Who Perceives Words?

Who perceives the meaning behind the medium?

Can an abacus do arithmetic? Does it even know what numbers are? Of course not. It’s just a tool we use to keep track of the data that we perceive.

What if we use a stick to move the beads on the abacus? Or what if we hook up a system of levers attached to symbol keys so that, for example, if we push the symbol 5 twice we get ten beads on the abacus? Now is the abacus doing arithmetic? Of course not. We are still doing the arithmetic and using the abacus to keep track of the data, just like we can use our fingers or our laptops to keep track of data.

What if we go down to the river and build a water wheel (a task which would involve a good deal of arithmetic and other math), and then use that to turn a generator (which would require more math). Then, instead of using levers to move the abacus beads we use electric currents, and instead of using abacus beads we use LED lights? Now has our little machine done arithmetic? No. It is still, in principle, no different than the abacus—just a tool that we use to process the information that we perceive. Just consider, starting from absolute scratch, how many thousands of man-hours it would take to build such a contraption—hours of people thinking, counting, creating plans to mine ore and build parts according to rational designs.

Well what if, instead of pushing buttons, we program a recorder to match certain sound waves with certain currents—a rational design that would be the same, in principle, as the above plan in which we matched certain symbol keys with certain levers. Oh let’s just go ahead and build a robot that can walk into a kitchen in Texas and record that there are three apples on the table and four in the refrigerator. Then the robot calls someone in Spain and declares, “Hay tres manzanas en la mesa y cuatro manzanas en el refrigerador, ¡así que tienes siete hermosas, jugosas y deliciosas manzanas rojas! ¡Qué maravilloso! ¿Quieres que te haga una tarta de manzana?”[i] (It could have said the same thing in 1,263 other languages.) Now would we finally have a machine that can perceive numbers and comprehend arithmetic?

Of course not. We would have a machine that certainly appears to comprehend arithmetic just like we have movies with dinosaurs that certainly appear to be real, just like we have smartphones that project beautiful singing, just like we have vegetarian “cheeseburgers” that taste like they have meat in them. Keep in mind that to build a robot that can send electromagnetic waves to an orbiting satellite—that requires so many years of competitive research and development (including the discovery of all sorts of complex mathematics) that we are surely into the billions of man-hours now. We can be impressed by movies that cost hundreds of millions to make, and we can be impressed by robots. But don’t let the CGI fool you. The dinosaurs cannot bite and the robots cannot count.

But why? Why can we declare with absolute certainty that such a robot does not comprehend arithmetic? In answering that question we could launch into a deep philosophical discussion here about the nature of intelligence and epistemology, etc. Or we could keep our spleens, leap-frog over the philosophical banter, and simply say that the reason no physical machine can perceive arithmetic is because mathematics is nonphysical phenomena (as we proved on the page titled What are words?). If something has no light waves emanating from it or bouncing off of it, then there is nothing for a robot to “see”, and if something has no sound waves emanating from it or bouncing off of it, then there is nothing for a robot to “hear”, etc. There is really no other explanation needed.

They are all just tools—fantastic tools. Indeed, we can use robots to discover things that we could not otherwise discover—such as the chemistry on Mar’s surface—just like we can use computers to solve problems that we could not otherwise solve, just like we can use cranes to lift things that we could not otherwise lift, just like we can use telescopes to see things that we could not otherwise see. But in all cases we are the ones perceiving the information. Our tools don’t perceive it. As Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor put it:

The hallmark of human thought is meaning, and the hallmark of computation is indifference to meaning. That is, in fact, what makes thought so remarkable and also what makes computation so useful. You can think about anything, and you can use the same computer to express your entire range of thoughts because computation is blind to meaning. Thought is not merely not computation. Thought is the antithesis of computation. Thought is precisely what computation is not. Thought is intentional. Computation is not intentional.[ii]

We could do the same exercise over and over. For example, we could go back to the beginning and instead of considering the perception of arithmetic we could consider the perception of a sunrise. And just as we asked whether an abacus can count to ten, we could ask whether an old-fashion camera (the kind that used film) can perceive a sunset. Or what if, instead of using an old fashion camera we used a digital camera that recorded the picture on a flash drive? Or what if the sunset were recorded by a hi-definition 3-D movie camera attached to a robot in Acapulco that then sends electromagnetic waves to a satellite in order to call someone in Siberia and begin singing, “О, какое прекрасное утро!”[iii]? Or what if, instead sending that song via sound waves, it prints out the binary code as a series of 0’s and 1’s on paper? Would you pick up the stack of paper and declare, “This contraption can see! It can see! It’s ALIVE!!!”?

