Computers and Philosophy

What effect has the computer had on philosophy in general and philosophy of mind in particular?

Obviously, computing has facilitated a lot of scientific advances that allow us to study the brain. e.g., neuroscience research would not exist as it does today without the computer. However, I’m more interested in how theories of computation, computer science and computer metaphors have shaped brain research, philosophy of mind, our understanding of human intelligence and the big questions we are currently asking. (Quora)

I’m not familiar enough with the development of philosophy of mind in the academic sense to comment on it, but the influence of the computer on popular philosophy includes the relevance of themes such as these:

Simulation Dualism: The success of computer graphics and games has had a profound effect on the believability of the idea of consciousness-as-simulation. Films like The Matrix have, for better or worse, updated Plato’s Allegory of The Cave for the cybernetic era. Unlike a Cartesian style substance dualism, where mind and body are separate, the modern version is a kind of property dualism where the metaphor of the hardware-software relation stands in for the body-mind relation. As software is an ordered collection of the functional states of hardware, the mind or self is the similarly ordered collection of states of the brain, or neurons, or perhaps something smaller than that (microtubules, biophotons, etc).

Digital Emergence: From a young age we now learn, at least in a general sense, how the complex organization of pixels or bits leads to something which we see as an image or hear as music. We understand how combinations of generic digits or simple rules can be experienced as filled with aesthetic quality. Terms like ‘random’ and ‘virtual’ have become part of the vernacular, each having been made more relevant through experience with computers. The revelation of genetic sequences have further bolstered the philosophical stance of a modern, programmatic determinism. Through computational mathematics, evolutionary biology and neuroscience, a fully impersonal explanation of personhood seems imminent (or a matter of settled science, depending on who you ask). This emergence of the personal consciousness from impersonal unconsciousness is thought to be a merely semantic formality, rather than a physics or functional one. Just as the behavior of a flock of birds flying in formation can be explained as emerging inevitably from the movements of each individual bird responding to the bird in front of them, the complex swarm of ideas and feelings that we experience are thought to also emerge inevitably from the aggregate behavior of neuron processes.

Information Supremacy: One impact of the computer on society since the 1980’s has been to introduce Information Technology as an economic sector. This shift away from manufacturing and heavy industry seems to have paralleled a historic shift in philosophy from materialism to functionalism. It no longer is in fashion to think in terms of consciousness emerging from particular substances, but rather in terms of particular manipulations of data or information. The work of mathematicians and scientists such as Kurt Gödel, Claude Shannon, and Alan Turing re-defined the theory of what math can and cannot do, making information more physical in a sense, and making physics more informational. Douglas Hofstadter’s books such as Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid continue to have a popular influence, bringing the ideas of strange loops and self referential logic to the forefront. Computationally driven ideas like Chaos theory, fractal mathematics, and Bayesian statistics also have gained traction as popular Big-Picture philosophical principles.

The Game of Life: Biologist Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker (following his other widely popular and influential work, The Selfish Gene) utilized a program to illustrate how natural selection produces biomorphs from a few simple genetic rules and mutation probabilities. An earlier program Conway’s Game of Life, similarly demonstrates how life-like patterns evolve without input from a user, given only initial conditions and simple mathematical rules. Philosopher Daniel Dennett has been another extremely popular influence who maintains both a ‘brain-as-computer’ view and a ‘consciousness-as-pure-evolutionary-adaptation’ position. Dawkins coined the word ‘meme’ in The Selfish Gene, a word which has now itself become a meme. Dennett makes use of the concept as well, naming the repetitive power of memes as the blind architect of culture. Author Susan Blackmore further spread the meme meme with her book The Meme Machine. I see all of these ideas as fundamentally connected – the application of the information-first perspective to life and consciousness. To me they spell the farthest extent of the pendulum swing in philosophy to the West, a critique of naturalized subjectivity and an embrace of computational inevitability.

The Interior Strikes Back: When philosopher David Chalmers introduced the Hard Problem of Consciousness, he opened the door for a questioning of the eliminative materialism of Dawkins and Dennett. His contribution at that time, along with that of philosophers John Searle and Galen Strawson has been to show the limitation of mechanism. The Hard Problem asks innocently, why is there any conscious experience at all, given that these information processes are driven entirely by their own automatic agendas? Chalmers and Strawson have championed the consideration of panpsychism or panexperientialism – that consciousness is a fundamental ingredient in the universe like charge, or perhaps *the* fundamental ingredient of the universe. My own view, Multisense Realism is based on the same kinds of observations of Chalmers and Strawson, that physics and mathematics have a blind spot for some aspects, the most important aspects perhaps, of consciousness. Neuroscientist Raymond Tallis’ book Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity provides a focused critique of the evidence upon which reductionist perspectives of human consciousness are built.

The bottom line for me is that computers, while wonderful tools, exploit a particular facet of consciousness – counting. The elaboration of counting into mathematics and calculus-based physics is undoubtedly the most powerful influence on civilization in the last 400 years, its success has been based on the power to control exterior bodies in public space. With the development of designer pharmaceuticals and more immersive internet experiences, we have good reason to expect that this power to control extends to our entire existence. With the computer’s universality as evidence that doing and knowing are indeed all there is to the universe, including ourselves, it is nonetheless difficult to ignore that beyond all that seems to exist, there is some thing or some one else who seems to ‘insist’. On further inspection, all of the simulations, games, memes, information, can be understood to supervene on a deeper level of nature. When addressing the ultimate questions, it is no longer adequate to take the omniscient voyeur and his ‘view from nowhere’ for granted. The universe as a program makes no sense without a user, and a user makes no sense for a program to develop for itself.

It’s not the reflexive looping or self-reference, not the representation or semiotics or Turing emulation that is the problem, it is the aesthetic presentation itself. We have become so familiar with video screens and keyboards that we forget that those things are for the user, not the computer. The computer’s world, if it had a world, is a completely anesthetic codescape with no plausible mechanism for or justification of any kind of aesthetic decoding as experience. Even beyond consciousness, computation cannot even justify a presentation of geometry. There is no need to draw a triangle itself if you already have the coordinates and triangular description to access at any time. Simulations need not actually occur as experiences, that would be magical and redundant. It would be like the government keeping a movie of every person’s life instead of just keeping track of drivers licenses, birth certificates, tax returns, medical records, etc. A computer has no need to actualize or simulate – again that is purely for the aesthetic satisfaction of the user.

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