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Dialogue Excerpt

Understanding "Humanity"

{This is an excerpt from a dialogue recorded in Berkeley on April 26, 2005. In it, Piet and Steven discuss a few basic features of what Piet describes as a "science of the subject".}

S: so at this point we're discussing your presentation yesterday ... were there things you wanted to add to that?

P: I tried to distill my views of `room at the side' in one chunk. I could add a lot of detail, but it would be more interesting for me to hear your angle.

S: OK, well since tomorrow I'll be making my own comments about the "room" issue from another perspective, right now I'll just restrict my comments to a few things you said. Tomorrow I'll end up heading in a similar direction to yours, but in a very qualified sense. I agree that we want to move towards a person-oriented and knowing-oriented, rather than an object-oriented framework ... but not in a way that buys into all the usual notions of “subjectivity”. Anyway, at the moment I'd like to ask more what you think, or what you believe could be "thought" in the future, if that's at all unanswerable now. Because if the question is "where do we get the extra room from?" that will allow spirituality, it's not the case that future science in general, or a future science that somehow encompasses "subjects" will give us that, because if for instance in 50 years science comes up with robots that are good house cleaners, to take your example ... if we use that example as a guide to what level of performance might relate to the insight you have about "subjects", science might very well produce those robots—it could come up with a new paradigm or a new discipline, whether it's cognitive science or something else, that has its own way of talking about subjects, being a subject, and being a robot-subject specifically, and being able to repond to an environment etc., and still none of what we'd get from that would necessarily give us room for spirituality. It might be the last nail in the coffin rather than a new opportunity to find room for it. "No, there's no room there either!" This seems to be a very likely outcome, given what has happened so far, and I think it would also seem a very desirable one for many scientists.

P: Well in principle that's possible. We basically don't know what will happen in 50 years, so we can't answer that question. But the reason I brought it up is that it tells us something about our current state of knowledge. The very fact that we have been so clumsy in making robots, I take as a sign that there may be something fundamental that has been overlooked. I like to make an analogy with building steam engines. When people began making steam engines, they had great difficulties describing them in a Newtonian framework. Everything that had been done in physics up till that point had been time-reversible, but a steam engine dissipates energy. It starts with a difference in temperature, and converts some of the heat flowing between two places with different temperature into work, but some of the heat is lost.

Of course, when you look around you, you see non-reversible processes everywhere. When you put sugar in a cup of tea, the sugar cube quickly dissolves and it never “un-dissolves” back into a sugar cube. But for over a hundred years since Newton wrote his Principia, physicists had not focused on that, because it didn't seem to be important. The only things that seemed important were the abstractions that came as a package deal with Newton's Law, and which included a time-reversible view of the world. But when physicists and engineers were confronted with the hard reality of having to design better steam engines, they suddenly realized that their ideal way of using Newton's laws was limited. At first Newton laws seemed to describe everything without leaving room for anything else, but that “everything” turned out to be only a very small sliver of reality, namely that part which is time-reversible . . . and almost nothing is that way in life.

So here is my analogy. Just like the need to work with and understand steam engines left to thermodynamics, and to entropy as a very important fundamental concept, so I think that robots can help us come up with other fundamental concepts. The sheer need to build robots that function as well as humans do in a complex world, will force us to understand better what it means to function as a subject. I bet this will lead not only to applications, in the form of better robots, but also to the equivalent of concepts like entropy but then in the area of subjects rather than objects.

S: I see. So you're thinking of something that would be truly new. I mean, there are already physicists out there, and they're thinking in more object-oriented ways characteristic of whatever the latest view in physics is, and then at the other end of science there are the cognitive scientists. This latter is a fledgling field but still people are working actively in it, and most of them don't think of reducing anything to the terms of physics. That's not their agenda. They might agree that ultimately it's all still integrable within one picture or ontology, so there's continuity in principle there, but they're trying to characterize "subjects" ... cognizers or perceivers, acting as subjects. So they're not using object language, but subject language … but perhaps it's too naive, or too preliminary, from your point of view?

P: I would say our whole society and culture, our whole way of looking, has been drenched in a scientific outlook or scientific mode of thinking, or perhaps we should say, a mode of thinking which has enabled science. So it's not so easy to say, “OK, now I'll step out of thinking about objects, now I'll think about subjects.” Just as when people started building steam engines, they didn't suddenly say, from one day to the next, okay, now let's think in terms of non-reversible physics and let's see, oh we get a Carnot Cycle, we get Boltzmann's ideas, we get entropy, no, all of that took about a hundred years to develop. And so I think it will take at least a hundred years to understand robots in a really deep way. We are talking about more fundamental a switch than inventing the concept of entropy, which is still something within the objective domain. It might take even three or four hundred years before we find ways to think about reality in a wide enough way to come up with the appropriate ideas and concepts for including the “subject” in its own way.