Many materialists will, in fact, stubbornly declare that if something appears to have consciousness, then it does. As Google technologist Ray Kurzweil put it, “My own leap of faith is this: Once machines do succeed in being convincing when they speak of their qualia and conscious experiences, they will indeed constitute conscious persons.”[iv] Qualia here refers to the perception of information, which is defined as a quality of matter. And the faith that Kurzweil is referring to is faith in the materialistic, monistic worldview.

If you think it’s a conscious being, then it is a conscious being? Just let that sink in for a moment.

Here is the bottom line: the scientific establishment presupposes materialism, which means that both information and the ones perceiving information simply must be physical things. No other option can be tolerated. Our minds have to be matter-in-motion because they have already invested so much science on this presupposition. As Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, put it, “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”[v] Did you notice the quotation marks he put around “You”? “The view of ourselves as ‘persons’ is just as erroneous as the view that the Sun goes around the Earth,” he explained in an interview with The New York Times.[vi]

Are you just a bag of bones, or does someone live inside that body? Are you your brain, or is your brain a tool that you use to keep track of data, similar to how you can use your fingers to count? Crick et al would never, under any circumstances, ask this question. Not because it’s not a good question, but because they already presupposed the answer and then built an entire worldview on that answer—a worldview that includes beliefs about good and evil, about the nature of humanity, and about the nature of religious belief.

Let’s ask it anyway.


If we followed the same logic for the human brain that we used above for computers, we would invariably come to the same conclusion: there is no way the three-pound organ in our skulls could perceive nonphysical phenomena. As neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene puts it, “If these objects [i.e. numbers] are real but immaterial, in what extrasensory ways does a mathematician perceive them?”[vii]

Now Dehaene himself is actually a materialist. So how does he reconcile the dilemma? How does he explain how a mathematician perceives arithmetic? Of course, he insists that we not even ask questions such as, “What exactly are we perceiving? What are numbers?” Instead, he concludes that we must simply take our perception of such things for granted.

Ironically, any 5-year-old has an intimate understanding of those very numbers that the brightest logicians struggle to define. No need for a formal definition: We know intuitively what integers are…If I insist so strongly on this point, it is because of its important implications for education in mathematics. If educational psychologists had paid enough attention to the primacy of intuition over formal axioms in the human mind, a breakdown without precedent in the history of mathematics might have been avoided. I am referring to the infamous episode of “modern mathematics,” which has left scars in the minds of many schoolchildren in France, as well as in many other countries.[viii]

Now the reason he insists that we not ask the question is pedagogical: it will torture students to delve into such deep philosophical matters. But we should note that even though he was not writing a textbook—so there was no danger of torturing students—he still didn’t want to talk about it.

More recently Dehaene argued that it is information itself that actually becomes conscious. Since he has already taken our perception of information for granted—like a fish taking water for granted—it was easy from there for him to simply take all of consciousness for granted even as he insists that we are our brains.

Once information is conscious, it can enter into a long series of arbitrary operations—it is no longer processed in a reflexive manner but can be pondered and reoriented at will. And thanks to a connection to language areas, we can report it to others.[ix]

Seriously? “Once information is conscious”?! What about the information conveyed by these black symbols that you’re staring at? Could that information become conscious? What about the information in my shoe? Its chemical engineering alone would fill a textbook. How about the incredibly profound information in a mathematics equation like Euler’s Identity (e^πi+1=0)? Could that become conscious?

On the one hand, I don’t want to be impolite and bludgeon these scientists for coming to incoherent conclusions. On the other hand, no matter how fairly or objectively I present their arguments, they are still completely incoherent. The title of one of Dehaene’s books is The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics. He says that mathematics exists inside our skulls and not in universe. (I address this in the article titled “Where Does Information Occur?”) Otherwise, we would have to explain, as he put it, “in what extrasensory ways” our brains perceive it.

The naturalists are all acutely aware of the dilemma, but it is such an outrageously monumental and obvious impasse that they have no other choice but to completely ignore it. Famed atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett recently address the matter in a book titled From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds.

Do words even exist? Are they part of your ontology? Should they be? This talk of words being “made of information” is pretty dicey, isn’t it? Just a lot of hand-waving? Some philosophers will bite the bullet at this point and insist that words don’t exist, strictly speaking. They have no mass, no energy, no chemical composition; they are not part of the scientific image, which they say should be considered the ultimate arbiter of ontology. But words are very prominent denizens of our manifest image, and even if science doesn’t have to refer to them or mention them, you couldn’t do science without using them, so they should perhaps be included in our ontology. They loom large for us, readily occupying our attention.[x]

At the end of the day, materialism precludes life from having any meaning at all—not just in a moralistic, ideological way, as when someone cries out in despair, “My life has no meaning!”, but also in a very blunt, practical way, as in concluding that even the meaning of words like three and four and blue and red simply does not exist? (Because the only way for such meaning to exist is to be immaterial.) So in the quote above Dennett explains that materialistic philosophers are aware of this problem—this complete absence of meaning—and that some of them will “bite the bullet” and insist that it must be true. (Of course they can only use words to insist on such things, rendering their conclusions as nonsensical as saying, “The truth is that you’re not actually reading this sentence.”)

