Thursday, April 13, 2006

Your television's got soul!

Everything your TV does -- how it displays images, how it handles operations of its buttons and remote, how it gets power from the wall, etc. -- can be explained in terms of the physical parts and the information stored in and travelling through it, without exception.

Most likely, your TV contains a sealed cathode ray tube. Suppose I were to posit that there's some invisible, indetectable component inside the cathode ray tube. You can't ever see it because the moment you break the cathode ray tube, it escapes. You can't detect it because it exists in a way that is beyond the ability of any of our instruments to detect (though any time something unusual happens with your TV that isn't immediately explicable, I might blame it on this mysterious, ethereal component).

If you ask me what this component does, I will vaguely intimate that it influences the nature of the shows you see. If it were absent or corrupted, the shows would be different, lacking in some quintessential element or altered in some hard-to-pin-down way. "But the show comes from the satellite dish, it's the same for everyone," you dispute, to which I reply with a sagacious air, "No, it varies; some people see it darker, or redder, or with differences in sound." "But those," you retort, "are explicable with differences in the hardware and settings!" With an air of unwarranted confidence, I respond claiming that this ethereal component has an undefinable influence on these things, which cannot be measured.

Years ago, people universally insisted it was this component which decided what the picture looked like, but later examination of TVs revealed how the signal and the action of the cathode ray tube and the phosphors causes the picture, though a lot of people still can't get their head around this -- they have problem with the idea of a complete, moving, colorful picture that conveys meaning arising from the repetition (thousands of times each second) of so simple an action as firing a cathode ray at a cluster of three phosphors. Secretly, these people suspect that, while all that might be necessary, it's this ethereal component that causes the result to form an actual moving image rather than a pattern of shifting colored dots.

There are some people who insist that when your TV breaks down and you get a new one, this component "transmigrates" from the old TV to the new one. There are sometimes fierce arguments between those and the ones who insist that when the TV breaks down, this component finds its way into a huge combination plasma/projection system on another planet, where it gets to display only the best shows. Despite the depths of this dispute, both sides take the attitude that this component is what makes your TV the specific, unique TV it is, what distinguishes it from every other TV in the world.

The most noteworthy point you raise, though, is that there is not one single thing which we can detect which is explained by this component. Everything your TV does can be explained 100% by the interaction of hardware and information, even if you, personally, don't fully understand every detail of all the components and their actions. Yet I insist there's some extra component which cannot be detected, serves no definable purpose (apart from covering up my failure to understand emergence), and which is primarily a sort of "ID tag", a component which gives the whole system a unique identity that in turn has no measurable effect.

Silly, huh? And yet most people believe the exact same thing about your body and mind.

Okay, to be fair, I know that some people ascribe specific characteristics to souls, and the question of what can be "proven" to be attributable to them is still hotly contested; and there are any number of poorly understood things that could be, when better understood, caused by some as-yet-unknown process that gets the name "soul" slapped onto it because we already have it lying around.

However, I think that the majority of Americans, when they refer to a soul, are doing one of two things. Either they're referring to an actual "thing" which doesn't seem to do anything, and to which they attribute a lot of patterns of behavior that are actually perfectly explicable by physical means that they simply aren't aware or, don't understand, or refuse to believe; or they're referring to something so vague, such a "hyperextended rice pudding", that you can't pin it down enough to evaluate its truth or falsehood, and in the end, they will probably turn out to be referring to nothing more than emergence itself. (Though they'll probably refuse to conclude, in this case, that patterns of traffic on highways, or prices in the stock market, or the flocking of birds, each possess a soul.)

Ultimately, I think the concept of a soul is a holdover from a time when we didn't understand very well how the behavior of body and mind emerge from physical things (where hardware and information meet); it is a vestigial concept we haven't divested ourselves of simply because so many people are so ignorant of so much.


litlfrog said...

I'm not a hundred percent sure I agree with your argument here, but I can definitely address something in the conclusion. You state in the last paragraph that the notion of souls is a holdover from times when we knew less about physical and biological sciences and imply that many people might change their minds if they understood more about science. I just don't see that happening. The notion that we are fundamentally ephemeral creatures who will one day cease to exist is absolutely, balls-out fucking terrifying. That kind of fear just can't usually be addressed by rational argument.

