On Mind-Body Duality and the Afterlife

[read the disclaimer before proceeding]

Consider a clock that is ticking. We can think of the ticking as the “soul” or “consciousness” of the clock. As long as the clock’s spring or battery has sufficient power, the clock will continue to tick. When the battery runs out, the clock stops ticking. The consciousness of the clock ends at that point. The clock does not continue to tick in some kind of spiritual dimension — it simply halts. It seems only natural to apply this analogy to human consciousness: when electrical impulses stop propagating through the brain, human consciousness ceases to exist.

It seems to me that the idea of mind-body duality (that the body and the mind are somehow separate entities), and hence the idea of an afterlife, can be challenged with a short series of trivial observations.

The Brain

The very existence of a brain already casts doubt on the existence of a soul. If a separate, intelligent soul really exists and inhabits the body, why would the body need a brain? If all cognitive functions are indeed performed by the soul, then the brain becomes useless.

Brain damage can have profound effects on the body, ranging from paralysis, retardation, and of course death, to very subtle changes in the individual’s behavior or personality. Clearly, this alone is devastating evidence against the existence of a soul. If a slight modification to the brain causes a change in the personality of the individual, doesn’t this imply that the brain alone is responsible for the individual’s personality? What role, then, is left for the soul to perform?

One can make the argument that the brain is actually a “receiver” acting as an antenna of sorts, simply picking up signals from a soul that exists elsewhere. But this adds an unnecessary layer of complexity. If we make the argument that the complex structure of the brain is necessary to receive “signals” from an extra-corporeal soul, then why not simplify a bit, and admit that the complex structure of the brain is the source of the soul? It’s the same as suggesting that the Sun that we see in our sky every day is really a reflection from a giant space-mirror located where we think the Sun is, while the “real” sun is someplace else entirely, shining light onto the mirror.

Unfortunate Cases

When a mentally handicapped person dies, does his soul remain mentally handicapped for all eternity? Or does the soul somehow get “repaired” to a healthy state? If so, can the new soul really be considered “the same” as it was before the repair? The new soul would now possess cognitive abilities that the real-life person could never use in the real world. What good would these abilities be for the soul if it can no longer wield them in our reality?

When an infant dies, will the infant’s soul continue to exist in a perpetual infantile state? Similar to the previous example, let’s entertain that the infant’s soul will be “upgraded” to a healthy adult state. Frankly, this makes even less sense than the first example. In order for a soul to reach adulthood, the physical person needs to lead an actual life into adulthood, gathering knowledge, experience, and memories. What kind of memories (never mind knowledge and experience) can this hypothetical adult-baby possess if it never had any conscious experiences in the real world?

When an elderly person passes away because of a disease like Alzheimer’s, will the soul continue to exhibit symptoms of Alzheimer’s, existing in a weak, confused, and compromised state? Or will the soul be reverted to a time when the disease was not yet present? If this is the case, who decides the age to which the soul will be reverted? What about all the experiences and memories that the person collected as the disease progressed (fuzzy as they may be)?

Emotional Incentive

There also seems to be a suspiciously large amount of emotional incentive associated with the belief in souls and an afterlife, which would lead one to believe that the two are simply a product of wishful thinking. We don’t want to die, so we’d rather believe that we can survive death. Since it’s blatantly obvious that people don’t actually survive death, we invent the idea of a noncorporeal essence that represents our living “state.” This essence, conveniently enough, is only temporarily bound to the body, and thus survives death — problem solved.

Afterlife and Religion

One final problem is the utter naïveté with which the major world religions (and therefore the majority of people) interpret the idea of an afterlife, inventing pseudo-physical “places” like heaven, hell, and numerous others where life continues indefinitely after death, with benefits and/or punishments based on the person’s behavior during life. The religious interpretation of the afterlife is primitive at best, and potentially quite dangerous. Indeed, any belief that cheapens real human life and attempts to misplace our hopes and dreams onto some intangible, imponderable promise of “eternal life beyond death” casts a truly negative light on the whole afterlife concept.

A Glimmer of Hope

Apparently, the trial in Dover, PA has sobered up members of a school board here in Ohio. Hopefully (and god willing (!)) this will ignite similar litigation that will finally put an end to teaching pseudoscience to impressionable young minds.

[Plain Dealer article]

Something I’ve never understood is, if creationists want biology classes to devote time to teaching intelligent design, then why don’t churches agree to devote some of their time to preaching evolutionary theory?

Evolving Straight Into the 15th Century!

The Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, a leading proponent of the “intelligent design” movement, and the star witness in the developing case against the school board of Dover, PA, would have us believe that the currently accepted definition of “science” is flawed and needs revision. No doubt, this is because the inconvenient definition of “science” categorically rules out so-called Intelligent Design as a viable scientific theory.

