Atheists think other atheists are not as moral as theists

A new study shows that both atheists and theists will rate an atheist as less moral than a theist, even when they behave in the exact same way


Farming arose in the Near East around 10,000 years ago and, for the first time, this allowed for huge societies to flourish. Cities, armies and empires became a reality. This also coincided with a rise in belief in moralising, commandment-giving deities (some of which are still believed in today). This relationship has led many to suggest that large populations created an environment in which these beliefs were beneficial. Thinking that there was some supernatural being mandating everyone behaved themselves kept them all in line. People who behave are less likely to be cast out the society; so those who hold to it become successful and it spreads throughout the society.
The practical upshot of all this is that belief in law-giving deities, society, morality and the rule of law all became intertwined; and to a certain extent still are today. Most people will no doubt have heard the old adage “how can an atheist be moral?” in some form or another (perhaps even asked it themselves). As a result not believing in these law-giving deities often carries with it a social stigma. Studies have shown atheists are less likely to be trusted by theists, more likely to be expected to be immoral and less likely to be voted into public office (despite the fact statistics show atheists are no more likely to behave immorally than other groups). 
But just how much does this stigma influence the thinking of other atheists? A new study into the matter shows that, contrary to what you might expect (unless you read the title of this post), atheists will rate other atheists as more immoral than theists; even when presented with an atheist and theist who behave in the exact same way. What’s more, their moral appraisal of the atheist is effectively the same as that of the theist. They both rank atheists equally as low, morally speaking.
The study involved almost 400 University students from California State University and the College of Charleston (in North Carolina); who were presented with the following two hypothetical people: Steve, a devout Christian who regularly attends church and gives lectures to his congregation and Brian, who doesn’t believe in God and regularly attends his local humanist group where he regularly gives lectures. Now, both Steve the Christian and Brian the atheist are married. But when they go to a conference for work they both have an affair! 
Participants were then asked a bunch of questions about this scenario. How ashamed and guilty do you think they were? How likely are they do right the wrong? How well do you think this represents Christianty/atheism as a whole? How likely are they to be shunned by other Christians/atheists? How likely is that Steve/Brian secretly does/not believe in God after all? Also, a bunch of demographic information (including religious belief) was gathered about these participants. 

The rating of the atheist’s and Christian’s behaviour in the immoral action

And, despite being essentially the same person behaving in the same way, the atheist was viewed as more immoral. They were ranked as less likely to feel ashamed; less likely to right the wrong. The community as a whole was also viewed poorly. It was viewed as more consistent with atheistic belief and the community was more likely to forgive them. Steve was also ranked as more likely to secretly not believe in God, whilst this was viewed as perfectly consistent with Brian’s atheism. They also repeated this experiment; but with a good outcome. This time Steve and Brian donated half their yearly income to a homeless charity. Again though, the Christian was viewed as more moral than the atheist. In fact it was even voted quite highly that Brian secretly believed in God after all. 
In both cases the difference was minor (with the exception of the consistent with community. The bad behaviour was viewed as a lot more consistent with atheism; the good a lot more inconsistent). Steve was only viewed as slightly more moral than Brian in these situations, but that’s not what’s interesting about these results. No, what’s most interesting is that when the results were cross referenced with demography, both the religious and non-religious were equally likely to rank the atheist as less moral; even suggest that when he was moral, it was because he secretly believed in God.
The rating of Steve and Brian's behaviour for the moral action

The rating of the atheist and theist’s behaviour for the moral action

However, before drawing too many conclusions from this study something leapt out at me as fishy. The authors noted that both the atheists and Christians were just as likely to answer the same way. Yet one of the questions was to rank the possibility of the individual being punished by God. Surely atheists, regardless of how they viewed the morality of others, would rank this as very low in both cases. After all, they don’t believe in a God. 
Sure enough when you dig down, you find that they were separating out religious v. non-religious when examining their participants. The problem is that non-religious is not the same as atheism. It includes all those “spiritual but not religious” types, many New Age-ers and a bunch more categories that aren’t atheistic. Without breaking it down further and looking at just how many atheists ranked their fellow atheist as immoral these results don’t really show anything. It might just be showing that spiritual people are just as likely as overtly religious people to rank atheists as immoral!
Still, it raises some interesting questions. After 10,000 years, has the relationship between religion and morality become internalised to the point that even atheists will rate other atheists as immoral? Non-believers of the world: are you particularly judgemental of others non-believers? 

Reference

WRIGHT, J., & NICHOLS, R. (2014). The Social Cost of Atheism: How Perceived Religiosity Influences Moral Appraisal. Journal of cognition and culture14(1-2), 93-115.

