Good and Real
In Good and Real, Gary Drescher examines a series of provocative paradoxes about consciousness, choice, ethics, quantum mechanics, and other topics, in an effort to reconcile a purely mechanical view of the universe with key aspects of our subjective impressions of our own existence.
Many scientists suspect that the universe can ultimately be described by a simple (perhaps even deterministic) formalism; all that is real unfolds mechanically according to that formalism. But how, then, is it possible for us to be conscious, or to make genuine choices? And how can there be an ethical dimension to such choices? Drescher sketches computational models of consciousness, choice, and subjunctive reasoning—what would happen if this or that were to occur?—to show how such phenomena are compatible with a mechanical, even deterministic universe. Analyses of Newcomb's Problem (a paradox about choice) and the Prisoner's Dilemma (a paradox about self-interest vs. altruism, arguably reducible to Newcomb's Problem) help bring the problems and proposed solutions into focus. Regarding quantum mechanics, Drescher builds on Everett's relative-state formulation—but presenting a simplified formalism, accessible to laypersons—to argue that, contrary to some popular impressions, quantum mechanics is compatible with an objective, deterministic physical reality, and that there is no special connection between quantum phenomena and consciousness.
In each of several disparate but intertwined topics ranging from physics to ethics, Drescher argues that a missing technical linchpin can make the quest for objectivity seem impossible, until the elusive technical fix is at hand.
About the Author
Gary L. Drescher is an independent scholar and was recently Visiting Fellow at the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He received his Ph.D. in computer science from MIT in 1989 and is the author of Made-Up Minds: A Constructivist Approach to Artificial Intelligence (MIT Press, 1991).
"A breathtakingly original assault on all the Big Issues! When philosophers get stuck in ruts, it often takes a brilliant outsider to jolt them onto new ground, and Gary Drescher, coming to philosophy from AI, offers a startling feast of new ideas. I'm sure some of them are right, but I can't tell which! Can you?"
—Daniel Dennett, author of Brainchildren, Sweet Dreams, and Breaking the Spell
"Gary Drescher thinks that attempts to solve the deep problems that have stumped philosophers since time immemorial—or have caused them to resort to silly answers—have been thwarted largely by a set of relatively simple yet significant misunderstandings in logic and physics. He is right about that, and his careful debunkings and explanations are clear and compelling. He also believes that by avoiding those errors, he has found solutions to the weightiest of those problems—in particular, the true nature of right and wrong and the true nature of subjective sensation and consciousness. Of that, I am not convinced. But in making the attempt, he has provided a valuable and entertaining introduction to rational thinking in a variety of fields."
—David Deutsch, University of Oxford, author of The Fabric of Reality
"In an extraordinary tour de force, Drescher has written a powerful defense of rationalism and of a deterministic universe. He systematically examines and dismantles the arguments against a mechanical view of the universe and the mind. Drescher shows how a computational perspective enables us to solve the long-standing mysteries of the real and the good; how the physical world, consciousness, and free choice arise from deterministic mechanisms; and how the universe and everything (and everyone) in it is essentially a computation. In contrast to a prevailing relativism, Drescher demonstrates that both truth and ethics can be placed on a rational foundation."
—Uri Wilensky, Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems, Northwestern University, and author of the NetLogo multiagent modeling environment