Thursday, September 07, 2006

You Are A Soul II

I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.
- Vincent van Gogh

Our last thought experiment asked you to imagine that the technology exists to replace neurons in your brain with exact replicas. Imagine that your friendly neighborhood neurologist (or ersatz-neurologist) conducted this procedure on you. Do you think there would be any change in to your cognitive ability? Your sense of “self?”

The common answer is generally no (based on informal polling conducted by myself). A sense of self is an admittedly fuzzy concept in that it is ill defined. What do we mean by sense of self? Obviously there is no hard definition of self or identity or similar concepts, but you can more easily imagine that observations of others of yourself after this procedure would not change. Let’s put this line of thought on hold and present the second thought experiment.

Thought Experiment #2
Now imagine that instead of replicating and replacing a single neuron, your neurologist is able to map your entire brain, but she does not recreate it using our magic artificial neuron. Instead she whips out a .357 Magnum and drills one into your right ear. You are now dead. But suppose she now recreates your brain using her artificial neurons. What result?

Shoshana noted the problem of a time lag in the last experiment. But since I am making this up as I go along, imagine the technology exists to record your neurons up until the precise moment of death.

The point of these thought experiments is to get what it means to be conscious. Is consciousness the byproduct of an arrangement of neurons? Does consciousness rest upon the neural configuration or is it the neural configuration?

After initially writing off these thought experiments, I thought about it a little longer until I was so perplexed it hurt. It seems to be that rather than talking about souls, we ought to be talking about brains. You are your brain. You can even go as far as to say that you are your body. Both are dynamic. Both represent unique combinations over time. Your neurons are not arranged the same way they were when you were five, or even seconds ago. Likewise, your body is not the same one you had when you began reading this post.

And therein lies the rub.

If the foundation of our sense of self is our body or our brain, and that this foundation is unique over time, than does “sense” or identity mean anything?

If our brain states (or body states) are unique over time, than aren’t we literally living for the moment? By this I mean that if our brain states change than our sense of self is really a collection of snapshots at any given moment. Rather than having a static homunculi who dispassionately records the changes to your brain, it seems more likely that your current sense of self is contemplating its memories of another self.

Lest this turn into utter psychobabble, consider this scenario, take from The Mind’s I by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett. You are tooling along in your spaceship when you run out of gas and are forced to make a crash landing on Mars. You have ample ramen noodle to last you the rest of your natural life on Mars. But (omitting the chance of rescue) will never see your family again. Aboard the ship there is a device that records every molecule of your body is able to beam a radio signal to a body reassembling machine located on Earth. After recording your body, the machine vaporizes you and then sends along your "map" to the reassembly device.

Deciding your children need a parent, you step into the recording device and POOF you are in the reassembly machine on Earth. And you live happily ever after. Or do you? You begin to wonder if you are the same person that walk into the recorder. You remember walking into the recorder. You remember pressing the red button. But is it the same you? The only person who could possibly answer that question in the negative is (possibly) dead and is telling no tales.

The mechanics of this sci-fi vignette are the same as our though experiment. Is it possible to reconstruct yourself from the configuration of your brain? Is it possible to blink in and out of the conscious experience? Have you ever had general anesthesia (I haven’t, but I am assured by those who have that it is a relevant experience)?

If you haven't lost interest, these experiments continue.

Monday, September 04, 2006

You Are A Soul I

You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.
- C.S. Lewis

My current wanderings led me to reconsider a series of thought experiments I wrote off in more optimistic times. Please keep in mind that the point of the experiments is not to speculate about future technologies. The point is to try to abstract out fuzzy terms and get to the essence of being. I confess that I was hostile to this line of thinking when I was first introduced to these experiments and it took me a while to adjust. But the problems the experiments raise and/or address are crucial, it seems, to a rational understanding of existence.

The experiments build on each other, so I think it would be useful to present them as a series.

I also confess that I am a novice in this area and I am still developing my thoughts in the area.

Try them out.

Thought Experiment #1
Suppose the technology exists to create an artificial neuron. The exact composition of the artificial neuron is not important, but suffice it to say that the technology exists to replicate every chemical property of a neuron. The technology to take an accurate reading of a neuron, that is, its exact chemical properties, also exists. Hence it is possible for a neurologist to identify an individual neuron, determine its exact properties and its exact connections to surrounding neurons. The neurologist is further able to replicate the neuron, extract the original neuron and replace with an artificial one.

Query: Suppose a neurologist conducted this procedure on your brain, removing one neuron and replacing it with another. Will there be any impact on your sense of self or your cognitive ability?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle

“[T]hat was the fatal flaw in the Charedi Philosophy. They crashed around the world selling "spirituality" without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously... All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for eighty bucks an Esrog. But their loss and failure is ours too. What the Chareidim took down with them was the central illusion of a whole life-style that they helped create... a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of Religiosity: the desperate assumption that somebody... or at least some force - is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.”