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29 thoughts on “Atheists think other atheists are not as moral as theists”

  1. Wyrd Smythe says:

    One problem is that, in the absence of a metaphysical framework of some kind, it’s extremely difficult to come up with a viable definition of morality. Another is that, although atheism is a fairly stable target, there are so many varieties of metaphysics; religious theists are just one data point in a spectrum of metaphysical world views.

    It will be interesting if they ever find a “God Circuit” in the human mind that accounts for our nearly universal apprehension of a metaphysics. Is it just to make us feel less futile, insignificant and transitory? Is it an evolutionary tool for society-building? Could it possibly be the apprehension of something real?

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Perhaps then a follow-up study might attempt to try and pin down the metaphysics a bit more. Maybe make Brian a secular humanist and ask questions about that, rather than atheism in general (and perhaps pick out a specific Christian denomination to juxtapose it with. Speaking of which, it might be interesting to split the Christian into two: one who holds to the same denomination as the participant and one who holds to a different one).

      As for the God circuit stuff, it seems a bit iffy. Most example involve stimulating the brain in weird ways; and I’m not sure if that can prove a point. After all, if you stimulate the brain in a weird way with say…alcohol, nobody is willing to label the experience as profound or evolutionary significant. Yet stick someone in a giant magnet and they feel one with the universe and suddenly the secrets to religion are unlocked!

      1. Wyrd Smythe says:

        There is also, now that the stink Timothy Leary put on hallucinogenic research has worn off, investigations into the spiritual connection that so many feel when using them. Why should such feelings exist at all, and what (if anything) do they mean?

        I do think it’s very important to separate religions from spiritual feelings. Religion (in my view) is a human construct in response to spiritual perceptions. As Gandhi said, all religions have some (human) error in them, and there are as many “religions” as there are people.

        Religion does almost seem a political/social tool, but what’s so striking to me is how effective it is. Considered just as a mental meme, Christianity (or Judaism or Islam) has been hugely successful, embedding itself as a world view in billions of people and lasting thousands of years. One can see why rulers would like it (“behave now; bucu rewards after you die”), but it’s somewhat less easy to see why the ruled would take to it and not see it as false promises and snake oil (after all, how many prayers get answered?).

        It would seem the desire, or need, to believe that there is more than “all this” is extremely powerful and very universal. (And, just perhaps, is the apprehension of something real?)

        1. Adam Benton says:

          Our brains are chemical systems. Drugs are chemicals. As I said, the fact one influences the other doesn’t seem that significant to me. The meme thing is a lot more interesting though. There are only a handful of ideas that have teaches the penetration some religions have.

          I suspect the answer might lie in the fact it’s introduced during childhood. The statistics show that it’s a minority of people who will switch religion. What you’re born into and raised with plays a huge role. But that raises another question (as I feel every comment with you does 🙂 ). Would any belief introduced at a young age achieve the persistence of religion, or is there something special about it?

        2. Wyrd Smythe says:

          An interesting point. Most children do outgrow many childhood fears and beliefs (e.g. Santa Claus, monsters under the bed), and yet I’m very aware of the strength of my early Lutheran indoctrination. My dad was a Lutheran pastor, so I had an “insider’s” view of religion (seeing it as, in part, a job). Churches were just interesting buildings I explored as a child. At the same time, despite bouts of stanch atheism at various times in life, I find myself returning to a belief that there must be more than “all this” (or else, what a waste). Is that my early programming, or an adult apprehension of a metaphysical reality? Impossible to tell.

          If reality is just “all this” then I would agree with your point about the brain. But there remains, even so, the dualist question: how does mind spring from brain, and why do we experience the world? David Chalmers famously posits a “zombie universe” identical to ours, but in which no one experiences anything. If you agree this universe isn’t out of the question (and, frankly, I do question it), then the question of why we experience becomes even sharper — the zombie universe shows there is no requirement that we do.

          I am a dualist in that I don’t believe a “mind” is just something a brain does, but has some special spark to it (that may be natural or may be metaphysical — I dunno). For me that elevates mind above the mere chemistry, although clearly the chemistry is vital.

        3. Adam Benton says:

          I think it is telling that the earliest evidence of religion we have is burial of the dead (implying an afterlife). Fear of the unknown and the desire to believe there is something more than our short time on earth does seem fairly deeply rooted. Personally though I take the view that just because I want or feel something to be the case doesn’t make it so. But this sort of evidence based way of looking at the world is fairly new and quite counter intuitive. There have been studies that show often our emotional mind makes the decision, and our rational mind simply seeks justifications. Perhaps this, combined with it’s appealing nature, could explain the popularity of religion.

          I’m not particularly convinced by duelist ideas either, because our brain is influenced by drugs. Or genes. Or head trauma. It behaves in every way we would expect a natural entity to behave.

        4. Wyrd Smythe says:

          Except for the conundrum that we experience reality. Nothing else in the natural world seems to have this property.

