Thursday, January 02, 2014

David Gelernter, Hypocrite

The whiny and porcine David Gelernter is back again, with an astonishingly un-self-aware screed entitled "The Closing of the Scientific Mind". For Gelernter, who despises atheists and thinks they are "crusading" and "dangerous", a closed mind means one that disagrees with him, or, worse, laughs at his incoherent religious ideas about the brain.

Gelernter huffs that "Scientists have acquired the power to impress and intimidate every time they open their mouths, and it is their responsibility to keep this power in mind no matter what they say or do". But this responsibility evidently does not apply to Gelernter himself, who once made the false claim in the New York Times that "the Supreme Court outlawed prayer and Bible reading in the public schools" and refused to retract it.

The sin of scientists is apparently that "too many have forgotten their obligation to approach with due respect the scholarly, artistic, religious, humanistic work that has always been mankind’s main spiritual support". Umm, mankind has been around for hundreds of thousands of years. During most of that time, there wasn't any "scholarly" or "humanistic" work to support anything at all. As for the "religious ... work" that has formed "spiritual support", aren't we entitled to ask whether religious claims are true? Or are we just supposed to say, "That's somebody's spiritual support and hence off limits; I should just be quiet"? What a grotesque and tiny-minded view of the human enterprise Gerlernter has. But then, he's the guy who once told atheists they should just shut up.

Another nasty thing that those scientists have done, says Gelernter, is "to belittle human life and values and virtues and civilization and moral, spiritual, and religious discoveries, which is all we human beings possess or ever will". Umm, no, we possess a lot more than that. What happened to understanding the world? That's not a "moral, spiritual, [or] religious discovery". And when most of the religious "discoveries" of the myriad faiths are either trite or self-contradictory, why do are we obligated to respect them? David Gelernter, I suspect, finds eating a BLT an offense against his god, while devout Hindus do the same for cheeseburgers. Bully for them, I suppose, but why does this represent a "discovery" that conveys anything useful to anyone of a different religion?

Gelernter claims that "[y]our subjective, conscious experience is just as real as the tree outside your window". What does that even mean? "Just as real" in what sense, and how does Gelernter know this? How about the subjective experience of a chimpanzee? Is that "just as real" as the tree? How about the subjective experience of a cockroach? Again, just as real? If I take PCP and hallucinate spiders crawling on me, how is that "just as real" as the tree?

Gelernter is a big fan of Thomas Nagel, and he can't tolerate any criticism of Nagel. Those who criticized Nagel are dismissed as (and I'm not making this up) "punks, bullies, and hangers-on of the philosophical underworld" and a "lynch mob" and a "mass attack of killer hyenas". Of course, what actually happened is that there was (mostly fairly mild) criticism of Nagel's book and ideas. Critics pointed out that Nagel didn't offer much of anything new, and had fundamental misconceptions about biology and science. Nobody picketed his university, or called for Nagel to be fired, or threatened him at academic meetings, or called for a boycott of his books -- all things that happen routinely to university professors who upset the far Right. When climate scientists are threatened, I don't see Gelernter sticking up for them. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

Gelernter claims that "machines do just what we tell them to". This would be forgivable for an ignorant layman, but it is really unforgivable for a computer science professor. It's wrong in two ways: even extremely simple programs can be capable of complex and difficult-to-predict behaviors that can surprise their programmers. And second, many modern computers have access to truly random numbers (for example, arising from radioactive decay) that can make their behaviors truly unpredictable and not "just what we tell them to" do.

Gelernter hates the idea that brain is essentially a computer (even though this is supported by everything we know about neuroscience). But he can muster no coherent argument against it. His "simple facts" that dispute this are laughably inapposite:

1. You can transfer a program easily from one computer to another, but you can’t transfer a mind, ever, from one brain to another.

How does Gelernter know that you can't do this? We can't do it now, but how does he know we can't "ever" do it? In fact, I'd argue that every kind of communication between people is transferring a piece of one person's mind to another.

2. You can run an endless series of different programs on any one computer, but only one “program” runs, or ever can run, on any one human brain.

Again, how does Gelernter know this? Furthermore, this claim is disputed by, for example, Marvin Minsky's vision of the mind as constructed out of many different kinds of simpler programs running in parallel; see his book Society of Mind.

This silly reason is equivalent to saying that airplanes and birds don't both fly, because airplanes can carry many different passengers, while a bird only carries one.

3. Software is transparent. I can read off the precise state of the entire program at any time. Minds are opaque—there is no way I can know what you are thinking unless you tell me.

