Science and philosophy

Over supper a few nights ago I had a conversation with Damien (not his name) which roamed around the relationship between science and philosophy. Damien is a young man highly educated in the sciences and with, I suspect, an IQ which would give me an inferiority complex. He told me that he avoided philosophy because it yielded no certain answers and, by its nature, could never do so. Science on the other hand did give clear answers based on empirical evidence, even if we needed sometimes to modify them in the light of new discovery.

Of course I understood but I wondered if the two could complement each other. And I explored the track of artificial intelligence. I had recently listened to a scientific conversation on the nature of the brain. It was assumed that the brain was ultimately mechanical. With its 100 million neurons and its 100 billion connections we might never reproduce it in practice. But what if we could? Were we to create a robot with an exactly reproduced human brain, and a body to match, would we have created a real human being? Of course we never reached an answer. So pause, and think what other elements the robot might need to have.

Our first test might be to kick the robot’s shins. Would we expect it to react? Yes almost certainly – because it would be programmed, like us, to protect itself. So, various internal actions would be triggered. Some would start the process of healing; others would jerk the robot into crisis action to decide, almost instantaneously, whether to escape or whether to bonk you on the nose. But would it be conscious in the sense that we use that word? Science has failed to answer that question. But I am clear that kicking a robot’s shins is not in itself a moral matter. But kicking your shins would be.

The next test would be whether our robot had free will. Some scientists would reject this test on the grounds that free will does not exist even in humans. Unfortunately this proposition is self-defeating. If conclusions are no more than the outcome of personal history which we can neither fully know nor control, it can claim no truth value for we would be already biological robots.

Could our robot be a moral entity? There are two elements here.
The first concerns our ability to recognise the good. Different ways of discovering this have been developed but perhaps the most popular is Utilitarianism. Its basic principle is the greatest happiness for the greatest number. It is an attractive approach but it is difficult to apply in practice except in simple cases. But our robot might have the advantage here through its ability to process huge human data, and the availability of the algorithms needed to assess all the options.

Much the same might be said for the Natural Law approach. Its rationale is that we flourish if we follow our true nature, which is given to us by God. By analogy our dishwasher will flourish if we respect its nature as recorded in the maker’s handbook. I have suggested in the past that if the Church’s application of natural law, as applied to the moral law in the light of its maker’s handbook, could be programmed, we could instantaneously measure the moral status of any proposed behaviour.

The second element of course is moral obligation. If for instance I decide that I should be a truthful person I can justify this in different ways. Perhaps I recognise the practical value of truth in society. Or I realise if I am known to be untruthful I will not be trusted by others, and be disadvantaged thereby. But such reasons are not moral they are utilitarian. The obligation which is expressed as “I ought to be truthful” is of a different order. The philosopher, A J Ayer, claimed that such moral statements have no objective meaning, they merely record our individual feelings. But even Ayer might have jibbed if I had claimed that his fundamental views denied the possibility of his being a moral person. Yet he was a moral person just as Professor Dawkins is a moral person — but both deny the intellectual substratum necessary to be this.

So introducing consciousness, freewill and moral obligation into our robot is more than a technical problem to be eventually solved. They appear to share the unique characteristics of being a person but we can conceive of no programming skills which could address them. It is at this point that science and philosophy part ways because they ask different questions. Science is concerned with the material and its measurement – continually seeking further solutions to causality. Philosophy asks: Who are we? Why are we here? What ought we to be? Such answers lie within ourselves, and always just beyond our reach.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment, Neuroscience, Philosophy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Science and philosophy

  1. G.D. says:

    You ask “Were we to create a robot with an exactly reproduced human brain, and a body to match, would we have created a real human being?”

    You are, no doubt, aware of the theory among various thinkers that consciousness is other than and resides outside the chemical and electrical processes of the mind. The biological mind itself being a mere receiver, somewhat like a radio, or TV? And other theories our ‘sharing’ in that consciousness continues after the brain has ceased to function.

    So God – or Universal Mind as some would interpret it – fits in very well for me. It is God who is Conscious, and we share, if we choose, in that. Whatever it is in Itself.

    A theory i find more than adequate to explain why consciousness is ‘available’ for our use, if we choose to share in it for the good of all, but not of our creating. And, yes, certainly beyond our ‘programming’.

    Giving a robot all the attributes of ‘being human’ is outside our ability, now and i believe forever, we are given, by grace, to partake of something (consciousness) that is beyond our ability to manufacture; ever.
    No matter how proficient a Robot becomes in being like a rational human. (Some of whom are only rational – philisophical or scientific – and not very conscious!).

