March 20, 2006

Are we merely biological automata?

I recently watched an interesting panel discussion called The Journey, Searching for our Origins, Part 1 in which Dr. Alan Wallace, religious studies instructor and Buddhist discussed various 'isms (objectivism, monism, universalism etc.). He gave the following description of something called the Closure Principle and elaborated on its implications.
"There are no influences in the physical universe that are themselves not physical...where it gets very interesting is in the brain, are there no non-physical agencies, are there no non-physical causes in your choice to come here tonight, in the type of person that you may marry?

Is it purely a matter of physical causation, your genetic background, your brain chemistry in interaction with the environment and that's the whole story, that's a complete picture of everything you ever do? In other words are you a biological automaton?"
Wallace goes on to attribute the Closure Principle point of view to most neuroscientists and suggests that this position (which he sees as a fear of non-material consciousness) is a result of historical tragedies involving inference to demons and ghosts and goblins.

I think this point is debatable but I'm more interested in the last part of the quote. It strikes me that a large measure of the fear underlying ideological resistance to cognitive science (and evolution) is the worry that our consciousness may in fact be reducible to strictly physical processes.

Contemplation of this possibility produces the fretful notion that we are nothing more than "automata," a word meant, in my opinion, to express distinct negative connotations. But even if our lives are reducible to the material I don't see how it follows that their inherent meaningfulness is diminished. Whether meaning comes from non-material external influences or emergent properties of atoms it is still something we attach to our existence and use to inform our choices.

Isn't Wallace's choice of words here merely a reflection of his own insecure vision of truth? And in the spirit of reduction, isn't this just a molecular version of the "I don't come from no monkey" plaint?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like lined up dominoes? I can see and accept that.

10:19 PM  
Anonymous Aers said...

Generally the base of meaning of all scientific data that are gathered in it come from social studies, historical facts and general surveys. I can suggest my own personal point of view on this problem or find good professional paper writers here somewhere for me and other students.

8:43 AM  

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