In his book, The Big Questions, Landsburg somehow manages to be both a fanatical materialist and a fanatical idealist all at the same time. The former is evidenced by the following:
Your brain contains about a hundred billion neurons… It’s the pattern of activity (as opposed to, say, the makeup of the neurons themselves) that generates your consciousness. If you were to build an artificial brain, with artificial neurons made of silicon, scrap metal, or cascading marbles, and if those artificial neurons interacted in the same pattern as the neurons in a human brain, your creation would be as conscious as you are. (8)
But why believe that “something as subtle and ethereal as a sense of delight could arise from a mere pattern of firings”? Landsburg answers:
It is quite thoroughly impossible for you or me to begin to imagine the complexity of a network of a hundred billion neurons.
So when we try to imagine it, we conjure up images of, say, several dozen neurons, interacting in complicated ways, and that image leads us badly astray.
It completely fails to account not just for the amount of complexity, but for the kind of complexity that can arise in a system with trillions of potential connections, containing systems and subsystems reflecting and modifying each other’s activity. (9)
It’s clear that “complexity” for Landsburg is a minor deity. It’s true that the fact that I can’t imagine / conceive X does not mean that X is impossible. A chiliagon is difficult to picture, but it is eminently possible and maybe even actual somewhere as perhaps an artwork of some sort. It is a strange interpretation of this truth, however, that my failure to imagine X is a sign that X is so complex that by some unknown mechanism, X must be actual!
Landsburg has fallen prey to a false superstition. Again, no one argues that his inability to “imagine” consciousness arising from a pattern of neuron firings is evidence for this thing’s impossibility. My skepticism about materialism does not depend on any inability to imagine anything. The problem is that, as Landsburg himself admits, at least in economics and unlike in the philosophy of the mind-body problem, “there is a fully fleshed-out theory detailing how you get from the pattern to the desired outcome.” (226) Without such a theory, our author is hamstrung. A market economy consisting of even 100 people is fully functional and works best without government interventions. Even Crusoe economics has definite value as a source of economic insights. On the other hand, Landsburg is clear that 100 neurons are insufficient to generate consciousness. He is, however, fully convinced that 100 billion neurons are sufficient, but neglects to give us the theory according to which such generation occurs. I can’t call this belief anything but a blind prejudice. This is standard materialist behavior, by the way: to treat skeptics with endless promissory notes that “in the future” such a mechanism will undoubtedly be found — notes which have never in the history of world been redeemed.
I can see — faintly — how a person can be a materialist; I cannot see how one can be a materialist and an economist at the same time. Human souls have wills which generate preferences, and intellects which allow them to rank desires on their values scales and make choices, something that billiard balls — or neurons — refuse to do. Humans act for ends and use means to attain them. Exercising choice is what “freedom” means in the term “free will.”
Again, Landsburg confesses that the “complexity” linking atoms with free will is mysterious, but owing to his materialism, he is sure that with progress in physics, etc. the complexity will at some point be understood. Free will, for him, is a fully material phenomenon.
And yet: consider that a machine has no purpose other than to serve man by performing a useful function. Its “goals” do not differ from those of its creator. It wants nothing for itself. It is a perfect slave. A human slave might try to hide his abilities so as not to be swamped with hard work; a machine would not “think” of anything so clever. Or, a master must make sure that the slave will prefer to comply with the master’s orders over rebelling; a machine does not in this manner calculate benefits and opportunity costs. A machine has no internal life or experiences that are inaccessible to anyone but itself. Where the machine ends and raw materials and the environment begin is an arbitrary decision.
It is amusing how carefully Landsburg avoids the use of the word “mind,” preferring “brain” instead. Let’s do some negative anthropology. I ask: Is man a body? Is the soul material? Note the subtlety that I am inviting a materialist to agree with me that the words “body” and “soul” mean different things; but the materialist is welcome to disagree with me on whether they refer to different things, as well. (For example, “brain” means “the portion of the vertebrate central nervous system enclosed in the skull”; “mind” means “the element or complex of elements in an individual that feels, perceives, thinks, wills, and especially reasons.” The definitions could not be more different. The harder question is whether these are in fact self-same.) To answer this question, we need to know what matter is. It seems to be at least something that is necessitated to behave in a precise way in any given interaction under threat of instant corruption upon disobedience. But a human being does as he pleases. For example, I trust it will be agreed that the Constitution of the United States allows everybody the free choice between cheesecake and strudel. As a result, one will go neither to hell nor to prison if he chooses either. Since body and soul have different properties, they cannot be identical with each other (as per indiscernibility of identicals, the less controversial part of Leibniz’s law), and therefore, whatever the soul is, it is not material, is not a body.
Complexity may be capable of many things, but piling up neurons or atoms will not generate a soul. Neurons do not purposely seek happiness.
Confident assertions of metaphysical monism or panphysicalism can be deflected with a simple argument to the following effect:
1. We do not know, nor are we even close to finding out, how the soul and the body are linked, i.e., the nature of the dual connection of the intellect to (1) the body and (2) the will. It is not in vain dubbed in philosophy “the hard problem.”
2. Suppose the contrary: tough-minded monism is true. “There ain’t no such thing as soul.”
3. But then the mind and body are connected in the most intimate way possible, namely, by being numerically identical to each other.
4. Therefore, the monist claims to know exactly how the soul and the body are connected.
5. Which contradicts (1).
6. Therefore, monism is only an opinion, a metaphysical hypothesis, nothing more. It is at best a starting point in our investigation rather than a dogmatic foregone conclusion.
A dualist would not be stymied by this argument, because he is free to maintain that the soul and body have both different meanings (which the monist may admit) and different referents (which the monist cannot admit), while disclaiming any knowledge of how the two are united.
My view is that the brain’s job is not to aid thinking, let alone think on its own, but to limit the human power to think. Thinking is more difficult for an embodied human being than for a separated soul, but not too difficult. The brain is a hindrance to thought not its enabler, though a healthy brain is less a hindrance than a sick brain.