That may have been true in the 1500's, when Gelernter's brain seems to have been formed, but we've learned a bit in 500 years. It is now, in fact, quite possible for us to be able to determine what other people are thinking in some simple domains, and our ability to do this is likely to increase.

4. Computers can be erased; minds cannot.

Again, how does Gelernter know this cannot be done, ever? Just this week, there is a paper in Nature that suggests the opposite. And, as I get older, I find that more and more of my brain is being erased automatically.

5. Computers can be made to operate precisely as we choose; minds cannot.

Oddly enough, it's religion that has proven to be one of the best kinds of mind control. And there are others. Again, how does Gelernter know for sure that minds cannot be made to operate as we choose? If we can do it for cockroaches, why couldn't we (in principle) do it for humans?

These reasons are all so bad that I'm surprised Gelernter didn't say "computers are plugged into the wall socket, but minds aren't".

Gelernter's rant goes on and on. He seems to think that "students have been taught since kindergarten that you are not permitted to question the doctrine of man-made global warming, or the line that men and women are interchangeable, or the multiculturalist idea that all cultures and nations are equally good". Funny, I never heard any of these claims; it seems to be some sort of bizarre conservative delusion. Of course you are "permitted" to question anthropogenic global warming; but if you do, you should know what the current scientific consensus is, a bit of the relevant science, and apprise yourself of the goals of and funding behind the relatively small number of voices in opposition. No one says men and women are "interchangeable"; but it does seem to be true that many cultural beliefs about what women can't do are based more on tradition than some inherent biological limitation. (Read, for example, what was claimed about women and marathons.) Nobody says "all cultures and nations are equally good", but that doesn't mean we are obligated to teach our children exclusively about Western history in school. Maybe Gelernter would be happier in this kind of America.

Finally, he closes with this admonition: "The best and deepest moral laws we know tell us to ... treat all creatures, our fellow humans and the world at large, humanely." This from the same guy that a few paragraphs earlier was likening critics of Nagel to "punks" and a "lynch mob" and a "mass attack of killer hyenas". Really, you can't make up this kind of hypocrisy.


Anonymous said...

"Gelernter, I suspect, finds eating a BLT an offense against his god, while devout Hindus do the same for cheeseburgers."

I think there is a slight but very important difference between finding eating a BLT an "offense against (his) god" that most Muslims and observant Jews do, and what most devout Hindus I know do: they find eating the cheeseburger (or for that matter, the BLT) an offense against the animal that was killed to make the burger in question rather than an offense against some god. In my opinion, that is a rather more reasoned objection. (Of course, I have my cultural biases here: I am vegetarian, though not for religious reasons. Also, I should point out that several devout Hindus do not extend the same arguments they use for beef and pork to chicken and mutton).

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Thanks for the correction.

Gingerbaker said...

Why "porcine"?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Take a look at the link

and feel free to suggest a more appropriate adjective.

LewLorton said...

While I enjoy your views and writing, using someone's appearance as part of criticism seems very inappropriate to me in a discussion of science and 'truth.'

Jeffrey Shallit said...

using someone's appearance as part of criticism

Well, there's your problem. It wasn't part of any criticism. I just enjoy using the word "porcine", and it's even more fun when I get a chance to use it appropriately.

Alejandro Hector Ochoa Gonzalez said...

For ahannaasmi:

I think some smart early hindu man conceived prohibiting eating of cows, bulls, etc. to protect/preserve the lives of those animals, and so the cows became "sacred" for most of the population of India; so, it seems to me that they (the hindus, worshippers of Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, etc.) can have the advantage to milk "forever" the cows and maybe produce cheese. Should this prohibition would not have been enacted, cows did not exist anymore in India. Just as the smart ideas and laws about hygiene, leper, etc. conceived and enforced by prophet Moses to the Israelites, and written by Moses or his scribes as if they were laws of God, in the Torah.

As for some ideas of scientist David Gelernter, I like the view of Eric Freeman and Gelernter about the future Web: they consider that the Web could be organized as "Lifestreams"

Please excuse me for any grammar/spelling errors. Spanish is my mother tongue.

From Guadalajara, Jalisco, land of mariachi and tequila.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I never said Gelernter wasn't a smart guy, and I'm sure many of his ideas about computers are good ones. You don't get to be professor at Yale by being an idiot.

But many of his ideas are wrong.

Alejandro Hector Ochoa Gonzalez said...

I have understood the point. Thanks, Mister Shallit.