The United States National Academy of Sciences defines a scientific theory as:

…a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.

Since Intelligent Design does not deal in facts, laws, and provides no hypotheses to test, even Behe agrees that it’s not a scientific theory under this definition.

Behe instead proposes to think outside the box of 21st century science, and relax the definition a bit, to the effect of:

Under my definition, scientific theory is a proposed explanation which points to physical data and logical inferences.

The “logical inference” of Intelligent Design is essentially, “It looks complex, therefore it must be designed.” Unfortunately, neither Behe nor any of his ID colleagues have defined what is meant by “looks complex,” and all instances of “irreducible complexity” presented by ID proponents can be explained by modern evolutionary theory.

Under Behe’s definition, astrology would also be considered a science. Behe actually agreed with this when asked by the plaintiff’s attorney Eric Rothschild.

Proponents of Intelligent Design swear and cross their heart (pun intended) that their hypothesis bears no religious implications. With that in mind, I wonder what a high-school class on Intelligent Design would consist of:

TEACHER: Darwinian evolution does not explain the complexity and diversity of today’s species. An alternative is that an “Intelligent Designer” created everything we see today. Conveniently enough, the book of Genesis provides just such an explanation. Let’s begin our reading.

The day we accept miracles as scientific explanations is the day we revert to 15th century science. Hopefully the trial in Dover, PA will make a strong stand against such foolishness. The only miracle here is that Mr. Behe was ever allowed to teach a college Biology class.

Even the Christian Science Monitor makes the following refreshing and enlightened statement:

If this case encourages a deeper pondering of God, that’s welcome. One could even argue that intelligent design, as a widely accepted concept, should go much further, seeking to scientifically explore mankind’s spiritual nature rather than the origins of matter. But such exploration is a personal one, not appropriate for a public classroom. [emphasis added]

Sure-fire Ways to Annoy Me

1. When waiting for the elevator, come up and press the button when it’s already lit up. Don’t trust me or anyone else to press the button correctly.

2. Inside the elevator, make sure to press the “Close Door” button repeatedly on every floor at which the elevator stops.

3. At the crosswalk, press the button at least ten times. Obviously, the more you press the button, the faster you’ll get a green light.

Loebner Prize misguided?

In one of Alan Turing’s most noted papers, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (1950), Turing describes a test for machine intelligence, where a human “judge” would attempt to hold a conversation with two consoles, one operated by a human, and the other by a machine (with the judge unaware which is which). If, throughout the conversation, the judge cannot distinguish between the human and the machine, then the machine can be considered intelligent. Although it seems simplistic and rudimentary, this test can be quite useful since it circumvents any requirement to define or quantify “intelligence” or any aspects of it. It simply assumes that humans are intelligent, and if a machine can simulate human responses, then it must also be equally intelligent.

The first formal implementation of the Turing Test was organized in 1991 by Dr. Hugh Loebner, a somewhat eccentric academic figure who is also an activist for the decriminalization of prostitution. Dr. Loebner has been conducting this competition every year, ever since. The home page of the Loebner Prize contains transcripts of the conversations held between the judges and the various finalist programs.

Maybe it’s because I’m looking at the transcripts through the eyes of a software engineer, but I found the programs’ responses laughably crude and robotic. I fail to see how any human judge could attribute any “human” qualities to the programs’ output. It is trivial to observe how the programs randomly regurgitate a block of words spoken by the human, or, when asked a question they weren’t programmed to answer, spout off a random cliche to divert the judge’s attention from the program’s incompleteness.

Upon examining the transcripts from the earlier years of the competition (around 1994), and comparing them to the latest results (2004), something even more disturbing becomes clear: the sophistication of these programs has not changed a single bit! Of course, some will say, the programs have gotten more sophisticated internally, perhaps with a bigger repository of vocabulary. However, conversationally, they are virtually no different than the very first ELIZA implementation.

It seems to me that this kind of competition has more to do with behavioral psychology than computer science. It is, as some have called it, a beauty contest. In essence, the Loebner Prize would be awarded to the program that can do the best job of fooling a person into believing that it’s human, which, apparently, isn’t too difficult. This leads me to conclude that the Loebner competition, perhaps even the Turing test, is misguided at best. Since when does machine intelligence have to be expressed in the form of human conversation? If we are to expect a machine to sound remotely human, we would need to supply it with all of the life experiences of a human being, complete with sensory data (images, sounds, smells), memories from childhood, and fundamental instincts like self-preservation, the desire to learn, and the need to socialize.

In short, for a machine to become intelligent in the human sense, it would need to lead a human life from its conception. An example of such a machine may be an android that is perfectly disguised as a human being and made to interact with humans. It would be even better if the android itself is made to believe that it is human.
But to expect a computer console application (no matter how complex), without any real sensory input except keyboard clicks, to ever respond like a human being is misguided indeed.