If You Could Never Leave the Milky Way, Would You Call it Imprisonment?

Frank Pastore has a rather moronic column over at Clownhall. If you’ve got your anti-stupid goggles on, you can read the whole thing, but one paragraph isn’t addressed in the comments. Here, he is ostensibly reading from the atheist playbook:

Avoid the pesky problem of freewill. If atheism is true, if all that exists is mere matter and energy, then I don’t have a brain, I am my brain. But if the brain is exhaustively physical, then it is just as incapable of acting freely as a computer or any other machine. Which is why the idea of Artificial Intelligence makes for such fun science fiction – the more peo-ple believe that a computer can become a person, the less likely they will have need to believe they were created in God’s image. Thus, more AI, less theism – that’s the game plan. Same with the search for ET. Find life elsewhere so we can dismiss Genesis.

(emphasis added)

I can understand most of Pastore’s arguments in terms of
someone who is monumentally and willingly ignorant of modern science,
someone who doesn’t read Scientific American, the science section of
the paper, or any of the science websites.

But how can anyone living today be ignorant of what computers are
capable of? Read his argument again: if the brain is physical, then it
is as incapable of free action as a computer. Why is this a
limitation?

Computers can fly planes (the cruise missile is effectively a small
plane, and the stealth fighter’s aerodynamic characteristics are such
that a human simply can’t fly it: the joystick just says where to go,
and the computer figures out how to make the plane go that way). They
can compose music and accompany musicians. They can prove mathematical
theorems (I’m told that one problem in math journals is that often,
authors simply submit the Mathematica source code for solving the
problem, and trust Mathematica to arrive at the correct result). If
you’ve played any shooter games lately, you know that
computer-controlled squads can do things like figure out that the
human player is hiding behind some crates and lob a grenade to flush
him out. Computers can play chess well enough to beat a human grand
master. They can not only recognize humans in a photo, but recognize
individual humans they’ve seen before, and read the emotion on a face.
Computers can draw pictures, as the slew of CGI effects coming out of
Hollywood shows. In fact, in the Lord of the Rings
movies, computers not only drew the huge armies, but planned their
movements as well. Computers diagnose diseases, make stock
recommendations, and figure out who’s cheating on their taxes. And
we’re still working out what else they can do.

So what more does Pastore want?

His problem is what Daniel Dennett calls “The Invisible Jailer”. Being
imprisoned is a bad thing. We can all agree on that. But being locked
up in a house isn’t as bad as being locked up in a cell. Being
confined to a walled city is less restrictive still. If a species of
deer never travels more than five miles from its birthplace, and you
put up a wall ten miles out from that, are the deer imprisoned? Unless
you’re an astronaut, you will never leave the Earth (or if you
are an astronaut, you will never leave the solar system). Do
you feel imprisoned?

Perhaps he wants to be able to do something unpredictable. But
computers do unexpected things all the time. Or maybe he wants to be able to do something unpredictable even in principle. But that’s not possible if
God is omniscient.

Or perhaps what he really wants is some sort of “decision center”: a
unit that is presented with data about the world, and sends out
commands to the body. But no such decision center has ever been found.
There is good reason to believe that there is no such thing (it would
contradict observed test results). And even if it did exist, how would
it work? How can we be sure that it isn’t deterministic?

Or maybe Pastore just has a simplistic view of the world, one that involves magic, and he’s not comfortable with people actually understanding how things really work.

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2 Responses to If You Could Never Leave the Milky Way, Would You Call it Imprisonment?

  1. anon says:

    Computers aren’t capable of true free choice. Everything is preprogrammed, regardless if it does something automatically like flying a plane. They have no free will.

    Like

  2. arensb says:

    anon:

    Computers aren’t capable of true free choice.

    What do you mean by “true free choice” or “free will”?

    Specifically, how can I find out whether I have it? How can I find out whether you or someone else has it?

    Like

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