But Dennett himself doesn’t do that. So what does he do? How does cling to materialism but still manage to explain why words can be “included in our ontology”? How does he answer the question that Dehaene refused to ask? Well he starts by calling words evolutionary memes. “Words, I will argue, are the best example of memes, culturally transmitted items that evolve by differential replication—that is, by natural selection.”[xi]

Now the term meme was coined by famed atheist biologist Richard Dawkins to describe “the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.”[xii]  So would Dennett (or Dawkins) acknowledge that memes, these units of imitation, are immaterial? Would they admit that memes, as words, have “no mass, no energy, no chemical composition”? No, they can’t do that. So instead, Dennett explains that words are the kind of memes that form sound waves: “Which kind of meme are words? The kind that can be pronounced.”[xiii]  Later he tries to clarify:

What are memes a kind of? They are a kind of way of behaving (roughly) that can be copied, transmitted, remembered, taught, shunned, denounced, brandished, ridiculed, parodied, censored, hallowed. There is no term readily available in the technical language of the scientific image that aptly encapsulates what kind of a thing a meme is. Leaning on the ordinary language of the manifest image, we might say that memes are ways: ways of doing something, or making something, but not instincts (which are a different kind of ways of doing something or making something). The difference is that memes are transmitted perceptually, not genetically. They are semantic information, design worth stealing or copying, except when they are misinformation, which, like counterfeit money, is something that is transmitted or saved under the mistaken presumption that it is valuable, useful.[xiv]

So memes are “…semantic information”. Later he says that “memes are informational things.”  What does all that mean? It means we’ve come full circle on this rabbit trail: words have no mass or energy or chemical properties, but they are memes—the kind of meme that can be pronounced. Meanwhile, memes are units of cultural transmission, semantic information, informational things. Words are memes and memes are words! In other words, Dennett has looked directly the heard of elephants in the room—those gentle giants that eat Darwinism for breakfast—and has decided to just completely ignore them and quietly hope that they are not hungry. They have to be “included in our ontology”, so perhaps we can just take them for granted—just like Dehaene said we need to take our mathematical ability for granted. (See the article on this blog titled How do we perceive words? and you’ll read how all the most up-to-date science says that we similarly must take our linguistic abilities for granted as instinctive.)

Let’s just stop again and recognize the enormity of what these scientists and philosophers want to take for granted. I will just repeat something we observed in the introduction: without words we would have no governments (unlike ants and bees, we are not pre-programmed to live in colonies, so we have to articulate pacts and alliances and constitutions), no technology (for all technology is preceded by verbal plans), no science (which is the study of patterns and laws in nature and society), no sports (or any other games, for that matter, for they all depend entirely upon the enforcement of verbalized rules), no fajita recipes (for no one accidentally “makes” a fajita). It is a very, very, very big deal to take words and sentences, numbers and equations—and our perception and use of them all—for granted.

Yet pick up any book on the subject and you’ll find that that’s where we are. Michael S. Gazzaniga, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he heads the new SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, wrote a book recently titled The Consciousness Instinct. It’s a fascinating read, but when all is said and done Gazzaniga quietly concludes that consciousness is simply included with evolution the way grits are included with any proper southern meal. “Grits come with the order, and so does what we call consciousness.”[xv]

Similarly, Michael S. A. Graziano, professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University, wrote a book titled Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience, in which he gives a very complex elaborate argument for why consciousness is nothing but matter-in-motion—i.e. that we are our brains. So what does he say about the nature of information or about our ability to perceive meaning? Nothing at all. He simply takes that for granted. Like Dehaene, he argues that information itself simply becomes conscious:

My point is that the mind is information. I like to say that the human mind is a trillion-stranded sculpture made of data, constantly changing, beautifully complicated. If a mind lacks information about consciousness, it cannot know what that property is or attribute it to itself or to others. We humans make a big deal about consciousness only because we have a subsystem in our brains that constructs information about it.[xvi]

We make a big deal about consciousness because it is a very big deal. If we could not perceive the meaning behind the media, we could not create a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, much less a slushy machine, much less a rocket ship. Yet the naturalists have no other choice but to pretend that our ability to comprehend information is not big deal, that we can just take it for granted. Now you certainly don’t need to take my word for it and can read the books for yourself. But always keep in mind that the naturalists are facing an absolute impasse. Just as an abacus cannot comprehend arithmetic, neither can the human brain.

