Friday, February 28, 2014

The great Mary Midgley at the LSE

To the LSE to hear the great Mary Midgley speaking with Ray Tallis and Jonathan Ree on "Understanding The Self", chaired by Danielle Sands.  They each spoke for 5-10 mins and then there was a dialogue and a Q&A.

Tallis' key point was that Neuroscience can tell us nothing about metaphysics.

Midgley raised the question of why people were denying the self. This was not the Buddhist approach. You can never say "X is an illusion" unless you have a convincing alternative explanation of what there is instead. Simply saying "brain cells" is vacuous - as if these were the only kinds of reality. Reality is terribly complex, like a great big cake which we can cut into at different angles. Humans are complex in this sort of way as well.

Ree struck at the myth that Copernicus, Darwin and Freud had dethroned the human self. But he encouraged people to think about the many related terms (self, consciousness, soul, will, personality, person-hood) and not seem them as a single package.

I made the point that the most damaging illusion is the colonial model of knowledge as a fixed world which we have to paint Red, Blue etc.. Knowledge has a fractal character - the more we know, the more we know we don't know. Everyone liked this.

Tallis in the Q&A explained why the Libet and John-Dylan Haynes experiments didn't deny the realities of the self or of freewill because all they show is that trivial decisions are foreshadowed by neural activity but the context is that people have freely decided to turn up and participate in the experiments. We are embodied but we are not just our bodies.

Midgley made the point that freewill is about serious choices and usually about effort. Suppose Einstein has some calculations to do and is told "don't worry, your brain cells will do these anyway". In fact it is now very clear that thinking can change physical objects, not just your neural connections but with suitable equipment movements of eg prosthetic limbs can be controlled by thought.  The self is the whole person and it is very important in most situations not to go around splitting a person up. A person is basically a unity, even though that unity can be messed up a bit.

I had a good chat with MM and got another copy of The Solitary Self signed for me: and I look forward with enormous interest to the publication on April 1 of Are you an Illusion?

Yesterday had dinner with William Hague who was on excellent form.  I also on Weds briefly met Gary Kasparov and had the pleasure of shaking him by the hand. Quite a week!


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