Following on from a previous post in which he corrupted Descartes' linking of thinking and ontology, Slicer considers the organ of thinking, in the context of being. Where is that organ situated? Is it for men often inside their pants, as women may allege? (Slicer will come back to that territory later in this post). Is the brain the seat of personhood? Or are personhood, individual personality, and conceptualisation merely illusions produced by our brains?
Does our mind ‘inhabit’ our brain (or indeed our whole physique) or is the ‘mind’ merely the sum of electrochemical neural impulses within the cranium? If the latter, where does this leave our sense of personal identity, our belief systems and our judgments - even apparently logical ones? It suggests that they are only an illusion, with no standalone reality. Some may be selected systems of perception, selected because they have survival benefit, but then we would need to explain why a false notion of reality should survive. The problem this presents for an atheistic worldview has been recognized by Richard Dawkins, sufficiently so that he has felt the need to dream up the speculative notion of the meme. However, the reductionist/monist/materialist who labels religious belief as an illusory product of neurotransmissory imagination has to subject his/her own concepts to the same critique.
The materialist appears to be on course to circular, self-destructing argument, recognized by biologist and rationalist J B S Haldane when he wrote:
“It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”
Haldane’s assessment suggests (by logical extension) that the basis for an argument that religious belief/experience is illusory, also renders illusory the argument itself. It would seem to lead to the conclusion that, despite superficial appearance to the contrary, there is no substantive difference between a vivid imagination and cognitive thought.
Of course, Slicer is being provocative, and selective in quoting Haldane, as others have done before him. He recognizes that the issue is whether or not we have a correct model of the world around us - whether we can discriminate between what is real and what is not. In evolutionary terms, there would be obvious survival advantage in being able to do so... not much good being unable to tell what is a predator from what is food, or a mate...
Nonetheless, if our consciousness is an illusion, on what a shaky foundation folk are standing when they claim that holding a purely materialist worldview is more ‘worthy’ than holding a different position:
Tim really likes Christmas, and Slicer really likes Tim but finds this poignant song about loved ones inevitably sad. Interestingly, such claims relating to 'unworthiness' of religious concepts are often accompanied by language suggesting that sceptics hold higher moral ground than those they oppose. Those of us who hold to a worldview that the mind ‘inhabits’ the physical brain would seem to have a stronger footing for the notion of a hierarchy of ‘worthiness’ of ideas, since in that worldview conscious thought has an existence not confined to a mind which is itself an illusion.
When it comes to determining whether or not there is more to personhood than neuro-chemical transmission, we’re back to hypothesis and belief. Arguably our survival to reproduce is usually not influenced by whether we hold one or other worldview; however, some would contest that our ultimate fate is influenced by the choices we make – but that particular survival test (if it’s there) lies in the future for each of us considering these issues. So, for the present, a monist/purely materialist worldview is a concept just the same as that held by dualists and by those who, like Slicer, believe there is more to reality/life than physical components and processes, but aren’t sure whether any of the many varieties of dualism has got it nailed.
Is our consciousness, our self-awareness, our sense of being individuals really just a useful and accidental collection of thought processes, which evolved to enhance the likelihood of our survival to reproduce? If so, this must then also apply to the feelings we have towards our loved ones. Dare we submit all our thought processes, and emotions, and sense of identity to this view - that they are nothing more than evolved neurotransmission pathways, having no essence apart from that? Feelings are mirages, with no ‘meaning’ apart from being tools to survive?
Is the rise of post-modernism, with its subjectivity, just a wrong turning along the way of 'progress?' Or does it betray that, sometimes, in the words of Coldplay:
"Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart"?
Many modern (physicalist) philosophers believe/argue that the ‘self’ is an illusion. Is there in reality no ‘us,’ beyond a machine capable of reproducing its genome, with consciousness and sense of personal identity merely tools to help it do so better? With this approach, questions around meaning in our existence are (conveniently) deemed “the wrong question” or ‘meaningless’ questions – thought crime. What a great recipe for despair... which must of course also be a ‘feeling’ with no substance other than molecular interaction.
Bertrand Russell clearly recognized this when he wrote:
“Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collisions of atoms.... all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only... on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”
Whilst some would speculate evolutionary advantage in some characteristics of despair or depression, it seems irrational to Slicer that despair would enhance the prospects of survival to reproduce. So why has it persisted as a feeling and/or state?
In materialist thinking, concepts like good and evil then must also be illusions, abstract; concrete only in so far as the collection of neural impulses which amount to their perception. Moreover, arguments that we have no real freedom of choice, being destined by genetic predisposition/determinism at a neural level, leave us deserving neither credit for a ‘more worthy’ worldview, nor accountability or blame for evil/harmful decisions/acts.
It should come then as no surprise that some evolutionary psychologists explain rape in Darwinian terms as a survival mechanism:
A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion. Thornhill R, Palmer CT. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
Prof Frans B M de Waal, reviewing the above book in the New York Times notes that female and feminist voices are dismissed as ideological; whereas scientists – like the authors – engage in the objective search for truth. Slicer may be under an illusion, but he perceives that de Waal is being ironic... He makes quite a few other interesting and valuable points, which are worth checking out: Download Survival of the Rapist.
As evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne observes:
“If evolutionary biology is a soft science, evolutionary psychology is its flabby underbelly... Freud is no longer the preferred behavioural paradigm. Now Darwin is ascendant. Blame your genes, not your mother.”
Slicer currently accepts evolution as the likely process used in the creation of man. However, he too is sceptical of its use as a one-size-fits-all, magic bullet explanation for everything, including all aspects of behaviour. By the same token, he resists seeing mankind reduced/confined to a genetic description/explanation, and considers genetics cannot be used as a justification of moral evil. Of course for the (allegedly) dispassionately objective monist, the problem may be avoided by arguing that there is no such thing as evil – it’s just a way of describing what is harmful to the species.... There is, of course, the distaste we have for torturing puppies – so maybe it’s not just in the context of harm to our own species, but also to species (or at least their young) which we don’t perceive as threatening our survival.
Slicer tends to stick with a more traditional view of evil, well expressed in song by Jakob Dylan, as being a real entity rather than a concept which is merely an illusion within our cerebral cortex:
He sees no reason to abandon the view that feelings, judgments (moral, logical & instinctive/intuitive), and decisions are intrinsic elements of a person; an ‘I’ or a ‘you’ who is greater than the sum of our parts – indeed, an ‘I’ or ‘you’ who inhabits those parts. If so, that would allow us hope rather than despair... and real choices... you might even call it “free-thinking” (if some materialists hadn’t already tried to claim a monopoly on the term, despite forbidding us from asking questions related to meaning).
Elton & Leon's recent venture into philosophy might be closer to the truth than a philosophy dressed up as valid science which claims that in reality there is no 'you,' just a genetic machine which imagines it has 'self'.... "I, Robot," anyone?
Slicer realises that he is out of step with what is philosophically fashionable at this point in time, and expects some accusations that he's out of touch with reality. However, he's not going to be intimidated by that particular whip, and figures that he has motivation to follow the example of another who took a thrashing for not submitting to an emperor (with or without clothes):
"When the whip that’s keeping you in line doesn’t make him jump
Say he’s hard-of-hearin’, say that he’s a chump
Say he’s out of step with reality as you try to test his nerve
Because he doesn’t pay no tribute to the king that you serve..."