob? No? You see, to me you’re in the nature of a miracle, something that contradicts all the established understanding of the world. The most parsimonious assumption in such a case, you know, is always that a miraculous event such as your appearance is a delusion.”

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Scrooge was not much in the habit of cracking jokes, nor did he feel, in his heart, by any means waggish then. The truth is, that he tried to be smart, as a means of distracting his own attention, and keeping down his terror; for the spectre’s voice disturbed the very marrow in his bones.

To sit, staring at those fixed glazed eyes, in silence for a moment, would play, Scrooge felt, the very deuce with him. There was something very awful, too, in the spectre’s being provided with an infernal atmosphere of its own. Scrooge could not feel it himself, but this was clearly the case; for though the Ghost sat perfectly motionless, its hair, and skirts, and tassels, were still agitated as by the hot vapour from an oven.

“You see this toothpick?” said Scrooge, returning quickly to the charge, for the reason just assigned; and wishing, though it were only for a second, to divert the vision’s stony gaze from himself.

“I do,” replied the Ghost.

“You are not looking at it,” said Scrooge.

“But I see it,” said the Ghost, “notwithstanding.”

“Well!” returned Scrooge, “I have but to swallow this, and be for the rest of my days persecuted by a legion of goblins, all of my own creation. Humbug, I tell you! humbug!”
“Yet here I am. You see clearly who I once was. I can tell you, if you wish, things that only Jacob Marley could have known: do you doubt it?” said the spirit.

“No. But would those things come from your brain, or from mine? You see, we know now, Jacob, that consciousness is a product of the brain. Have you read Fechner*? No? Well, really, what have you been doing with your evenings, Jacob?”

Scrooge clung desperately to his exposition as the best means of retaining his equanimity in the face of the apparition’s unwavering gaze; at the same time he felt a little pride over his steadfastness. No great city banker, rich and overbearing as he might be, had ever intimidated Scrooge, and he was not about to be cowed by the mere shade of his own dead partner.

“It has been proved not only that consciousness is amenable to scientific investigation, but that it obeys hard mathematical laws; and there’s no manner of doubt that it resides in the brain. Now your brain is dead, Jacob – there’s no question about it – so no possibility of your consciousness persisting arises. Unless we are to be panpsychists, but if that were true, why, I might as well worry about the consciousness of the knocker on the front door!”

“Perhaps you should,” intoned the ghost, unmoved, “I came to effect a moral reformation, but I see I must begin with mereology. You see these ledgers? These frightful deeds chained about me? Why do you suppose I must carry them everywhere?”

“I don’t know… Can it be meant as a punishment, Jacob?” returned Scrooge.

“No; though they are burden enough. These columns of figures, these legal documents, were the tools I used in life to think about my business. They are as much part of my mind as the brain I once had. And though my body is dissolved, they remain, do they not? Is not that part of my mind still growing and flourishing in your counting-house?”

“I keep the books, certainly, Jacob; but that would be a narrow kind of mind…” Scrooge fell silent as he saw the trap he was falling into.

“Narrow indeed, Ebenezer Scrooge!” replied the spirit, “and when did your thoughts last spend a cheerful hour outside the counting house?”

Scrooge looked abashed, but he was thinking quickly.

“You see, spirit,” he resumed, “those account books may retain vestiges of your personality. But ink upon a page is nothing without a brain… very well, then, without a human being, to animate it, to give it significance. Now Cratchit may read those books; or I may. You may not. So if you are brought here tonight by the revivification of those traces, it is by my mind, and you are indeed nothing more than a phantom of my brain, as I said!”

At this the ghost let out a terrible roar.

“Prepare yourself, Ebenezer Scrooge!” it thundered, “You shall be visited by three ghosts of disembodied consciousness! The Ghost of Dualism Past; the Ghost of Algorithms Present; and the Ghost of Uploading Yet to Come! Expect the first at the stroke of midnight.”

“Humbug!” said Scrooge, excitedly, “Double Humbug, I say! And Humbug on stilts!


* Scrooge was actually rather lucky to get away with that one. He is, of course, is alluding to Fechner’s Law, which relates subjective sensation to the logarithm of the intensity of the stimulus, hence at the time a shining example of the new empirical psychology (actually rather too new – I don’t think it was published even in German until after A Christmas Carol). Strangely enough, neither Scrooge nor Marley seem aware that Fechner himself believed in a form of panpsychism and had already set out in Das Büchlein vom Leben nach dem Tode (1836) his vision of human life as having three stages: a sleep before birth, normal life in the middle stage, and entry into the general communion of consciousness after death, with the dead still able to exert a helpful influence on the living. He would definitely not have been on Scrooge’s  side in this discussion.