Sunday, 17 June 2007

As good as it gets

My father is a gifted engineer. He has an innate ability to understand the workings of all things practical. Back in the days when engines were engines, not the glorified Intel processors that they are today, he would simply lay his ear against a bonnet and diagnose whatever ailment had befallen the thing. He can do the same with plumbing. It really is quite extraordinary.

There was a time when he encouraged me to follow the same path. You see, as a child I would frequently deconstruct stuff to find out how it worked. I also had an aptitude for physics and computing. How proud it would have made him to see his son cut from the same cloth. A chip off the old block.

However, despite how hard I tried, and how deeply he immersed me within it, I could not muster the same enthusiasm he had for engineering. I found it dull, to be frank.

What interested me, beyond anything else, was finding out how people worked. They fascinated, bemused and frightened me. I couldn't take them apart and have a look under the hood. Not without dire consequences. Neither could I lay my head upon the chest of one to work out why it behaved like it did. Though I tried repeatedly as a teenager.

No, all one could do was watch them, in all their splendour, whilst they tottered about the place.

I've devoted much of my life to this passion. Yet for all my efforts and reasoning, at times I'm just as befuddled by them, as I was aged fifteen.

People are buggers. They won't conform to scientific examination. If you devise a hypothesis to explain a behaviour, it will immediately be proven false. It may work for one person, perhaps even a group of people. But apply your theory to society then it'll fall on its arse.

Not only that, people behave like quantum particles. We talked about these the other day. You have to be cute, because if a person even suspects that you're observing them, they will behave in a completely different manner than if you were not.

So, I get irked when complex human behaviour is attributed a simple cause. Genetics and/or hormones are often used for this; Men behave like they do because of testosterone. Cut off their balls and all will be well.

Bolloxs, to put it bluntly.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett, is on to something I think. He has a theory that human consciousness is akin to a 'virtual machine'. He proposes that we've evolved such powerful brains, that we can run all sorts of 'software' on it. Independent of our hardwired operating system.

By example, my home PC's run Linux. It makes me feel warm inside, not being a Microsoft drone. Unfortunately I'm forced to use Windows for some things. Rather than rebooting, I run an instance of it within the main OS. Linux becomes a virtual computer, hardware an' all. As far as windoze is concerned, it's accessing the hardware directly. It's been lied to. Which makes me even more fuzzy.

Now if Dennett is right, and I rather suspect that he is, then nothing but our most basic of urges can be explained by biology right now. If we watch a human brain at work in a CT scanner, what we may be observing is the machinations of our root operating system as it runs our virtual machines. Not the inner workings of our psyche.

So what are we left with? Should we stop bothering with genetics to explain our human condition?

I think it would be folly to do so.

No, we should continue to investigate our 'root' systems. That way, one day in the future, we'll be able to de-compile our virtual consciousness. In the mean time, we should appreciate that our genetics and biology have only an indirect effect upon our behaviour.

If we want to make sense of the subtleties of who we are right now, then let's use the best tools available to us. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. These tools are art, metaphor and the humanities.

They may be imperfect, but it's as good as it gets.


Wanderin' Weeta said...

This makes a lot of sense.

Bookmarked, and I will be linking to it.

jamon said...

Blimey, thanks. Sometimes I wonder if I'm making any sense at all. ;)