Richard Polt defends the specialness of humans with very ordinary arguments.


From The Age of Spiritual Machines, by Ray Kurzweil.

Richard Polt wrote an article in the New York Times which is yet another example of the tiresome, pseudo-scientific tirades which some “deep thinkers” see fit to launch at naturalism or determinism again and again, as if their railings could somehow change the course of the laws of physics or biology and give them free will or turn their puppet hearts into boys’ hearts. It’s basically the same old “but computers can’t FEEL!” and “we’re more than animals!” baloney of Christian apologetics, packaged in secular language.

A lot of the article is actually a veiled attack against evolution, making it feel even more like a Christian work. First, Polt argues that evolution cannot tell us anything about ethics:

Consider the fact that human action ranges to the extremes. People can perform extraordinary acts of altruism, including kindness toward other species — or they can utterly fail to be altruistic, even toward their own children… Knowing how my selfish and altruistic feelings evolved doesn’t help me decide at all. Most, though not all, moral codes advise me to cultivate altruism. But since the human race has evolved to be capable of a wide range of both selfish and altruistic behavior, there is no reason to say that altruism is superior to selfishness in any biological sense.

This is a confused set of statements, and it takes some work to untangle its premises. But since Polt’s point is that biology alone cannot give us ethics, it’s most important to point out that the expression “superior… in any biological sense” makes no sense. To qualify something as superior requires mental evaluation. Of course nothing is superior in a biological sense, but that’s a trivial statement that tells us nothing.

So when Polt then says that “from a biological perspective it has no significance to claim that I should be more generous than I usually am, or that a tyrant ought to be deposed and tried,” well, so what? I may very well agree, but what does this have to do with naturalism?

He then gives us the answer:

Some might draw the self-contradictory conclusion that we ought to drop the word “ought.” I prefer to conclude that ants are anything but human. They may feel pain and pleasure, which are the first glimmerings of purpose, but they’re nowhere near human (much less angelic) goodness. Whether we’re talking about ants, wolves, or naked mole rats, cooperative animal behavior is not human virtue. Any understanding of human good and evil has to deal with phenomena that biology ignores or tries to explain away — such as decency, self-respect, integrity, honor, loyalty or justice.

Here we now see the fallacy which underlies Polt’s arguments in this article: trying to mash different sorts of experiences together and forgetting their distinctiveness, which is ironically the exact same error he attributes to naturalists. He thinks ants, wolves or mole rats must either have lives exactly like ours, or that we are nothing like them at all. From there, he believes naturalists take the former position, and in opposition to this he takes the latter.

But this is muddled thinking. Obviously being an ant, a wolf or a mole rat is a different sort of experience than being a human. No one is denying that. But we know from evolution that we are not different from other species in kind but rather in degree. Ants, wolves and mole rats do cooperate in a way which translates into virtue in humans. Other species do have conceptions of what we would call fairness, loyalty and justice.

You can’t just deny these facts because you want humans to be special. That’s not just bad philosophy, that’s bad thinking. It’s really no different from the Creationist argument that humans were made by God or the old pre-Darwinian beliefs that humans were at the top of a ladder of life.

Polt continues his rant with the “computers can’t feel!” gambit:

So are you and I essentially no different from the machines on which I’m writing this essay and you may be reading it? Google’s servers can comb through billions of Web sites in a split second, but they’re indifferent to what those sites say, and can’t understand a word of them. Siri may find the nearest bar for you, but “she” neither approves nor disapproves of drinking. The word “bar” doesn’t actually mean anything to a computer: it’s a set of electrical impulses that represent nothing except to some human being who may interpret them… Show me the computer that can feel the slightest twinge of pain or burst of pleasure; only then will I believe that our machines have started down the long road to thought.

You can see in that last sentence the same error I mentioned. Why should we expect computers to have to experience pleasure or pain in order to think? Polt assumes it must be this way because that’s how humans work; his implicit premise is that the human way to think is the only way to think, and that therefore computers, in order to be like us, must be able to feel pleasure or pain. But there is absolutely no reason to believe that the human way of thinking is the only way. There is absolutely no reason to believe we can’t build thinking machines unless we follow the human model slavishly. Again, this is dogmatic, sloppy thinking.

All of this tiresome nonsense serves the purpose of Polt saying, aha look! Our brains are nothing like computers and we’re… something more! But what is this more that he thinks we are? Look, we can parrot his own words, change a few things around, and debunk his pretense:

The word “bar” doesn’t actually mean anything to a brain: it’s a set of electrical impulses that represent nothing except to some human being who may interpret them. Today’s “human intelligence” is cleverly developed, but it’s no closer to real intelligence than the letter-writing automatons of the 18th century. None of these brains can think, because none of them can care; as far as we know there is no neuronal wiring, no matter how complicated, that can make the world matter to a brain.

I am not saying that my version is as valid as his, I am saying it’s all wordplay. You can look at a computer being just a set of chips and see no thinking there, and you can look at a brain as being just a bunch of grey matter and see no thinking there, either. Neither perspective sees anything of value because they both ignore the totality of the organism or machine.

It’s trivial to focus obsessively on one aspect of anything and declare it to be pointless, much like presuppositionalists will say that material bodies are just atoms banging around, therefore material bodies are pointless. So what? Again, it’s just a game. To naturalists, material bodies are not just atoms banging around, they are organisms with their own properties. Likewise, a computer is not just a series of electrical connections, and a brain is not just series of connected neurons. This is a stupid straw man of naturalism that has nothing to do with how science helps us understand the world.