S: I see. But what would drive that? I mean, if I come back to the comment I made earlier, about your example of the robot, clearly people do want ... I mean even on the level of commerce, people will eventually want robots that can clean houses. And there are theorists who want to make even fancier robots that could take care of children etc., so there are scientists who want to develop very sophisticated robots, and they have compelling incentives, beyond any question. And they might even succeed in making ones that are good companions for a child, could play with him or her, etc. They will probably seem pretty human-like in some ways … children already think of their video games as their best friends. Anyway, there's a lot driving robotics research and their agendas are not trivial, they are actually quite ambitious given our present state of knowledge, even though for a while they were settling for the old AI brute-force computational approaches that probably wouldn't work here. But even if these more sophisticated robots were brought into being, would you say "ah, now we have the science of the subject!"?

P: Here too, I think the example of steam engines is useful. People didn't stop building steam engines because they had not yet developed the Carnot Cycle or Boltzmann's understanding. They just went ahead building better and better steam engines. But while all that improving was going on, at least some theoreticians started to think "well, what is really behind all of this? Can we step back to a more meta-level, so that we can come up with even better designs for steam engines?" For a while you can make progress by tinkering with things, putting on your engineering hat, but at some point, if you reach to a deeper scientific understanding, it may be possible to make an even bigger step or to switch to a better way of doing things.

So it is not the case that progress cannot happen by itself, but when the initial progress triggers deeper understanding, then that understanding in turn can prove itself useful in leading to further progress. The invention of a nuclear reactor is an example of the latter. Just by tinkering, you would never have been able to move from burning coal in a steam engine to “burning” uranium in a nuclear reactor. A very significant increase in scientific understanding had to happen first, before that move could be made.

S: yes, OK. But if we stick to your example of steam engines, was it phenomena that drove that later step ... what I'm asking is, what would drive science toward the level of refinement or change in fundamental perspective that you're talking about? Because, they might be able to get everything that people normally can imagine for a robot, without reaching a "science of the subject" that gives room for things like ethical sensibilities or spirituality. What would drive this future science far enough to do that? Because the merely performative emphasis might well fall short of that.

P: Of course that is always possible in principle. But trying to solve any truly hard problem leads, in the process of doing so, to some form of new scientific insight. Or the solution may have to wait for scientific progress that may be driven by other questions. Imagine that a hundred years ago you wanted to cure an inherited disease. At that time, you wouldn't know yet about DNA. So you would be stuck, until for completely different reasons deriving from purely theoretical curiosity, DNA was discovered. From that point on, you had a much more precise way to formulate your questions about how to treat heritable diseases.

Similarly, when people discovered the Carnot Cycle they had a more precise way of designing new and better steam engines. So in general, while people put money in applied research, it's a good idea to put at least some money also in pure research, which is bound to lead to applications in the long run. An example of current long-term investments is the pure research that is being done on quantum computing. It's still far too early to know if, and if so how, we can build quantum computers. But already the basic research on quantum computing is helping us to understand quantum mechanics itself better. Engineering needs seem to be a good engine for triggering new physics.

S: yes. I'm simply pressing to see a little more of how this might happen. Because the obvious things will give you performative capacity without anything that bears on the issue we really started with, which is “room for spirituality” or value of life etc. ... something more than just capability to perform a task. It would be nice to make machines that are able to do what perceivers do, but there's a profound ambiguity in what that really means. We can't fully specify this notion of “being able to do what we do as subjects” ... we can test and say “well it detected the same variations that we can, its response times are comparable, it does reasonable things, etc.” but there things about us—and this matters more and more if we think about ethics or spirituality etc.—that can't be stated in the old-style performative language. And here things get tricky, because we don't want to turn what we're interested in, into something mysterious, or ineffable, we want it to be clear. And on the other hand, we don’t want it to be reduced to a view that doesn't do it justice. If we don't have a way of getting at what it really is, then there's no way to be sure it will ever figure in the development of the “science of the subject”. It may just be left out. If there is a (some) way of getting at what it is, at least in part, for certain purposes, then is that going to do justice to it or merely flatten it? I think the main problem people always have with the “science of the subject” or the “science of mind” etc. is the famous accounting metaphor: there's this accountant working for a college in England, and everything that goes on in this institution of higher learner is represented in the accountant's terms, reduced to “sums” of pounds, shillings and pence, but something hugely important is not captured by that fiscal representation. And trying to go from objects to subjects is presumably an attempt to get at what's missing. Should we be optimistic that this can succeed, or should we suspect that it will just be the same problem all over again? Perhaps on a different level …

P: All I can say is that the scientific attitude has been, from the days of Galileo, that we never take the attitude of giving up. We simply start by taking one tip of the table cloth, and keep pulling and pulling, and we just see whatever comes along. The whole program that Galileo started must have seemed very strange in his own days. The idea that everything would be amenable to scientific analysis, if you just start with at a simple but firm piece of knowledge and then keep extending and extending, how preposterous! But he was right, and right in a way that he could never have guessed the details of.