          I do wonder also if “existentialist dread” might be an awfully intellectual view for very primitive societies, but (fear of) death does seem deeply rooted in our mental hierarchies. It’s one of Maslow’s top three.

        5. Adam Benton says:

          Well as I said, often our rational brain just comes up with a justification for whatever the emotional part of us decided. Perhaps this existential dread is just that, “rationalising” (or building upon) the basic fear of death.

          I’m not quite sure what you were saying with that whole zombie thing and experience. Could you perhaps rephrase it?

        6. Wyrd Smythe says:

          Yes, absolutely it could (be rationalizing).

          I’ll have a go at the zombie thing down below where there’s more elbow room. It’s getting all narrow up in here.

  2. Bones and Behaviours says:

    I’m a nonbeliever (as in skeptic, not denier) but I tend to view people negatively when they use the words ‘secular’ or ‘humanist’, and when someone says ‘atheist’, I tend to think of New Atheists (I agree with Maximo Pugliucci and James E. Taylor about those – it’s an extremely pseudo-philosophical movement that behaves as a religion, and ought to be an anathema to those who doubt on principle.)

    http://www.iep.utm.edu/n-atheis/

    As regards the words ‘secular’ and ‘humanist’, on the one hand they seem poorly defined, meaning they have no meaningful essence, yet on the other hand we see the words politicised and attached to a readily identifiable agenda that I happen to oppose. Britain’s BHA are the classic example, of this, pushing agendas irrelevant to disbelief and presenting themselves as representing all doubters of religion, via celebrity mouthpieces.

    Of course my problems with ‘secular’ stances in general are not just based on the ones I happen to dislike, but more generally that they are nihilistic in outlook, hiding behind anti-religion to condemn all attempts to oppose state intervention (usually ‘in the bedroom’) – religion becomes a convenient straw man, and humanism a mask. Such a kneejerk mentality is comparable to that of American Christians who believe in free market economics; it is very easy to understand why all human societies attempt to regulate the sexual and reproductive behaviours of their members.

    So I see most self-identified non-believers as either clinging to religion-like belief systems that attempt to plug that hole left by God’s death, and usually with ridiculous attachments to outdated speciesism and universal moral systems that ignore cultural differences. Or I see them as semi-nihilists who hold poorly reasoned positions at an emotional level (“Fuck you dad!”) but dress them up with language to look much more rational than they really are.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      But most of those seem to philosophical rather than moral issues. Not to say that philosophy and morality are unrelated, that’s asinine, But I think there is a difference between “government policy on religion is bad” and “adultery is bad”. This study focused more on the latter sort of question.

      Yet could one influence the other? Could philosophical disagreements spill over (perhaps subconsciously) into moral evaluations.

      1. Bones and Behaviours says:

        Mmm. Have you read Jon Haidt?

        http://www.moralfoundations.org

        His theory explains much on peoples moral and political judgements, and helped me to understand a lot.

  3. Wyrd Smythe says:

    First consider the human brain as a bio-mechanical computer. It’s apparently a computer than transcends what’s possible algorithmically, but ignore that for now. (The Turing Halting problem and Gödel’s incompleteness theorems relate to the limits of what’s possible algorithmically. It may be that brains are so complex (and yet in fact algorithmic) that we only seem to transcend mere algorithms.)

    Then consider robots (of insects, for example) where very simple algorithms drive strikingly complex and “natural-seeming” behavior. More complex algorithms and sensors can drive extremely natural and complex behaviors. It’s not hard to imagine robots that mimic human behaviors. The key thing is that, no matter how “lifelike” the behaviors get, at no point can the machinery involved be said to “experience” anything.

    Not in the sense that you experience red when you look at something red. A machine might be capable of distinguishing and identifying red light, but it doesn’t experience it as we seem to (to the extent that most societies have coded emotions and concepts into color — black == death, red == anger, etc).

    Chalmers’ zombie world imagines a world of living beings (bio-robots or “zombies”) who react to stimulus (like a machine or plant might), who go about day-to-day activities due to their programming, but never have the experience of experiencing anything. If one admits to the potential of such a world, one admits to the idea that experience is not a required element, which begs the question, why do we experience? What is it for? How does the bio-chemical goings on between our ears give rise to the rich world of experience?

    Personally, I suspect Chalmers’ zombie world, because I suspect much of our reality is the way it is because we experience reality. I can’t see why zombies would, for example, have art. What value does a machine have for art? And yet art seems to go pretty far back for humans.

    Put another way, our minds seem to have evolved far beyond what would be necessary for survival or even for taking over the entire planet. (Certainly there are plants and other species that have done nearly as well.) We even seem to have evolved minds capable of wiping ourselves out, thus demonstrating perhaps another evolutionary blind alley. (Fermi’s Paradox asks the question, Okay if Drake’s Equation suggests alien life all over the place… where is it? One answer is that intelligent life invariably kills itself off.)

