24 September 2008

This is water

The problem is how to integrate the conscious mind [and subjective experience] with the physical brain—how to reveal a unity beneath this apparent diversity. That problem is very hard, and I do not believe anyone has any good ideas about how to solve it.
-- that's Colin McGinn, quoted by Steven Weinberg in a recent essay Without God.

But understanding of the neurological basis of consciousness seems to be increasing fast. (Listen, for example, to this overview by Barry C. Smith.) Scientists have recently recorded individual brain cells in the act of summoning a spontaneous memory. All this may have some surprising consequences.

Writers and artists sometimes "illuminate the maze even if they cannot show the way out" (to use a phrase of A.O. Scott's in an appreciation of the late David Foster Wallace [1]).

Wallace would have disagreed with Weinberg's recommendation that "we should get out of the habit of worshipping anything". He wrote:
the only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see [a given situation]. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship. Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping.[2]
Wallace may have been wrong about his capital T Truth. Some research indicates that free will may be an illusion at least some of the time (although we almost all seem to agree that it still makes sense to act as if we had free will, and so take responsibility for our actions). But Wallace's second truth -- "there is no such thing as not worshipping" -- looks like a good bet.

If humans cannot escape worship in one form or other, and if we may have at least some limited free will in some circumstances, then the urgent task is to work on enhancing awareness and understanding of natural laws and phenomena [3]. It's not a question of encouraging worship at some temple labeled 'Science'. It's about trying to help create circumstances for greater reverence for life itself, not the supernatural [4].

In Weinberg's account, scholars like al Ghazali objected to the idea of laws of nature because they would put God's hands in chains [5]. al Ghazali's inheritors today include holy warriors of many stripes, not least Christianists asserting their place in global politics [6] (in partnership with worshippers of war [7]). These people are a real danger, and it's too bad that David Foster Wallace, a most imaginative being, is no longer around to join the struggle against the darkness they want to bring [8].


[1] See also this longer piece by A.O. Scott from 2000, and Danny Postel on the Death of a Tennis Intellectual.

[2] From a commencement speech given to a graduating class at Kenyon College, Ohio.

[3] The grandeur of existence as apprehended by many scientists from, e.g., Charles Darwin to (say) Martin Rees.

[4] This does not necessarily exclude all religion. See for example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. [P.S. 24 Sep: and throw in Reinhold Niebuhr of whom Barack Obama has said, "I take away [from Niebuhr's thought] the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism."]

[5] Since the burning of scientific and medical texts by the Ulama of Cordoba in 1194, says Weinberg, there has been little significant contribution to global science from the Muslim world. Weinberg notes that in 2002 the periodical Nature found just three areas in which the Islamic world produced excellence in science, all three directed toward applications rather than basic science. They were desalination, falconry, and camel breeding. (Bob Lockner takes issue with Weinberg's description of Al-Ghazali's thought, and Weinberg replies in an exchange of letters here.)

[6] See, for example, Sarah Palin's holy war on nature by Chip Ward.

[7] See, for example, Worshiping the Indispensable Nation by Andrew Bacevich.

[8] On writing and mental illness, see also Shirley Dent. On suicide see, among other things, the entry in the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.

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