I debated whether or not I would blog again, at least at respondingtojblogs, but in the end my need to whine won out over everything else. I’ve been alternating between incredibly busy and incredibly fallow these past months, and it’s been gratifying to see that people still pop in once a while.

The reason I haven’t posted is that is seems I’ve traveled this road as far as it will take me. Now that I have left civilization and I am at the edge of an endless expanse of desert, there is not much else to say.

I initially came to blogosphere to work out my sfeikos b’emunah. I know think that most forms of organized religion are a perverse joke. I don’t say that with relish, but with regret. The story told by religion is as compelling as it is comforting. We aren’t just near-random samples of molecules, there is a reason for suffering in this life, the reward in the next life is great, and that the vale of tears eventually lifts into a mountain of joy.

To accept that as true again.

Instead we are left rudderless in an uncaring world. Our feeble faculties are burdened by the baggage of our forefathers. Even the language we use often obfuscates rather than clarifies. And in the end, there is no release. It would be nice to pretend I am a rebellious teenager who, after sneaking a cigarette on Shabbos, can confess to his mashgiach and redevote himself to the fairy tale. Instead, the idea that we are soulless, organic, and emotional computational machines haunts every waking moment.

I initially wanted this blog to be an instrument of debate, to present ideas to my readers and get their thoughts, but at this point debate seems near pointless.

All this is not to say that life isn’t filled with wonder. It is. What is despairing is our utter inability to pursue this wonder. After a certain point we recognize our failings and discourse becomes fanciful speculations of future technologies or solipsistic answers to intractable problems.

Therefore, it is difficult to produce posts that aren’t inherently emotional, since it is hard to produce new rational stuff. This post itself is emotional and self-indulgent, but I guess that just about sums up humanity.

The bottom line? Take the Blue Pill.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

V for Vulgate

I am currently reading Rabbi Louis Jacobs' Principles of the Jewish Faith, the first book in a long time to literally keep me up all night. I began his book last night and found myself standing over a kitchen counter I sauntered over to hours earlier to get a drink, with the sun rising and I was only up to the Eighth Principle.

For the uninitiated, the Eighth Principle of Faith concerns the divine nature of the Torah. This principle is extraordinarily difficult to understand, chiefly because physical evidence demands that we view the Torah as at least somewhat man-made. To be sure, the Ninth Principle, that the Torah is unchanging, seems even more problematic, but is widely regarded as an affirmation that Judaism will never be superseded by another religion. In other words, nothing external to the Torah can overturn a normative, halakhic practice.

The Eighth Principle, however, is extremely troublesome. It is difficult to see how anyone with a sense of history can fail to see the Torah as a statement of separateness that chiefly operated over a specific people at a specific time. More on this later.

For starters, what is meant by the "Torah?" The exact method of authorship of the Bible is the subject of Talmudic dispute. Some hold that the Torah was written in installments during various periods in the Wilderness (see Gittin 60a). Others hold that God dictated the entire text of the Torah to Moses (see Sanhedrin 99a). Buy what does "text" mean? Jacobs writes of Esdras, a book in the Apocrypha which records an interesting account of Ezra rewriting the Torah which was destroyed. Of the text we have today, the Masoretic, several versions are existent and there are other versions of the Bible of the same period and even one that predates the Masoretic text.

Even if you were to accept that the Masoretic text is the correct one (again, which version?) and all other texts are a corrupted form of the correct text, you are left with the problem of the Documentary Hypothesis and other forms of Biblical criticism. Ibn Ezra was well familiar with this problem. In Deuteronomy 1:1, the Bible states that "These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel beyond the Jordan." This verse makes no sense. If the B'nei Yisroel had not yet crossed the Jordan, why would the verse use a spatial orientation that suggests that they were on the East Bank of the Jordan? We know they are on the East Bank, because they hadnt crossed the river yet. Ibn Ezra says "If you know the secret of the twelve, and of 'And Moses wrote,' and of 'The Canaanite was then in the land,' and of 'In the mount where the Lord is seen,' and of 'Behold his bedstead was a beadstead of iron,' you will discover the truth." The secret of the twelve are the twelve last verse of the Bible that are difficult ot imagine Moshe wrote. The other "secrets" are various anachronisms that are quite difficult to understand given a belief that Moses transcribed these events in one sitting or even contemporaneously as events unfolded.

But even putting these difficulties aside, I would like to return to the one element of the Bible, and, indeed, of all of Judaism that should shake anyone’s faith to the core: Cultures record unique moments in time. In other words, there is no reason to think that just as the Institutes of Justinian and the Code of Hammurabi capture not so much a timeless ethical system, but a unique taste of a culture existing in a specific place in time and space, the Bible captures a desert people recording their culture, especially insofar as it separates them from their neighbors.

