An Open Letter to Stefan Molyneux Concerning his Theory of Mind

Subject: An Open Letter to Stefan Molyneux Concerning his Theory of Mind
From: Jordan Miller
Date: 1 Apr 2015

Chapter 1: Discovery

You brought this on yourself.

Had you refrained from broadcasting logical frameworks and philosophical arguments I never would have learned how to think. I’d still be stuck in the arrogant quandary of religiosity; the sleepless slumber of mind.

It was you that pulled me out, I employed your methods of thinking and by the light of skepticism discerned my way out of the labyrinth I had once explored and loved so dearly.

For I had loved my religion, my supposed super reality that sat atop all that I could see as something my mind, but not my eyes could comprehend.

My mind, my imaginative faculties combined with what I knew of logic were put to the task of writing a book; an essay, and a second; a novel, both to this end: to extol the virtues of and explicate the internal logical coherence of the Mormon model of reality.

Internal coherence is one thing, if it exists at all. But it is not enough as I grew to learn. You taught me that.

And so after having put my logical and imaginative faculties to work exploring one un-worldview, having explored it to its fundamental assertions and having found it lacking I turned their attention to the most evidenced-based, coherent and connected understanding of the world I could find. I started thinking for myself.

Your words were powerful. They taught me so much; indeed without them I would be unable to produce the caliber of criticism forthcoming.

Putting only the tools of thought and examination - which I have in part or in full acquired at your expense - to work on your own prodigious arguments and assertions concerning just one topic I now present to you a flaw in your thinking.

Chapter 2: The Heavens are Circle

This flaw is fundamental, reaching up from the assumption upon which your theory of mind rests to corrupt all that is built atop the fundamental assumption. And in mainly two ways.

The fundamental incorrect assumption produces two fallacies:

Free will is fundamental. You believe that the human conscious mind is endowed, by its very nature, to something you call but scarcely define “free will.” It seems to mean to your mind that the actions performed by the individual are freely chosen independent of the causes that produced it.
Ethics are dependent on this notion of free will, and only this free will in order to be worthy of the their name.

The heavens don’t require perfect circles to exist, and believing they do creates quite the difficult situation. Innumerable questions and infinite complexity is required to make the data fit the paradigm. The assumption needs to be changed, the belief forsaken.

In your case the fundamental assumption that must be challenged is not that the heavens are circle, it is not even that free will is real. The assumption upon which your theory of mind rests and is the source of its corruption is the assertion that human consciousness is outside the comprehension of the human mind, that is to say that it is beyond mechanical, beyond the realm of cause and effect.

Now, undoubtedly you’ll deny this as you should. But you’ll deny it in word only. Its dastardly effects in your theory of are still present as evidence that the belief is not forsaken. Must I provide evidence to this end? I will regardless.

Chapter 3: Evidence

Someone once asked you where consciousness comes from. I remember this because I too found this question quite compelling at the time. You replied that consciousness, that is to say subjective experience arises from the brain. You may have even said it is an emergent property of its connectivity.

This was to me a surprise. I had naturally assumed because of your resolved determination to defend free will that you must not believe the conscious phenomenon to arise from matter or be a mechanical process.

I listened on and realized how you came to resolve this issue and dispel the ensuing cognitive dissonance: simply make human thought sacred, untouchable, beyond the realm of understanding.

You may have done this subconsciously; I intimate no direct effort for self or other-directed deception. Let me show you some examples and you can judge for yourself.

In our latest discussion I equated the term ‘ought to’ to ‘will,’ a mistake...somehow.

Jordan: “So um, what ought to be is an expression of will, right?”

Stefan: “Oh I don’t know I think will is a bit too dilute, you’ve always got to say to yourself, can an ocelot do it? the ocelot wills things right? I mean tries to catch the mice the mouse tries to escape and so you gotta be careful with things that can go to non-humans because ethics only applies to people right? So will is foundational to just about all living creatures I believe.” (Getting Trolled by Socrates, 55:30)

It seems that somehow in your estimation ought to goes beyond the expression of will though you fall short of explaining how or why.

I put it to your mind, which is more likely: that the aforementioned animal mind exhibits a difference in degree or in kind? I find a difference in kind to be highly unlikely, though it seems to be your assumption. The human mind is a unique little snowflake so magical that it can create a universal ought without the use of a will or preference.

Ethics does not in your mind scale up with the level of intelligence an organism has. To you it is not a continuum. Why? It seems to me that for it not to be a continuum in any way you must assert the human mind is fundamentally a different kind of intelligence than the animal mind, rather than a difference in degree as it most obviously is.

If ought to be is not an expression of will perhaps you can enlighten me as to what the term actually means. This is precisely the kind of flaws that an over respect for the uniqueness of the human mind would produce on the surface of one’s worldview.