So the history of science shows us that if you just keep going, you find new and important things. If I had to sum up what I find most inspiring and fruitful in science, it would say it is the working hypothesis that there are no boundaries to scientific knowledge. Sure, there are boundaries to the scientific knowledge of any given period. But then, one or two generations later, science sheds its old skin and undergoes a metamorphosis to a new kind of science that can deal with a wider set of theoretical notions and a wider set of phenomena that can be studied and brought into meaningful contact with the theory -- I'm avoiding the world “explained” here, since that is too laden with limited associations.

What would it mean to have a boundary for scientific knowledge? What would be at the boundary, and what would separate scientific and other forms of knowledge? Could science reason about the existence of the boundary and the nature of the boundary? Unless you would impose a censorship on science beforehand, I really don't see any reason why science wouldn't continue to grow. What could possibly stop it?

S: Yes, I'm very sympathetic to that … I’ll just note in passing that the “no boundaries to science” idea does not guarantee that everything which seems important to us as human beings will be preserved in some form in even a fully-mature scientific analysis … or that such things necessarily should be so preserved! On the contrary! Science needn’t dignify what it deems to be naïve or unhelpful views of things. But I’ll put that concern aside. Moving on, when I look at science as it is now, what I see ... especially from a Buddhist point of view, or a Taoist point of view, is reflected in or itself reflects a few features of the ordinary human mind, that Buddhists would call not just ordinary but problemmatical—the samsaric mind (a poorly-grounded point of departure for living authentically). The mindset in both the science and ordinary life is one which is concerned with being “potent”. Science is interested in efficaciousness, what works, what does something, and the ordinary mind also has that interest. I think in this and many other ways that we’ll discuss later, science is an extension of the ordinary mind's own proclivities. And when you look at ethics or an emphasis on values, spirituality ... in one sense it doesn't quite work to say that there is something in there that is efficacious, at least not with respect to the ordinary way that term is understood, because that doesn't get at the main feature. So the concern on my part is that things like spirituality will look like danglers, and that's exactly what many standard philosophical analyses of the mind itself suggests, in the 20th and 21st centuries. It looks like “mind” is a vague word for something that's better understood in neurological terms. So it's just an epiphenomenal thing—it doesn’t do any “work”. And I suspect that a lot of thinking about the “subject” and especially the part of the “subject” that figures in what I'm most concerned with, will be seen as strictly epiphenomenal and not included in whatever the scientific account will involve, it'll just be stripped out as extraneous, not really efficacious. So this is a comment more about the motive behind my questions, it's not an objection to what you've said.

P: what you said about potency is very interesting because there are many levels of potency. And many of the problems with the funding of science have to do with that. Nowadays almost all the money seems to go to applied science, which has "potency" in direct applications. And pure science is often short-changed. And within pure science, there are many levels of purer and purer science, from solid state physics, for example, to the study of subatomic particles all the way to the study of quantum gravity. And who knows? It may well be that a solution to the question of finding a good theory for quantum gravity may well lead to rather “potent” mathematical methods and insights, that turn out to be useful and applicable. If the past is any guide, I would certainly expect this to be the case. Even in the last couple decades, string theory, for example, has led to unexpected insights in seemingly totally unrelated mathematical theories. So in science, “potency” is something that is very difficult to locate.

S: Interesting. I think this would be a good notion to concentrate on in some ways, because in the kinds of traditions that I teach, it’s considered that people are often obsessed with a narrow notion of productivity or efficaciousness, let's say, that from a Buddhist or Taoist point of view is rather misplaced. And in a sense Taoism prides itself on being “useless” ... it doesn't teach people to produce anything in the way that people often judge such matters. But at the same time it hastens to say that the Tao, this “useless” thing that is not analyzable in productive terms, is the most useful thing of all, seen in a different light. In a Buddhist context they would actually say that the things they are trying to emphasize, although not apparently efficacious in the ordinary sense, are the only things that have true efficaciousness. So the result of their analysis gives you the opposite conclusion of the one promoted by ordinary perspectives. So it's not that they don't care about potency, but that they have a very different idea of what it really is. They're not trying to coddle ineffectual danglers—in fact a main point of both traditions is to expose ordinary structures that seem potent as actually being such danglers!—they just have a very different idea of how you would measure true potency. And maybe that's something that will provide common ground with science in the long run.

P: yes, I think there is a strong parallel. I don't want to flatten the comparison by denying the differences, but what you just said about the Tao, you could say about the role of pure science for society. And one of the dangers we are facing now is that people have too short an attention span. Pure science doesn't bear fruit within a few years but it does do so often within a few decades. If you don't fund it now, you won't notice must of a difference for a while. But within a few decades progress in applications will slow down even though people may have a hard time noticing why or how that happens. You can't point your finger to things that haven't been invented because of lack of funding of pure science, as little as you can predict what pure science can do for you in the future.

S: Interesting. So there may be a counterpart there even in human terms, i.e., our humanity may itself suffer if we don't understand it well. I think you and I agree that, in one way or another, we must work towards a view which has the chance of doing full justice to what we are as human beings. This challenge will undoubtedly figure frequently in our chats together.



Piet & Steven, 4/26/05

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