David Gelernter and the Angst of the Philosophers

One can understand the anxiety of the spiritually inclined.  Whether their tastes run to traditional religions or belief in some kind of a teleological life force, their world views have always depended on exploitation of the things we don’t understand.  As the quantity of such things declines, the credibility of their beliefs tends to decline in direct proportion.  Computer scientist David Gelernter, who happens to be a believer of the Jewish persuasion, recently delivered himself of an interesting cri de Coeur in response to this unsettling state of affairs.

In a piece that appeared in Commentary entitled The Closing of the Scientific Mind, Gelernter cuts right to the chase, singling out as the enemy a strawman outgroup known as “scientists.”  These scientists, it would seem, “…have forgotten their obligation to approach with due respect the scholarly, artistic, religious, humanistic work that has always been mankind’s main spiritual support.”  Furthermore, these same scientists use their “…locker room braggadocio to belittle the spiritual, and religious discoveries, which is all we human beings possess or ever will.”  In that case I must be poor indeed, as I am familiar with no such discovery that is credible to anyone who believes that claims of truth should be based on actual evidence.  Apparently the braggadocio of the scientists is based, at least in part, on their ignorance, for, as Gelernter assures us, “Scientists are (on average) no more likely to understand this work than the man in the street is to understand quantum physics.”

Where to begin?  At the risk of sounding barrenly scientific, one might ask what Gelernter means by “spirit” when he speaks of “spiritual support.”  Where is the evidence that such an entity even exists, or the proof that the scholarly, artistic, religious, and humanistic work he refers to actually does support it if, in fact, it does exist?  What on earth does he mean by “humanism?”

Of course, the problem here may well be that, like Gelernter’s scientists, I simply don’t understand this work.  I would be the first to agree that it can be highly complex.  For example, my understanding of the detailed and intricate theological arguments in favor of the Trinity are vague indeed, as is my understanding of the reasons the followers of Father Arius reject these arguments.  I know no more than a babe about why one is supposed to risk eternal damnation by either embracing the iconoclast’s rejection of religious images, or the iconodule’s insistence that they remain.  I have no clue about the sophisticated arguments used by Jan Hus to demonstrate the need for Communication in both kinds, nor the equally involved arguments contrived by the Popes to justify decades of warfare in order to restore Communion in one kind only.  However, it is entirely clear to me that all these arguments are vain and senseless if the great Santa Claus in the sky that all these learned debaters appealed to doesn’t actually exist.  In fact, I have concluded as much, and so have not taken the trouble to waste much effort on “understanding this work.”

For such “spiritual and religious discoveries” to be plausible, they must exist in a sphere inaccessible to the prying eyes of mere scientists.  Of course, as mentioned above, Gelernter is a believing Jew, so he has that sphere for starters.  However, he has another one up his sleeve, in the form of the “subjective world.”  As he puts it, nowhere is the bullying of the scientists “…more outrageous than in its assault on the phenomenon known as subjectivity.”  As my readers know, I have had much to say about the difference between subjective and objective phenomena, particularly as they relate to morality.  I do not believe in the objective existence of categories such as good, evil, rights, etc., independent of their subjective perception in the mind.  The Darwinian explanation of these subjective phenomena as owing their existence to the fact that the predispositions that are their ultimate cause promoted the survival and procreation of our ancestors at some point in time, with its caveat that they are ultimately explainable in terms of physical phenomena that we don’t currently understand, but that are hardly beyond our very powers of understanding, seems entirely plausible to me.  Of course, as immediately realized by the clerical worthies, both of Darwin’s time and our own, such an explanation has a very corrosive effect on “spiritual and religious discoveries.”  As a result, just as they did and do, Gelernter must reject it as well.

And so he does.  In the article at hand, he bases his rejection of Darwin almost entirely on the work of philosopher Thomas Nagel, with emphasis on his book, Mind & Cosmos, as if Nagel’s opinion on the subject silenced all further debate.  It would seem we must jettison Darwin merely because, in Nagel’s opinion, “Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain the emergence of consciousness – the capacity to feel or experience the world.”  I would be the first to admit that we don’t yet understand consciousness.  However, clearly no such conclusion as “Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain it” is warranted until we do.  No matter, Gelernter elevates Nagel to the status of a martyr of truth, who has been cruelly persecuted by the “killer hyenas” of science.  As evidence for the existence of the scientific “lynch mob,” he cites a review of Mind & Cosmos that appeared in the May 2013 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Where Thomas Nagel Went Wrong.”