Speaking of artificial intelligence you said, “But that’s not thinking, right? That’s simply data matching. That’s just pattern recognition, now I’m not saying it’s easy or anything like that but that’s not the same as thinking.” (Will Artificial Intelligence Kill Us All? 16:30)

Pray tell, what could thinking be other than pattern recognition and data processing? This podcast shows your bias towards the human mind as inexplicable from another angle. You seemed to hold the position that computers can’t think and probably never will. Either way you seemed uneasy entertaining the notion, possibly, I would posit, because it has some forceful challenges to your thoughts on the uniqueness of human thought.

Taken together, these and many other pieces of evidence combine to produce a view of the human mind that is unreproducible in machines, and fundamentally different than the mind of animals.

You suffer from the same habit of thinking or rather, unthinknig as those that asserted the Ptolemaic system, namely that something is in your estimation special, unseen and sacred.

Their heaven was perfect and required perfect circles. In your estimation the mind is either perfectly situated between all perfectly balanced opposing forces, allowing for free will or it is simply beyond those forces, inhabiting a higher plane of existence. How else could the mind be exempt from the crude and earthly rule of cause and effect?

In short your view of the mind is, without admitting it to be so, entirely superstitious - a kind of sanctity surrounds it. Nothing can approach it in kind; the only body in the universe that does not precess.

And all to what end? To preserve the sanctity of free will.

Chapter 4: Inexorably

At this point the author is considering the possibility that you have not yet fully comprehended the progression of these ideas.

Perhaps you see an assertion for free will to be entirely unrelated to your conception of the form and function of conscious, subjective experience.

Indeed one must be built upon the other. A theory of how the mind arises from matter must of necessity inform one’s belief in free will and define its meaning. Unfortunately for you any theory of mind arising from matter must of necessity negate your supposed free will for matter’s behavior is entirely determined.

You may believe that because consciousness is an emergent property of the brain that it can break the bands of cause and effect and fly free of the bonds of determinism as though it was made of some ethereal substance. However, a moment's contemplation will undoubtedly prove to the reader that though emergent systems can produce unanticipated results, breaking the laws of physics is not yet known to be one of them.

I may very well use this observation as further evidence that you have either never contemplated the boundaries of emergent systems or subconsciously assume the contradiction away.

Let us turn our attention from free will, ‘the result’ to free will, ‘the source’. You have already shown your hand on the topic free will and how it relates to ethics.

Your words were, “If neuroscience disproves free will… then ethics as a discipline would be dead. There would be no conceivable thing as ethics if free will is disproven.” (Getting Trolled By Socrates 1:03:40)

As I have above stated, your definition of free will must be assumed as you have never defined it in scientific terms, merely in circular ones.

Your statement can mean only one of two things, were we to look at what underlying assumptions may have produced it:

Either the human mind isn’t able to be understood causally, (which may be the case, however ridiculous) or we may deduce that your foundational beliefs about the human mind are incompatible with a scientific worldview. Which case do you find more rational; a magic brain or a belief in magic?

Though you say the mind arises from the brain I have provided thorough evidence that you must not actually believe that which you pronounce. Given the abundance of beliefs you hold that counter the statement I am left no free choice but to go with the evidence.

Any theory of mind has no choice but to have some effect on the definition of “free will” and any matter based theory of mind must negate it or redefine it as simply the subjective experience of desire.

Building an ethical theory entirely on the elusive free will must inexorably fade to black.

Chapter 5: Paradigm Shift

The self-evident fact is that we are indeed conscious. The logical fact is that our actions can arise from no other place than the brain and must be subject to the law of cause and effect.

What then is subjective experience? I put it to you: What does it mean to be conscious in a fully mechanical world? Does it mean that pain and pleasure are mere illusions? Certainly it does not, for what is more real than what one can feel? Does it mean nihilism is inevitable? Does it mean producing a philosophy, nay; a science of ethics is doomed to failure?

If your answers to those questions align with the affirmative then you can know one thing for certain - your paradigm is incompatible with a scientific worldview and is therefore superstitious.

The paradigm needs to change.

Your definition of mind needs to change. Let’s look at what the world might look like were this to happen.

Firstly conscious experience, must be produced wholly by the brain and though seemingly artificial when compared to an immortal sole as the center of consciousness this model takes nothing away from the very real experience of pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow and every emotion in between.

Taken in this light our conception of free will must change. Free will, if it means anything at all must refer to one’s subjective experience of their desire being uninhibited by processes that their conscious mind is not directly aware of and does not identify with. It must be a subjective experience of freedom of will nothing more. Far from requiring the receding self to be a paradoxical first cause of our free will this definition actually rejects the possibility.

Ethics stops being about making the “right” choices from a unknowable sea of free will. The science of ethics instead might determine the best course of action based on two things: what diminishes pain in the experience of all conscious entities, self and others included, and the minimal set of universal rules that provide the most sustainable and pleasurable outcome.