The alternative is to conclude that we are not our brains but rather are nonphysical phenomena, just as immaterial as is information itself. As we will explore when we ask the how question, this is not an assumption or a presupposition, but rather a conclusion. And our ability to perceive the meaning behind the media is something we are born with. As the National Research Council Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning put it:

An ever-increasing body of evidence shows that the human mind is endowed with an implicit mental ability that facilitates attention to and use of representations of the number of items in a visual array, sequence of drumbeats, jumps of a toy bunny, numerical values represented in arrays, etc.…Young infants and toddlers also respond correctly to the effects of the arithmetic operations of adding and subtracting.[xvii]

The body of evidence to which they refer is a series of experiments done with infants. Psychologists and neuroscientists have found through repeated studies that even four-month-old babies already have not only basic counting ability, but also basic arithmetic. Infants arrive in the world “endowed” with it. As the Washington Post recently explained the latest research on the subject:

Babies are able to understand something important about numbers long before they can say them out loud. The researchers discovered that children as young as 14 months old are capable of recognizing that counting is related to quantity — even if they’re still a few years away from truly understanding what “one, two, three” means.[xviii]

From the mouths of infants and nursing babes comes recognition of what Einstein called “the eternal mystery of the universe”—literally, the creative force of the cosmos. As University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Charles Yang put it, “Underneath every utterance of baby-talk, or every turn of phrase in Shakespeare, lies an elegant, intricate, and infinite engine that forms our thoughts, expresses our feelings, and shapes our mental life.”[xix]

Now there are many scientists who buck the establishment, arguing that there is abundant evidence for an immaterial mind. Furthermore, they make these arguments based on scientific evidence and not ideological assumptions. As Stephen M. Barr, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware, put it:

In the opinion of many physicists-including such great figures in twentieth-century physics as Eugene Wigner and Rudolf Peierls—the fundamental principles of quantum theory are inconsistent with the materialist view of the human mind. Quantum theory, in its traditional, or “standard,” or “orthodox” formulation, treats “observers” as being on a different plane from the physical systems that they observe. A careful analysis of the logical structure of quantum theory suggests that for quantum theory to make sense it has to posit the existence of observers who lie, at least in part, outside of the description provided by physics. This claim is controversial. There have been various attempts made to avoid this conclusion, either by radical reinterpretations of quantum theory (such as the so-called “many-worlds interpretation”) or by changing quantum theory in some way. But the argument against materialism based on quantum theory is a strong one, and has certainly not been refuted. The line” of argument is rather subtle. It is also not well- known, even among most practicing physicists. But, if it is correct, it would be the most important philosophical implication to come from any scientific discovery.[xx]

Eugene Wigner (1902-1995) and his colleagues found overwhelming experimental evidence they they themselves, as scientists, were not simply measuring experimental results but somehow causing experimental results to literally materialize. “It follows that the being with a consciousness must have a different role in quantum mechanics than the inanimate measuring device.”[xxi] We will explore this much more in the article titled “How?” But for now, let us consider what it means to see humans as having an immaterial mind, especially in comparison to other animals.


We know that we perceive the meaning behind the media, but what about other animals. Do they have any similar ability? When animals exchange information with each other, are they communicating in the way that we humans communicate, or are they simply machines that process information in the way a laptop or a satellite processes information? Or do they actually comprehend meaning?

We should note that naturalists do acknowledge that there is a categorical difference between human language and the method of communication of any other species.

Humans are unique in many ways. Perhaps our most obviously unique feature is language. Whereas eyes have evolved between forty and sixty times independently around the animal kingdom, language has evolved only once.[xx]

As our use of language is unique, so also may be our use of mathematics. Although some species may at first appear to comprehend basic math, upon further study scientists have often concluded that they are simply doing what they are programmed to do. Some claim that Ravens, for example, comprehend arithmetic. However, Thomas Suddendorf, professor of psychology at The University of Queensland, Australia, says the evidence for that is far from conclusive. He said the studies of Ravens have followed training through reinforcement, and that human cognition is uique:

Yet the achievements of the ravens, as well as cognitive feats of apes in other studies, can be explained in simpler ways. It turns out that animal and human cognition, though similar in many respects, differ in two profound dimensions. One is the ability to form nested scenarios, an inner theater of the mind that allows us to envision and mentally manipulate many possible situations and anticipate different outcomes. The second is our drive to exchange our thoughts with others. Taken together, the emergence of these two characteristics transformed the human mind and set us on a world-changing path.[xxi]

Similarly, he said that although many animals use tools, and that some even make them, there is no evidence that the animals recognize or are aware of what they’re doing.

