“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
T.S. Eliot, from Little Gidding
Eliot’s words are, deservedly, often quoted and I don’t suppose any of us know what he had in mind when he wrote them. But they have had resonance for me recently as, unexpectedly, I find my current professional and academic path bringing me back to some old questions.
As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, my undergraduate studies were in Theology, followed up with an MPhil in Hebrew Studies. For reasons that are not worth going into here, I started my career in a very different area. I don’t like to admit it these days, but my first graduate job was in banking, leading to a career that moved though accountancy, financial management, general management and HR before landing up in education in 2007. For the past five years or so, I have increasingly focused on the impact of technology on education, as reflected in most of the content of this blog. One of the fascinating things about educational technology is that you cannot consider it in isolation from the impact of technology on society generally. So I have ended up reading the works of those who have reflected on these big questions.
Which brings me to my recent reading of Technopoly, an extraordinary book by the late American academic Neil Postman. It generated lots of thoughts, some recorded in this blog, but here I want to focus on one particular sentence that gave me a jolt. Postman is here drawing an important distinction about our use of the word “science”. On the one hand, you have physical sciences, which deal with processes, subject to laws of cause and effect which can be established, tested and falsified. On the other hand, you have social sciences, which deal with practices, resulting from human decisions and actions, and all but impossible to test or falsify. He illustrates this point by the difference between a “blink” and a “wink”:
“A blink can be classified as a process; it has physiological causes which can be understood and explained within the context of established postulates and theories. But a wink must be classified as a practice, filled with personal and to some extent unknowable meanings and, in any case, quite impossible to explain or predict in terms of causal relations.” (my italics)
This jolted me because Postman is here presenting as established fact something which I think is arguable. It could be (and, as we shall see below, often is) argued that the only reason human behaviour is “impossible to explain or predict in terms of causal relations” is because we don’t yet understand the complex relationships involved in human behaviour.
This, I think, is the perspective of a group we may call “naturalist atheists”, of whom the most prominent member is the British scientist Richard Dawkins. I have read his works with interest and, if I am understanding him correctly, he would argue that the natural laws account for everything that happens in the universe. That includes the human brain, but the human brain is very, very complex and we are nowhere near understanding how it works. However, genetics and neuroscience are young disciplines. They will, or at least hypothetically could, advance to the point where all human behaviour can be explained in terms of cause and effect, albeit very complex ones. The only mysterious thing about consciousness is its complexity.
This argument has important implications. If the brain can be described as a very complex set of interactions, then it becomes possible to imagine that machines will one day replicate the workings of the human brain. In fact, given how quickly technology is advancing, at some point the machines will “think” much better than we do. This leads to the idea of “The Singularity”, popularised by the American futurist Ray Kurzweil, who speculates about what a world might look like when machines can do everything that humans can, only better, including advancing their own intelligence. According to a recent article in the New Yorker, “virtually everyone in the A.I. field” shares the general belief that machines will overtake humans. Speculation about “uploading” consciousness, and similar ideas, also presupposes this worldview. If consciousness is something qualitatively different to the workings of a computer, then all this is nonsense.
I feel confident in saying that Postman would emphatically reject this view, and yet I’m not sure he could disprove it. This means he (along with those on the other side of the argument) is actually doing something which is familiar to me from my earlier studies – he is making a commitment of faith. He is choosing to believe that, ultimately, human behaviour cannot be explained or predicted, and then living according to that belief. The struggle between the view of the human brain as a machine, albeit a very, very complex machine and the human brain as something qualitatively different to a machine is one we see played out in all kinds of settings (including education). Neither side can prove their argument, and yet it is an issue of great importance. We all choose, explicitly or implicitly, which side of the debate we are on because the consequences will inform our worldview. I can recognise this type of struggle – it is, at least in a sense, theological.
The struggle is made more explicit by another writer on the relationship between technology and society. Jaron Lanier is a technology entrepreneur, musician and now a sort of philosopher. In his book You Are Not A Gadget, Lanier argues passionately that human consciousness is something that will never be replicated by non-human objects, no matter how complex they ever become. He insists that there is “mystery” at the heart of human consciousness, at the same time being careful to say that you should not necessarily extrapolate from this “mystery” particular beliefs about God, the soul, the afterlife, or any of those areas. Nonetheless, the mystery is important, and it feeds into his argument, which echoes Postman’s, that technology must be subordinated to the workings of a just and flourishing society, not the other way round. He also adds, mischievously, that great music makes this case much better than he ever could.
To put the issue another way, do we believe in the mystery that is human choice, or to use the theological term, free will? Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning,
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
If the “naturalists” are right, then he is dead wrong. We have no choices, we just think we do and we are actually experiencing a set of complex interactions in our brain. But if we believe in the “mystery” then he is right.
This question cannot be answered with the tools that we have and we must live with it. But, if we are to have a consistent worldview, we need to choose the answer we will live by, our working hypothesis. One way or another, we need to have faith. I am genuinely surprised, and quite gratified, to find that the old idea still has such importance.