    1. Adam Benton says:

      But what would the difference between the real world and the zombie that would actually be. You talk about experiences and emotional reactions to the colour red but surely that could also be achieved through algorithms. Society individual so that red triggers the algorithms we would describe as anger.

      At that point the issue seems to get muddled with that of determinism. Is there a difference between the world in which we experience things and the world in which we are simply reacting to stimuli? I’m no philosopher so this is where things start getting a little hazy but personally I found no reason to reject determinism.

      1. Wyrd Smythe says:

        I believe that’s Chalmers’ point: machines programmed to react to red might have behaviors indistinguishable from ours, but at no point could they be said to experience anything as we do when looking at red. That’s the difference. The reaction part can be identical, but the experiential part is absent — the consistent, internal narrative of our minds.

        Even if you believe in a fully deterministic universe (one in which this conversation and the thoughts and opinions we have on the matter were all ordained 13.78 billion years ago in the Big Bang), you still have to account for the qualitative sensation of experience. How does the bio-machinery of brain give rise to the experiential mind? There is an “I” in your head that persists back as long as your memories go. Despite all the components of your physical body having changed many times (you have a fully renewed pancreas every 24 hours!), your sense of identity and self persist.

        Clearly there is a (DNA-based) design and a pattern of memories and experiences encoded in your brain, and it is this design (constantly renewed) that persists as do the brain patterns. But that sense of “I”, that inner being that goes around experiencing things, we don’t understand (at all) how the “I” arises from parts.

        1. Clubfoot says:

          Wyrd Smythe said:

          “I believe that’s Chalmers’ point: machines programmed to react to red might have behaviors indistinguishable from ours, but at no point could they be said to experience anything as we do when looking at red. That’s the difference. The reaction part can be identical, but the experiential part is absent — the consistent, internal narrative of our minds.”

          This whole idea of zombies that can behave the same as conscious beings while experiencing nothing has been shown to riddled with logical contradictions, so don’t take it too seriously.

          The basic problem is if you ask a zombie what it is experiencing when it looks at something red it will have to report that it is experiencing “red” otherwise it would be distinguishable from conscious beings.

          Now, let’s think this through. There must be some kind of activity in its circuitry that caused it to report that it was experiencing the colour red when it viewed a red object. Its circuitry must have made the JUDGEMENT that there was a red object present. These judgements also enable it to behave accordingly in other ways such as stopping at a red light or distinguishing ripe apples from unripe ones.

          Now, these “judgements” look suspiciously like the things that we call our “experiences”, which kind of undermines the premise that it isn’t conscious…

          What this line of analysis suggests is that the things we call our experiences or “qualia” aren’t really some magical ineffable stuff but really just kinds of judgements made by our nervous systems about what is out there in the world. When you look at a red apple that experience of redness isn’t some non-physical indefinable phenomenology (Ooh, big word. Look it up.) but just a judgement your visual system has made and broadcast to other systems of your brain such as the language systems enabling you to speak about it, or your motor systems enabling you to move your arm and pick it up instead of the unripe apple next to it.

          Even if there was such as thing as ineffable qualia what good would they be? Your nervous system would still have to make the judgement that it was perceiving red in order to make use of it. So why not just use Occam’s razor to cut away the whole idea of qualia that somehow exist over and above the activity of our brains and accept that conscious experiences are nothing more than physical processes of judgement happening in our brains.

          Now we’ve completely turned things around. We no longer have to imagine a hypothetical zombie that can behave like a conscious being despite having no qualia: we have been the zombies all along. We’ve never had any such thing as qualia, as they’re traditionally defined. What we call qualia are in fact the very same kinds of judgements that a zombie’s circuitry would make.

          The book “Consciousness Explained” by Dan Dennett explores this idea further. It’s worth the read but it’s fucking heavy going and you’ll probably need the re-read it a few times to let the ideas sink in.

        2. Adam Benton says:

          Oh you rock. I’ve been sitting here for the past hour thinking how to phrase pretty much what you just said; except you did it much better than my draft, and with better references. Thus I’ve got little left to add beyond “this”

        3. Clubfoot says:

          When they first here about the zombie thought experiment, most smart people instantly see that there’s something a bit fishy going on. There must be the same kind of processing going on inside the zombie as there is inside us, but the person proposing the idea wants us to somehow ignore all of that and just consider the zombie’s external behaviour. It’s basically a kind of intellectual dishonesty.