Chimpanzees in Senegal have been reported to make rudimentary spears that they thrust into tree hollows to kill bush babies. But there is as yet no observation that they practice thrusting, let alone throwing. Unlike humans, they could not benefit from the invention of a spear thrower. You can safely give them one of yours; they would not use it as we do.[xxii]

By contrast, whereas animals could simply be programmed to adapt in the same way that we can program Mars robots and other machines to adapt to their environment, from infancy humans are different. Human infants display unique reasoning, as explained by Justin Halberda, associate professor of psychology and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

The careful crafting of stimuli and clever analyses of infants’ spontaneous looking behavior by Cesana-Arlotti et al. show us that infants have the capacity to reason by process of elimination. By contrast, whereas nonhuman animals such as dogs facing similar situations of ambiguity may ultimately form the right conclusion, they appear to arrive at this hunching using an associative rather than logical process.[xxiii]

All that is to say that it is entirely possible that animals are not sentient beings, having no more ability to comprehend arithmetic than does a calculator or a math textbook, and having no more ability to thank than does a robot or perhaps a communications satellite. All the materialistic arguments for why we are our brains fall apart when applied to humans, but they may work quite well in explaining the behavior of all other species.

This understanding of things may be particularly hard to stomach if we think of our pets. So let’s cut to the chase: is it possible that dogs are simply machines and that they do not have conscious minds like we do?

Let us consider the possibility that that is true. What would it mean? To answer that question, consider what it is that dogs are really good at compared to other animals. For example, spiders are very good at building webs to catch prey. That’s their specialty. That’s how they survive and thrive. Could they simply be machines? Or consider beavers: their specialty is building dams. Is it possible that they don’t perceive engineering any more than a spider perceives geometry, any more than an ant perceives colonial government or than a laptop perceives differential calculus?

So what about dogs? What is their specialty? They cannot build webs or dams. For that matter, they cannot survive in the wild on their own. (Urban areas are not wild so they don’t count.) They don’t know how to hunt in packs or to build dens for the winter. So what is the one amazingly complex thing they can do—as amazing as web building or dam building or running in a pack or building an elaborate nest and then dancing to attract a mate the way birds of paradise do? What is the dog’s specialty?

They can look people in the eye and grovel. By contrast, their ancestors, grey wolves, can never do that. Even if a wolf spends 24 hours a day with a (non-bathing!) human from the day of its birth, it will not bond with that human. Wolves won’t show the slightest concern for their human caretakers. As New York Times reporter James Gorman put it:

If one of the people who has bottle-fed and mothered the wolves practically since birth is injured or feels sick, she won’t enter their pen to prevent a predatory reaction. No one will run to make one of these wolves chase him for fun. No one will pretend to chase the wolf. Every experienced wolf caretaker will stay alert. Because if there’s one thing all wolf and dog specialists I’ve talked to over the years agree on, it is this: No matter how you raise a wolf, you can’t turn it into a dog.[xxiv]

By contrast, Gorman says, “Even street dogs that have had some contact with people at the right time may still be friendly.”[xxv] That’s what we have bred them to do. That is how we have re-engineered their social programming.

Michael Behe, professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, says that dogs are broken wolves because the mutations that turned a wolf into a dog were largely negative. Even changes that we might see as advantageous, such as the strength of a bulldog, result from destructive mutations.

Most of them break or damage preexisting genes. For example, increased muscle mass in some breeds derives from degradation of a myostatin gene. We also know what mutations cause a yellow coat [loss of FCT of melanocortin 1 receptor], short tails [loss of FCT of the protein coded by the mutated T gene], even the lovable friendliness of dogs towards humans [disruption of genes GTF21 & GTF2IRD1], compared to less friendly wolves. [xxvi]

Behe said its highly unlikely that the broken genes would ever mutate back to their original working state. So dogs’ only hope is that we humans will always be glad to have them around. Perhaps we can think of them like good books that we can enjoy reading a re-reading. Thus, for example, you could name your dog after other non-sentient characters like Gandalf or Bilbo.

If we considered the alternative, and if dogs are in fact conscious and self-aware in the way we humans are, what would that mean? It would mean we would be attributing to them an immaterial nature, even a nonphysical a soul. But as things are there is plenty of room for skepticism for that conclusion, whether for dogs or chimpanzees or any other animals. Again, all the work that the materialists have done to try to show that we humans are our brains, that our minds are simply matter in motion without any immaterial nature—all that work and all those explanations could be applied to animals. And if we brought Occam’s razor to bear on the issue, that would be the most reasonable conclusion.


Considering authorship might be the best way to put all this into perspective. In the conclusion to What are words? I suggested that a good definition of an immaterial soul is “a rational, creative author”. And when we ask, “Who perceives words?” the clearest answer might be “that which can use words creatively”.