Jacobs provides three examples which serve to demonstrate this idea:

1. The Babylonian Story of the Flood

This is really old hat for j-blogosphere. By now most of us are at least somewhat acquainted with the Epic of Gilgamesh in which the Utnapishtim takes a three hour tour at the behest of a god bent on destroying humanity by flood and who later releases a bird to discover whether or not the earth is once again safe to inhabit.

2. Cooking a Kid in Its Mother’s Milk

Maimonidies explains this prohibition as an explicit statement by the author of the Bible (God, if you like) that the B’nei Yisorel should not imitate a common idolatrous practice of the time that had nothing to do with cheeseburgers (to be totally fair, the Rambam speculated that the practice was connected to idolatry, speculation which was later confirmed in the 1930s when a collection of Canaanite tablets revealed that this was indeed a Canaanite temple ritual).

3. The Goring Ox

Suffice it to say that the law concerning a goring ox (Exodus 21:29-30) is nearly identical to the Code of Hammurabi and the Law of Eshunna.

4. The Slave’s Ear

Both Exodus and the Code of Hammurabi talk about damaging a servant’s ear in a ceremony concerning his emancipation. Accoridng to Hammurabi, a slave who desires freedom has his ear cut off, while Exodus state that a servant who desires to stay past his term of servitude has his ear bored.

My point in all this is that it is increasingly difficult to see oneself as the keeper of a Mesorah that stretched back to Moses. It is far easier to see oneself as the heir to a cultural record of people who prided themselves as separate from their neighbors, but who were a product of their cultural milieu nonetheless. Any greenhorn apologist can point out how vastly superior the B’nei Yisroel were as compared to their neighbors. Indeed it is not hard to read the Bible as a magnificent testimonial to the high morals of the B’nei Yisroel. But of what import is that today? It is this normative claim that becomes much more difficult in the face of considering Judaism no different than any other culture- it creates myths and legends to further it communal interest. Given early Judaism’s desire for separateness, it is no mystery that we have maintained a cohesive identity for so long. But is it true? Is there deeper meaning to be culled from a cultural document?

No answers here.

Friday, March 17, 2006

I Was Lost in the Cities, Alone in the Hills

The rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. I want to thank those who encouraged me to continue to blog and I have an obscene gesture for those who gloated at my absence.

The truth is that this blog's purpose was to examine a particular question: Is normative Judaism compatible with reason? To this end, I have sought to limit my posts in an effort to refine this blog's focus. Therefore, I don't blog politics, personal musings, or my dream journal.

Unfortunately, while this made for a quality posts, it also means that there are times when I have nothing to say. Recently, in addition to dealing with real life, there has not been much to say. I came to the j-blogosphere looking to reconcile the religion of my youth with the information I current possess. At this present moment, the results are unsatisfactory.

There are certain facts I cannot shake and any attempt to reconcile these facts with reason smack of apologia and a wishful reading of history. For example, the idea that every culture got their religion wrong and only these misguided folk are subject to the forces of history is a kicker (see this post for what I mean). Orthodox and, indeed, most stains of Judaism insist that Torah, while it may not be literally true, contained a unique deposit of divine wisdom to be mined by future generations. That this idea can be held by men of reason boggles my mind. This is similar to the belief held by many that the Jewish people have out-survived other cultures. Bosh.

The ancient cultures live on in modernism. For example, Greek ideals died in the paralysis of an inefficient government, were revived by the Roman Empire, rediscovered by the Enlightenment and affirmed the Founding Fathers. Each host culture added and changed the original, leaving its own unique imprint on a conversation begun many millennia ago.

Orthodox Judaism takes a different view of their own history. They prefer to believe that their lifestyle was sanctioned by God Himself 5,000 years ago. Bosh again.

Judaism is essentially an insular religion which discreetly reinvents itself every so often to accommodate the latest devastating body blow to its dogma. Men can devote their lives to reconciling an archaic system with a brave new world, and some do.

Others choose to live in the era to which they were born.

This isn’t a retirement post or, worse yet, one of those contemptible non-retirement retirement posts for which certain bloggers are famous. I expect that posting will remain very light unless someone finally finds a rock with “Made by God” stamped on it.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Lone and Level Sands Stretch Far Away

Apparently, Ezzie still needs some goading before I get his take on my recent slew of posts, so here goes.

I’ve been mentally compiling a list of the things that make me incredibly uncomfortable with Judaism. By discomfort I do not mean that I feel a rule chafing against the way I want to live my life (not to say there aren’t a few of those), but certain demands that Judaism makes on my worldview.

