Is man merely a machine?

I recently finished reading a book called “In Search of the Miraculous” by P.D. Ouspensky- a Russian philosopher. One of the fundamental points of the book is the ‘mechanical’ nature of man, and of all things- according to the author, the only real difference between a car or a computer and us is that we are made of organic matter and the car or computer is made of inorganic matter.

He even goes so far as to say that we are not conscious in the true sense of the term. How can machines be conscious, after all?

Attaining “consciousness” is possible- according to him, but it is extremely difficult.

He says that people are simply marionettes, who believe themselves to be ‘free’ because they cannot see their strings

What mechanism in physics allows one to choose to act in a non-deterministic fashion?

I agree that man is an organic machine.

I disagree that machines can’t be conscious. What’s consciousness but self-awareness? What’s self-awareness but an active internal diagnostic and persistent internal cognitive state?

I disagree that non-determinism is necessary for free will - in fact I believe that non-determinism is an impediment to free will, and the more non-determinism there is the less free will there can possibly be.

It’s my opinion that the conversion away from spiritualism, where it was believed that a (deliberately?) non-defined and non-analyzed blob puppeted us, left many people unprepared for the reality where minds actually function for reasons. This resulted in people coming up with a cockeyed notion of what free will was, where they eventually defined it as “I have free will if everything I do is the result of a coin flip”. To me that’s an incoherent definition of free will. In my opinion every possible coherent definition of free will is compatible with both determinism and humans being meat machines - if your mind could be encoded in a magical soul, it can also be encoded in a physical brain, or even a computer for that matter. Thoughts must have logic and mechanisms to matter, and mechanisms can be mechanized.

This is words as froth, meaningless sophomoric bullshit. I’ll bet that no actual scientific backing is given for any of this.

I don’t see how it could be. The book dates from 1949, and was written much earlier, far before scientists were able to do any work on brain function or cognition. Consciousness is still hotly debated without any consensus definition emerging.

Man as machine was a popular metaphor after the Industrial Revolution. The quoted passage is merely a more extreme version. In the computer era we now have the brain as computer metaphors. When the next era hits we will have man as [future technology] metaphors. Note that a huge difference separates man as machine - a useful metaphor - from man is literally a machine, which implies a conscious builder, basically nothing more than intelligent design in disguise. Religious hogwash has always found a willing audience, but it can never be science or anything more than hogwash.

So your question really is-is hard determinism true?

My answer is- if you want me to start denying my own conciousness, experience and nearly all evidence currently available to me, you’d better have a damn good argument. Simply “everything has causes and I don’t like thinking about souls” ain’t gonna cut it.

Why do you think that consciousness is incompatible with determinism?

Maybe a mechanism similar to what might have happened at the ‘Big Bang’? Sort of a quantum something-out-of-nothing argument.

ETA: With the source of this something, being a product or result of electrical activity in the brain.

I didn’t make that assertion. The OP did.

Concluding this thread so far, I’m willing to say that I’m conscious about the fact that I’m merely a biological machine. But that could be an illusion…

We do have awareness. But mere ‘awareness’ is not the same as consciousness.

“Consciousness” is a word invented to describe a trait that humans have. Therefore, people are consious. It makes no sense to claim otherwise–it is like claiming that an apple isn’t an apple when the definition of apple is “the fruit of an apple tree.” Exactly what consciousness is and how it operates are still unresolved issues, but not the fact that humans are conscious because that is what" consciousness" means.

I agree, and at the same time I think you’re merely restating the OP in different words.

“Consciousness” certainly has the meaning you described - but using that word is to assert (without proof) that humans have something definable that machines don’t. Maybe we’re having so much trouble studying the nature of consciousness because there’s nothing at all special about humans; maybe we are purely mechanical in precisely the same way as a Ford Model T is mechanical.

Right. And think about how we got here:

  1. We identify a trait humans have: of experiencing feelings, colors, pain etc, and call the whole set “consciousness”.
  2. We find we can’t come up with a good model yet for how a neurological machine can be conscious
  3. Therefore consciousness doesn’t exist!

When put this way it’s laughable logic and science would never have advanced in any field if we consistently applied this logic.
Still, it’s popular though; I can only assume because, to some people, the statements “We don’t have a good model of consciousness yet” opens the door to “Scientists can’t explain LOVE, therefore God and magic and lizard people!”.
But these statements are not interchangeable and the first is accurate.

As for free will, I’ve given my opinion of it (far too) often on the Dope. For the sake of brevity here, I think the whole idea of free will is incoherent, and the discussion of free will hopelessly misguided. It has nothing to say about the freedom of our actions.

I smell 1949 vintage woo.
How does he define consciousness?
When I work on a problem with my conscious mind, I can observe myself thinking about it. When I solve one with my subconscious mind, I can’t. Is there another definition?

Prove that you do act in a non-deterministic fashion. And if that is too hard, prove that you act in a deterministic fashion.
To do either we’d need access to all of your inputs and your internal state, and be able to compute your action a priori. Figuring out why you acted after the fact is like deciding that a historical event was predetermined after the fact. Easy to do since you can throw out the parts of the environment that one claims didn’t influence the event. Much harder to do before it happened.
Bottom line - I think this is an undecidable problem.

Trying to define consciousness is always a basic error. Consciousness cannot be defined using the products of consciousness itself.

Well since you say

I don’t understand how he can make this claim since he can’t define what consciousness is.
Like I said, woo which can’t stand up to even the most trivial logical analysis.

I think there is room for discussion of what it means to be conscious and whether depending on the definition, adult humans, newborns, dogs, insects, computers, rocks are or can be conscious, and so I was following the OP right up until…

At this point I rejected the whole thing as claptrap. Whatever consciousness is it is something that either the vast majority of humans have, or nothing has. The notion that “Through my exceptional act of will I have achieved consciousness, while all the rest of you are just sheep!” is solipsistic elitism to a dangerous degree.

If none but a privileged few are conscious why should it bother me to wipe out a whole legion of them? They won’t ever know.

There’s a trivial answer to octopus’s question: quantum indeterminacy. But, of course, that’s not what octopus is asking about when he speaks of acting non-deterministically, since nobody thinks free will means acting randomly.

So, Voyager, I think you’re missing the point of octopus’ question somewhat. Aside from deterministic cause and effect, or the true randomness inherent in QM, what else is there, even in principle? What on earth does it mean to say that a process is neither deterministic nor random? How do things happen under such a process?

There’s a simple answer: such a process is simply nonsense, literally non-sense. That’s why the “could-have-done-otherwise” traditional kind of free will is also just nonsense, since it rests on just such a nonsense process. It’s not an “open question” that requires empirical evidence. It’s gibberish.

This is pithy, and you state this as though it’s an obvious truth if anyone takes a moment to think about it. But when you think about it, it’s really not. Why can’t the product of something define that thing?