So, regarding animals, do we know whether any animals are creative? Do birds ever author new songs, or can we skeptically conclude that they are only singing what they have been programmed to sing? Do beavers ever author new dam designs or new uses for their abilities, or is it instead plausible that they are only doing what they are programmed to do? Do ants, who can have highly organized caste systems and divisions of labor, every author new systems or rules?

Scientists have answered that last question conclusively: no. Although we humans look at an ant colony and identify a governmental “queen”, that is an illusion according to Bert Hölldobler, Professor of Life Sciences at Arizon State University and former professor of zoology at Harvard University, and Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard professor for nearly five decades. They say the best way to understand social insects (ants, termites, bees, and wasps) is to see them not as societies but as computer programs. Instead of operating according to a central command, there is self-organization in which each insect acts independently of the others

To add one last concept from computer science, social insect workers are cellular automata, defined as agents programmed to function interactively as a higher-level system. They have this trait because their colony as a whole lacks command and control by a still higher-level system. It therefore must be self-organized. Through the combined senses and brains of its members, the colony operates as an information-processing system. The environment challenges it with problems: the workers must locate an adequate nest site, find the right food items and bring them home, establish home ranges and territories, defend against enemies, and care for the helpless young. These disjunct problems press on the colony at almost all times. The algorithms of individual development and behavior contain the solutions to all of them. With algorithms, the colony masters the problems natural selection has designed it to solve. The requisite information is distributed among the colony members. Thus, a distributed colony intelligence is created greater than the intelligence of any one of the members, sustained by the incessant pooling of information through communication. [xxvii]

They give the example of the fungus-growing termites of Africa (similar to the leaf-cutting farmer ants of North America), which build massive, intricately designed nests with an architecture that regulates both the temperature and the composition of the interior air. Through precise engineering the entire nest functions as an air conditioning system that keeps the central living area within a degree of 30oC and the carbon dioxide concentration between 2.6 and 2.8 percent.

While such emergent properties are marvelous to behold, their engineering is not intrinsically mysterious. The extremes of higher-level traits may at first appear to have a life of their own, one too complex or fragile to be reduced to their basic elements and processes by deductive reasoning and experiment. But such separatist holism is in our opinion a delusion, the result of still insufficient knowledge about the working parts and processes. An important merit of insect sociobiology, as opposed to vertebrate and especially human sociobiology, is that the colony organizations it addresses contain a large array of emergent phenomena simple enough to be explained by scaling up from the behavior of the constituent elements. This is the advantage provided us by the small brains of the social insects and the general quick and simple decisions they must make with limited algorithms. [xxviii]

So whether we are talking about a beavers dam or an ant colonies air conditioning system, the point is that the animals are most likely only doing what they were programmed to do. They are not actually creative authors.

Nor can computers do anything creative, according to Robert J. Marks, Electrical & Computer Engineering Professor at Baylor University. “They can only take the data which they’ve been presented and interpolate. They can’t, if you will, think outside of the box.” [xxix] He says that although computers can be programmed to simulate art, they cannot actually create art. Thus, for example, if you program a computer to produce music with the status quo of Bach, it can shuffle data around and output music that sounds like Bach, but only Bach and never Stevie Wonder or BTS. Or if you input patterns for a DaVinci painting, it can simulate a DaVinci painting, but it will never output Picasso or Sponge Bob. “Creativity is something which computers will never accomplish.”

Marks and his team applied evolutionary computing to swarm intelligence—the kind of programming that Hölldobler and Wilson say reflects the social insects. They set up a predator-prey scenario with dweebs and bullies. The bullies would chase around and destroy the dweebs and programmed the computer to maximize the lifespan of the dweeb colony.

The result that we got was astonishing and very surprising. What happened was that there was self-sacrifice that the dweebs learned. One dweeb would run around the playground and be chased by the bullies and self-sacrifice himself…They would kill the dweeb and then other dweebs would come out and self-sacrifice themselves. But by using up all of the time in order to survive, the colony of dweebs survived for a very, very long time. Which was exactly what we told it to do.

Once we looked at that we were surprised by the results, but we looked back at the code and said, ‘Yeah, of these thousands and millions of solutions that we proposed, yeah we see how this one gave us the surprise. So surprise can’t be confused with creativity. If the surprise is something within the domain of what the programmer decided to program, then it really isn’t creativity. The program has just found one of those millions of solutions that worked really good possibly in a surprising manner. [xxx]

Marks says that machine “learning” requires millions of examples. By contrast, humans learn from a few examples. Furthermore, once children have learned something they can apply that knowledge to new topics. Machines cannot. As Satya Nedella, CEO of Microsoft, put it, “One of the most coveted human skills is creativity, and this won’t change. Machines will continue to enrich and augment our creativity.” [xxxi]

What about other animals? Dolphins and many other species demonstrate the same self-sacrificing behavior as the dweebs in Marks’ program, and many people see it as evidence of self-awareness. Yet there is plenty of room for skepticism that the animals may only be doing what they were programmed to do.