At the end, Polt gives us his grand explanation of why those damn naturalists and determinists don’t get off his lawn… I mean why they don’t stop examining human beings through the scientific approach:

So why have we been tempted for millenniums to explain humanity away? The culprit, I suggest, is our tendency to forget what Edmund Husserl called the “lifeworld” — the pre-scientific world of normal human experience, where science has its roots. In the lifeworld we are surrounded by valuable opportunities, good and bad choices, meaningful goals, and possibilities that we care about. Here, concepts such as virtue and vice make sense…

By now, naturalist philosophers will suspect that there is something mystical or “spooky” about what I’m proposing. In fact, religion has survived the assaults of reductionism because religions address distinctively human concerns, concerns that ants and computers can’t have: Who am I? What is my place? What is the point of my life? But in order to reject reductionism, we don’t necessarily have to embrace religion or the supernatural. We need to recognize that nature, including human nature, is far richer than what so-called naturalism chooses to admit as natural. Nature includes the panoply of the lifeworld.

Again, there is a lot to unpack here, but there is one basic problem: this “lifeworld” concept is just a way for Polt to smuggle in his invalid, irrational intuitions about human nature and give them the status of being valid and rational.

The trouble is that he cannot tell you what this “lifeworld” brings to the table. When he says human nature is “far richer,” what is he adding to it? What is it made of? No answer. It is valuable opportunities? No, we already have that. Is it good and bad choices? No, we already have those too. It is meaningful goals? Nope, people have those. Is it possibilities we care about? Nope, plenty of people are inspired by possibilities and hopes.

So what is it that “lifeworldism” adds to evolution and biology to make them transcend reductionism? No idea. Polt doesn’t seem to know, anyway. But what he does know is that it’s not religious or supernatural, because he knows he’d be laughed out of any serious scientific discourse if he claimed that.

But that also means that he has run out of viable options. All the stuff he harps about, like ethics, feelings, pleasure and pain, meaning, are all material things held by material brains. They all fall under the province of naturalism. Polt claims to reject the “spooky” but is arguing against naturalism and cannot tell us what his alternative is made of.

My guess is that if Polt really had an actual alternative to naturalism and the spooks of religion, he’d be presenting it instead of waffling about how computers can’t feel pleasure or how we’re nothing like naked mole rats. In fact, I am sure the New York Times would let him write a whole article about it, since it would be a scientific discovery on par with Isaac Newton’s formulation of gravity or Nicolaus Copernicus’s heliocentric model. Discovering that there is something more out there would be huge news both from a scientific perspective and a layman’s perspective… if it was more than the philosophical ramblings of backwards “philosophers.”

Even though he exhibited restraint in not addressing the issue of free will at all, he just has to get a dig in at the end:

The same philosopher who denies freedom freely chooses to present conference papers defending this view.

This is Philosophy 101 stuff, and the fact that a philosopher writing in the New York Times thinks this is a clever quip just demonstrates how low our standards for philosophy have become.

There is no such thing as “free choice.” No one freely chooses to do anything. A philosopher who “denies freedom” is not contradicting emself by defending eir views: defending our views is what humans like to do, it’s part of human nature, and there is nothing strange about that. No freedom must be assumed to explain it.

To end on a similar and equally stupid quip, let me end by saying that Richard Polt tries to fight naturalism and determinism by acting as deterministically as we can expect, by blindly defending his views with flimsy, fallacious arguments, and that there is no difference whatsoever between Richard Polt and a letter-writing automaton of the 18th century.*

* This statement is actually false. An automaton cannot feel pain and is therefore, dixit antinatalism, a superior form of existence to Richard Polt.

5 thoughts on “Richard Polt defends the specialness of humans with very ordinary arguments.

  1. Prof. David Edwards August 18, 2012 at 09:52

    You might find my essays which deal with these issues interesting:

    Unity, Disunity and Pluralism in Science
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1110.6545

    Einstein’s Dream

    Click to access Einsteins_Dream.pdf

    Prof. David A. Edwards
    Department of Mathematics
    University of Georgia
    Athens, Georgia 30602
    http://www.math.uga.edu/~davide/
    http://davidaedwards.tumblr.com/
    dedwards@math.uga.edu

  2. MARIO SZEGEDY December 1, 2012 at 10:07

    The essay tells, that Richard Polt is a dumbhead, who in addition wants to deceive the public by selling metaphysical non-ideas veiled in a secular package. I happen to know Richard, and my impression of him is completely different: he is a very complex and an intellectually profoundly honest person, who is deeply interested in the meaning of our existence. He is a Heidegger scholar, whose contributions include a key introductory book to the works of this twentieth century German philosopher.

    Kurzweil likes to exclude the possibility of free will, which is ok, but I see his essay as an evidence, that he tries to bully others, who dare to think in the opposite direction. He might make a mistake: what if free will is the missing link, that if we understand better, we will be more successful in building machines that are un pair with us? Please be more open-minded Mr Kurzweil, otherwise you will do more harm to your own science, than good.

    • Francois Tremblay December 1, 2012 at 14:30

      Why the fuck do you think I am Ray Kurzweil? I am Francois Tremblay. And your friend Polt is still a dumbass.

      • MARIO SZEGEDY December 2, 2012 at 08:38

        Dear Francois: Pardon! And sorry for interrupting you in the process of saving mankind! It must be hard to deal with these damn specimens, when they deny, that they are machines. This would make me frustrated too. So it is the most natural, that you sometimes call them “dumbass.” All things you do and say make sense to me, so please, continue,

        • Francois Tremblay December 2, 2012 at 14:45

          No problem, it’s all in a day’s work.

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