Saturday, May 24, 2014

Are you an Illusion?

Yesterday to the great Mary Midgley speaking at the RSA about her wonderful new book Are you an Illusion? In her own words: "This is a book about a remarkable gap that has opened up between common sense and today's scientific orthodoxy, centrally about the idea that science has shown that our inner selves are mere illusions. In an important sense (it seems) we do not exist."

She said she wrote it due to exasperation because these ideas [are not merely nonsensical but they] distract people from things that are really important in their lives. Minds effect brains in various ways.

It's also interesting that progressive magazines (like Mother Jones) are now running article about the differences in the brains between Democrats and Republicans.

I asker her whether she thought that the denial of self is really the denial of other people's selves. It's a bit like the famous "English Irregular Verb" (I am strong-minded, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool). No-one really believes that their mind doesn't exist, but it is quite easy to suggest that people of whom you disapprove don't really have minds. From which it follows that their thoughts and especially feelings are unreal and therefore not worthy of serious consideration. She rather agrees. It was interesting that Crick suggested that "you, your joys and sorrows....are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their attendant molecules" rather that "I, my joys and sorrows..."

The book itself is terrific. I normally highlight gems from a book and I don't think I've ever had so many gems so densely. I can't put all of them here and I'm only on p58. But here are some:
  • It does seem possible that this whole ill-fated campaign - this march away from direct experience - which received the name "modern" a hundred years ago, may already be beginning to lose ground somewhat in our culture. If so, I can only hope that, in however slight a degree, I may be able to help it on its way.
  • This myth pictures our world as a vast mass of physical objects that are being observed from a great distance by an anonymous observer through a huge array of telescopes...The whole process of observing and recording is called "Science" and is seen as constituting a central purpose of human life....What are the others? Weinberg does not say...he pleaded that such constructions [as the Superconducting Supercollider] should be built because they are "the cathedrals of our age."... He does not explain what congregation wants these cathedrals....And the trouble here is not just that few people understand this sort of physics...It is that - if the story we shall be examining...is true - even those people cannot want them because, essentially, they cannot want anything.
  • Knowledge is indeed wonderful and should be revered. Scientism's mistake..[lies] in cutting [science] off from the rest of thought, in treating it as a victor who has put all the rest out of business.
  • This idea of our own non-existence is a myth, not a solid scientific discovery. It is a recently proposed imaginative vision, one optional way among others of conceiving the world. And it really does not make sense.
  • (She quotes Nagel with approval) My guiding conviction is that mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature.
  • As we shall see, the central trouble is that the conception of matter has remained essentially unchanged since the seventeenth century, while the load of work it is expected to do has increased dramatically.
  • Unkind observers sometimes enquire who, in that case, actually writes the books that expound this doctrine? Do the brain cells really do this work on their own?
  • (Having quoted some nonsense from Blakemore about "The human brain is a machine which alone accounts for all our actions...") Thus if we want to understand why ...Napoleon decided to invade...Russia, what we need is not - as we might think - some knowledge of the political background and of Napoleon's state of mind, but simply facts about the state of his brain. 
  • How is this selficide supposed to relate to...selfishness as an evolutionary force...?  It also seems remarkable that Crick and his followers are quite satisfied with the reality of brain cells. Why do they not pursue their reductive course right down to quarks or electrons...?  In view of this hesitation we may reasonably ask, what is the actual aim of this reductive journey?

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