Sittin’ here in the wee hours, just contemplating the usual middle-of-the-night issues: the nature of self, the nonexistence of God, other lighthearted fare. Daniel Dennett keeps popping up in my readings tonight:
Yes, many unanswered questions persist. But these are early days, and neuroscience remains immature, says Churchland, a professor emerita of philosophy at University of California at San Diego and author of the subfield-spawning 1986 book Neurophilosophy. In the 19th century, she points out, people thought we’d never understand light. “Well, by gosh,” she says, “by the time the 20th century rolls around, it turns out that light is electromagnetic radiation. … So the fact that at a certain point in time something seems like a smooth-walled mystery that we can’t get a grip on, doesn’t tell us anything about whether some real smart graduate student is going to sort it out in the next 10 years or not.”
Dennett claims he’s got much of it sorted out already. He wrote a landmark book on the topic in 1991, Consciousness Explained. (The title “should have landed him in court, charged with breach of the Trade Descriptions Act,” writes Tallis.) Dennett uses the vocabulary of computer science to explain how consciousness emerges from the huge volume of things happening in the brain all at once. We’re not aware of everything, he tells me, only a “limited window.” He describes that stream of consciousness as “the activities of a virtual machine which is running on the parallel hardware of the brain.”
“You—the fruits of all your experience, not just your genetic background, but everything you’ve learned and done and all your memories—what ties those all together? What makes a self?” Dennett asks. “The answer is, and has to be, the self is like a software program that organizes the activities of the brain.”
And here he responds to Alan Lightman’s faith-based twaddle from last week:
Is there any rational grounding for a belief in a miracle-making interventionist God? (No.) Do we need God to account for the brilliant design of living things? (No.) Do we need God to somehow underwrite or ground our confidence that our ethical convictions are not just parochial prejudices? (No.) There is nothing gloriously, ineffably, tantalizingly imponderable about these questions, carefully crafted and vetted by philosophers and scientists over the centuries.
Lightman fails to consider the possibility, moreover, that the reason many theological questions continue to evade the bright light of rational inquiry is that they have been ingeniously crafted by theologians to do just that. As the traditional concepts of God, heaven and hell crumble in the collision with science, the theologians invent new, more “sophisticated” concepts to take their place. They are improvements only in the sense that they are more immune to falsification by any imaginable discovery.
…Like many atheists, Dawkins — as Lightman surely knows — is deeply appreciative of all the glorious art and music and poetry that religion has engendered. But still he trots out the canonical list of glories to float the implication that we atheists are a philistine lot. Shame on him. That is what I call faith-fibbing. Not so much a bald-faced lie as a carefully indirect misrepresentation. He can’t actually claim that Dawkins doesn’t weigh the many contributions of religion to the arts against the damage it has wrought. Dawkins does just that, and arrives at a judgment with which Lightman apparently disagrees: All things considered, religion’s blessings are outweighed by the harm they do. The problem is that Lightman doesn’t tackle that difficult issue; he prefers to sing the praises of faith without holding it to account.