Thursday, May 19, 2016

Life, consciousness, free will: words were defined to describe something

From time to time, even in groups where you'd think people would be a bit more sceptical, somebody will suddenly pipe up and say something on the lines of
Is matter really alive? Maybe the distinction between inorganic and organic is false. If we push further into the nature of matter, would we find that matter is alive and conscious in a monistic, naturalistic, materialistic sense?
Or perhaps
I don't know about "alive" - I would think not - but "conscious", yes, that has been my hunch for many years. I think fundamental particles simply must be conscious in some sense. Not in the same full sense as humans, presumably; but to build that full-sense consciousness in organisms like humans, it seems to me that you need building blocks that have some sort of consciousness themselves.
Subatomic particles alive and/or conscious? Right. The easy answer to this is somewhere on the spectrum from hysterical laughter to shocked silence. But as so often, isn't it much more interesting to explore where exactly the reasoning has gone wrong here?

I think what is going on here, and in some other cases one of which at least I will come to, is a fundamental confusion about what concepts are good for and how they arise. There seems to be this idea that there is an essence of life-ness or consciousness, and we just randomly happen to have a name for this essence, and now we can start speculating about whether this or that item is imbued with the relevant essence.

As far as I can tell that is not how it works.

It was surely not the case that when language developed to the degree of complexity that concepts like "alive" and "conscious" were first expressed and named some metaphysicist named Ugh sat down, deduced from first principles that such an alive-ness essence must exist, made up a word, and then went about applying it to stuff. It seems fairly clear that it must have been the other way around (not least because that other way is how we still coin new terms today):

Pragmatic hunter-gatherer Ugh would one day have observed that his grandfather, Ogh, who just yesterday was still walking around, eating, drinking, and having a chat about the weather, has over night gone cold, stiff, and unresponsive, and will now start to decompose. Ugh is growing concerned about these goings-on that he has previously observed in other older people (and younger people who have been clubbed on the head), and he wants to discuss the matter with his partner Agh. So he needs a word or two to describe the difference between, in this case, being able to walk around and have a conversation, and being forever incapable of doing that. So he must have a term for alive and another for dead.

Considering the matter further, we can then start arguing about how these terms apply to other things. Rocks are certainly quite like dead-Ogh. Are plants more like alive-Ogh or more like dead-Ogh? They don't walk around or talk, okay, but obviously plants can also die, just look what happens to the tree uprooted by the storm three weeks ago. Perhaps movement and speech are not the best criteria after all? Perhaps it should be growth and being able to make children? Maybe once we consider viruses (which would not have been known to Ugh) we find that it is really hard to find a clear cut-off between the two categories. But the starting point, the rationale for having a word like "alive", was the need to describe an observed sharp difference.

Same for "conscious". Ugh-awake versus Ugh-asleep, or perhaps Ugh-having-eaten-too-many-fermenting-berries. Useful concept. Then we look around us and ask if a beetle or chicken is ever conscious like we are. Maybe we find that consciousness is not a binary state but a smooth gradient, with chickens having a bit of it. Maybe we can even develop weird speculative thought experiments about people being just like us in every regard except consciousness. But the starting point, the rationale for having a word like "alive", was the need to describe an observed sharp difference.

And that is the problem with going "duuude, what if all matter is conscious?" Yes, we could redefine these terms to apply in that way. Only then they would become empty, content-free, utterly useless for their original purpose. We would at best have to discard them and invent new terms to describe the very same concepts over again. In the worst case we'd just confuse our language.

The same situation obtains, by the way, in the perennial discussion whether Free Will is an illusion. At least in the everyday languages I am familiar with the concept was invented to describe the difference between being able to act on your own true desires or rational preferences and being forced, compelled or tricked into acting against them. If the term is discarded because of the entirely irrelevant observation that our brains follow cause-and-effect we will need a new term to describe the same difference.

Eliminating "out of my own free will" is as unhelpful as watering down "alive" and "conscious". They weren't invented as abstract essences that we now realise are everywhere or nowhere. They were invented to describe empirically observed differences, differences that very definitely do exist.

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