        4. Wyrd Smythe says:

          “Intellectual dishonesty” seems an overly strong way to put it. Chalmers is asking if we can accept as possible a situation in which behavior exists in response to events without there being any sense of experience. If I follow your view correctly, you deny the existence of qualia and believe we’re “zombies all along.” Zombie world is the real world, so the disconnect is in thinking the real world is something more than zombie world. Chalmers may be wrong, but calling him dishonest seems extreme.

        5. Clubfoot says:

          @ Wyrd Smythe

          The argument kind of is dishonest or at least misleading because it brushes so many details under the carpet. How do these zombies process all their sensory input and interact with the world? How do they introspect and report their mental states to each other? How do they know if their bodies have been injured and know how to move their limbs to minimise further injury?

          All of these processes are exactly what a conscious mind is made of. For a being to have these abilities but not be conscious is a massive contradiction in terms.

  4. john zande says:

    No more or less than any other group.

  5. Wyrd Smythe says:

    @Clubfoot

    As I mentioned above, I do question the concept of zombie world, but I take Chalmers’ point even so. John Searle’s “Chinese Room” is another metaphor that reaches for the same thing: what (if anything) is the difference between “mechanical” processing of information and experiencing that information. Honestly, I’m of two minds on the topic, but given that @Adam and @Clubfoot seem squarely in the mechanical processing camp, I’m going to play devil’s advocate and speak to the opposing view.

    “The basic problem is if you ask a zombie what it is experiencing when it looks at something red it will have to report that it is experiencing “red” otherwise it would be distinguishable from conscious beings.”

    A computer with a photo sensor, a set of color filters and the right programming could report the same thing. It seems pretty clear the computer isn’t experiencing anything. The assumption Chalmers makes is that the zombies don’t, either. Chalmers equally assumes that humans do experience qualia. (Dennett wrote that qualia is “an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us,” and that is exactly what I love about the topic: it’s mysterious and we don’t really understand it at all (despite many theories), but it’s an everyday thing to all of us.)

    “There must be some kind of activity in its circuitry that caused it to report that it was experiencing the colour red when it viewed a red object. Its circuitry must have made the JUDGEMENT that there was a red object present. These judgements also enable it to behave accordingly in other ways such as stopping at a red light or distinguishing ripe apples from unripe ones.

    Now, these “judgements” look suspiciously like the things that we call our “experiences”, which kind of undermines the premise that it isn’t conscious…

    No, I don’t think they resemble that at all. No doubt automated systems in fruit processing plants are fully capable of judging an apple’s redness and acting accordingly. But when I look at a red apple, I have the experience of being *me* looking at a ripe fruit I like, the sense of *I* experiencing that apple as part of *my* environment.

    Perception, judgement (of data) and experience are different things. Zombies would be capable of reporting experience, but they would not actually be having it (anymore than the fruit picker does).

    My nervous system can judge whether the body is hot or cold, hungry or full, sleepy or awake, but none of this seems (to me) to rise to the level of the moment-to-moment continuous experiential narrative that is *me*.

    When you look at a red apple that experience of redness isn’t some non-physical indefinable phenomenology (Ooh, big word. Look it up.) but just a judgement your visual system has made and broadcast to other systems of your brain…

    That’s clearly part of what goes on, but what accounts for the sense of self, of identity?

    [Incidentally, what is the purpose of the ad hominem bit? “Phenomenology” isn’t even that big or challenging of a word. Why do you need to be insulting?]

    Even if there was such as thing as ineffable qualia what good would they be?

    I enjoy being a conscious being experiencing the beauty of the world. The awe I feel when I look up at the stars, the joy I feel when experiencing great art, even the pain that comes with being human is something to experience. My boat motor might not experience the joy of zipping over the water, but I sure do.

    We no longer have to imagine a hypothetical zombie that can behave like a conscious being despite having no qualia: we have been the zombies all along. We’ve never had any such thing as qualia, as they’re traditionally defined. What we call qualia are in fact the very same kinds of judgements that a zombie’s circuitry would make.

    *IF* it is true that the material world is all there is, and *IF* it is true that all forms of dualism are wrong, then, yes, perhaps we are just machines or robots or zombies or whatever. But given that we don’t know if those things are true or false (yet), and given the personal, intimate sensation of experience, I choose to believe otherwise. That we create and enjoy art seems to me evidence of something more. That we can feel awe looking at the stars or that we have hopes and dreams and beliefs also seems evidence. At the same time, I do recognize that it could all be a product of complexity and chaotic systems.

    To sort of bring this back on topic, for me it’s the same with a sense of spirituality. We don’t know the truth, and given the choice of believing in a mechanical, deterministic (meaningless) universe and believing that there is some sort of metaphysics and possible meaning, I lean towards the latter. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But hope and faith are part of the human experience also.

    The book “Consciousness Explained” by Dan Dennett explores this idea further. It’s worth the read but it’s fucking heavy going and you’ll probably need the re-read it a few times to let the ideas sink in.