My own reservations about your argument center somewhere around the primacy of Darwinian biology as explanation for humanity (not the species, but its virtues), though I'm afraid I can't articulate it very well. I stand in awe of what the greatest human artists and thinkers have created: the Jupiter symphony, the Bhagavad-Gita, representative democracy, nonviolent resistance. I just can't see purely evolutionary pressures at work in any of those. Our continuing drive to beauty and justice leads me to believe that we have something going on that ferns, chimpanzees, and barnacles just don't.

HawthornThistleberry said...

I had intended to talk about this, which I call the "merely" argument, in a full blog post, and may yet one day, but here's a nutshell version.

A common meme I call the "merely" argument goes like this. It is an insult to the grandest achievements of humankind to say they can be achieved by nothing more than "merely" flesh and blood and bone, a billion stupid cells that don't know anything. We must, therefore, invoke the idea of some separate "spark" that provides the genius, because to assume it's just the consequence of mere flesh is too depressing and nihilistic.

To me, this is entirely backwards. That mere flesh and brain can do this is precisely the thing we should be celebrating. We should be dancing with joy to say, "I am just a billion cells, each of which knows nothing, and I can make song and poetry, I can understand atoms and nebulae, I can change the world! How glorious indeed that I can do, and be, so much, from such humble origins!" Emergence is the ultimate triumph.

To me, the idea of saying that what we are, observably and demonstrably, is inadequate to what we can do, is the nihilistic and depressing argument. Sure, we've got something that ferns, chimpanzees, and barnacles don't. But it's not a different thing. It's more, and more complex.

It's what the Jupiter symphony has that the Burma Shave jingle doesn't have: it's not a different kind of thing, it's the difference of kind that comes from an adequately large difference of quantity. They're made out of the same parts, Jupiter and Burma Shave, and that is what makes the Jupiter symphony so wonderful: that it's all it is, even though it's made out of the same parts as the Burma Shave jingle. That's the whole point.

I realize I'm only addressing one point of your post, but it warrants being treated on its own. And I realize that how I characterize it isn't how you intended it; I'm generalizing so I can answer more generally. I just needed to get this down generally before I could hope to answer more specifics.

HawthornThistleberry said...

On to more specific comments about your points.

I agree that the fear of death is also an important and proximate cause of the notion of the soul. One could list a few others, no doubt. It takes all of them converging to justify an idea living through all of human history. In my more starry-eyed moments, though, I think that if people were, as a whole, less ignorant and more prone to critical thinking, all the primal needs which impel people to embrace soulism would be diminished or even fall away. The most marked such diminishment would come from the "we used to think this way because we didn't know better" aspect. The "we sure are scared of death" aspect would not be diminished as much or as quickly. Others (like the search for an answer to the "unity of the organism" question, and the need for a sense of individuality) would also be diminished to varying degrees but more understanding of emergence, evolution, the nature of intelligence, etc.

I guess my comments on the "merely" argument stand well enough as an answer to your second paragraph. I just don't see the achievements requiring me to say "there's more than this" -- instead, they require me to say "there's this, and isn't it even more grand than I thought before".

Let me put it another way. If you come home with a report card of all As and your mom's response is, "I don't believe you could do this on your own, your brothers never did, you must have had help" you'd feel offended. If she said, "wow, you're even smarter than I realized", you'd feel joyful. Which is more likely true? Which is more ennobling to your spirit? Isn't it great that you don't have to choose between those two, that the answer is the same for both questions?

HawthornThistleberry said...

Second attempt to get this right (wish I could edit comments) -- apparently italicizing the title of the article makes something barf.

Something David Brin wrote about the "merely" argument, in an article titled The Good And The Bad:

"The same folks who decry that the beauty of a rainbow is diminished if we penetrate its secrets to discover that it consists of ten trillion floating watery lenses, all brilliantly refracting, in perfect synchrony, rays from a stellar fusion pile, burning with ancient, furious constancy, millions of miles away."

The signature I use in email is an attempt at alluding to the same concept:

"It is more uplifting to find the beauty, wonder, spirituality, and reverence in what we can see, than to imagine they only exist in what we can't see."

Amusingly, most people who read that quote interpret it as meaning the opposite of what it does actually mean, and assume that I am supporting the transcendent over the imminent. I tend not to correct them, it hardly seems sporting.

litlfrog said...

