Schoolyard bullies and other holiday myths
I'm spending too much time in comments at other sites, such as Salon. The latest is a perfectly reasonable post which calls American Atheists to task because they're making atheists look like assholes. The author has his bona fides in the area; he's the author of both Crucifying America and God Hates You, Hate Him Back (his idiosyncratic reading of certain portions of the Scriptures). But the comments are uniformly negative, 99% trotting out the favorite trope of those who know precious little about rhetoric or logical fallacies (which I still contend is an oxymoron, but that's my lonely battle): that the author has created a straw man.
Sure: because atheists couldn't possibly be doing anything to offend anybody, and really aren't interested in actually providing any kind of material benefit to humanity. Apparently.
Anyway it's depressing to see such supposedly reasonable people be so unreasonable. The knee jerk reaction to criticism of any kind is typical of internet commentary. I'm sure believers can be as reactionary as atheists, so we all stand under indictment. Or something. Anyway, it leads me to mention it (!) and to clear out the mental attic of other barely related matters in one fell post.
Remember when you were a product of your childhood traumas you couldn't remember, caused by unresolved sexual desires?
Ah, those were the days....
Graham Lawton: You compare revelations in neuroscience with the discoveries that the Earth goes around the sun and that the heart is a pump. What do you think these ideas have in common?
Patricia Churchland: They challenge a whole framework of assumptions about the way things are. For Christians, it was very important that the Earth was at the center of the universe. Similarly, many people believed that the heart was somehow what made us human. And it turned out it was just a pump made of meat.
I think the same is true about realizing that when we're conscious, when we make decisions, when we go to sleep, when we get angry, when we're fearful, these are just functions of the physical brain. Coming to terms with the neural basis of who we are can be very unnerving. It has been called "neuroexistentialism," which really captures the essence of it. We're not in the habit of thinking about ourselves that way.
"Neurophilosopher" Patricia Churchland makes me long for the days of Sigmund Freud, who at least knew Electra from Oedipus. "For Christians, it was very important that the Earth was the center of the universe"? When? Does she mean the political fight to suppress Galileo because the Church wanted to maintain its hegemony on knowledge (another example of a blessing becoming a curse; the monasteries preserved knowledge and even disseminated it; Aquinas felt obliged to absorb Aristotle into Catholic theology, not disregard him as an errant pagan)? Or is she referring to the schoolbook version of history, similar to taking "Inherit the Wind" as a documentary? But wait, as they say, it gets worse: "Similarly, many people believed that the heart was somehow what made us human." Well, the Greeks thought it was the liver, so who wins? And yes, people thought the heart made us human; most people still do, though they don't mean the muscle in your chest that does make you animate. I'm not sure realizing the heart was a metaphor as well as a muscle was a revolutionary moment.
But I suppose if you're going to make a reductio argument, you have to be consistent.
I think the same is true about realizing that when we're conscious, when we make decisions, when we go to sleep, when we get angry, when we're fearful, these are just functions of the physical brain.
Just as Sigmund Freud said, on a scientific basis, that we are all driven by sexual impulses, and the problem is we don't want to recognize that.
Freud's example is instructive here. It's not that Churchland is wrong, so much as she makes no attempt to prove she's right. Human beings as basically sexual creatures, an idea we accept today as we accept that we are mammals and walk upright, was the New Big Idea in late 19th century Vienna. Being the New Big Idea it was obviously finally the Answer to What It Means to be Human, and so it had to be right.
And now, 100 years later, it's neurology, and Freud has been consigned to the dustbin of history (even as we all speak of our "egos" and our "unconscious"). The more things change.....
Unsurprisingly, for Churchland at least, this is all a matter of replacing one set of nonsensical ideas with another set:
GL: Are there any implications of neuroscience that you feel unsettled by?
PC: I'd have to say no. It takes some getting used to, but I'm not freaked out by it. I certainly understand the ambivalence people have. On one hand, they're fascinated because it helps explain their mother's Alzheimer's, but on the other, they think, “Gosh, the love that I feel for my child is really just neural chemistry?” Well, actually, yes, it is. But that doesn't bother me.
I'm not sure what "useless and meaningless sacrifices" she's talking about there. Maybe it's just her addled brain chemistry. But as a Christian I'm not preparing my life for the "great beyond" based on a lot of "metaphysical junk." I know of people who are; but I'm able to not think like them without throwing the baby out with the bathwater; or jumping to absurd conclusions that I really am just a walking test tube of chemical reactions. And, in fact, that "metaphysical junk" I do ascribe to is precisely what allows me to see my connection to other biological things. And the only sacrifices I'm interested in are giving up those things that keep me from being a compassionate human being who recognizes in others their humanity , which I do through Christ who makes all things new in me.
By and large I find neuroscience liberating because it allows us to see our connections to other biological things, and because it's not full of metaphysical junk about preparing your life for the great beyond. Of course it's possible we're wrong. But it doesn't seem very likely, and that lack of likelihood is sufficient for me to not want to organize my life around this possibility. I want to enjoy it now. I don't want to make useless and meaningless sacrifices, and I don't want to trash this planet because I think a better one awaits me.
So maybe we're coming at this from simply different magisteria, Stephen Jay Gould? Or maybe once again we see that the idea of such magisteria is neither a solution, nor really descriptive of anything?
GL: You accept that we don't have satisfying neural explanations for a lot of higher functions, including consciousness, problem-solving, decision-making, sleep, and dreaming. Are we really ready to declare that we are our brains?
