Yet another Visit to the Clockwork Brain

A reader, or perhaps the Tin Woodman of Oz, once again has a few questions about the distinction between final cause and mechanical cause, mind and brain, and why I am programmed to act as if I have free will.

Unfortunately, instead of calling tech support to simply have me rebooted, he insists on using symbols called words to appeal to my sense of reason and my integrity as a philosopher in order to let myself be persuaded that his metaphysical reasoning has that non-physical and non-empirical quality called coherence or logic. His soul intuits no irony in this.

But first! An apology. I fell into the sloppy habit of reading into his arguments something that was not there. I emerged from my ferocious battle with a straw man mostly unbruised and only slightly winded, having completely ignored my real opponent who was standing off to one side, looking puzzled.

“I must request, once again, that you carefully distinguish between what I actually claim, and what your radical materialists may claim.”

I humbly stand corrected and accede to the request.

To clarify — yes, I claim that poetry-making cannot be reduced to an algorithm, and that anything that can be reduced to an algorithm is not poetry.

Poetry is using the language in a way that breaks the rules of language, and reveals an unexpected inner meaning or beauty. An algorithm is a rule or set of rules.

“Now let me re-build the robot, in case its original definition has got lost in the discussion: It consists of an ordinary human whose brain is scooped out. I then replace the brain with a fantastically powerful computer chip, made of Principlium-dosed Unobtainium; this chip is programmed to simulate precisely the quantum amnplitudes of the original brain, by means of the ordinary Neumann-computer operations of adding voltages. Then, it has an interface to the original body, such that whenever the simulation has a simulated voltage spike heading down a simulated nerve path in the simulated brain, it stops at the “edge” of the simulation and a real voltage spike is sent down the corresponding external nerve; and likewise in reverse for the incoming nerve signals. “

I do not pretend to understand the description in your thought experiment, since I do not know what a Neumann-computer is or what quantum amnplitudes are (that looks like a misspelled word to me). But it sounds as if you are describing the human brain like a black box.

Well, to establish a “black box” experiment you have to either assume (1) that since the inputs and the outputs are the same, the interior process is the same or (2) since the inputs and the interior process is the same, the output is the same. In your hypothetical, you explicitly made neither assumption, if I understand your technotalk.

The problem is that your argument rests on a certain assumption about what is inside the black box: and entirely mechanical process that can be reduced to an algorithm. I can see no reason to grant that assumptions.

Only the most  highly formalized and abstract of non-empirical reasoning such as geometry and mathematics, or highly artificial and structured games such as chess, can be reduce to algorithms. Even chaotic systems like the weather cannot be reduced to a predictable computer model, much less the kind of judgment calls and non-digital analogue thinking that beasts and men perform as a matter of course every day. My conclusion is that the empirical world is sloppy and approximate with fuzzy edges occupied by clouds of probability, and that the ONLY part of human thinking that could possibly be reduced to an algorithm are those matter of pure logic or pure mathematics, or mathematical games with no element of judgment or guesswork or bluff, which only the most highly educated and rigorous of human minds are capable of doing, and beasts are not able to do at all. Far, far from being the entirely of the human experience, such formal systems are the least part of it.

So far, all you have established is that the inputs are the same. Perhaps you mean to say that these inputs correspond to the sense impressions of the dead person being impersonated.

In what sense they would “correspond”, I do not know.

“Correspondence” is only something a human and rational observer can do: book do not know the ink marks on the page mean anything, only someone who can read the language of the book and understand the frame of reference of the author can understand to which objects the symbols point. Symbols are only symbols to a symbol-user (a rational being) who happens to know how to decipher them.

Even a photograph does not, from the point of view of the photograph, “correspond” to a landscape or a portrait. From the point of view of the photograph (if we could imagine such a thing) consists of dots of silver bromide. These have physical properties only: location, mass, moles of substance, temperature, and so on. They do not have any meaning. They do not represent or symbolize anything. They do not stand for anything. The words we use to express symbol-object relationships, such as true and false, accurate and inaccurate, do not apply. The photograph is not aware that it is supposed to or intended to or meant to be a photograph truthfully representing something.

Only when a rational observers, a human, looks at the photograph, does the image correspond to something in his mind, and form a link or association. This is a conceptual association, not a physical property in the photograph.