    You seem to have a dim view of my intelligence, but I’ll return a book suggestion (which does sound interesting) with another of the same vein: Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop (an updated and much shorter, on point, version of his famous GEB). Hofstadter’s idea is that consciousness arises from a kind of mental feedback loop. I’m not entirely sure what to make of his feedback loop idea, but I was fascinated by his (whimsical?) idea that our consciousness is actually spread out among those who know us. If you’ve ever imagined what a friend might reply to a question you’ve asked, you’ve in a sense (according to Hofstadter) hosted a small part of your friend’s consciousness. To the extent that we know our friends, they live in us (and we in them). [I do wonder to what extent this idea is driven by the tragic loss of his wife.]

    1. Adam Benton says:

      I think we’d spot the computer as not experiencing things because it is so simple; with a limited range of reactions and stimuli it could respond to. But if you break it down I think it does contain many aspects of what we might call “experience”. It (on some level) is aware of itself as a distinct entity, it can recall actions it took in the past and predict the outcomes of future ones.

      I think the one key component missing (aside from complexity) is that it can’t make any value judgments. It can’t say that the results of an action would be desirable for it. But it’s not so hard to imagine an algorithm that might give it such a thing.

      So if we wind up with processing unit #004 that can use its past actions to predict the results of future ones and, based on some goals it has been given, predicts that it will help it reach those goals. So it takes that action. Would that count as “qualia” or is it still missing something else?

      1. Wyrd Smythe says:

        We’re talking about what many call “strong AI,” the idea that once we build a good enough computer, it will be indistinguishable from a human. Per Star Trek’s Data, it would *be* human.

        The truth is we don’t know, and there are two camps. One believes mind is something that brains do and given a complex enough mechanical brain, it will have a mind just like ours in every regard. The other camp believes that mind is somehow something more (but as yet have been unable to account for what that might be scientifically — spiritual people, of course, have no problem putting their finger on it).

        Speaking of books that are heavy reading, Roger Penrose (who is in the no strong AI camp) wrote The Emperor’s New Mind (in which he posits quantum effects to explain mind). Framing the text is a preface and postscript about a fictional future involving the unveiling of the world’s first strong AI computer. In analog to the parable of The Emperor’s New Clothes, a young boy in the audience wants to ask a question of the machine…. “How do you feel?”

        What does it mean for a computer to “feel happy”?

        If you saved the state of a system, shut it down for year and then restarted it with the same state (so nothing of the self was lost), would the computer feel “bad” for having been shut off for a year? Would you? Would a computer be proud of its successful offspring? Or mourn them if they died?

        Quite honestly I don’t know that a sufficiently advance machine might not. I hope I live long enough for us to finally build one, turn it on and see what happens!

    2. Clubfoot says:

      @ Wyrd Smythe

      Sorry if I came across as insulting, it wasn’t my intention. I would advise anyone to give Dennett’s book a few repeat readings because it’s so heavy going and I put in the comment about looking up the meaning of the phenomonology for anyone else reading my comment who isn’t familiar with the literature on consciousness.

      A computer with a photo sensor, a set of color filters and the right programming could report the same thing..

      True, but it could only do just that. The point is that a zombie who could behave indistinguishably from a conscious person would have, by definition, the full range of abilities as they do. The ability of a conscious person to report what they are experiencing is just a specific application of more general abilities involving integrating recognising, perceiving and speech acts. A zombie who could report that it was experiencing the colour red would have to be able to integrate these abilities like a conscious person does when they report the same experience.

      .

      No, I don’t think they resemble that at all. No doubt automated systems in fruit processing plants are fully capable of judging an apple’s redness and acting accordingly. But when I look at a red apple, I have the experience of being *me* looking at a ripe fruit I like, the sense of *I* experiencing that apple as part of *my* environment.

      Perception, judgement (of data) and experience are different things. Zombies would be capable of reporting experience, but they would not actually be having it (anymore than the fruit picker does).

      My nervous system can judge whether the body is hot or cold, hungry or full, sleepy or awake, but none of this seems (to me) to rise to the level of the moment-to-moment continuous experiential narrative that is *me*.

      You’re not imagining the full picture. If the zombie’s brain circuitry is capable of making judgements about reality, use these to navigate its way around, interact with other people and discover knowledge just as well as we do then… what else is necessary? If that’s all that’s needed to do everything that we do, then maybe that is simply is all we’re doing already. Most people will insist that it SEEMS like there is more to our mentality than just judgements and inferences made by our nervous systems but what if their intuitions are simply wrong?