  2. G.D. says:

    I might add i find the usual definition of ‘consiousness’ very limiting as to it’s true meaning.

  3. Horace says:

    As a one time Senior Lecturer in Artificial Intelligence [ albeit half a century ago ] I was fascinated to read this post!
    In my time the emphasis was on programs which could reach intelligent conclusions from fairly complicated data.
    For example :- my star program aimed to solve the following – in those days young newly qualified doctors would each be allocated to work with a Senior Consultant for a year. My program took preference lists from each Consultant and each young doctor and allocated them to get the best possible match.
    I well remember one furious Consultant who demanded to know why he had been allocated his FIFTH preference! I went through the whole allocation procedure with him and at the end, while still disgruntuled, he had to admit that this was the best possible choice!

    To me the most interesting problem is that of “Free Will”.

  4. Geordie says:

    Can a robot change its mind?

    • Alan says:

      It’s an interesting question.

      I would imagine that most people take it for granted that people can change their minds. “Heads. No tails. No, definitely heads.” seems like someone changing their mind. But could they have ever, in precisely the same circumstances and with their physical brains in exactly the same state, have ever chosen differently? That seems like a very difficult thing to determine.

  5. galerimo says:

    Maybe a quiet word in Damian’s ear would serve to enhance his view of the relationship between science and philosophy. In his work “The Tao of Physics”, Fritjof Capra speaks of a paradigm shift in the atomistic, analytical approach characteristic of Bacon, Newton and Descartes, to the more contemporary holistic sciences that prioritize the interrelational whole of any given reality.

    There is a shift from structure to process, with structures being seen as manifestations of an underlying process or self-organization of some kind.

    Capra talks of a move from objective to “epistemic science”. The truth of things is discovered only to the degree that the full capacities of the subject are involved: in sensing, imagining, questioning, pondering, responding, and loving.

    It is not so much a matter of adding to known reality bit by bit but of apprehending the whole in its interconnectedness. To treat anything as a bit or part isolated from the world of relationships in which it exists is to overlook its essential features.

    Science has abandoned its quest for Cartesian type certainty to be content with the more tentative and ever revisable notion of probability. It is a shift towards approximate descriptions – very clearly so in the field of modern physics. And closer to the philosophical way of understanding.

    As for making robots more like humans I am more concerned about the evident headlong rust of humanity, individually and socially, to exchange their humanity for robotics. Human are rapidly becoming more like robots

    Once the market processes the data of day-to-day exchange all the control levers that directly affect our lives in terms of purchasing, saving and selling start to shift unseen in the background. Where are the human values of honesty, happiness and the greatest good for the greatest number?

    Recently I was doomed to a call centre for assistance with my Internet connection. It was very clear the operator was reading from a script. And there was no way they were going to deviate from it.

    Thanks for this old chestnut Quentin – as your title suggests it is both and, not either or.

  6. Iona says:

    GD – Could you tell us how you would define consciousness, given that you find the usual definition “very limiting”?

    (Come to think of it, I don’t even know what “the usual definition of ‘consiousness’ ” is).

  7. G.D. says:

    Ummm … vast!
    See it as more of a ‘function/attribute’ of God shared with creation to enable awareness of itself in ‘the Other’. Gradually realising the actual reality God is, and reflecting what it becomes aware of. Eternally. If it so chooses.

    Realise that’s not ‘logical’ …. but then neither is God. And many of a scientific background support it.

    As for the ‘usual definition’ amongst the philosophers, there doesn’t seem to be just ‘one’.
    See …. http://www.iep.utm.edu/consciou/

  8. Iona says:

    Thank you, GD.
    Yes, it is a bit big, isn’t it?

  9. FZM says:

    He told me that he avoided philosophy because it yielded no certain answers and, by its nature, could never do so. Science on the other hand did give clear answers based on empirical evidence, even if we needed sometimes to modify them in the light of new discovery.

    It might be a bit off topic, but another way of approaching the question could be to ask if his avoidance of philosophy was just a personal preference or if it was intended to be some kind of more impersonal truth claim about the value of philosophy as a way of understanding reality. If it was supposed to be something more than a statement of personal taste, the person putting it forward would be engaging in philosophy.

    I’m not sure you can really avoid philosophy. Without it, it seems like the various assumptions that you have to make to for scientific enquiry to be possible in the first place would just stand as arbitrary postulates with an unknown relationship to reality.

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