To use a clear example, if you have ever stared at those “Magic Eye” pictures, and saw a picture emerge which was not at first clear to you, you cannot conclude that the physical picture changed, therefore you must conclude that your mind eventually draw a correspondence between the random-seeming shapes and an image. Because Magic Eye pictures are hard to visualize, there is usually a gap of time before your mind can adjust and interpret the visual information and deduce the symbol. In all other pictures, your mind automatically and quickly interprets the symbol, so much so that you are not even aware that you are looking at a symbol, not at a reality: the picture of your girlfriend looks like her to you.

In any case, perhaps you further mean to claim that because the inputs are the same, and the hidden ‘black box’ mental processes are the same, therefore the outputs would be the same.

I cannot tell if this is what you mean to claim or not. I hope not. It would be akin to claiming that since Samuel Taylor Coleridge took a nap and awoke and wrote XANADU, therefore if I lay a wax manikin down in his exact same bed with the exact same pillow under its wax head, it will spring to life and create the exact same poem, putting the exact same commas in the exact same place! Assuming manikins could spring to life, which is an assumption I am not willing to grant as yet.

“Now I do not claim, at the moment, that this robot is conscious; I wish to let that pass for the time being. “

As best I can tell, this omission is fatal to your thought experiment, because it omits the one thing you want to insist is present in a mind so long as the physical structure somehow corresponding to a real mind is present, which is the unnamed thing that causes works of poetry. But you have established nothing about any correspondence.

In the thought experiment above, you have not established that the thoughts, personality, poetic instinct, love of language, self-awareness, or rationality of the original brain is being copied over or impersonated to some corresponding set of symbols in the new mechanical brain. You have not even said whether the mechanical brain is programmed by an English speaker to make noises, meaningless to it, which sound like English words to Alan Turing, or any passer by who hears them.

You have not established whether or not the new mechanical brain is conscious. (Or are you asking me to assume unargued that a man can produce poetry while unconscious? My experience does not contain any memories of that happening to me.)

You have not even established whether or not the new electronic brain acts like a human brain, which has free will, or acts like a set of algorithms, which do not have free will.

“But I do claim that, if the original were so inclined, it will occasionally put hands to keyboard and produce poetry; and I believe this falsifies your original statement, that poetry cannot be formalised.”

Your argument is that (1) human beings are just like robots (2) I could build a robot just like a human being (3) since some human beings are possessed of poetic genius therefore (4) a robotic copy of that human being would likewise be possessed of poetic genius.

It seems not only not true, but obviously, blatantly, notoriously, laughably, deafeningly not true. Not merely untrue, but the opposite of true: a paradox.

(1) human beings are just like mops (2) I could build a mop just like a human being by tying a coat around its mop handle and putting a wig on it (3) since some human beings are possessed of poetic genius therefore (4) a mop copy of that human being would likewise be possessed of poetic genius.


What is the support for your claim? In what way has your thought experiment falsified (or even addressed) my claim that poetry is non-algorithmic speech?

Your claim to have falsified my claim seems to be a gratuitous assumption based on a faulty metaphor: you are asserting that the dead mechanical mechanism is the same as the living mind that was once intertwined with the human brain.

By why would anyone grant this assumption? You have not said anything so far to give me a reason to grant it.

You have not even said anything about the mind; you seem to want me to assume, unasked and unargued, that the mind is the same as the brain. You slip in the phrase “if it were so inclined” as if it is an unexceptional assumption that mechanisms such as lawnmowers and robots could have inclinations just like people.

You have not established were poetry comes from. If you are arguing that A causes B causes C, where C is original & non-algorithmic poetry, you ought first in your argument to establish what A and B are, and what is the causal relationship.

For example, if poetry comes from the liver, and your robot does not have a liver, then it will not have poetry.

If poetry comes from the winged muses of the Hippocrene, and the muse does not visit the robot, then it will not have poetry.

If poetry arises from thought, and an unthinking machine (that is doing no more than manipulating bits of matter that to an outside observer look like algorithms of symbols that represent something) does not have thought, then it will not have poetry.

Your argument boils down to a set of unsupported assertions: (1) Everything is made of matter (2) Because everything is made of matter, a material copy which copies only the material properties of a material thing will have all the properties of that thing whatsoever (3) a brain is a material thing (4) a material copy of brain will have all the properties of that brain whatsoever (5) a genius for poetry is a property of a brain (6) therefore a genius for poetry is a material property (7) therefore a material copy of a brain will copy the genius for poetry, which is therefore a material property.

