MLU: If the harmonic resonance theory is responsible for such deep-seated, intense emotional experiences, could it also be the basis of religion?
SL: Not beyond an explanation for the significance of music, dance, and chanting -- which form a prominent part of many religious traditions -- and as an explanation for the elaborate level of ornament seen in churches, mosques, and cathedrals of all faiths.
But the other aspect of my theory of perception -- that is, the philosophy of indirect perception, or representationalism -- does indeed account for one aspect of spirituality observed across the vast majority of religious beliefs: the belief in an alternate reality of the spirit world, which is almost universally recognized as immaterial, usually invisible, insubstantial, and not subject to the laws of the material world. Although superimposed on the physical world, the so-called spirit world is thought to be in a separate plane of existence, which can occasionally make contact with the physical world, often by way of a human medium.
I propose that the dualism inherent in the notion of separate physical and spiritual realms is an unconscious recognition of the ultimate unreality of the world of perception. This is suggested by the existence of dreams and hallucinations, that clearly reveal that there is not a direct relation between reality and experience. This in turn casts doubt on the objective reality of all experience.
Once we recognize the world around us as an internal representation which is distinct from the world it represents -- and once we recognize the ability of the brain to construct vivid spatial entities in that representation -- the phenomena of dreams, hallucinations, and ghostly spirits become much less mysterious; they are revealed to be merely spatial thoughts in the brain, superimposed on perceptual structures, also in the brain.
MLU: Moving from human minds to artificial ones: Searle, Penrose and others have argued that constructing strong AI is not feasible under any circumstances. In his famous "Chinese room" thought experiment, Searle argues that no matter how advanced a computer is made, it can at best be only a simulation or model of a mind -- not an actual mind. How do you feel about this?
SL: I find that to be a very peculiar point of view, because it seems like a return to vitalism, the idea that mind is something other than the mere functioning of a material brain. No, problem with strong AI is not that mind can never be replicated in a physical mechanism, but rather, that strong AI is the wrong paradigm for expressing mind. In fact, the "Chinese Room" thought experiment demonstrates this most clearly -- where the translation to and from Chinese is performed in a robotic rule-based manner without any understanding of the overall context; the kind of process that would translate the biblical phrase "The spirit is strong, but the flesh is weak" as "The vodka is good, but the meat is rotten" -- a classic of machine translation errors.
Instead of denying that mind can ever be replicated in a physical machine, we should focus our effort on the question of what it is in the nature of mind that gives it the kind of overall contextual understanding that seems so profoundly lacking in digital computers and other rule-based systems. I think the Gestaltists were on the right track, identifying an emergent holistic field-like computational process as the root of creativity and understanding in mind, a kind of process that cannot be easily reduced to simple step-by-step rules.
MLU: Finally, Steve: why is it important to understand how the brain functions?
SL: Mankind finds itself at a crucial crossroads: We have the technological ability to destroy our planet and exterminate ourselves, but we have not yet developed the wisdom to know what to do with such frightening power. We are endlessly embroiled in acrimonious partisan debates over what path we should take next, with no reliable methadology for determining which is the right course. I sincerely hope that we will discover the essential principles behind how our mind works, in order to manufacture artificial minds that can be tested and tuned for optimal wisdom and judgment, and then copied and replicated in numbers in a form that does not disappear irretrievably with every new generation. This will complement our great storehouses of global knowledge, represented by the accumulated literature of the world, with a great new storehouse of global wisdom as implemented in an artificial mind, without the volatility and inconstancy of a frail biologically based intelligence. I just hope we can achieve this objective before it is too late.
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