A Reflection for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
In all fields of knowledge, our mental pictures either help us to understand the world we encounter or they impede the attempt. A genius or even a successful teacher is someone who draws a new image in our minds, one that leads to deeper insight.
In his newest book, Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in An Evolving Universe, the physicist Brian Greene offers a mental picture of what happens when we know something. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant have been warning us for centuries that this is impossible to do and equally impossible for us to stop trying to do. The task is ever more difficult with the expanse and diversification of human knowledge, so give Greene credit for the attempt.
Yet in trying to understand what it means for us to understand, we must continually ask if the picture offered is expansive enough. Does it truly illustrate what it means to know something? Greene employs the humble, computerized vacuum cleaner Roomba as a model of what happens in the human mind.
The Roomba learns. Indeed, as the Roomba faces the challenge of navigating around objects it has encountered, the solutions it employs—avoid stairs, circle around that table leg, and so on—display rudimentary creativity.
Greene’s conclusion? “Learning and creativity do not require free will.”
In the philosophy of science, Greene is what we call a reductionist. He suspects that someday all of reality, including free will, will be explained by the laws of physics, just as those principles determine the fields of chemistry and perhaps biology, though the latter is still a contested issue. Greene admits:
Your internal organization, your “software,” is more refined than the Roomba’s, facilitating your more sophisticated capacity for learning and creativity. At any given moment, your particles are in a specific arrangement. Your experiences, whether external encounters or internal deliberations, reconfigure that arrangement. And such reconfigurations impact how your particles will subsequently behave. That is, such reconfigurations update your software, adjusting the instructions that guide your ensuing thoughts and actions. An imaginative spark, a blundering error, a clever line, an emphatic hug, a dismissive remark, a heroic act all result from your personal particle constellation progressing from one arrangement to another. As you observe how everyone and everything responds to your actions, your particle constellation shifts again, reconfiguring its patterns to further adjust your behavior. At the level of your particulate ingredients, this is learning. And when the resulting behaviors are novel, the configuration has generated creativity.
If you follow Greene’s argument, at some future date scientists will not need to explain to anyone that the consciousness and freedom that they think they experience are only the results of a vast, quite particular combination of particles. Instead, there will be something like an injection. It will rearrange our particles, making our complete physical determination self-evident to us. At that point, why talk us into insight when a particle procedure would be faster?
That the mind emerges from and is dependent upon the brain is not the issue. No, the question is: When we speak of minds, can someone who would reduce consciousness to biology offer an adequate picture of what it means for us to know something? To know anything?
When we humans experience something, we speak of knowing it only when we can nestle it within a horizon of what we already know. If your home has a dog, you probably introduced your toddler to a cat by explaining how it differs from a dog.
Our minds depend on realities outside ourselves to know. We borrow from others, who come before us, to understand the world. A cat is doggish but not a dog. If you are not yet convinced, imagine a human raised from birth in a lab, without any human contact. The biological brain is there, ready to go. But no mind that we would call human will have emerged.
As computer scientist Melanie Mitchell notes in her 2019 book Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans, despite great progress, computer programs still mess up the metaphors that we employ and they cannot detect irony. Both involve comparison and contrast. She wonders:
If our understanding of concepts and situations is a matter of performing simulations using mental models, perhaps the phenomenon of consciousness—and our entire conception of self—comes from our ability to construct and simulate models of our own mental models.
Put another way, what will forever separate human intelligence from computer programs is our ability to know what is the case by contrasting it with our images of what is not the case.
Our minds depend on realities outside ourselves to know. We borrow from others, who come before us, to understand the world.
Theology and the liberal arts are still needed to understand those realities that are most profoundly human precisely because they do not emerge from a single mind. Racism is a good example. Our pictures, our images of others, are not the product of an individual. Isn’t this what we mean when we say that racism is learned? That it is not reducible to the explanatory beauty of mathematics and the movement of particles?
Neither is the broken heart, the person who knows that someone else has done them wrong, who knows that how they experience the world, the sense of injustice they carry within them, is deeply disjointed from their sense of how life should be.
Synapses in brains cannot break a heart. That only happens when the horizon we call home is occluded by the people whom we encounter, the experiences we have. Hearts break when inner horizons, intellectual and emotional, collapse. A loved one is part of your living world, someone who means more to you than you can summon up or even imagine. Only someone whom you love can break your heart, sink your soul.
When the Scriptures teach us that “wrath and anger are terrible things” (Sir 27:30), they tell us that our worlds will not be returned to order by acts of revenge. Someone who kills or rapes another has taken much more than one small element from the world. Certainly, much more than can be reduced to mathematical equations about particles, however complex.
Only someone whom you love can break your heart, sink your soul.
We cloud our own skies when we harbor hatred and resentment. They do not exist within the world of the one who hurt us. We port them within ourselves, vainly hoping that the other will be punished, that the world will be set right.
Like racism, hatred and resentment emerge from an interpersonal circle of meaning whose elements are ever combusting and colliding. Vengeful acts may indeed darken another’s world, but they bring no light, neither peace nor fullness to our own.
We call Christ savior because we believe that he is the one who gathers worlds of meaning, who gathers us into himself. How is it that knowledge of him makes such a profound difference in our lives and in the world? But that is in the very nature of the human mind. It is a world unto itself, stretching far beyond the biology of our brains and into that arena of freedom and decision we call human history.
More on this Sunday’s readings:
- What the Gospel can teach us about asking for help, by Jaime L. Waters
- How do you picture your soul?, by the Rev. Terrance Klein (2017)