      Imagine a madman who insisted there were no such things as animals. At first you’d ask him to explain what he meant as you know for fact that animals exist. He explains that the things you call animals aren’t really what they seem. He says that they’re just robots that look like they’re alive. “Animals, as you think of them”, he says, “simply don’t exist. Those things you call cats, dogs and horses aren’t alive they’re just bunches of atoms very cleverly organised so that they carry out the functions like self-repairing and self-regulating. They’re not alive. There’s no such thing as being alive”. “But”, you think to yourself, “isn’t that exactly what it means for a system to be alive? To be autonomous, self-repairing, self-regulating? What else is necessary”? There’s the issue.

      People used to believe that living matter was inherently different to non-living matter and contained some super special life essence that made it come alive because that idea made intuitive sense. We now understand that living systems are essentially just extremely sophisticated autonomous machines. They’re made of the same subatomic particles as non-living things but just arranged so that they do some clever stuff like self-repairing or seeking food. If by the word “animal” we mean something that is alive in the naive traditional sense then the madman is completely right. Those things don’t exist at all. What exists instead are molecular machines that have the appearance of being alive in this naive sense of the word.

      I’m claiming a similar thing about qualia. What we call qualia aren’t really what they seem to be. On closer inspection they seem to be nothing more than judgements and inferences made by our nervous systems which effect our behaviour and enable us to interact with the world.

      Take a look at this optical illusion:

      http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/2/21/Neon_colour_spreading_illusion_no_caption.png

      Can you see that blue disc in the middle? What blue disc? There’s no blue disc at all. Trust me, it’s not there. “But”, you insist, “I can see it right in the middle. It’s there. A blue disc right there”. What blue disc are you talking about? “The blue disc right there!”, you say. What blue disc is that? “The blue disc that SEEMS to be there.”

      And now you’ve fallen into the trap. The blue disc only seems to be there. That perception of a blue disc is just an erroneous judgement your visual system has made about what is out there in reality. There’s no “qualia” over and above that judgement made by your visual system. Even if there was qualia sitting there what would it do? It wouldn’t have any effect on your behaviour or speech acts unless your nervous system made the judgement it was there. Conversely, your nervous system could make the judgement that the qualia was in fact there if it wasn’t and make you behave as if you had real qualia. Either way, whether you have real qualia or not doesn’t really matter and the whole idea of qualia is just as unnecessary as the idea of elan vital.

      1. Wyrd Smythe says:

        @Clubfoot

        I think we’ve reached a point of conflicting world views, so we may have reached a point of dimishing returns.

        The point is that a zombie who could behave indistinguishably from a conscious person would have, by definition, the full range of abilities as they do.

        This is probably the key point of disconnect, since I don’t grant that point at all. The idea of zombie world is to imagine whether it’s possible to separate experience from behavior. You believe it isn’t, I believe it is.

        A zombie who could report that it was experiencing the colour red would have to be able to integrate these abilities like a conscious person does when they report the same experience.

        A zombie who reported it was “experiencing” red would, by Chalmers’ definition, be lying (or mistaken). Your point, if I understand correctly, is that we’d be lying (or mistaken) as well. This is due to your perception that “mind” is an illusion that arises from the bio-mechanical function of the brain. In that view, yes, we’re all zombies and experience is illusion.

        He says that they’re just robots that look like they’re alive. “Animals, as you think of them”, he says, “simply don’t exist. Those things you call cats, dogs and horses aren’t alive they’re just bunches of atoms very cleverly organised so that they carry out the functions like self-repairing and self-regulating. They’re not alive.

        We’re not talking about life, but about conscious experience, which is a trickier topic.

        How could I prove that those animals aren’t robots with behavior patterns identical to conscious beings? I couldn’t.

        The only being I know for sure that seems to experience reality is me. You, and everyone else, can say the same thing. I “know” in a personal and direct way that I (seem to) experience reality. I (seem to) experience qualia. There is something it is like to be me.

        Your contention is that this is just an illusion, and I agree that could be the case, but until we know for sure, I choose to believe otherwise.

        I’ll cite again that what we experience when making and appreciating art seems transcendent of even the most sophisticated data processing I can imagine. How can an algorithm be moved by great art? How can an algorithm feel a sense of wonder when looking at the stars? Would an algorithm wonder why it is the way it is?

        You may well turn out to be right that it’s all just an ultimately meaningless game of billiards, but I hope for more.

  6. andre salzmann says:

    @ Wyrd and Clubfoot.

    Some thoughts you might want to consider.

    I feel both of you should consider that machines and computers were conceptualized and constructed
    by “beings” that can experience” and came into existence by “accident “. Or so they say.

    I have a similar problem as Wyrd. For a long time now I thought I was the only one in the world of “The
    Theory of Evolution” battling this. Cannot understand how and why our brains evolved to the extent
    we are “experiencing”. Simply does not make sense in term of mutations and natural selection and the inherent disposition to “survive”. Symbolism, possible development of emotional depth, development
    of improved 3D vision, of involved cultural constructs developing colons could have influenced it. But
    not all of sapiens, for example, landed in complex societies simultaneously. And in such short period of “evolutionary” time? Not logical. Fourteen million years to be able to fly, and a hundred years then to
    Mars ? Logical in terms of evolution?