Well, whether everything is “made” of matter or not, the symbolic and ideal properties of living creatures cannot be defined or even described in terms of merely material properties.

Merely material properties are those properties that can be reduced to mass, length, duration, temperature, moles of amount, candlepower, amperage. A metaphor is a symbol that likens one symbol to another symbol, or to a physical thing. As such, it can be a true metaphor or a false, fair or foul, misleading or insightful, et cetera. These properties (truth, beauty, coherence, etc) apply and apply to the relation between symbol and thing-symbolized. They are not material or physical properties. A physical object such as a photograph, book or brain can have marks to represent or to remind an observer of the things-symbolized, but the physical properties of these marks are irrelevant and indifferent to their symbolic properties: the same lie written in stone or written in sand is still untrue, even if every letter and comma is the same.

Your thought experiment does not address, OR EVEN NOTICE, this dichotomy. You simply breeze on past it, as if it does not exist. You certainly do not refute it or give even a generous reader any reason whatever to share your unspoken assumption that this dichotomy does not exist.

I see no warrant for assuming that assumptions 1 through 6 relate to the universe we presently inhabit, and I have every reason to believe otherwise, since common sense tells me that I am not a meat robot, and logic tells me that I think, therefore I am. My moral sense tells me the people around me are people and should be treated as such are are not human-shaped meat bags pushed and pulled by invisible marionette wires and must not be treated as such.

Your moral sense tell you the same thing about me, because by appealing to my sense of integrity as a philosopher and by presenting a logical argument designed to appeal to my reason, you are not treating me like a faulty robot or a beast to be trained. You are asking my reason to employ my willpower to allow my love of truth to overcome what, to you, must seem like ingrained emotional prejudices or appetites. This is something beasts do not do, and it is something inanimate objects like robots do not even do metaphorically. You don’t TEACH a car, you REPAIR a car. Since you are trying to teach me, not to repair me, I assume there is something you are overlooking in your assumptions.

Only the inanimate part of reality around us can be described or defined without reference to intention or final cause, and only because inanimate matter is assumed by a metaphysical axiom always and perfectly to want to follow the laws of nature: and the laws of nature are defined as the behaviors of inanimate objects, therefore their final cause is one and the same as their mechanical cause.

Example: a cannonball falls in a parabola because it falls. A skydiver with a bad parachute falls in a parabola either willingly or unwillingly. It makes sense to ask “why” the skydiver falls. It makes no sense to ask why the cannonball falls, because the path of its fall, the form of its inanimate motion, is the same as its mechanical cause, the impulse acting on it.

Let me repeat your hypothetical back to you, changing only one idea, and you can tell me whether this sounds reasonable:

“Now let me re-build the robot, in case its original definition has got lost in the discussion: It consists of an ordinary human whose brain is scooped out. I then replace the brain with a fantastically powerful set of clockworks, springs, wheels and gears. These gears have letters and number written on their teeth which simulate precisely the thoughts and feelings and intuitions and inspirations of the original brain. Then, by means of wires and fine chains, I connect the brain to the original body, such that whenever the simulation has a simulated motion of its nerves or muscles, a real motion is sent down the corresponding external nerve; and likewise in reverse for the incoming nerve signals. Then I have the clockwork move the dead hands of the dead body to write poetry as immortal as that of William Shakespeare!”

To which, you might ask the question: if the clockmaker could writer poetry as well as William Shakespeare, what is he doing playing around with putting clocks in the skulls of dead bodies?

Now then:

1.  do you notice anything odd or amiss with my thought experiment about putting a clock in the head of a corpse?

2.Is there any unsupported assumption about the nature of consciousness or creative thought I am making?

3. Does this sound like something we could do right now with our current level of clockwork technology?

4. What assumption is being made in the sentence where I said that I could make clockwork which have letters and number written on their teeth which simulate precisely the thoughts and feelings and intuitions and inspirations of the original brain?

5. Is the idea that someone could make such a set of gears to correspond precisely with the thoughts and feelings of the original brain a fact based on experience or an assumption or conclusion of metaphysics?

6. If it is based on experience, what experience could falsify the idea?

7. If it is based on a conclusion of metaphysics, what is the axiom from which this conclusion follows?

8. If it is based on an assumption of metaphysics, what (if anything) makes this assumption preferable to the opposite assumption?

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