Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dehumanization: The Irony of Modern Intellectual Progress

Richard Tarnas provides some helpful insight into the dehumanizing effects of modern scientism, briefly scientism is the view that science is the only source of knowledge:

The more modern man strove to control nature by understanding its principles, to free himself from nature’s power, to separate himself from nature’s necessity and rise above it, the more completely his science metaphysically submerged man into nature, and thus into its mechanistic and impersonal character as well. For if man lived in an impersonal universe, and if his existence was entirely grounded in and subsumed by that universe, then man too was essentially impersonal, his private experience of personhood a psychological fiction. In such a light, man was becoming little more than a genetic strategy for the continuance of his species, and as the twentieth century progressed that strategy’s success was becoming yearly more uncertain. Thus it was the irony of modern intellectual progress that man’s genius discovered successive principles of determinism — Cartesian, Newtonian, Darwinian, Marxist, Freudian, behaviorist, genetic, neurophysiological, sociobiological — that steadily attenuated belief in his own rational and volitional freedom, while eliminating his sense of being anything more than a peripheral and transient accident of material evolution.
Science, the dominant voice of authority for many in various cultures around the world, has- particularly in the West- in the last generation or two, declared that we are merely biological machines, according to some- even our complexity is not so much real, as apparent. It is interesting that this apparent complexity is closely allied, that is- this view- seems to be held in common with those, like Richard Dawkins, who think that the nature of humanity is more one of apparent design as opposed to actual design. What seems to get lost in the translation, is that hardly ever can we observe, if any, machines that are capable of self replication, and self modification without further information added to them by some information source. And we know also that information in the strict sense of the word is always observed to originate with some mind. And thus with some robots, it is expected that they will be able to build themselves, that is replicate themselves, and rebuild themselves according to the adaptations that are necessary to face different circumstances. Of course in this case, no-one doubts, that these machines are accounted for by looking to some intelligence for- not only their origin- but also their ability to self replicate, and change according to circumstance.
 In the field of neuro-biology in particular we have the over-stated claim by some, that our sense of freewill, is also more apparent than real, a delusion. A "useful fiction" we are told.  In the blurb fronting his book entitled " Free Will" by outspoken atheist Sam Harris we are told:
 "A belief in free will touches nearly everything that human beings value. It is difficult to think about law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, morality—as well as feelings of remorse or personal achievement—without first imagining that every person is the true source of his or her thoughts and actions. And yet the facts tell us that free will is an illusion." 
The reason I say it is overstated is relatively simple, yet perhaps not so easy to grasp. If someone writes: "I cannot write a word of English" we rightly would wonder about the sanity of the person, since (all things being equal) the statement is internally contradictory, as they have already done that, which in making the statement, they are claiming an inability to do. The very act of doing what they have just done- is in contradiction with what they have said. And this is the same for those who say such things as: "It is true that we can know no  truth". That foolish talk is easily anwered by simply asking the question: "How then, did you know that?" The problem is that people will camoflage an absurdity in a lot of language, which is dressed up, and padded out in such a manner that the self contradiction is lost in a welter of words. Hardly ever will people make such obviously erroneous contradictions in such few words.

And thus it is that someone will write a whole scholarly work on the so called reality that life has no meaning. I would just love to be there when a reader, having just finished the book, puts it down and faces the author squarely with the question: "But what do you mean?" It hardly needs saying that someone who is obviously prepared to put such effort, time and expense in writing a whole book regarding life's lack of meaning- has actually got a lot meaning out of writing that book. In short, there is no doubt that in writing the book, she felt she was contributing real meaning, real knowledge and felt she was adding a sense of self worth to her own life and that of her peers in feeling that she needed to "correct" this "false" sense of meaning that those all around her are apparently assuming. A famous debater was heard to have said that in some debates, merely by turning up, they have lost the debate. And that is so in all of these instances of self contridictory propositions I have been mentioning.

We should really take our proverbial hats off for the inimitable wisdom of C. S. Lewis for pointing out many such instances. He said:
"The validity of rational thought... is the necessary presupposition of all other theorizing. There is simply no sense in beginning with a view of the universe and trying to fit the claim of thought in at a later stage. By thinking at all we have claimed that our thoughts are more than mere natural events. All other propositions must be fitted in as best as they can round that primary claim"
By "natural events" Lewis alludes to physically determined events, such as, if I hit a billiard ball at x position, with y amount of force towards position z on the pool table cushion, all things being equal it will always behave the same way. It is therefore deterministic.

We can see then that any theory that one might propose, that does away with the idea of truth, cannot be true. Because that is the foundation they were arguing from, any argument at all, even those that are justifiably proven  false arguments, all assume the validity of truth. They have therefore sawn off the branch on which they sit. The same goes for rational thought, if by proposing a system, (which is presumed to be rational), but which- by doing so- ultimately destroys the basis of rational thought, has in fact destroyed itself. It has in fact proven to be irrational.

And so it is with Harris's view, that free will is an illusion. In point of fact his physical determinism is the illusion. This I will say, that the libertarian idea of absolute free will, I don't concur with. It is quite obviously wrong. A perfect free will for example, needs no environment within which to live, our dependency on our natural environment is patently obvious. It reminds me of the recently dear departed Mohammed Ali, other wise known as the one who moves like a butterfly and stings like a bee. He was on an airliner about to take off, and as per usual, the flight attendant was going down the aisles, checking that all seatbelts were buckled up. Coming alonside Ali, she found his belt in the unbuckled position. Politely she asked him to do it up, to which he promply responded, "Superman don't need no seatbelt", without hesitating, she in turn responded: "Well Superman don't need no plane either, so do your belt up!"