Another possible sign of creativity is tool use. Yet again, there is room for skepticism, according to Robert Shumaker, biologist and coordinator of the Orang utan Language Project at the National Zoo’s Think Tank. He gives the example of the bolas spider, which is named after the throwing weapon used by South American gauchos. Bolas spiders make a ball from silk and then throw it at prey to catch them.

“When an insect flies by, they throw it and it attaches to the insect because it’s sticky and they reel them in. It’s very complex. Very impressive. Very dramatic. But all available information tells us that it’s completely controlled from this animal’s genetic history.” [xxxii]

Linguist Noam Chomsky, Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says our ability to use words creatively is mired in mystery.

There is interesting work on precepts for language use under particular conditions—notably intent to be informative…but it is not at all clear how far this extends to the normal use of language, and in any event , it does not approach the Cartesian questions of creative use, which remains as much of a mystery now as it did centuries ago, and may turn out to be one of those ultimate secrets that ever will remain in obscurity, impenetrable to human intelligence. [xxxiii]


Now let’s return to the question of authorship. When Hölldobler and Wilson describe social insects behavior, they call it an “emergent” phenomenon. That is to say that evolution did the programming. Similarly, Shumaker says that evolution is what programmed bolas spiders and other species to use tools. Chomsky Likewise presupposes that our linguistic abilities evolved.

What would it mean to say that all these rational explanations evolved? Is that any different from saying that dictionaries evolved or that mathematics evolved? And then we humans are the first known ones to comprehend all these explanations?

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, and the University of Oxford’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008, says that our ability to think and reason creatively is nothing but matter-in-motion inside our skulls. “Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain.” [xxxiv] As with everyone else, he embraces the emergent explanation with reckless abandon, stating it as a presupposition but leaving it to others to flesh out.

Natural selection of selfish genes gave us big brains which were originally useful for survival in a purely utilitarian sense. Once those big brains, with their linguistic and other capacities, were in place, there is no contradiction at all in saying that they took off in wholly new ‘emergent’ directions, including directions opposed to the interests of selfish genes. There is nothing self-contradictory about emergent properties. Electronic computers, conceived as calculating machines, emerge as word processors, chess players, encyclopedias, telephone switchboards, even, I regret to say, electronic horoscopes. No fundamental contradictions are there to ring philosophical alarm bells. Nor in the statement that our brains have overtaken, even overreached, their Darwinian provenance. Just as we defy our selfish genes when we wantonly detach the enjoyment of sex from its Darwinian function, so we can sit down together and with language devise politics, ethics and values which are vigorously anti-Darwinian in their thrust. [xxxv]

Now, speaking of words, Dawkins’ comparison of the emergence of “human thoughts and emotions” with the emergence of computers here is very common, but it is also thoroughly self-contradictory. We easily talk, as Dawkins does, about the evolution of the computer, just as we talk about the evolution of the automobile or the assault rifle or the fajita. But these are all examples of the evolution of design at the hands of rational, creative people. Improvements and developments—such as from calculating machines to telephone switchboards and chess players—“emerge” as a result of the intentional, self-aware, concentrated, competitive mental effort of intelligent designers. However, when biologists use the term evolution, the semantics suddenly shift: rationality, creativity, intentionality, intelligence and design are all explicitly excluded from the emergent process. They are replaced by randomness, chance, and “natural law”. These scientists want to have their intelligently designed cake and eat it, too. “In the case of living machinery,” says Dawkins, “the ‘designer’ is unconscious natural selection, the blind watchmaker.” [xxxvi]

Just stop and consider what this brilliant scientist wants us to simply take for granted. For starters, he wants to take Natural Law for Granted. Now it takes a rational, creative person about ten years of study before they can begin to comprehend such laws, and they are so deep and profound and complex that the brightest minds can spend a lifetime studying them. Yet, according to Dawkins et al, the author, or “designer”, of such laws is just a blind watchmaker.

Next, consider how important the words “randomness” and “chance” are to Dawkins’ explanation. Those words are absolutely essential to comprehending evolutionary theory, yet he just wants to take them for granted. But just consider that these words are only coherent in the context of a dictionary of at least, say, 5000 words, and they only have meaning in a much broader context of non-randomness and order—just like the word three only has meaning in the context of a number line, or just like you can only have the chance of drawing a lucky lottery ticket if there are millions of other people contributing to that lottery within a well-ordered economy. For randomness is the absence of order and chance is the absence of planning, just like cold is the absence of heat.