The first and most obvious is the conflict between Torah and Science. I’ve seen cute ways of getting around this problem, from linguistic gymnastics to typical “kiruv klown” attacks on established scientific theory. I am not going to debate the contours of this conflict. Suffice it to say that the Torah, read literally, makes stark assertions of fact (e.g., six days of creation, existence of firmament, geocentrism, young universe, global flood, etc.) that are at odds with any modern understanding of the world. Any attempt to get around these issues is always intellectually unsatisfying and has the appearance of trying to give complex and kludgy explanations that were clearly never contemplated by the Ancient Israelites.

Far more disturbing then outright conflict with physical law, however, is the assumption that Judaism somehow transcends the law of time.

Time is an extremely unintuitive concept for man. If were to live for 90 years, we would think ourselves old. But what happens given large amounts of time? We can reconstruct what occurs given large expanses of time, but I think that we underestimate its power. On a very grand scale, for instance, you have geologic time. Glaciers form, rivers scrape mountains into canyons, etc.

My point, however, is that time does more than shape our physical surroundings. It changes culture as well. Every culture develops myths, complex social interactions, economic markets, religion, and political systems. These institutions in turn feedback on themselves and their complexity grows over time. Political and economic systems grow more complex. Some myths are forgotten, while some gain central importance to the culture. To be sure, there are some limitations on this cycle (for an excellent quick read on this, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel is a must read), but for all current developed civilizations this is true.

Therefore, what Judaism requires, in addition to a suspension in belief of physics, biology, etc. is a suspension of another natural law- the impact of time on a culture. It is inconceivable to me that while non-Judaic cultures have been subject to such a force, Judaism and Jews have remained free from the impact of time- that our Holy books have not always existed, that myths have not developed and attracted prominent feature, and that the basic tenets of our belief today are not fundamentally different than they were 5,000 years ago.

The opening Mishna in the Ethics of our Fathers glibly glosses over the transmission of the Mesorah. The unbroken chain from Sinai to present day is emphasized in Yeshivas and by Kiruv professionals. Indeed, in debates over whether to leave religion, the unwillingness to break with a tradition 5,000 years old runs strong. But would I be leaving a tradition 5,000 years old? I suspect if I was to live my life as Biblical characters did, I would be deemed as heretical as if I denied the existence of God Himself. On the other hand, embracing religion is to deny a fundamental law of nature- cultures change. The Faith of the Fathers is not the Faith of the Sons.

Monday, February 06, 2006

I Give You My Onliness

This post is likely to be more stream of conscious than I am used to, but bear with me.

I have accepted the obvious conclusion that I am at a crossroads in my life with regard to religion. At this point, the secular version of life and meaning is trouncing the religion of my childhood. I think that a lot of "leaving religion" is really just a phase of maturation. We all reach the point in life when we realize that the candyland version of life we were taught as children is not an entirely accurate depiction of life on the Third Rock. (Of course one can argue that this is an ideal to which we should strive.) Making the leap from religious life to secular life is not all that different from transitioning from childhood to adulthood, and brings with it some of the same concerns. Childhood was something special (or at least was supposed to be), but as an adult you are a member of society with all the obligations of any other adult. For example, at some point, we stop coddling child tyrants and force them to conform to society's (reasonable) expectation of how we should behave. The obnoxious adult-child is not just another spoiled brat, but a deviant.

Is there a parallel with religion?

I started thinking about that this weekend. In Joseph Heller's Catch-22 there is a character named Major Major Major (alas, I do not currently possess a copy of this excellent novel, but I am working from memory). Major Major Major had a rough childhood and is comfortable with the camaraderie and fellow officers of the Army Air Corps. Unfortunately, once "an IBM computer with a sense of humor" (I think that's the quote) decides to promote Capt. Major Major Major to Major, making him Major Major Major Major, the brass has no choice but to make him his squadron's commanding officer. As a result he is no longer able to participate in the squadron basketball games, the one activity he enjoys, because the men are to deferential to his new rank and position. In order to get back into the game, he dons a Groucho Marx-type glasses and moustache disguise and joins a game. Much to his chagrin, instead of the men treating him as an equal, they begin to take advantage of a superior officer who sheds his badge of office- they begin by roughing him up in the course of the game, and end up flat out beating the stuffing out of him.

I think there is a parallel in leaving religion. Both my secular and Jewish-but-unaffiliated friends and co-workers treated me with respect for my religious beliefs (or, more accurately, practices). Once I leave that behind, I become any other person. My position does not demand any respect or deference. Orthodox Judaism (in stark contrast to Reconstructionism) puts a heavy emphasis on being separate and above the other nations. While I never did like this (look for a future post on this topic), I certainly did benefit from it. Despite what many religious Jews think, good people treat religious people with an added dollop of deference. Of course they also treat the rational with added deference.

And perhaps that is the lesson. Part of growing up is competing with your fellow man on an equal field. It is no contest to excel when your rivals are handicapped. To be first among equals is a far greater achievement. That is the essence of transitioning from a child to an adult.