January 5, 2014

"FOLLIES...NATURAL AND AGREEABLE":

The Closing of the Scientific Mind (David Gelernter, 1/01/14, Commentary)

Bullying Nagel.

The modern "mind fields" encompass artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, and philosophy of mind. Researchers in these fields are profoundly split, and the chaos was on display in the ugliness occasioned by the publication of Thomas Nagel's Mind & Cosmos in 2012. Nagel is an eminent philosopher and professor at NYU. In Mind & Cosmos, he shows with terse, meticulous thoroughness why mainstream thought on the workings of the mind is intellectually bankrupt. He explains why Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain the emergence of consciousness--the capacity to feel or experience the world. He then offers his own ideas on consciousness, which are speculative, incomplete, tentative, and provocative--in the tradition of science and philosophy.

Nagel was immediately set on and (symbolically) beaten to death by all the leading punks, bullies, and hangers-on of the philosophical underworld. Attacking Darwin is the sin against the Holy Ghost that pious scientists are taught never to forgive. Even worse, Nagel is an atheist unwilling to express sufficient hatred of religion to satisfy other atheists. There is nothing religious about Nagel's speculations; he believes that science has not come far enough to explain consciousness and that it must press on. He believes that Darwin is not sufficient.

The intelligentsia was so furious that it formed a lynch mob. In May 2013, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece called "Where Thomas Nagel Went Wrong." One paragraph was notable:

Whatever the validity of [Nagel's] stance, its timing was certainly bad. The war between New Atheists and believers has become savage, with Richard Dawkins writing sentences like, "I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sadomasochistic, and repellent. We should also dismiss it as barking mad...." In that climate, saying anything nice at all about religion is a tactical error. [...]

Banishing Subjectivity. 

Subjectivity is your private experience of the world: your sensations; your mental life and inner landscape; your experiences of sweet and bitter, blue and gold, soft and hard; your beliefs, plans, pains, hopes, fears, theories, imagined vacation trips and gardens and girlfriends and Ferraris, your sense of right and wrong, good and evil. This is your subjective world. It is just as real as the objective physical world.

This is why the idea of objective reality is a masterpiece of Western thought--an idea we associate with Galileo and Descartes and other scientific revolutionaries of the 17th century. The only view of the world we can ever have is subjective, from inside our own heads. That we can agree nonetheless on the observable, exactly measurable, and predictable characteristics of objective reality is a remarkable fact. I can't know that the color I call blue looks to me the same way it looks to you. And yet we both use the word blue to describe this color, and common sense suggests that your experience of blue is probably a lot like mine. Our ability to transcend the subjective and accept the existence of objective reality is the cornerstone of everything modern science has accomplished.

But that is not enough for the philosophers of mind. Many wish to banish subjectivity altogether. "The history of philosophy of mind over the past one hundred years," the eminent philosopher John Searle has written, "has been in large part an attempt to get rid of the mental"--i.e., the subjective--"by showing that no mental phenomena exist over and above physical phenomena."

Why bother? Because to present-day philosophers, Searle writes, "the subjectivist ontology of the mental seems intolerable." That is, your states of mind (your desire for adventure, your fear of icebergs, the ship you imagine, the girl you recall) exist only subjectively, within your mind, and they can be examined and evaluated by you alone. They do not exist objectively. They are strictly internal to your own mind. And yet they do exist. This is intolerable! How in this modern, scientific world can we be forced to accept the existence of things that can't be weighed or measured, tracked or photographed--that are strictly private, that can be observed by exactly one person each? Ridiculous! Or at least, damned annoying.

And yet your mind is, was, and will always be a room with a view. Your mental states exist inside this room you can never leave and no one else can ever enter. The world you perceive through the window of mind (where you can never go--where no one can ever go) is the objective world. Both worlds, inside and outside, are real.

The ever astonishing Rainer Maria Rilke captured this truth vividly in the opening lines of his eighth Duino Elegy, as translated by Stephen Mitchell: "With all its eyes the natural world looks out/into the Open. Only our eyes are turned backward....We know what is really out there only from/the animal's gaze." We can never forget or disregard the room we are locked into forever.


Other than Protestantism--because of Protestantism?--the single greatest advantage the Anglosphere ever enjoyed was our rejection of objectivity as a scientifically/rationally sustainable idea. This insulated us from all the nonsense that Rationalists fell for with such disastrous consequences. 
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Posted by at January 5, 2014 8:56 AM
  
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