The Mind and The Machine (Review)

Any book that combines a discussion of Raymond Kurzweil’s theory of the coming singularity with analysis of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien is probably going to be a good read.  Matthew Dickerson’s The Mind and The Machine: What it Means to Be Human and Why it Matters does not disappoint.  Dickerson’s basic question in the book is to ask whether a human can be understood as just a complex biological machine.  This view he calls physicalism, where the physical world of matter is all there is.  Dickerson contrasts this with dualism, the view that a human consists not just of body, but of body and spirit.

The first half of the book is focused on showing the shortcomings of a physicalist view.  He argues that under physicalism, things like creativity and heroism cease to exist.  Creativity is defined as the bringing of something new into existence, something original.  Heroism is making virtuous choices.  The problem is that under physicalism there is no free will.  If humans are just biological machines, extremely complex computers, we can only do what we have been programmed to do by nature or nurture.

He also argues, suprisingly, that physicalism leads to a devaluing of nature.  This appears surprising because it is often religious people, at least of certain persuasions, who are seen as so valuing the spiritual that they care nothing for the world around them.  But Dickerson says that the views of Kurzweil and others devalue the body: if we’re going to merge with computers, what need is there for the natural world?  Further, if the only things that exist are physical things, Dickerson argues than everything humans do is “natural.”  Humans, as part of nature, do natural things, whether this is polluting rivers or cleaning them.  And if determinism is true, which it must be under this view, then it is inevitable that we will do whatever we do.  There is nothing “unnatural.”

Dickerson’s third argument may be even more surprising, as he argues that physicalism gives less reason to trust in reason or science than does dualism.  In this he turns some physicalist arguments back on themselves.  Many say that humans only believe in religion as part of our evolutionary programming, it was something helpful in the past.  Yet if all our beliefs only come about out of usefulness, then the same is true of our trust in reason.  If a mind outside the physical brain is illusion, then so to is reason.

The second part of the book then goes through the same subjects, showing how a dualist perspective better accounts for human creativity, heroism and the rest.  It should be noted that Dickerson argues for an integrative dualism where body and soul cannot be separated from each other, both are needed for a human to be fully human.  This differs from a “ghost in the machine” dualism where the soul is like an entity living in the body, pulling the levers and running the show.

Overall, this is a fantastic book.  It covers a lot of ground while engaging with a variety of fields from science to literature.  Dickerson does not claim to have a knock-down rational argument for or against naturalism or dualism.  Instead his point is to ask which view better explains our existence as humans: “What I have suggested was that if humans are spiritual beings, then we ought to have some spiritual compass” (206).

To Dickerson, and I think he’s right, it comes down to assumptions.  If you assume from the outset that humans are just physical creatures and nothing more, that the brain is just the matter you can see inside a skull, then no argument for a soul makes sense.  Dickerson asks us to question that assumption.  What if we leave open the possibility that there is more to the world than what science can find, then what is physical and material?  Does a spiritual sense better explain creativity and heroism, reason and a moral basis for ecological practice (i.e., polluting the planet is wrong).  If so, perhaps there is something out there beyond the natural world.

That said, questioning our assumptions is tough.  If Dickerson can get us to do that, he has succeeded.

Finally, I did think the book slowed down near the end.  Perhaps, and this will sound bad coming from a Christian pastor, it is because that while his defense of creativity and heroism relied on the work of Tolkien, his defense of reason and science rested on scripture.  I believe everything he said about scripture is true and that there is a strong motivation in there for trusting reason and doing science.  But using scripture to support the argument in one chapter and not another seemed uneven.  It would have been better either to add scripture to the heroism and creativity chapter, or to find examples (like Tolkien) for the science and reason chapter.

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