A clockwork revolution
There have been long and fruitful discussions about the nature of mind and consciousness on RichardDawkins.net. I will try here to express the nature of the problem of mind, and the consequences of the discoveries of science in this area.
In the Doctor Who story “Girl in the Fireplace” the Doctor encountered his most beautiful adversaries: clockwork robots, machines of glass and cogs. Imagine a world where such beings existed (albeit vastly more complex) and were sentient although, in that world, those beings did not know what they were made of. Perhaps their casing was metal, not glass. These beings lived, loved, fought, even prayed. They had philosophers who contemplated the nature of self, and of mind. (This begs so many questions, I concede, but please have patience and allow me to beg, for now)
One day, one of their scientists used the newly invented X-ray machine to look within. What was found was so shocking that a conference of scientists, theologians and philosophers was arranged, where the results could be revealed.
The chief scientist called the meeting to order. The announcement was made. The X-ray plate was projected up for all to see. As the image was magnified ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times, still there was no detail. But then, at a million times the image resolved and details could be seen. Cogs. Gears. Levers. There was a gasp from the audience. The shock was clear. Where in the vast system of clockwork was the room for soul? Where was the space for morality? What about consciousness?
Theologians talked about a spiritual aspect of mind, but how could that work, when gears meshed with gears, and levers flipped levers? Philosophers talked of moral realism, but how could a moral force change the ticking of the clockwork? Some asked how a machine could be conscious, how we could have subjective experiences, a private inner world, when the spinning of gears was there for all to see?
This was a revolution. Nothing could be the same again. The realisation of the true nature of life meant that not just all biology, but also all philosophy and all religion would have to change. Thousands of years of thought needed to be reviewed. There may be more, but until it is found, the possibility of a purely mechanical world has to be assumed, no matter what it feels like to be in that world, no matter for how many thousands of years people have prayed to their gods, fallen in love, cried with pain, experienced beauty in the world. The tension between the experience of the world and what has been discovered about the nature of the world cannot, must not, be ignored.
Robot-world is our world.
In the 1800s a German chemist, Wholer, made a biochemical, urea, in his laboratory. He had discovered our cogs. We are machines, built from atoms. There is no vital force, no spark of life. Or so it seems. There may be more, but no-one has yet found it.
So where is the shock? What happened to the revolution? Why do some philosophers still talk of morals as real, of non-physical aspects of mind? Why do theologians and preachers talk of souls? Of life after death? Where is the reviewing of all these beliefs?
We need to listen, to hear the ticking of our clockwork. When someone talks of other ways of knowing than science, see their gears turning, seemingly grinding their argument into oblivion. When there is talk of quantum mechanics and consciousness, wonder how having the occasional gear-tooth not engage as expected helps explain anything at all. When there is talk of the folly of reducing mind to matter, think of the turning of a million cogs while that thought was being made. Because, no matter what else there may be as yet unseen, those cogs do turn.
So much of our thought doesn't face up to what we are, or what we seem to see that we are - machines. There will still be debates about the nature of mind, of self, of soul. But every single conversation has to at least start with the clockwork. Philosophers who talk about dualism should have to explain how what they say could be compatible with the clockwork. Anyone who has the belief that consciousness is a hard problem has to explain how that belief could be true if the belief itself were turned out by machinery; has to face the tension between the feel and the real, emotion and mechanism.
There will always be questions, and perhaps always a lack of answers, but behind it all, we seem to see a machinery of atoms. We all need to face the consequences of that discovery.
We need a clockwork revolution in our thinking.