Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Soul of a New Machine

...or why I love computer science and religion. And it's not often that I get to write about both in the same blog post.

One of the big epiphanies in my life was in high school, when I really grokked numbers. I was learning about computers, and number bases, and it hit me - numbers are like, well, like God. Immaterial, unchanging, eternal. Realizing that numbers, like "3", were not squiggles on a piece of paper, or even a group of apples, but a concept, an idea blew my mind. I knew then that I was going to be a math major and go into mathematics as deeply as I could.

As it turns out I wound up in computer science. But I had the same sort of epiphany when I took theory of computation classes in grad school. It turns out a computer program isn't characters on a printout, or even bits in memory. It is an idea, like the number "3," but better. Because, unlike the number "3" the program actually did something. And what's more mind boggling is that, unlike the number "3," before someone thinks of the program, it doesn't exist. Oh one could argue that it existed somehow as a possibility until it was "discovered" but that doesn't really fit the way we think about a program, and there's no evidence of it (unlike mathematics, which can be shown to exist throughout time and space).

This may sound trite or perhaps grandiose, but trust me, if you learn enough computer science (not just programming) and think about it, you get there.

I recently read an article about a man who was in a vegetative state for 23 years and is now able to communicate and tell his story. He says he was conscious the whole time, but unable to communicate. Wesley J. Smith says in the article:
"We hear constantly that people diagnosed as being persistently unconscious should be dehydrated to death because they are not ‘persons,’ or are actually ‘dead’ — and so should be available for organ harvesting," he said.
Smith says "there are abundant reasons to treat people with profound cognitive disabilities as fully human beings."
"First and foremost, because they are us. Second, because we don’t know enough about how the brain works to know that there won’t be some regeneration to permit eventual restoration of some function. But also, because there is always hope," he said.
"Houben is here today only because he wasn’t dehydrated to death," Smith concludes.
In the case of Houben, either he was misdiagnosed, or he was conscious without a functioning brain. That may not be as far fetched as you think. There are numerous studies of patients who have been clinically brain dead and yet claimed to be conscious. Evidence of this is their ability to describe things that happened while they had no brain function. One of the most interesting facts is that most blind people who have these experiences could see while they were brain dead.

Scientist today make the assumption that the brain "generates" consciousness somehow, but there is no evidence of this (and believe me, they've tried hard to find it). Certainly brain damage can affect a person's ability to think and reason, and can cause personality changes, but correlation does not imply causality. What if the body is like the computer hardware and the consciousness (or soul, if you will) is the program?

There is a joke that goes something like this:  There once was a scientist who studied frogs. One day, the scientist put the frog on the ground and told it to jump. The frog jumped four feet. So the scientist wrote in his notebook, "Frog with four feet, jumps four feet." So the scientist cut off one of one of the frogs legs. The scientist told the frog to jump. Frog jumped three feet. So the scientist wrote in his note book, "Frog with three feet, jumps three feet." So the scientist cut of another leg. He told the frog to jump. The frog jumped two feet. So the scientist wrote in his notebook "Frog with two feet, jumps two feet." The scientist cut off one more leg. He told the frog to jump. Frog jumped one foot. So the scientist wrote in his notebook, "Frog with one foot, jumps one foot." So the scientist cut off his last leg. "He said, "Frog jump. Frog jump. FROG JUMP!" So the scientist wrote in his notebook, "Frog with no feet, goes deaf."

Breaking a key in your keyboard or having a faulty memory chip will certainly cause your computer to misbehave, but the program is fine. The computer hardware is not the cause of the program, it is just the way in which the program interacts with the physical world, and if the hardware is broken it is cause the program to interact improperly. The program itself exists whether or not it is running on a computer, it just requires thought. Why can't the soul and body work that way? And if it does work that way, how does the soul come into existence? That implies a consciousness who thinks it into existence. [Spoiler - His name starts with "G" and ends with "d".]

Today this might be considered a wild theory by many scientists, but it's been the way the human person has been considered for thousands of years, and (as I mentioned) there is no scientific evidence to the contrary. Certainly there are corresponding examples of the old displacing the new in science. Take the scientists' insistence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that the universe had no beginning or end. Along comes Georges LemaƮtre and suddenly the universe has a beginning and an end, just as those poor ignorant Christians and Jews believed for thousands of years. The question is, could one devise and experiment to prove or disprove the theory that the brain doesn't generate consciousness? Oh wait, we already have, in the cases I mentioned above where brain dead patients are conscious.

Don't get me wrong now. I'm not saying we are robots, programmed by God. What I am saying is that computer science provides us with an existence proof that things like the soul can be real. And in some small way, computer and information theory is just another look into the amazing complexity of how God has created the universe, giving us a tiny window into the world of metaphysics, just as Newtonian mechanics gave us a tiny window into the world of physics.

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