Watching Kraftwerk’s 3D concert this Saturday was delicious for my philosophical brain as well as my musical and cinematic brains. It provoked me to revisit an old argument that I’ve heard for a long time, why people are uncomfortable with the typical materialism of philosophy in discussions and contexts regarding mind and soul.
One of the most striking philosophical denunciations I’ve ever had thrown at me lay in this issue. It happened at one of the Jockey Club meetings in which I used to take part when I was at Memorial’s philosophy department. Discussing a paper about mind-body dualism, I expressed my belief, which I basically still hold, that humans are entirely physical creatures, and that our personalities and mental aspects are ultimately generated by physical processes. And an older student from the English faculty then loudly denounced me as someone who did not believe in morality or ethics, for that reason.
|No matter what their art has suggested over the years, we
are not actually robots. Not even Kraftwerk anymore.
I was more than flummoxed by the response, but it’s rooted in a concern that still rankles people, me included. This is the presumption that material, the physical, is only capable of extremely simple activity. After all, what more can be done with a physical object other than kicking it down the road? When the image of the mind as software for the brain was first developed, computers were very simple machines running very rudimentary processes. They were the kind of computers that Kraftwerk depicts in their visuals and music. Harshly bright green text on a dark green screen, huge clunky monitors and little more processing power than a calculator.
If this is the kind of computer of which the human mind was a slightly more complicated model, then this vision of humanity depicts us literally as robots. Their mobility depressingly limited, little more than a talking mannequin. All of humanity’s profundities would be mere simulations, lying to ourselves that we could be more significant than we really were. If this was the dream of a technological, materialist humanity, then for many people it was a nightmare.
|If anything bugged me about Cmdr.
Data's existentialism, it was that he
framed it in terms of 'becoming human.'
Really, just like humans, we should all
strive to make ourselves more complex
Venerable curmudgeonly scholars muscle strong arguments against this reductive materialism, the idea that we are “nothing but” or “mere” matter in motion. But you don’t have to believe in anything transcendentally or cheesily spiritual to overcome this idea. Even just learning how vastly complex material systems can actually become are good enough. This is why I was happy to discover the work of Manuel DeLanda during my doctoral research. He spells out in detail just how complex even the simplest movements of particles (convection currents in your oven, in your oceans, or over your city) actually are, and the frightfully difficult mathematical locations just to plot their tendencies of motion. His 2011 book Philosophy and Simulation was a series of chapters describing the different systems of cellular, organismic, ecological, and socio-political interactions that computer simulation can depict accurately with chaos mathematics. We can now do actual simulations of small tribe economics, one level of ecosystemic relations (that is, just the animals and plants consumption relations and symbioses), and urban traffic flow of vehicles, transit, and pedestrians. And that's just with the technology of the 2000s. There has been progress since. The visuals Kraftwerk played for their "Tour de France" suite at the concert depicted even France itself as an enormous, complex machine, constituted through the trillions of geographical and technological threads that knit it together.
We too often think, at least in the popular consciousness, that mathematical prediction of movement is easy. The world’s most powerful computers strain to grasp the complexity with which urban traffic systems move. Now consider systems with the incredible complexity of systems and their many layers of interaction as an ecosystem or an organism. The materialism I believe in isn’t that old-fashioned reductive kind that depicts humans as robots moved only by the most simple drives. Why I distrust Freudian or Lacanian perspectives in philosophical and social criticism is because their framework for human motivation is too simple, almost facile, compared to the frameworks of chaos mathematics that actually approach the tendencies of actual matter interacting in the world. My kind of materialism believes that the material is actually adequate to all the tasks for which we commonly believe that a mind is necessary.
So don't be afraid of your nature as a machine. It’s not that we get rid of the immaterial substance of mind. It’s that we could achieve so much without even having it at all. Matter is powerful enough to be a mind.