Agency: Human, Robotic and Divine
The notions of causation and agency are deeply
embedded in several fascinating science-and-religion questions:
How was the world created? Does God act in the
world today, and if so, how? Are persons free? Why does God not prevent evil and
suffering? What is life, and when does it begin and end? What is consciousness?
Some areas of scientific research that inform
these questions are: Quantum Mechanics, Complex and Chaotic systems, Artificial
Intelligence, and the Neurosciences. In this essay I offer a brief survey of the
main issues as I understand them, looking at human agency, robotics, and then
finally divine action.
Influencing all these questions is
an ongoing debate over how to deal with scale. Given the
recent success of methodological reductionism it's tempting to wonder if working at
ever-smaller scales might be a good strategy for all problems. However, such an
approach does not give satisfying accounts of several important phenomena,
notably human consciousness, and our perceived ability to act as free agents. And for the
religious believer, a reductionist materialist view
of the world doesn't seem to have a 'causal joint' where a deity might impart
inspiration, or indeed affect outcomes of any kind.
When we look at
a human brain under the microscope, we don't see anything resembling
the freely choosing mind we all experience. Instead, all we we see at the
micro-level are mindless electro-chemical reactions.
solved this problem by extending the earlier Greek idea that we are made of
dual substances: matter and mind/spirit. Unfortunately for the scientist, the
mind substance is not visible under the microscope. Without the presence of this mind
substance, matter can only ever form machines (he considered animals
machine-like). More recently, some have turned
this conundrum into a thesis; if what we see under the microscope is machinery,
and we detect no mind substance, then we must be machines. Our perception of
freedom and consciousness is therefore an illusion. This view is widely
held within the AI/Robotics community. As Rodney Brooks at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Lab puts it "On the one
hand, I believe myself and my children all to be mere machines ... But this is
not how I treat them ... Like a religious scientist I maintain two sets of
inconsistent beliefs and act on each of them in different circumstances."Others point to the quantum world where machine-like behavior
gives way to the probabilistic and paradoxical. Physicists John Wheeler has
suggested that consciousness may be connected with quantum behavior.
Kevin Sharpe joins Wheeler in wondering if consciousness could somehow affect
outcomes at the quantum level.Still others solve the problem of the missing mind by embedding the material
world within revised metaphysical systems. Process thinkers, for example,
speculate that matter possesses a mental-like property that is undetectable in
simple systems.Followers of Bohm see consciousness as an aspect of
the underlying 'implicate order', and our own consciousness as sharing in that.
In the last few decades it has become
apparent to some thinkers that it is possible to overuse a reductive approach.
If we are willing to leave the micro world and consider more complex scenarios,
new properties emerge that cannot be fully explained in terms of the components
in isolation. Such an approach allows us to speculate that freedom, mind, and
consciousness are in fact 'real' and open to scientific exploration. But many
As we leave the micro world with its
Newtonian simplicity and predictability, and start to deal with the world of
complexes, wholes, and probabilistic descriptions, we'll need to work hard to
make claims that are as free from subjectivity as possible.
link | Printer-friendly | Feedback
| Contributed by: Adrian