“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Friday, February 18, 2011

Scientism: A Choice Bohm Quotation

Sometimes you need a theoretical physicist to defend humanism, you know? From the very end of The Undivided Universe:

if a human being is nothing more than [‘an information gathering and utilising system’] he is effectively reduced to a kind of machine. How then would we understand creativity? Perhaps we could say it is an illusion brought about by our not having complete knowledge of how the machine works.

So far, so Churchland. Then Bohm adds this knockout blow:

But we can ask how can it be known that this is all we are? Thus, in the time of Newton, people compared everything including living beings to a clockwork ... In each age people use the latest technological developments as models for the mind ... This whole approach seems to be affected with irreducible contingency. There is really no necessity for it at all. [My emphasis]

It's the sentence I emphasize that seems like the true knockout to me. In other words, to make the case that we don't know everything about the mind, but we know that it's reducible to machinic functioning or to neuron firings (or whatever) is at best a naive presentism. At worst, it assumes that the very thing that reductionism fails to explain—the nature of mind—will at some point be explainable by the very same reductionism. "Just trust us, even though we've screwed it up thus far."

The reductionist view, then, is trapped inside the correlationist circle of modernity. It's just an end-run around Kant—simply reject mind as a supervenient fact and go with brain firings. Mind remains as mysterious as ever in a world reduced to particles. Btw I don't like qualia either, and for the same reason...Reductionism and anti-reductionism are just two halves of a torn whole that still don't add up.

In the end this is the big problem with transhumanism. How do we know what trans is, or for that matter, what human is? Don't we end up reinventing the humanist wheel? (I'll let posthumanism off the hook here since at present it's pretty much only a record store label.)

Wouldn't it be better, then, just to drop all the fuss?


Benoit said...

"Wouldn't it be better, then, just to drop all the fuss?"

What suggestions do you have for navigating between reductionism and anti-reductionism? Or if I miss the larger meaning, what might analysis look like that ejects either instrument?

It sometimes feels as if we still haven't progressed too far from Aristotle's thought on these matters in De Anima.

Timothy Morton said...

Benoit, I hope that this new post begins to answer your crucial question.