Rene Descartes and his Steam-Powered Robo-Dog!

Part of an ongoing conversation. A reader named Gian asks:

I meant to ask whether the motion of animals is completely describable by quantitative methods.

Dawkins said that animals are gene machines and I think Descartes had a not too dissimilar view.

I do think that the question of animals need to be clarified first before tacking the more difficult problem of man.

Mike Flynn, who is unforgivably and perhaps irrevocably Irish, and therefore not to be trusted nor underestimated, quips:

Surely, you would not put Descartes before the horse!

My answer is longer and less adroit:

I am not sure I understand the question.

Are you asking whether, if I throw a stick to a dog, whether or not a physicist, using the mental tools and deliberately limited abstractions of physics, INCLUDING the abstraction of deliberately ignoring questions of the intent and purpose of the motion, could predict the motion of the dog, without knowing whether or not the dog had been trained to fetch the stick, or saw the stick, or was in the mood to play, or was ill or blind?

I am a little taken aback that you ask the question. You seem to be asking whether a physicist who deliberately ignores the vital information needed to predict what the dog will do can predict what the dog will do? (The information the rules of physics requires the physicist to ignore include, namely, information concerning the dog’s intention, mood, perception, attitude, spirit.)

Perhaps you are asking whether that information about the dog’s intention is embedded or hidden somewhere in the molecular, chemical, atomic and energetic motions and positions of atoms in the dog’s nervous system?

Well, my answer is that even if such intention-information could be deduced merely from the position-information, the intention information would be like what a word means, and the position-information (including mass, duration, length, current, temperature) would be like the ink marks on a page we use to represent the word, and therefore the language or secret code of the position information could not be read except unless there is a human observer to read those marks, and this observer would have to be possessed of a meaning-to-position lexicon or dictionary: the marks would MEAN something and the observer would have to KNOW the meaning in order to UNDERSTAND the meaning, and these concepts, MEAN, KNOW, and UNDERSTAND are excluded by design from the physicists’ discipline of regarding the motion of inanimate objects without regard for their meaning.

If you are asking whether the intentional information exists at all, the answer is obviously it does. Otherwise, what are we talking about? (Or how are we or anyone talking at all?)

If you are asking whether the intentional information can exist without some medium or some physical expression to expression, my answer is, not in this life. (If you believe in ghosts, my answer would be that the ghost must have a substance of some kind even if he lacks a physical brain to house his thoughts.)

If you are asking whether the intentional information can be deduced from the physical information, my answer is that this depends on how unambiguous the marks-to-meaning relationship is, and how much we know about that relationship. Since it is impossible to have a completely unambiguous word, I do not see why the self same electronic twitch in the left lobe of a dog brain might not both represent anger or lust, for example. It may be the case that this is so, but I do not see why it must be so.

If you are asking whether only the physical information exists, and therefore the intentional information is an hallucination caused by evil elves or the illusion of Maya, my reply is to blink owlishly.

A being must first exist before he thinks (cf Descartes) and a thought must exist before it can have that particular relation of false-to-facts we call hallucination or illusion. The theory of a radical materalist is self-refuting on its face, since the theory holds, in effect, that thoughts are not controlled by the thinker, and therefore are not, strictly speaking, thoughts are all, but are instead blind chemical and Newtonian reactions of the physical expression or medium reflecting those thoughts. As if a book were written not by the writer but by the chemical reactions of the ink affixing itself to the paper fibers during the printing press process.

If this is your question, you are asking me, in effect, whether I can deduce the surprise ending of a book if I were given only the information of the number of ink molecules and weight and grade of paper. The story is what the book means. The ink and paper are not what the book is, only what it is made of. The same relationship obtains between minds (what a human being means) and brains (what a human being is made of).

If you are asking whether or not the dog is an automaton who acts without intention, much as a steam locomotive whose engineer is dead at the controls, all I can say is that you don’t own a dog, do you?

Dogs are not lifeless machines incapable of pain. Only a philosopher would overlook this painfully obvious point.

If you have a philosophy whose axioms you cherish, but whose logic leads you to the conclusion that you and your dog are both automatons or locomotives who neither live nor suffer thought, sensation, or pain, then the fact that your philosophy has led you to a manifestly absurd conclusion should NOT lead you to the belief that you have a daring insight into human nature unique to the march of science. You should conclude your axioms are wrong, cherished or not.

Dawkins is a man of limited intellectual power, not to be quoted as an example of rigorous atheist thinking, which philosophy is more clearly and consistently defended in works by James Ingersoll, Ayn Rand, Fred Nietzsche, Karl Marx, HG Wells, Carl Sagan, or the author of the Treatise of the Three Impostors and so on. The metaphor he employs in calling animals gene machines is misleading: It is as if he said a parakeet was a tea kettle because they both whistle.

The argument of Descartes that animals are merely automatons without internal sensations is a conclusion forced by the limitations of his method, which is radical empiricism. The argument is about as convincing as the argument of a solipsist, whose method of radical empiricism likewise says that since you cannot see another man’s self-awareness with your eye, ergo the self-awareness of other men is speculative, or does not exist at all. That the method leads to self-impeaching or risible conclusions should cause the honest philosopher to check his method, and become aware of the limitations of radical empiricism: to wit, empiricism ONLY DEALS WITH EMPIRICAL QUESTIONS. The existence of other souls and minds is not such a question; empiricism is incompetent to testify, and cannot be brought to the witness stand on such issues.

A radical empiricist refuses to bring anything other than empiricism to the stand, and therefore, like Hume, he is left with insufficient information about life and reality to form a coherent picture of the universe. All he can do is retire to play Backgammon, and from time to time express surprise that such things as cause and effect (a metaphysical category the eyeball can never spy) seem unaccountably to operate, even though they do not exist.