Perhaps this would be better on my book review site, but it’s really a question of science, prompted by reading the challenging The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions.
My issue with the book is not atheism but the essential claim of the author – Alex Rosenberg – that human beings cannot reason about anything, can exercise no choice and have no free will and live a completely determined life.
Rosenberg grounds this in the claim that humans cannot have thoughts “about” anything – how can, he asks, your neurons be “about Paris” (or anything else) when they are merely electrical connections? And, he adds, our sense of free will, of conscious decision, is an illusion as demonstrated by multiple experiments that show we have “taken” any decision before we consciously “decide” to take it.
In the end I just think this is a tautology. How can the words on a page be “about Paris” either when they are just black ink? We end up abolishing the category of “about” if we follow this argument. Nothing is about anything else.
And how do humans advance their knowledge and understanding if they cannot reason, cannot decide? Knowledge cannot be immanent in experience, surely? Newton did not formulate gravity because being hit on the head by the mythical apple was a form of “percussive engineering” on his neural circuits – he reasoned about the question and yes, that reasoning helped reshape the neural connections, but it was not pre-destined.
And anyone who has read Godel, Escher, Bach will surely see conscious and unconscious decision making closely linked in any case – this is what a “strange loop” is all about.
Ultimately I find myself thinking of Turing’s idea of the “imitation game” and the more general idea that intelligence is what looks like intelligence. Computers have no free will, but they are not necessarily fully deterministic either – we can build a random number generator which is powered by nuclear decay events which, we must believe, are fully stochastic. Such a system could be made to appear as exercising choice in a completely non-deterministic way and look fully human within the bounds of Turing’s game. And when I say it is being “made to appear” to be exercising choice, I think it will be exercising choice in just the same way as we do – because there is no way that we could tell it apart from a human.
Or to take another example – if we build a genetic algorithm to find a heuristic solution to the travelling salesman problem in what sense has the computer not thought “about” the problem in developing its solution?