Debate Magazine

Cognition, Metaphysics & Teleology

By Cris

If you are a high-profile professor of computer science at Yale University, it’s quite probable that the view from your room is peculiar (if not positively distorted). This is especially so if you are also an artist, writer, critic, and provocateur. Savants about town in New Haven often have odd worldviews and David Gelernter is no exception. When Gelernter does computer science, it’s genius. When he does culture wars, it’s coarse.

In this rambling piece over at Commentary, Gelernter sets up and then knocks down several strawmen. I recommend it only because he draws our attention to the reigning scientific metaphor of our times. This metaphor, which equates brains and minds with computers and processing, is a favorite of cognitive science. Gelernter is rightly skeptical. But at the end of his critique, Gelernter goes off the rails. Rather than suggesting that we should be wary of metaphorical mind models, he reverts to metaphysics:

On consciousness and subjectivity, science still has elementary work to do. That work will be done correctly only if researchers understand what subjectivity is, and why it shares the cosmos with objective reality.

Of course the deep and difficult problem of why consciousness exists doesn’t hold for Jews and Christians. Just as God anchors morality, God’s is the viewpoint that knows you are conscious. Knows and cares: Good and evil, sanctity and sin, right and wrong presuppose consciousness. When free will is understood, at last, as an aspect of emotion and not behavior—we are free just insofar as we feel free—it will also be seen to depend on consciousness.

Yes, science still has elementary work to do on brains, minds, and consciousness. The cognitive-computer model has serious flaws. This is not, however, warrant for a reversion to ancient metaphysics.

While there is much in Gelernter’s piece that metaphysicians will find to their liking, Christians will probably stop nodding in agreement near the end, when Gelernter (who is Jewish) claims:

The sanctity of life is what we must affirm against [technology gurus, scientific atheists], and the nightmare of roboticism. Judaism has always preferred the celebration and sanctification of this life in this world to eschatological promises. My guess is that 21st-century Christian thought will move back toward its father and become increasingly Judaized, less focused on death and the afterlife and more on life here today (although my Christian friends will dislike my saying so).

Suffice it to say there is zero evidence that Christianity is moving in this general direction.

Gelernter’s diffuse jeremiad was inspired, at least in part, by the recent dustup over Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos (2012), with its provocative subtitle: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

Those not familiar with Nagel’s book and reactions it provoked should first read this piece published in May by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Gelernter’s entry in this debate is not particularly helpful; it would not be churlish to characterize it as reactionary, perhaps even primitive.

In stark contrast, Stephen Asma just entered the debate with this brilliant piece on the teleological possibilities for evolutionary biology. For a variety of informed reasons, I’ve always been anti-teleological about these matters. Asma’s piece has forced me to reconsider. At a minimum, it raises serious questions and avenues for investigation. I’m clearly not as informed as I had supposed.


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