Thursday, July 29, 2010

321. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 5

While the trick I described is extremely simple, it's also extremely deceptive. I'd like to think that anyone with some scientific training could easily figure it out, but I have a feeling many scientists might be just as baffled as everyone else in the audience who observed with amazement how a fly that was clearly dead was brought back to life. I also have the feeling that, even after many years of scientific research, the method by which this "miracle" came about might still remain a mystery.

The secret lies in the fact that the trick was prepared in advance. A living fly was exposed to dry ice smoke, which put it into a state of suspended animation. In other words, it simply passed out. It was then placed on the window sill by the magician, who patiently waited for some passers-by to assemble, perhaps entertaining them with some juggling. For best results, he would have arranged to have an accomplice to accept his challenge by pointing to the fly, since it would look suspicious if he chose it himself. Once the fly was warmed by being held in the hands and breathed on, it quickly revived and went on its way.

Is this a mystery beyond the scope of scientific research, demonstrating for all time that our "materialistic" view of the world is mistaken? I'll leave it for you to decide.

But there's more to Le Fanu's book, and his argument, than his extremely limited, dogmatic view of science. He has an ace in the hole, conveniently provided by evolutionary science itself. According to Professor Paul Churchland, of the University of California,
'Conscious intelligence is a wholly natural phenomenon, the outcome of billions of years of evolution,' while [subjective mental qualities, as described earlier by Le Fanu] are . . . 'nothing but' the 'interaction of nerve cells and the molecules associated with them.' (224)
Le Fanu goes on to quote philosopher Daniel Dennett, who claims that "Conscious human minds are more-or-less serial virtual machines . . . implemented on the parallel hardware that evolution has provided for us." (224) Philosopher John Searle presents a somewhat more sophisticated version of the same assertion:
The distinctive properties of the brain and mind are, he insists, readily reconcilable by conceiving the mind as an 'emergent property' of the brain -- just as the phenomenon of water in its various forms of liquid, ice and steam is an 'emergent property' of the arrangement of its molecules of hydrogen and oxygen atoms (224-225)
In roughly the same terms, the mind has sometimes been described as an "epiphenomenon" of the brain, a secondary effect that has no reality in and of itself. As one might expect, Le Fanu trots out some of the usual (and rather obvious) difficulties associated with this idea, demanding explanations for
how, for example, the monotonous firing of [the brain's] neuronal circuits translates into that rich subjective world out there, or how those 'emergent' non-material thoughts can cause my hand to move so as to write one word rather than another (225).
In response, he presents a list of five "cardinal mysteries of the mind that taken together offer the profoundest of insights into our understanding of ourselves": The Mystery of Subjective Awareness; The Mystery of Free Will; The Mystery of the Richness and Accessibility of Memory; The Mystery of Human Reason and Imagination; The Mystery of the Self.
The difficulties he enumerates lead us back
to that crucial moment in the mid-nineteenth century when science changed the direction of Western society by denying the dual nature of reality, of a material and non-material realm, and asserted instead the priority of its materialist view over the philosophical view of the world as we know it to be (228).
Putting aside Le Fanu's questionable assertion regarding "the world as we know it to be," we could, of course, debate the pros and cons of the duality he invokes for as long as we like, without making much progress beyond what the ancient Greeks were able to achieve a few thousand years ago. Does it "make more sense" to assume that everything is purely material or to assume that there are two separate realms, the material and the mental, which are fundamentally different?

I'll save us all a lot of time and trouble by offering an argument that neatly parenthesizes all those countless years of endless hairsplitting to take us rapidly to the main point:

The "dual nature of reality" Le Fanu wants to assert, in opposition to the materialist view espoused by the Darwinians, already resides at the heart of science itself and cannot, therefore, support the argument he is attempting to make. But the problem cuts both ways. To get directly to the point: if we want to argue that what we think of as the mind is nothing more than a secondary effect of the brain, then we are forced into a profound epistemological difficulty. Because science is founded on the basic distinction between the observer and the observed, "subject" and "object" respectively. If there is no mind and only a brain, then what is there that can serve as the subject needed in order to observe the brain as object? And if the brain cannot be observed from outside itself, then it cannot serve as an object of scientific research. What pleases me most about this veritable aporia is that it makes no claim regarding what is "real" or "not real," or what is ultimately true or false, but goes beyond such questions to something even more fundamental: our ability to represent the world around us.

(to be continued . . . )

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