On actually reading the article, I kept wondering what on earth Gelernter meant by his dark references to a “lynch mob.”  By all means, read it yourself.  It’s meager stuff on which to anchor Nagel’s martyrdom.  To all appearances it’s a vanilla book review that actually praises Nagel in places, but concludes that he “went wrong” merely by doing a poor job of marshaling the potentially good arguments in favor of what the reviewer, Michael Chorost, to all appearances considered an entirely plausible point of view.  As Chorost put it,

But Nagel’s goal was valid:  to point out that fundamental questions of origins, evolution, and intelligence remain unanswered, and to question whether current ways of thinking are up to the task.  A really good book on this subject would need to be both scientific and philosophical:  scientific to show what is known, philosophical to show how to go beyond what is known.  (A better term might be “metascientific,” that is, talking about the science and how to make new sciences.)

That doesn’t exactly strike me as the criticism of a “killer hyena.”  Gelernter goes on to cite Ray Kurzweil’s singularity” mumbo-jumbo as an example of how the “scientists,” with their “roboticist” interpretation of the mind and their denial of his “subjective world,” have gone wrong.  In fact, the idea that all “scientists” embrace either Kurzweil’s transhumanist utopia or “roboticist” interpretations of the mind is nonsense.  I certainly don’t.

The rest of Gelernter’s arguments in favor of a “subjective” never-never land, inaccessible to mere scientists and forever inexplicable in terms of crude explanations based on anything as naïve as physics and chemistry, are similarly implausible.  This subjective world is supposed to be capable of spawning “the best and deepest moral laws we know,” although Gelernter never supplies a metric by which we are to measure such quantities as “best” and “deepest,” nor, for that matter, any basis for the existence of such things as “moral laws.”  Presumably they would be beyond the understanding of mere scientists.  Again, the subjective world is to prevent us from becoming “morally wobbly,” and “inhumane.”  It is to supply us with a common appreciation of “scholarship (presumably of the non-scientific kind), art, and spiritual life.”  It will somehow affirm the “sanctity of life,” and will rationalize “all our striving for what is good and just and beautiful and sacred, for what gives meaning to human life, and makes us (as Scripture says) ‘just a little lower than the angels,’ and a little better than the rats and cats,” all of which is “invisible to the roboticist worldview.”

For all this to happen, of course, it is necessary for the “subjective world” to be universal.  I can certainly understand the term “subjective,” but it seems to me to refer to phenomena that go on in the minds of individuals.  Gelernter never supplies us with an explanation of how these phenomena in the minds of individuals, whether scientifically explainable or not, acquire the magical power to leap out of those individual skulls and become independent things with independent normative powers, or, in a word, objects.  Perhaps a good Marxist could interpret it as an instance of the Law of the Transformation of Quantity into Quality.

It all reminds me of a quirk of one of my favorite novelists, Stendhal, who couldn’t bear to describe on paper, even in his personal diaries, the consummation of one of his “sublime” love affairs for fear any such crude description would shatter its “beauty.”  I would be the first to admit that those affairs represented a “subjective world” to Stendhal.  For all that, I still have a sneaking suspicion that Darwin might have had something useful to say about them after all.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

2 thoughts on “David Gelernter and the Angst of the Philosophers”

  1. I read Gelernter’s essay and found it rather dissatisfying, although I share his views in part. Among others, I find Kurzweil’s reductionism primitive and distasteful.

    I agree that words like “spirit” and even “humanist” are highly elusive. Yet I cannot let go of the idea of the “ghost in the machine” and doubt that subjective consciousness can be replicated in a virtual reality.

  2. The problem with consciousness is that we don’t yet understand it. Until we do it’s probably accurate to say that arguments about free will and related topics will belong more in the fields of theology, spiritualism, and other imaginary realms than in the real world.

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