PC: True, we don't have adequate explanations yet, and it's important not to overstate where things are. But that's where the evidence is pointing. Everything we're learning in neuroscience points us in that direction.
Once it was sex. Then it was existence (Fromm). Soon it will be our brains. Which may explain the popular idea of what zombies want to eat. But so long as it's important not to overstate where things are, we can still say that you are simply your brain chemistry, and absolutely nothing more. That idea that your love your kids is just your neurotransmitters firing.
You're welcome. I'm sure you feel very liberated now.
And it always comes back to the derp:
GL: Some might say the idea that you are just your brain makes life bleak, unforgiving and ultimately futile. How do you respond to that?Fair enough, but everything she just described is apparently just a process of brain chemistry; and yet she finds that meaningful. How does that work exactly? Especially if one day, through war or sickness or calamity or economic failure or just aging you lose the family, the meaningful work, the dogs, the garden? If that stops making life meaningful, or if her brain chemistry just tells her that's no longer good enough, then what?
PC: It's not at all bleak. I don't see how the existence of a god or a soul confers any meaning on my life. How does that work, exactly? Nobody has ever given an adequate answer. My life is meaningful because I have family, meaningful work, because I love to play, I have dogs, I love to dig in the garden. That's what makes my life meaningful, and I think that's true for most people.
Is that all there is?
The scientific revolution of the 17th century, which has given rise to such extraordinary progress in the understanding of nature, depended on a crucial limiting step at the start: It depended on subtracting from the physical world as an object of study everything mental – consciousness, meaning, intention or purpose.
Now one immediately identifies in all evolutionary based arguments the initial exclusion of purpose. Purpose is the nature of theism, the argument goes, and therefore is antithetical to the scientific enterprise, especially where biology is concerned.
But that leads to problems:
The physical sciences can describe organisms like ourselves as parts of the objective spatio-temporal order – our structure and behavior in space and time – but they cannot describe the subjective experiences of such organisms or how the world appears to their different particular points of view. There can be a purely physical description of the neurophysiological processes that give rise to an experience, and also of the physical behavior that is typically associated with it, but such a description, however complete, will leave out the subjective essence of the experience – how it is from the point of view of its subject — without which it would not be a conscious experience at all.
This may actually be irresoluble. Empiricism, upon which science is based as a structure of reasoning, lead the greatest of the English empiricists, David Hume, to the conclusion that consciousness is an illusion; the result of sensory impressions mingling in the brain. Hume, however, could not identify a "self" in the brain (a ghost in the machine, if you will) observing and making sense of this data, so he concluded the notion that someone must be doing so was an illusion created by the very inputs themselves.
And you can't find something that can't possibly exist.
Nagel comes to a different conclusion:
This means that the scientific outlook, if it aspires to a more complete understanding of nature, must expand to include theories capable of explaining the appearance in the universe of mental phenomena and the subjective points of view in which they occur – theories of a different type from any we have seen so far.
There are two ways of resisting this conclusion, each of which has two versions. The first way is to deny that the mental is an irreducible aspect of reality, either (a) by holding that the mental can be identified with some aspect of the physical, such as patterns of behavior or patterns of neural activity, or (b) by denying that the mental is part of reality at all, being some kind of illusion (but then, illusion to whom?). The second way is to deny that the mental requires a scientific explanation through some new conception of the natural order, because either (c) we can regard it as a mere fluke or accident, an unexplained extra property of certain physical organisms – or else (d) we can believe that it has an explanation, but one that belongs not to science but to theology, in other words that mind has been added to the physical world in the course of evolution by divine intervention.
(a) is basically the conclusion of neurophilosophers like Churchland. (b) is Hume's conclusion, and Nagel has the same problem with it I have. If the brain (in a modern metaphor) is a series of TV screens (think of Neo's encounter with the Architect in the second Matrix movie) receiving information through the senses, are the screens watching each other?
So must mind be an addition to the physical world, the "ghost in the machine"? No need to leap to that conclusion; but if you are going to deny (a), (b), and (c), you're going to have to go back to Hume and find a new beginning point.
And frankly, the Continental philosophers have been working on this one for about 150 years now.
One last bit, since it is tangentially related. Brian Appleyard relates the following anecdote:
In the early 1990s I was engaged in a debate with Dawkins at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He said, to much applause, that the existence of God was a scientific issue. If, in effect, God could not live up to the standards of scientific proof, then He must be declared dead.Existence is a scientific issue? Really? Can Dawkins define the parameters of existence? Can he give it a precise definition, the way we can define an angstrom or a light year or a gram, or a "selfish" gene, for that matter? Can he give the empirical principles that support it? Can he give us a scientific explanation of being? Can he prove, with science, his own existence? Or can he do no more than establish his identity, based on his works and the fact everyone associates that face, body, and voice, with that name, so that by convention we agree he is "Richard Dawkins"? Then again, what does that mean?
Can he establish his own existence? It would be quite a hat trick.
These issues have been dissected and examined for the past century and a half by people ranging from Kierkegaard to Wittgenstein to Sartre to Heidegger to Levinas to Derrida. These ideas may make your brain cramp, or agree with Wittgenstein that they are language games and confusions arising from misunderstanding the way to play; but the questions are legitimate nonetheless.
I honestly think that Dawkins, once again, simply doesn't know what he's talking about, and he's too ignorant to realize just how ignorant he is.
Those who cannot learn from philosophy are doomed to look like prattling children in the schoolyard.