    Don,t know whether you have ever noticed that it seems that whatever Sapiens can imagine, he eventually
    produces ? Jules Verne is easiest example. If this is correct, it seems thus that science fiction is a more
    serious en devour than one thinks. Result of mutations and natural selection? Or possibly the “Mind”.

    Ever read on the amazing similarities identical twins experience in life, if they were separated at birth?
    There is an article on this in an Epoch Times of approximately two weeks ago. Not scientific but other
    studies were done many years ago.

    http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/659799-where-do-our-thoughts-physically-exist/ One should read
    this. Seems well researched with references. I do not profess to understanding more than the basic
    concept.

    http://www.robertlanzabiocentrism.com/is-death-an-illusion-evidence-suggests-death-isnt-the-end/ One
    should read on this gent as well. Did one experiment in which he “proved” that the past can be altered.
    I am not “scientifically” well enough educated to comment. I do not have sources with whom I can
    verify such info and understand that whatever is on the net, is not necessarily the truth. But.

    Have read some on “dark matter” the Higgs Cauldron and on some Prof”s who mathematically concluded
    that there could be up to eleven parallel universes in our direct physical environment. Cannot
    understand the detail, only vaguely the concept. With Higgs the matter whose existence they needed
    to prove, was proven but what activates, agitates, energizes,supplies it with volume, so I understand
    it, seems to elude the scientists. As I remember, understood, they seem to guess that it could be
    some form of energy. To me this would make sense. As I have stated previously, I think all we really
    have is our Logic. To be logical we need the Facts. First year philosophy. Might it be possible that
    the logic we “experience” is directly related to a mathematically constructed universe we live in?

    We most probably only have one millionth of the facts we need to guess at our “minds” and our
    “being”, our ability to “experience” ?. Could guess it could be related to our cosmic ties?

    Example to conclude. Recently read in a natural health article that we have one billion cells in our
    bodies. That for every one cell we have, we have ten microbes living in and on us. That all our cells seem to interrelate via some frequencies ! (This makes me think of the machines that are moved over an
    injured person in Star Trek.) Personal experience has confirmed that, making my hoard of microbes
    happy, improved my health. Wish I knew how to add the yellow little laughing face here.

    Personally feel more and more that Evolution explains the biological sequential process by which we
    were created. Seems nothing in the whole universe is ever in the same state it was a Milli second ago,.
    Everything is always changing? Why not us as well ? But possibly we have evolved to a state where some of us are sensitive to forces other than the physiological? That some evolve so slowly or along different line, that we cannot understand one another ?

  7. cafeproz says:

    Hey Adam, as usual, great post, nice topic.

    @Wyrd Smythe ( and Clubfoot): I love that you are able to say:
    “I think we’ve reached a point of conflicting world views, so we may have reached a point of dimishing returns.”

    and also somewhere above:

    “I choose to believe otherwise”.

    I love that because you guys clearly (and eloquenlty) have spelled out the issues (more a rarity than one would want), understand each other’s perspective and are able to realize that you have hit the nut of the whole issue… which I translate as “worldview”.

    This exchange in many ways ressembles countless other discussions in bars, at church, at work, I have had or heard in my shortlife… except that in your case, it is educated, reasoned, eloquent, civil.. and ultimately wise… hence I love it.

    Whenever the subject matter involves anything that has to do with the nature of life, love, justice, beauty… after a while we tend to end up right here and there… as such I too have been thinking about this for quite a while and without (hopefully) rehashing what has been already said, my take on this is as follow:

    I am now of the opinion that we are in fact a huge set of actually rather simple state machines interconnected in very complex and inextricable ways, yet….. just as I know a movie is not real, there is no way to really enjoy it if I don’t let myself go and let myself transported to wonderland at least for a bit.

    So, is the sum ever greater ever greater than the parts… no not if you really account for all the parts, but I enjoy a lot more the sum and “that” is what is greater (so I choose 🙂

    1. Adam Benton says:

      I like compliments, so you have earned yourself a response: Your comment reminds me of reaction to a lot of other philosophical ideas/thought experiments; the one which leaps to mind immediately is solipsism. What if I am just a brain in a vat? How can I enjoy things then? At some point you sort of have to let go. Not necessarily take a position on faith, but acknowledge that regardless of the answer it doesn’t impact my day to day life that much. Whether I’m a “zombie”, a brain in a vat or some qualia-possessing, specially created being with a soul; I’m still going to feel hungry, get annoyed and be amazed by things. Why not just enjoy the ride?

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