There is no such thing as universally preferable behavior unless and until all conscious entities - that is to say entities that can by definition have a preference - are consulted as to all their preferred behaviors in every situation: an impossible task indeed.

Allow me to elaborate on the ethics front.

By changing the definition of ethics from relying on free will to a logical framework you drop the superstition about the sanctity and uniqueness of the human mind while keeping a universal framework (possibly upb) as valid and functional.

For example consider the following definition of ethics: the minimalist set of universal rules or restrictions to allow a system of conscious, willful individuals to create a healthy system. Sound familiar? Bitcoin has a minimalist set of rules that all participants must comply with in order to produce a healthy system of bitcoin miners and users.

A healthy system by definition must produce a sustainable environment for all individual actors in it to thrive so long as they fit into the environment.

These thoughts on alternative ethics are not fully formed ethical frameworks. These thoughts are presented merely to dissuade you against the nihilism of a dying paradigm.

Chapter 6: Exhortation

Neuroscience will find a causal link between occurrences in the brain and subjective experience. Pain and pleasure will be and in part have been decoded. The mechanisms by which we attribute behaviors to have occurred as a result of desire and attention, (whether or not they actually have) will be delineated.

Already one of the neuroanatomical algorithms of the neocortex has been derived allowing us to begin to build artificially intelligent machines able to detect patterns and make sense of data in the same way our own neocortex does (see numenta). This is happening already.

Eventually the conscious phenomenon itself will be decrypted and with it our subjective experiences will be reinterpreted with the added light and benefit of a causal view. So long as science progresses this must be the case that our minds will be understood unless our conscious experience is due to an immaterial substance as you seem to and as the religious expressly suppose.

What we now call “free will” will have nowhere to hide in an entirely caused world; its mystical origins will vanish along with all the philosophies and theories that free will implied.

My dear friend you said it better than I ever could, “If science advances to the point where every operation of human consciousness is known and predicted in advance then ethics will be revealed as a superstition very much akin to a religion that relied upon a lack of knowledge and a projection of a desired state on that very ignorance.” (Getting Trolled by Socrates 1:04:50)

You’re right if you narrowly define ethics as such only if it is dependent on a superstitious interpretation of the term, “free will.” When free will is disproven ethics, itself, will not be dead; your ethics will be dead.

If you don’t build your ethical theory on a surer foundation than free will derived from an anti-empirical mind it won’t stand the test of time or the test of knowledge.

This is not a fate you or your work deserves.

Asserting that ethical philosophy must be built solely or fundamentally on the supposed reality of free will in order to be worthy of the name is to assert nihilism when free will is ultimately proved as no more than an illusion. All is lost and nothing is to be done about it, right? One would hope not.

By asserting that free will is the foundation or perhaps just the keystone to any valid ethical framework is to ignore the very real experience of emotions. Rocks cannot be blamed for rolling down a hill, but rocks also show no evidence of having subjective experience. Besides all that, is blame such a valuable thing that it must be included in our ethical philosophy?

Planting ethics purely on a notion of free will seems to me to be disregarding the subjective experience side of the equation as if it’s an irrelevant illusion. To me my subjective experience is indeed the only thing in the universe I know exists for certain, it is in my estimation the most real thing there is.

Should emotions of happiness or sorrow play no part in the question of what is to be done with or around other people, the question of what is ethical?

You yourself have spent years introducing a level of causal understanding of the human psyche to your listeners. You’ve been fighting for people to understand cause and effect as it relates to their relationships.

For example you’ve often helped people understand that their natural responses to tough questions are actually a second nature - responses bread into them by perhaps their parents reactions to such tough questions in their past. You’ve helped them recognize when they’re projecting other people into the conversation, sometimes other people that are long dead.

You have not diminished the conversation by pointing out the psychology involved in this interaction, on the contrary; you’ve improved it. By pointing out the causal link between trauma and internal feelings and external responses you’ve improved your listeners’ ability to relate to themselves and others. You may see it as giving your listeners more ability to have free will but that doesn’t make any sense. What you’ve done is effected their brain and improved their subjective experience. By having an effect, you improve lives. Free will didn’t do shit.

Why must you assume that the sky would fall if people stopped believing in free will?

I myself have written a book defending free will - when I was religious. And it certainly makes for an internally coherent view of the world. But internal coherence is not enough. You taught me that.

My I exhort you, sincerely and honestly to take a wholly scientific view of the mind and build an ethical framework on top of that.

If this letter has discovered to you the fallacious underlying assumption upon which your theory of mind and therefore your philosophy of ethics sits, if it has produced within you even an inkling of curiosity as to your own emotional attachment to the poorly defined idea of “free will,” or if this letter just - perhaps at a time far hence after your emotional responses have run their course - serves to impress upon your mind a sense of urgency to reconsider these matters or to consider them for the first time, it will have accomplished its goal aimed at by

your servant; most humble, obedient, and correct,

Jordan Miller