Thanks, your last comment made your position more clear for me. I suspect that you would include in "mind" much of what is often attributed to "soul." No arguments here; perhaps I've been stuck in one too many annoying conversations with people who dismiss my favorite bits about humanity as pathological (psychologists) or superstitious (anthropologists).

One last note regarding the notion of souls: most people who believe in an eternal spirit that lives on past the death of the body hold these tenets because of religious experiences, not just upbringing or a lack of consideration. That belief is fundamentally mystical, and thus beyond the reach of any of the arguments we've made here. :)

HawthornThistleberry said...

You must think I'm lurking here waiting for your posts so I can pounce on them, but it's just coincidence, I just happened to look a couple of minutes after you posted.

It's true that most people's belief in soulism rests in a place in their minds to which they are unwilling to bring reason, a place that more broadly contains religion, of which soulism is just one facet. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that there's nowhere that reason shouldn't be brought, or can't be brought. I think most of the people who decry the inappropriateness of reason to certain activities are really decrying that it's been done badly in the past, not what it could do.

And we've already hit on the key issues of why people don't think reason should be, or can be, applied to certain human activities, ranging from art to religion and many others; and why they really should.

First, because of the "merely" argument, the idea that if it we can explain it that will somehow take the magic out of it and therefore make it meaningless -- where I say, if we can explain it, that makes it even grander and more amazing and ennobling. (And, incidentally, true, which might be a nice thing to have too.)

Second, because of how crucial a thing emergence really is in the world, in everything around us, in ourselves, and yet how poorly understood it is, even by many well-learned people. For my part, understanding emergence wasn't an epiphany, it was gradual, but I tend to imagine that a large proportion of educated, critically-thinking people would, if they gave emergence some solid consideration and study, have a life-changing epiphany. One which would allow, nay require, them to discard a lot of "orthodox" ideas they've been nurturing (often in an altered state) because the explanations those ideas offered are no longer necessary or useful.

Once someone has fully grokked those two concepts (and probably a few others), it's my hypothesis that the reasons for soulism and most other aspects of religion, and other concepts related to transcendence, would fall away. But that's an extremely tall order for a blog, let alone a single blog post. So for now I'm just playing with bits and pieces of that idea that I'll need to talk about other things, like artificial intelligence, or transhumanism.

Soundacious said...

Pardon me for coming to this a bit late ...

The television example doesn't hold water, because the television isn't describing this quality about itself. You are describing it. It can't describe itself because it doesn't have a ...

...what? Identity? Mind? Soul? What's the difference?

I perceive the soul as being more or less indistinguishable from mind or identity. That is a component of humanity that is NOT the brain, NOT the body, yet identifies all the parts of the body and brain as belonging to it. What is this thing that self-identifies? What looks out through the eyeballs if not the soul?

There is a difference between a "being" and a "thing." How do you distinguish between the mind and the soul?

HawthornThistleberry said...

I precisely don't distinguish between mind and soul. I say, what people call soul is just a mixture of mind, and a bunch of wish-fulfillment, and sloppy definition.

As for the question of identity, I talked a little about that in another post. Frankly, I think it's a red herring here.

That I can pose the question about a soul, and a TV can't, has no bearing on the analogy. If my TV was smart enough to pose the question, it wouldn't change a single point about it. You're shifting the analogy. The "soul" of the TV is what makes the picture look like it does, in the analogy, so every time your TV displays its image, that's it posing the analogous question to you acting like you have what you call a soul, and positing the soul as the explanation (more aptly, the "label that saves you having to have an explanation") for those actions.

I think your definition of soul as the thing that self-identifies is just hyperextended rice pudding. Brains are perfectly capable of self-identification, of a sense of identity. Self-awareness doesn't require something beyond the physical.

Splashpanel & Sons said...

If you want to actually discuss these ideas of yours, it's damn rude to dismiss another point of view as "hyperextended rice pudding" without making any attempt to explore it.

Have a nice blog.

Soundacious said...

Sorry, accidentally used the wrong id there, but the above post is still me.

HawthornThistleberry said...

The "hyperextended rice pudding" thing is an allusion to something C.S. Lewis wrote. Can't find a reference to it online, and the book itself is deep in a pile of boxes, or I'd give you a quote. I guess without the allusion it looks dismissive, for which I apologize; it isn't intended that way.

Hawthorn Thistleberry said...

Incidentally, C.S. Lewis's allusion was a tapioca pudding, not a rice pudding. Which is why I couldn't find it in a search.