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Book Review

THE MIND AND THE MACHINE: What it Means to Be Human, and Why It Matters

The Mind and The Machine BookWhat does it mean to be human? Or, put more narrowly in light of the advances of AI and neuroscience, should we think of humans as simply a complex form of biochemical computer? Is the human mind, including its sense of self-consciousness, really nothing more than the human brain? What about moral choice — i.e., can humans choose to behave well or badly, or are we simply automata, fulfilling our evolutionary programming? In fact, do humans have free will at all, or are our thoughts and actions already determined by our atoms (or our stars)? These and other equally intriguing questions are the subject of Matthew Dickerson’s book, The Mind and the Machine: What It Means to Be Human and Why It Matters.

And yet that doesn’t quite do justice to Dickerson’s book. In fact, Dickerson wants to set before us two opposing worldviews and assess (several of) their respective strengths and weaknesses. One view is physicalism (or materialism, or secularism) — an orientation that has come to dominate the intellectual/scientific world over the past couple of centuries. It is, quite simply, the (nearly unquestioned) intellectual framework of the modern era.

The other is what Dickerson labels integrative dualism. He uses this term to be philosophically precise. But what he is actually describing is the historic Christian (and Jewish, and Muslim) understanding of life — a view that is essentially defined by its belief that humans are comprised of both physical body and immaterial soul/spirit.

Interestingly, Dickerson doesn’t tackle the contest between these worldviews head-on. Rather, he asks us to consider how well each answers several foundational questions of modern life:

  • How should we understand whether, and to what purpose, humans exhibit creativity?
  • How should we understand heroism and moral choice?
  • How well does each worldview make the case for human reason, and for science?
  • And in an age when global warming has become a grave concern, does one worldview or the other make a better case for healthy ecological behavior?

Before considering Dickerson’s argument(s), it’s important to be clear on what he is comparing. Physicalism (or materialism, or secularism) is the view that only nature exists, that nature is purely physical and, therefore, that all effects must have a physical cause. Thus matter (material) is sufficient to explain everything, and all knowledge can be reduced to what can be learned by the methods of natural science.

Determinism follows as a close corollary — i.e., the belief that the laws of physics determine everything that will ever happen. And since physicalism believes the human person is entirely physical, humans are necessarily determined as well — meaning every thought of the human mind and every subsequent action of the human body are already ordained.

Integrative dualism, by contrast, believes that the cosmos has both natural and supernatural realms. Which means there is an arena in which the scientific method is ideally suited to facilitate knowledge and understanding, and another realm that lies entirely beyond its reach. Similarly, humans have both a physical body and an immaterial something else — often labeled as soul or spirit, but sometimes referred to as mind, to distinguish it from the purely physical brain.

Most importantly, though, integrative dualism holds to the view that humans have been created by a Creator God who, in turn, bequeathed to humans their dualistic identity. Of course this idea — that there is a God who stands above and beyond the natural world — is anathema to physicalists. Which means that for a modern secular readership, Dickerson has a high bar to clear.

Or maybe not. It turns out that free will is, as Dickerson ably demonstrates, the great achilles heel of physicalists. If everything in the universe has a physical cause, including all the thoughts and actions of humans, then the idea that we humans can actually make choices, i.e., that we actually have free will, is simply an illusion. Dickerson quotes liberally from prominent physicalists — including Ray Kurzweil, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Bertrand Russell, and B.F. Skinner — all of whom make clear that there is no free will under physicalism.

Kurzweil, for example, contends that humans are simply a biochemical computer — and, therefore,  just as the behavior of a computer is entirely determined by its programs, so all our behaviors are determined by the ‘programs’ loaded into the biochemical computers we call brains. Or consider Bertrand Russell: “Whatever may be thought about it as a matter of ultimate metaphysics, it is quite clear that nobody believes in anymore.”

This will likely come as an unpleasant surprise to the many secularists who have happily abandoned a belief in a Creator God, and all that goes with it, without realizing they have, as a result, lost any basis for a belief in free will. (They can still indulge the illusion of free will, but they can make no case for the actuality of free will.)

Of course, if all human thoughts and actions are (pre-)determined, there is no possibility for human creativity. Similarly, there are no moral versus immoral behaviors. Instead, all behaviors simply flow from our programming. Which means, logically, that Mother Teresa deserves no praise nor Hitler any condemnation. There is also no possibility of heroism — where that is understood as freely-chosen self-sacrifice on behalf of others.

Healthy ecological behavior drops by the wayside as well — since the only thing we can really say about any human behavior, even those that are demonstrably harmful to the planet and/or other humans, is that ‘it is what it is.’ All behaviors, whether they heal or harm, are simply predetermined actions set in motion by a deterministic universe. They are neither good nor bad, just ordained. To which Dickerson asks this question:

Does this make sense as the truth about the world in which we live? Can you really believe that polluted rivers and toxic waste dumps are natural? If you cannot, then you are denying physicalism from which this conclusion inevitably follows; you are affirming that we humans are more than physical beings in a causally closed universe.

Interestingly, even reason and science are weakened by the physicalist worldview. If our thoughts are determined in advance, rather than freely arrived at, what we think of as reason is really no such thing. Rather, ‘reason’ is simply our psychological predisposition to believe a particular thing. Which makes science, derived largely from ‘reason’-based experimentations, suspect as well.

Having laid bare the implications of physicalism, Dickerson makes a telling observation: none of the physicalists actually live as if its implications are true. “A closer look at the writings of those committed to naturalism suggests that even the most ardent and hostile deniers of a spiritual reality cannot actually live, speak, and write consistently as though free will, creativity, and true heroism were false.” Instead, their writings betray deep-down beliefs that human creativity, heroism, morality, reason, and free will are, in fact, the authentic hallmarks of our reality.

Dickerson leaves it to his readers to consider the obvious implicit question: why not believe in a universe where those qualities are intended features rather than unexplained ‘bugs?’ Put differently, does it make sense to believe that a purely deterministic universe somehow produced creatures who deeply — yet falsely — believe in their own creativity, free will, and potential for moral choice? Or is it more sensible to believe in a universe designed by a good Creator who bequeathed free will to us as a gift — and a grave responsibility?

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