Physics of Deliberation

I ran into a new, weird idea filtering down to my students this year.  Whence came it?  God only knows, although it seems to be a distillate of scientism/materialism.  What is this monster?

In my Ethics class it manifests as a perversion of practical reasoning.  I had several students tell me this year that, after willing an end, the act of deliberation begins automatically.  One explicitly claimed that deliberation on means (counsel, in the Aquinas lingo) is an unconscious act.

My colleague saw a speculative variant in his Form VI Philosophy of Religion class.  Discussing inference, several students denied that it is possible to have a properly basic knowledge of anything–all is inference, all the way down.  After a bit of discussion, it became apparent to me that they were implicitly committed to saying that people who think they have basic knowledge are making an inference without being aware of it.

I typically mock the academy’s infatuation with talk of “intuitions” but in this case I’ll make an exception.  I can’t think of too many ideas that more violently oppose my intuition than the one my students are espousing above.  A rational deliberation being unconscious?  Rational operation that we are not aware of at all?  Ugh.

I can trace this back to another idea that I’ve been seeing for the last few years.  I think I may have ranted about it previously: the claim that emotions are what make us human.

In case I forgot to write so previously, let me go on record as saying that this claim drives me insane.  Emotions are what make us animal, not human.  It’s (part of) what separates animal from vegetal, giving us our first cut-up of the genus “living.”  It’s reason–intellect and will–that separates humans from the other animals.

The problem is that my students approach this problem from a completely different starting point.  We’re not rooted in the unity of living things.  We instead start with computers.

Computers are, for my students, the paradigm case of a reasoning thing.  They are pure rationality, unburdened by the limitations of flesh.  This is the paradigm even for all my students who do not entertain fantasies of strong AI and transhumanism and whatnot.

So what’s a human?  Why, a computer with emotions, naturally!  It’s like an entire generation of young adults watched Data on Star Trek: TNG, had kids, and raised them to think about the universe backwards.  Wait, that’s probably exactly what happened…

Anyway, let’s not worry about how this immediately raises worries about design and creators and the nature of machines and whatnot.  Back to deliberation.  If the distinctive feature of humans is the emotional, then the idea of drawing inferences without being aware of doing so makes a kind of sense.

Emotions work exactly this way: reactions to things that are unconscious or sub-conscious or pre-conscious or whatever.  We can be angry without realizing it, sad without realizing it, afraid without realizing it.  So of course we can deliberate on how to reach our ends without realizing we are doing so!  We are just computers after all, biological computers anyway, so the background process “deliberate” is just something we do after we will an end.  It’s part of the programming.

This may be the Rubicon for me: realizing that this scientism junk has filtered so far down that teens and pre-teens are already drunk on it.  Well, saddle up the legions and iacet the alea because we are going to break this business.  After, uh, I figure out how to do so for kids so young.  I want to finesse the situation, thread the needle, steer the lads.  But it may well require destroying their faith in science, St. Boniface-style.


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