The idea of truth then, seems to me at least, inarguable, and so too, the idea of rational thought. Harris is proposing that it is objectively true that free will is an illusion and that rational people should believe him. So he is assuming the reality of objective truth, and he also is ratifying the validity of rational thought, and by attempting to persuade us, is rubber stamping our ability to choose that which is rational.  But for rational thought to be inarguable, then so also, must free will be- at least in the realm of thought. Because if I am unable to choose freely (on the basis of the weight of evidence), that which I believe to be objectively true, knowing that its counter perspective false, then my thoughts must be determined, and if so why must they be a reflection of truth? So if free will, with regard to choosing truth is an illusion, then why must I choose to believe that which Harris is saying is true, when his proposal undermines the ability to choose that which is true? In proposing that free will is an illusion, he has not only "succeeded" in ridding us of that encumbrance, he has done away with the validity of rational thought, and the idea that humanity can know truth- all in one foul sweep.

J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964)was a British-born Indian scientist known for his work in the study of physiology, genetics, evolutionary biology, and in mathematics. He famously said :

"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 that 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."
It should hardly be necessary to remind the reader that if "my mental processes are determined" this must include the mental process of deciding against or for propositions of truth.

And what has changed that might affect the truth of what he said perhaps 60 years ago? Obviously science has advanced remarkably since his time, and Lewis's,  but the truth of these statements seem to supercede what science is telling us, or rather, truth be told, what certain scientists with an ideological axe to grind, want to inform us under the rubric of science. Implicit in assuming that science tells us about real states of affairs, are presumptions of truth, the ability to know, and the ability to choose truth over falsehood by rational means. To do away with any is to undermine science itself. To future-proof rationality, the correspondence view of truth, and even free will (at least in a limited sense) will also be essential to future proof science itself, as it does indeed the persuit of truth in any sphere. Obviously anything that brings into question rational thought itself must be based on false premises, because you cannot have an argument that destroys all arguments.

Therefore Harris is wrong.

In a debate between Professor William Lane Craig and Dr Alex Rosenberg called "Is Faith In God Reasonable?"   the crunch question to Dr. Rosenberg was asked by a young man, apparently a student which completely unravelled all the credible answers and postulations that Rosenberg had given up to that point. (At 2:40:43 in the debate). This question which I have put in writing for the viewer to ponder was in fact the last question for Rosenberg and to my mind the most significant- and one which I feel Dr Craig himself should have asked and pushed.
"Dr. Rosenberg I wonder if you might help me to understand how your view is not incoherent, uh- do you really claim in your book that sentences have no meaning or truth value, even the sentences in your own book? How is that not incoherent, it's self refuting- um at least the sentences you've made tonight surely you think are true? Um but if even you don't think your position is true why should we?"
Rosenberg's discomfort and hostility is palpable and his reference to this "puerile" question (Childishly silly and trivial) makes it abundantly clear what he thinks of it. This whole question arises as a result of trying to fit  a naturalistic template over the mind/brain question. Rosenberg is a Philosophical or metaphysical naturalist. "Metaphysical naturalism holds that all properties related to consciousness and the mind are reducible to, or supervene upon, nature."(Wikipedia) You cannot claim something to be true and then deny the ability to know truth in the next breath, you cannot wax long and lyrically on the truth of atheism according to the findings of science and logic and then proceed to dismantle the foundation for believing logic.

Celebrated Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga writes:
"If Dawkins is right that we are the product of mindless unguided natural processes, then he has given us strong reason to doubt the reliability of human cognitive faculties and therefore inevitably to doubt the validity of any belief that they produce- including Dawkins' own science and his atheism."
"If Dawkins is right... he has given us strong reason to doubt...the validity of any belief...including [his] own..." 

"His biology and his belief in naturalism would therefore appear to be at war with each other in a conflict that has nothing at all to do with God."

The following excerpt used by permission is from a music video put together by Matt McKegg with Loop Drop. Matt has an abiding interest in determinism. This was performed at First Assembly.

The source of the text in "Soulless Machines" comes from an interview with Jeffrey Hawkins who became famous when he invented the Palm Pilot—a device that in no small way ushered in a whole new era of mobile computing.  However his ambition now, is to build a machine that can think and reason on its own by mimicking the workings of the human brain. In this video Hawkins opines on both risks and rewards of artificial intelligence. But at about 29 minutes into the video, as a response to a question of human nature, Hawkins gives a confident response that human nature is reducible to a very complicated machine, in short that, humanity is exhaustively explicated simply in terms of matter and energy.

 The piece quoted at the top of this post, by Richard Tarnas is strongly reminiscent of C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man- 

“Mans conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man”
“…as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has  been sacrificed are one and the same. This is one of the many instances where to carry a principle to what seems its logical conclusion produces absurdity. It is like the famous Irishman who found that a certain kind of stove reduced his fuel bill by half and thence concluded that two stoves of the same kind would enable him to warm his house with no fuel at all, it is the magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return, But once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls.”
"A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery."

To see this irony played out in a debate on February 1st, 2013 between two philosophers who represent some of the brightest minds of both the atheist and theistic camps is a wonder to behold. Take particular note of the question posed by a student from the floor 2 hours and 40 mins, 43 secs into the debate at question time.

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