Yet again, the author of this dictionary, the “designer” of all this order, is a Cosmic Watchmaker who is not only blind but also deaf, mute, and as senseless as a block of wood. And the Naturalists are assuming the authority to discover and reveal to the world who this Cosmic Watchmaker is and to reveal what the words in his dictionary mean, and to reveal what his explanations are for all of existence.

That’s a lot to take for granted. Yet we have seen this many, many times before all throughout human history. It is exactly like those people who assume the authority to take a senseless block of wood, carve it into a mysterious image, plate it with gold, embed it with jewels, set it high on a pedestal, and then declare unto mankind, “Behold your Creator!”

We cannot be the authors of the Author of life.

* Abacus Photo by Crissy Jarvis on Unsplash

[i] “There are three apples on the table and four apples in the refrigerator, so you have seven beautiful, juicy, red delicious apples! How wonderful! Do you want me to make you an apple pie?”

[ii] Michael Egnor, “Neurosurgeon Outlines Why Machines Can’t Think,” (Mind Matters, July 17, 2018) https://mindmatters.ai/2018/07/neurosurgeon-outlines-why-machines-cant-think/

[iii] “Oh, what a beautiful morning!”

[iv] Ray Kurzweil. How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Though Revealed. Ray Kurzweil. (New York: Penguin Books, 2012.) p. 209-210.

[v] Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis (London: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 3.

[vi] Margaret Wertheim, “SCIENTISTS AT WORK: FRANCIS CRICK AND CHRISTOF KOCH,” New York Times, April 13, 2004, https://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/13/science/scientists-work-francis-crick-christof-koch-after-double-helix-unraveling.html.

[vii] Stanislas Dehaene, The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics, Revised and Updated Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 225.

[viii] IBID, 223.

[ix] Stanislas Dehaene, Consciousness and the Brain (New York: Viking, 2014), 14.

[x] Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018), Kindle Locations 3339-3345.

[xi] IBID, 2930-2931.

[xii] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), Kindle Location 3765.

[xiii] Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018), Kindle Location 3414).

[xiv] IBID, 3420-3427.

[xv] Michael S. Gazzaniga, The Consciousness Instinct (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 238.

[xvi] Michael S. A. Graziano, Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019), 85.

[xvii] John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, Rodney R. Cocking, editors, How People Learn (Expanded Edition): Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, fromThe National Research Council Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2000), 89.

[xviii] Susan Svriuga, “Babies understand a fundamental aspect of counting long before they can say numbers out loud, according to researchers,” The Washington Post, October 28, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2019/10/28/children-understand-fundamental-aspect-about-counting-long-before-they-can-say-numbers-out-loud-researcher-says/

[xix] Charles Yang, The Infinite Gift:  How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the World (New York: Scribner, 2006), 22.

[xx] Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 27-28.

[xxi] Eugene Wigner, “Remarks on the Mind-Body Question”, Eugene Wigner, in John Wheeler and Wojciech Hubert Zurek, Quantum Theory and Measurement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 180.

[xxii] Richard Dawkins, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2017) Kindle Locations 786-794.

[xxiii] Thomas Suddendorf, “Inside Our Heads: Two Key Features Created the Human Mind,” Scientific American Special Issue: The Science of Being Human. Sept 2018, volume 319 No 3. (pp. 43-47).

[xxiv] IBID pp. 47

[xxv] Justin Halberda, “Logic in babies: 12-month-olds spontaneously reason using process of elimination.” Science, March 16, 2018. Vol 359 Issue 6381, pp. 1215.

[xxvi] James Gorman, “Wolf Puppies Are Adorable. Then Comes the Call of the Wild.” New York Times, October 13, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/13/science/wolves-dogs-genetics.html

[xxvi] https://evolutionnews.org/2020/03/episode-4-of-secrets-of-the-cell-broken-wolves-and-other-evolutionary-conundrums/

[xxvii] Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson, The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), 58-59.

[xxviii] IBID p. 60.

[xxix] https://mindmatters.ai/podcast/ep61/

[xxx] IBID

[xxxi] https://slate.com/technology/2016/06/microsoft-ceo-satya-nadella-humans-and-a-i-can-work-together-to-solve-societys-challenges.html

[xxxii] https://www.npr.org/2011/12/23/143833929/myth-busting-the-truth-about-animals-and-tools

[xxxiii] Noam Chomsky, What Kind of Creatures Are We (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 128.

[xxxiv] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 34.

[xxxv] Richard Dawkins, Science in the Soul (New York: Random House, 2017), Kindle Locations 636-644.

[xxxvi] Richard Dawkins. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. 1986.

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