Posted by: Ticktock | August 23, 2009

Dr. Ludden on Thermostats and Dawkins

Are thermostats conscious?

The question posed by Dr. David Ludden during his presentation to the Louisville Area Skeptics seems absurd. Thermostats are not even forms of life, and the way I define “consciousness” is a life form’s ability to interpret an awareness of one’s self and one’s environment. Indeed, Merriam-Webster describes consciousness, under the context of which we were discussing it, as the “upper level of mental life” and being “aware of something within one’s self”.

Dr. Ludden took the opportunity as the leader of the discussion to redefine “consciousness” as a spectrum of ability to interpret stimuli in the environment. He included fruit flies at the bottom of the spectrum, and as a thought experiment, he also included thermostats at the bottom.

By the end, Ludden had more than a few of us convinced that a thermostat could be considered conscious, simply because he changed the meaning of the term to manufacture a checkmate for his philosophical argument.

But, I would still argue that the only thing that was proved was that a thermostat has qualities that are similar to consciousness. A digital camera has the ability to focus on a source, interpret the light coming through the lens, and translate those signals into an image, but the fact that it is eye-like does not make it an eye. If we allow all words to fall under a spectrum, then planes would be birds, trees would be lungs, and light bulbs would be stars. OK, well maybe I went too far down the slippery slope, but you get the idea.

Do I believe that fruit flies are conscious? No, I don’t. I believe they are unconscious, meaning they are unaware of themselves. What about dogs and chimpanzees? Perhaps they have a lower form of consciousness, but that is an argument that merits further discussion.

Dr. Ludden also redefined “belief” as a personal conviction so strong that it can’t be changed, which defies logic and observable evidence. Ludden twisted the predisposition of skeptics who like atheist books as proof that even skeptical minds can’t be changed, ignoring that we each have individual and complex thoughts about such books. He explained away conversions from belief to doubt as people predisposed to disbelief being gently nudged in the direction in which they were trending. This seems to be a brand of confirmation bias within Ludden’s own realm of personal experience. Certainly, converts to atheism such as Dan Barker, a former fundamentalist, would disagree that they were gently nudged as they were teetering on the precipice of disbelief.

Dr. Ludden described Richard Dawkins as a “jerk” when we spoke after his presentation. He claimed that Dawkins is just as stubbornly evangelical as the most fundamentalist of preachers. I think that Ludden’s assertions about Dawkins were way off the mark, and he failed to back them up with examples other than quote mining one sentence from Dawkin’s book.

It seems that Ludden would prefer that skeptics, such as himself, be tepidly neutral toward belief. What about muslims who believe that infidel Americans must be destroyed? What if our government believed that hurricanes were an act of god and not worth preventing? What about the fringe group of mormons who believe that they can wed young teens to adults? Should those beliefs be respected as well? Should we ignore dangerous and unethical beliefs to avoid being labeled as “jerks”?

I see Dawkins as a skeptic, and that means to me that he is an advocate for science. Ludden believes that Dawkins will never shift the opinions of devout believers, but he is demonstrably wrong. Dawkins has received several legitimate conversion letters from former fundamentalists.

In Dr. Ludden’s distortion of “new atheism”, he ignored the middle ground of people who have spent their lives going to church without thinking about it. In that pool of individuals, one can find hope that humanity can become more balanced in the direction of science and reason. And without the best selling works of the “new atheists”, there would be many more passive believers unenlightened to the flaws of believing in a literal interpretation of the bible.

If beliefs were impossible to change then what am I doing bothering to be an advocate for science? What’s the point of being a skeptic?

That being said, I say, with total sincerity, thank you to Dr. Ludden for encouraging us to think, for teaching us new things, and for challenging our beliefs.




  1. I discussed Dr. Ludden’s program at length that night with Laurie T., and also the next day with my brother, who was also in attendance at the LAS meetup. It was definitely a thought provoking discussion.

    I guess you could take it that the “stimulus/response” comparison of a fruit fly and a thermostat was a bit of a straw man (straw fly?) argument. He set up his own conditions, got us to nod agreeably, and then pulled the rug out.

    But it reminded me of a wonderful discussion in 9th grade biology class. Mr. Samson asked us what made something alive. If I’m remembering this correctly, we had five criteria: it had to eat, excrete, breathe, grow, and reproduce.

    (Actually, there might have been more criteria)

    Then Mr. Samson dropped the concept of FIRE on us. Fire eats the materials it combusts, it excretes ash, it breathes air, it definitely grows, and it can reproduce into smaller fires. So it met all of our criteria.

    But we all agree that fire is not alive.

    The point Mr. Samson made was that it’s not so simple to define what it is to be alive. It’s something we recognize when we see it, but it’s tough to pin down a definition. And by the same token, Dr. Ludden was trying to make us feel the same way about consciousness, that it’s a difficult concept to define.

    So what defines consciousness if stimulus/response is not enough?

  2. The thermostat example is an old one brought up by functionalist philosophers of mind. The functionalist maintains that the mind is a duplicable array of processes, whose special property of consciousness is not based on the matter it is made out of, but on the organization of the parts: so long as the same transformations occur between input and output layers in the system the systems are functionally identical. If one system, called conscious, is functionally identical to another then they attribute consciousness to that one too.

    Mostly they are reductionists about consciousness though: it’s not that the thermostat is conscious; it’s that we aren’t what we think we are.

    Innovations along this line of thought are Computationalism (Jerry Fodor) which picks out symbol manipulation as the key element of consciousness even in functionally equivalent systems: if one gets a result through symbol manipulation it is something that a non-symbol-manipulating systemt that produces the same outputs is. This would be non-deflationary, preserving our common sense intuitions about who and what gets to be called conscious.

    A more radical result comes from the eliminative materialists/connectionists (Paul and Patricia Churchland) who just deny that there is anything emergent from the neural network that can be called consciousness: all that exists is the network and its states, and common folk psychological terms like “feeling” or “thought” and “belief” do not genuinely pick out brain states, but are instead misleading shorthand terms that result in the common belief in consciousness.

    Functionalism, in short, is long dead, but it lives on in two radically different descendants: Computationalism and Connectionism. And if you ask most philosophers of mind they’d be more likely to cite Fodor than Churchland.

    For even more messed up discussions see David Chalmers and the zombie counterfactuals about consciousness.

    • Thanks BPD! That was awesome!

  3. […] Colin (aka Ticktock) at Science-Based Parenting points out that this definition of consciousness diverges from the dictionary definition of the word, and I see his/her problems with it. But I think we can reconcile Ludden’s definition to some extent with the actual definition. If we take the definition “the quality or state of being aware, especially of something within oneself,” we can put Ludden’s minimal consciousness at “the state of being aware” and the higher levels of consciousness being defined as to what extent the object is aware. That is, a thermostat, like a fruit fly, is aware of external stimuli (temperature or hunger) and reacts according to hardwired instructions. The fruit fly has more variables to deal with, but a computer program could likely produce behavior indistinguishable from that of a fruit fly. […]

  4. I actually think the issue of consciousness, while something that we spent a long time on that evening, was aside from Ludden’s main point. I just wrote up my thoughts on it over at my blog, but to sum up, I kind of feel like his main point was lost in the discussion that we ended up having, which is a risk you run in open-floor discussions like this one. Hopefully next time I’ll get a chance to introduce myself to some of you guys. Seems like the start of a good group.

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