Wall-E and Me

13 05 2009

This week the discussion in our Interfaith group centered on the idea of the mind and whether someone like the cute little robots in Wall-E could ever experience true love or whether Data from Star Trek TNG would ever become human, even if they put in that emotion chip. What separates man from machine? Could my computer ever develop a free will with the right programing and hardware? I hope not, I have enough trouble with it as it is!

This is a key question in the whole debate over naturalistic evolution, what is the mind and how does it work? Some of the key figures in the debate from an evolutionary perspective are Daniel Dennett from Tufts and John Searle from U.C. Berkeley. Dennett and Searle are naturalists/physicalists, in other words, they believe that the totality of existence is contained within the physical universe. Now, they each have different approaches to attempt to explain mind; however, in each case mind is ultimately an emanation from the brain and not an entity unto itself. This position, however, leads to many difficulties that neither has successfully overcome. I won’t be able to go through all of the problems, nor would you patiently read through the whole post if I did, but here are a few.

First, there is the problem of how to understand mental states in the first place. Some in this camp would reduce mental states down to the physical. In other words, the mind is just a emanation or extension of the brain. This runs into all kinds of difficulties as far as how to understand identity, intentionality, and ultimately, morality. For, if a persons actions are merely determined by their biology, then no one can ultimately be held accountable for his or her actions. Yet, we see more and more of this playing out in our society today.

Second, I mentioned intentionality in the previous point; however, it is a problem of its own. When my brain tells me to lift my thumb or type on my computer, we aren’t really challenged by that thought. However, when you begin to add steps and branches and sub steps to arrive at an intended destination, this is where it runs into problems. For example, if my intention was to go to work so that I could complete a proposal, I would have to get up, get ready for work, drive my car through a series of streets, roads and highways to get to work, go into my office, turn on my computer, log in, start my word processing program, find the file, and search for the place where I left off. This series of steps does not seem unusual to us, yet this poses massive problems for a physicalist since it involves so many sub intentions to arrive at the goal of writing my proposal. There is a real challenge trying to figure out how a person can have intentions that are far removed from immediate actions, something that we just take for granted.

Third, concepts like truth are ultimately meaningless if all we are can be reduced down to physical properties. There is no reason that we could be confident that we know truth if we are simply acting according to causal events directed by our biology. Why would we be confident that our biology led us to truth rather than just to that which will allow us to survive another few minutes? If we are finite creature stuck within a finite existence, then we should have no confidence at all in this regard.

These issues are overcome in a theistic worldview as mind is separate but related to the physical body. God is the eternal mind who has created us in his image (Imago Dei) and given us characteristics that allow us to be in relationship with him. He has instilled us with personality, will and characteristics related to these. This is why when I tell my wife or my kids that I love them it cannot be reduced down to some physical properties of my brain or body, but is something real and meaningful that I am expressing. When I choose to do something right or wrong, I am making a real choice with real consequences. Also, we serve a God who came to live among us by taking on human flesh. Jesus told Pilate, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Jesus understood that truth could be known. He also demonstrated that we are more than more than just physical bodies by rising from the dead. However, even intuitively, we understand that we are more than just physical beings. Our love is real love. Our emotions are real emotions. Our thoughts cannot be reduced to physical mere physical properties. We are more than just the sum of our parts.

Psalm 139

O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.

For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.

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2 responses

12 10 2013
Raul

I read what you said about prayer studies. Yet I scratch my head at your response. You say God is not a vending machine yet what does that have to do with the studies. There really is very little irrefutable evidence about a God that I know of. I have prayed for certain things but seen no miracles, in fact if a God answered my prayer He did so years later. If God knows he’s being experimented does that mean he will let others come to harm just to hide his existence? We have scientific explanations for everything we see and can’t see

But how I would love to know God is listening to me

12 10 2013
Paul Rupple

Raul, thanks for your comments and questions. What I mean when I say that God is not a vending machine in relation to these types of studies is that the studies are measuring whether God, if he exists, answers prayers. The assumption is that if you get a group of enough people praying for certain ends, such as the physical healing of an ailing person, that if enough positive responses are experienced that this somehow gives evidence that God answers prayers. This assumption is fraught with some difficulties. First, just because a person P prays for X does not mean that God believes that X is necessarily the best response to P’s prayer. In other words, God could exist and have answered the prayer, but there is more than one response to the prayer – yes and no. The experiments implicitly assumes that only one response will lend evidence in support of the premise of the experiment. Second, P may not have a personal relationship with God, meaning that God may not have reason to countenance the prayer. The Bible says that those apart from a personal relationship with God are dead in tresspasses and sins (Eph. 2:1) and enemies with God (Rom. 5:10). It is we who have separated ourselves from God, not God who has separated himself from us. Third, as you indicated, God may say “yes” to the prayer, “but not now.” Now may not be the right time for the prayer to be answered and may actually bring more harm than good.

We have very little irrefutable evidence for anything that we know. Renee Descartes, who was skeptical about most knowledge, said that the only thing we can know irrefutably is that we exist. However, there is a lot of good evidence for God’s existence and I discuss some of this in other of my posts. You say that we have scientific explanations for everything we can and can’t see, which I don’t believe is true. For example, I write a lot about the mind and there is much about the mind that cannot be scientifically explained. However, I will lay one challenge out for you – please explain scientifically the basis of your statement that we can explain everything we can and cannot see scientifically. I believe that is a self-refuting statement and the basis of what is known as scientism – a self-referentially false belief.

You can know that God is listening to you by putting your trust in Jesus. He came to earth taking on human flesh so that he could die at the hands of his creation to pay the penalty for our sins. When on the cross, his last words were, “It is finished,” meaning that our sin debt has been paid. By praying to him, repenting of your sins, and putting your trust in him, you can be assured that he will hear your prayer and respond to it. He said, “the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). I encourage you to seek him and put your trust in him and see what he can and will do in your life.

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