November 12, 2014

Roundabout II


The best thing the Chinese government is doing is not cracking down on Christianity. Cracking down would tie Christianity to the struggle for freedom from state repression and thereby ennoble it, make it modern and "enlightened," and encourage its growth. Letting Christianity run its course should lead to its eventual fall from its tendency toward decadence and corruption and its vulnerability to a science-driven decrease in "gaps" for God to fill. Then it would be replaced by atheism as is happening in Europe. Or, it will morph into evangelical science and reason denialism and somehow be usurped by conservative politicians as we have seen happen in the US, for now but hopefully not forever. Enlightenment science, reason, and humanitarianism may be slow to spread and take root but they are proving to be highly potent in the long term. Let's hope the long term is long enough.


This interview, especially the book How America Failed it focuses on, presents a serious challenge to freethinking humanism as received from the Enlightenment. Science, reason, and humanitarianism may, repeat may, be succeeding globally in the long term but they are clearly failing in the US. What, if anything, can be done when the best ideas and methods Western civilization has produced for governance and social life are willingly and knowingly rejected by the majority in the most powerful, wealthiest, and most highly "educated" country in history? I tend to agree with the book's author, Morris Berman. Nothing. We're screwed. The blind thundering herd of selfish greedy individuals is taking us all over the cliff and into the abyss. Not so, you say?  Please explain.


What the self-person-soul is in a material sense is an important subject for science. That it is an "illusion created by the brain" does not warrant declaring it useless and relegating it to a dead-end dustbin of woo. The brain creates it for practical purposes to allow us to integrate and make manageable and useful the complex amalgam of images, consciousness, and memory of our experience. It also has value in representing us in and connecting us to our world of others - past and present, locally and globally. It is a very useful, necessary, and real part of each of our lives. It is no mere illusion that is misleading us about what and who we "really" are. It is the most basic entity of our personal, social, cultural, historical, and evolved humanity. Discounting or discarding it reduces us to protoplasmic meat sans meaning, purpose, and humanness.

Below is a very good essay with good links within the text. The use and abuse of the self-person-soul in society and history is a great discussion topic. Here's an excerpt:

"Let me pause here to note that while I side with Sam Harris on matters of spirituality and find the notion of the eternal “soul” somewhat problematic as a delusory salve for our chronic dread of our own impermanence, I side most of all with Carl Sagan, who wrote in history’s most lucid treatise on science and spirituality: “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.

"The point, of course, is that the mystery of what we call the “soul” — the stuff of Hannah Arendt’s elegant case for “unanswerable questions” — need not be resolved in order for the concept itself to be a useful one in advancing our understanding of and compassion for ourselves, right here and right now, in this blink of cosmic time that is our existence."


Happy to see Patricia Churchland, a Canadian neurophilosopher (her term for a neuroscientist and philosopher) many describe as a strong materialist, post this cautionary article criticizing exaggerated and premature claims about neuroscience findings and their potential applications. I'm reading her latest book Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves which is a very good balance of objective descriptions of neuroscientific results, advocacy for pluralistic and multi-level analytics, and admonishment against exaggerated and premature neuroscientific claims and journalistic reporting. Her public-targeted book and the cautionary article below are examples of good descriptive science and are good for science. I recommend her book.


If this judgment holds up, humanist orgs should logically expect tax exemptions akin to what religious orgs and churches get, no?


This essay makes me rethink much of the fundamental knowledge scientists have developed about biological life. There's much more to it at the quantum level - from the molecular, to the mind, to the evolutionary - that we know very little about. The scientific study of such is promising and encouraging.

A deep, detailed understanding of the quantum aspects of physics, chemistry, and biology, if one is every developed, will be revolutionary, to say the least. Such a thorough knowledge could answer most if not all our questions about matter and behavior in a unifying way that could leave us with little else to study. Or, the pursuit of such unifying knowledge could reveal the futility of our efforts to develop a complete, absolute understanding of the universe.

Given our cultural evolutionary history, we are certain to try and find out which it is. Imaging our humanity from that point onward, in either direction, I tend to want us to succeed in creating that deep knowledge and am hopeful we will be humane in our use of it. On the other hand, failure to develop such deep, unifying knowledge would not surprise me nor would a humane response to it. How we accommodate such ultimate knowledge or dead-end ignorance will surely redefine who we think we are and what our fate will be.


Of all the scientific and philosophical positions on free will and determinism I've come across, Daniel Dennett's view that a certain specifically defined free will is compatible with determinism remains most persuasive to me.

If it became a FF discussion topic notions of "free," "will," and "determinism" would have to first be clarified in a way to account for the range of definitions they have been given in the free will/determinism "dispute" context.  Notions of "self," "person," "mind," "consciousness," "context," and "illusion," plus perhaps a very few other terms, would also need a similar treatment. Then, I suspect, the discussants could arrange the various claims of whether we have free will or not on a a continuum from yes to no, based on how our terms of reference are defined. The discussants could then choose (freely?) which argument(s) they think best represent the human condition in nature, past and present. 

I am very doubtful that an absolute truth would emerge from this approach, that is, a settling of the matter once and for all. But it would provide a more accurate, "it depends," understanding of the issue and the scientific and philosophical arguments on each side. This would be preferable to the current dividing up into two camps, yes versus no, and stubbornly (me being among the most stubborn) arguing past each other using different terms of reference.

It would also provide the discussants with modest but effective understandings for evaluating new strident neuroscientific and journalistic pronouncements, and new dismissive or supportive philosophical arguments on both sides of the issue.

Looking for, through dividing up the leadership of the various sessions of the discussion, and perhaps arriving at an outline of such a provisional, conditional truth about the issue might be fun.

Discussing Alfred Mele's new book reviewed in the link below by Dennett (Mele's Templeton affiliation acknowledged), and Dennett's own book on the subject (Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting), among other books and essays, especially those by Sam Harris and Massimo Pigliucci, would be helpful.

An excerpt from Dennett: "What a coup it would be if your neuroscience experiment brought about the collapse of several millennia of inconclusive philosophising about free will! A curious fact about these forays into philosophy is that almost invariably the scientists concentrate on the least scientifically informed, most simplistic conceptions of free will, as if to say they can’t be bothered considering the subtleties of alternative views worked out by mere philosophers.
"In recent years a growing gang of cognitive neuroscientists have announced to the world that they have made discoveries that show that 'free will is an illusion.' ... Their ingenious experiments, while yielding some surprising results, don’t have the revolutionary implications often claimed."


I think Desimone would benefit from spending some time across the MIT campus chatting with fellow scientist Alan Lightman....
"How does a gooey mass of blood, bones, and gelatinous tissue become a sentient being? How does it become aware of itself as a thing separate from its surroundings? How does it develop a self, an ego, an 'I'? Without hesitation, Desimone replied that the mystery of consciousness was overrated. 'As we learn more about the detailed mechanisms in the brain, the question of ‘What is consciousness?’ will fade away into irrelevancy and abstraction,' he said. As (MIT neuroscientist Robert) Desimone sees it, consciousness is just a vague word for the mental experience of attending, which we are slowly dissecting in terms of the electrical and chemical activity of individual neurons."


Great article on religion being harmful to societies.


Brilliant essay by a physicist (not a philosopher) on what science is and isn't....

"Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking at the present level of knowledge. Science is extremely reliable; it’s not certain. In fact, not only is it not certain, but it’s the lack of certainty that grounds it. Scientific ideas are credible not because they are sure but because they’re the ones that have survived all the possible past critiques, and they’re the most credible because they were put on the table for everybody’s criticism."

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