Can We Know Ourselves?09-05-2010
If there is one core assumption that some, like Ray Kurzweil, make, it is that what we do, how we think, and what we are as humans can, as can all things in nature, be understood. Quite simply, Kurzweil adopts the fundamentally scientific view that the world is an ordered universe that can be analyzed, comprehended, and ultimately mastered. The fundamental scientific hypothesis is the principle of sufficient reason: that everything that is has a reason. Thus, nothing can be at all without a reason. Since human beings are exist, we too must be rationally comprehensible. Why can't we too be understood, figured out, reverse engineered, and even engineered?
One rejoinder to Kurzweil's scientific optimism comes from recent work in neuroscience, the science of the brain.
cannot be dominated by a theoretical gaze, but must be explored with an open world to which we belong, in whose construction we participate.
The point is that the there are limits to the human ability to know the world, a world that is not a static object before us, but is a growing and open experience that we are helping to build.
The impact of this human limitation is made vivid and visible in Neuroscience. Connolly offers examples from the neuroscience literature of people like Philip, who lost his left arm and, like many others, is plagued by 'phantom pain'--a pain that cannot be relieved because there is no arm to treat. Discussing the work of V.S. Ramachandran, Connolly argues that there is a
gap between third-person observations of brain/body activity, however sophisticated they have become in recent neuroscience, and phenomenological experience correlated with those observations.
Why is there this gap? Why is it that scientific attempts to observe and explain the brain and thinking activities do not match up with those experiences themselves?
Confronted with Philip and his phantom limb, the Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran put Philip in front of a "mirror box" that allowed him to see an image in which both his arms seemed to be working normally. This has worked, with Philip and other patients, to reduce the phantom pain.
According to Ramachandran, when the limb is lost, the ususal messages sent from the arm to the brain cannot be sent. There are thus no signals that might counteract and self-correct the pain signals being sent by the brain. The "mirror box" seems to trick the brain into seeing the arm again, allowing the signals of a pain-free arm to be reactivated, even though the arm is still missing.
What Ramachandran takes from his "mirror box" treatment is a strong skepticism about the computer-oriented models of the brain that many, like Kurzweil, work from. The brain, he argues, is not like a computer with each part performing one highly specialized job. Instead,
[The Brain's] connections are extraordinarily labile and dynamic. Perceptions emerge as a result of reverberations of signals between different levels of the sensory hierarchy, indeed even across different senses. That fact that visual input [i.e. the mirror box] can eliminate the spasm of a nonexistent arm and then erase the associated memory of pain vividly illustrates how extensive and profound these interactions are.
Ramachandran's neuroscience shows that thinking, our human thinking, is a complex and layered activitity with dissonant relays, complicated feedback loops that connect different and competing centers of bodily and brain activity. The brain, in other words, is not simply a conception machine that works upon logical inputs. Instead, body image, affect, the unconscious, and other images and sensations are parts of thinking.
There are more than 100 Billion neurons in the brain and each neuron has between 1,000 and 10,000 connections with other neurons. All told, "the number of possible permutations and combinations of brain activity, in other words the numbers of brain states, exceeds the number of elementary particles in the known universe."
Connolly's analysis of Ramachandran's work on Neuroscience leads him to argue that since our brain works according to such a complex and infraperceptual model the confidence of scientists like Kurzweil that we can model the brain is misplaced. The presence of such infraperceptions in our brain and our thinking are evidence of the "layered character of everyday perception" and suggest that the brain is not a logical, computer-like, reasoning mechanism that can be modeled and reverse engineered.
I think Connolly is right. And yet, even if human thinking is multilayered, complex, and not rationally deliberative, it is not inconceivable that computers might someday approach human thinking. More importantly, however, is the fact that as human beings continue to "enhance" their thinking with technology and computer-assistance, their own thinking will increasingly be rationalized. A few questions:
1) What will happen when humans have processors in their brain or assisting their thinking? Will we, technologically given the ability to process stimuli at speeds not humanly imaginable, be able to cognitively evaluate our stimuli and overcome the limits of human thinking?
2) As we augment our own senses with neural implants, will humans be overwhelmed by intense sensations beyond the human sensory capacity so that we either are paralyzed by sensory overload or depend on increased cognitive power from computers simply to make sense of our world?
If the answers to both of these questions is at least a qualified yes, the human thinking that Connolly celebrates becomes something that can be and likely will be overcome. Is this a problem? As Ben Stevens keeps asking on this blog: so what? Does "non-human" mean "inhuman"?
Hannah Arendt certainly thinks so. At the most basic level, Arendt thinks that humans, to be human, must be subject to chance, to fate, and to the spontaneity of a world beyond their control. Humans must, in other words, be mortal beings who are born and die in ways beyond their control. Without that mortal subjection to fate, humans increasingly lose our freedom and humanity.
The question remains: how to be human in an increasingly inhuman age?