On Philosophy

February 4, 2007

A Confused Behaviorist

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Normally I don’t critique the philosophical arguments presented by non-philosophers, not because non-philosophers can’t have philosophical insight or are bad reasoners, but because they often adopt, unknowingly, positions that have already been discarded, and so there is little point to refuting them again. However, I have been asked to respond to the position that the big bang / the totality of the universe is conscious as proposed by Scott Adams here and here, and so just this once I will.

The first problem with the position endorsed by Adams is that it rests upon an odd variety of behaviorism. And no one accepts behaviorism, I should hope. But allow me to deal with the argument in detail anyways, since it is uninformative to simply dismiss a position out of hand. Adams proposes that anything that acts intelligently should be considered intelligent. Of course the problem with that is that a random process may produce intelligent seeming results, a point Adam’s recognizes. To overcome this problem he proposes that if something produces lots of intelligent seeming results it should be considered intelligent. But what he doesn’t seem to realize is that a random, unintelligent, process, given a lot of time, will produce a lot of intelligent seeming results as well. If we wanted to run with this definition of intelligence we would need to improve it by saying that anything that reliably, or often, produces intelligent results is intelligent. But this, less flawed, definition of intelligence prevents the argument that the universe / big bang is intelligent. Because, even though the universe as a whole might be considered to produce many results that indicate intelligence (for example the sum total of human enterprise), it also produces a lot of things that indicate no intelligence. In fact most of what exists in the universe would not be characterized as a product of intelligence.

And even if the above wasn’t a problem the argument contains other flaws. One such flaw is that it is the system that is to be judged by the results it produces, not the cause of the system or the environment the system lives in. One can argue about how to define what counts as a system for these purposes, but generally it is accepted as the minimum that the results are dependant on. For example, the beaver is the minimal system that the beaver dam depends on. We might argue that the beaver dam depends on the forest as well (meaning that the system of forest + beaver is the source of the dam), but there are many possible forests that would prompt the beaver to build the same dam, while even small changes to the beaver would cause it to build a different dam. (Obviously I am sweeping a bit of the details under the rug here. Changes in the forest do have some affect on the dam ultimately created. However, changes in the beaver have a much greater effect on the dam than changes in the forest do, in proportion to the magnitude of those changes (vastly so), and thus we would say that the dam depends primarily on the beaver.) Likewise, the products of individuals, such as a painting, are to be considered products of the human system, and not, for example, the society system, because what a person does depends mostly on them. Although society does have some influence there are many arrangements of society that would lead to basically the same results, but only one arrangement of that person’s mind that would. And similarly the universe as whole can’t be considered the system that produces the painting or the dam, because there are many arrangements of the universe as a whole that include that result (all the possible rearrangements of the composition of Pluto, for example, have no effect), and thus the result depends on the universe as a whole only in the sense that the universe must contain the smaller system that produces the result, which is another way of saying that the result depends on the smaller system and not the universe, and hence that the result is a product of the smaller system and not the universe as a whole.

And if we ignore that problem there is still a further one, namely that most modern definitions of intelligence (assuming that by intelligence Adams means something more like consciousness, or purposeful intelligence) make it dependant on the internal (functional or structural) properties of the system. Adams responds to a variation on this objection as follows:

Objection: The Big Bang had no intentions. Intelligence requires intention.

You can’t have intentions without free will. And free will is an illusion, according to plenty of prominent scientists and big thinkers. At best, free will has never been defined in any way that would not apply equally to a human or a coin sorting machine. The coin sorter “chooses” which tube to redirect the nickel to in a deterministic fashion. Your brain chooses what to have for lunch in the same way, just more complicated, and with the illusion of intention. The Big Bang (okay, the universe) has no intentions, but neither do you, because it’s a nonsense superstition. You only have the illusion of intentions. So intentions must not be a necessary component of intelligence.

Obviously his response itself turns on a very controversial position about free will, namely that it is incompatible with determinism. In fact the prevailing opinion about free will is that it is compatible with determinism, and that what we really mean by “free will” is that the actions of the system are determined primarily by the internal state of that system. A second problem of course is that it is somewhat of a confusion to associate intention with free will. (For example, someone could force on me the psychological disposition to rob a bank. Thus I wouldn’t be robbing the bank “freely”, but I would be acting with the intention to rob the bank, the intention being dependant on psychological factors and not on how I came to have those factors).

And, in conclusion, this is why I don’t respond the philosophical positions of non-philosophers, because nothing I said in response to the position was original; everything I said here has been said before by others in discussions about behaviorism.



  1. Thanks for humoring me.

    Comment by Carl — February 4, 2007 @ 1:35 am

  2. Anytime Carl

    Comment by Peter — February 4, 2007 @ 1:45 am

  3. Much of any specialst’s time is spent helping the less able and untrained: indeed everyone at variance with one’s own wiews sems to have got it wrong until each helps the other out of their apparent misunderstanding. At some point of course one has to break out of one’s field to rescue others not so trained at all, else the rest of the world will not be much the wiser for our study. It is then that we want to be heard and not resisted for our competance.
    A philsopher who helps others not so trained is often appreciated. The art is to be so able as to be of help to those who lack the specialism but have a conviction of being onto something that seems important to them.

    Comment by marshall — February 10, 2007 @ 12:40 pm

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