Sunday, May 12, 2013

From Thinking Again, Marilynne Robinson's fourth Terry Lecture.

With an ending note

What Descartes actually intended by the words "soul" and "mind" seems to me an open question for Descartes himself.  Clearly they are no mere ghost or illusion.  No doubt there are volumes to be consulted on this subject.  What their meanings are for us as inheritors of the thought of the modern period is a more manageable question.  I am excluding the kind of thinking on this point that tends toward the model of the wager.  According to this model, we place our faith in an understanding of the one thing needful, and, ultimately, suffer or triumph depending on the correctness of our choice.  By these lights the soul exists primarily to be saved or lost.  It is hardly more our intimate companion in mortal time than is the mind or brain by the reckoning of the positivists, behaviorists, neo-Darwinists, and Freudians.  The soul, in this understanding of it, is easily characterized by the nonreligious as a fearful and self-interested idea, as the product of acculturation or a fetish of the primitive brain rather than as a name for an aspect of deep experience.  Therefore it is readily dismissed as a phantom of the mind, and the mind is all the more readily dismissed for its harboring of such fears and delusions.

Descartes complains that "the philosophers of the schools accept as a maxim that there is nothing in the understanding which was not previously in the senses."  The strictures of this style of thought are indeed very old.  It strikes me that the word "senses" is in need of definition.  AS it is used, even by these schoolmen, it seems to signify only those means by which we take in information about our environment, including our own bodies, presumably.  Steven Pinker says, "The faculty with which we ponder the world has no ability to peer inside itself or our other faculties to see what makes them tick.  That makes us the victims   of an illusion:  that our own psychology comes from some divine force or mysterious essence or almighty principle."  But the mind, or the brain, a part of the body just as Wilson says it is, is deeply sensitive to itself. Guilt, nostalgia, the pleasure of anticipation, even the shock of a realization, all arise out of an event that occurs entirely in the mind or brain, and they are as potent as other sensations.  Consistency would require a belief in the non-physical character of the mind to exclude them from the general category of experience.  If it is objected that all these things are ultimately dependent on images and sensations first gleaned from the world by the sense,s this might be granted, on the condition that the sensory experience retained in the mind is understood to have the character the mind has given it.  And it might be granted if sensory experience is understood to function as language does, both enabling thought and conforming it in large part to its own context, its own limitations   Anyone's sensory experience of the world is circumstantial and cultural, qualified by context and perspective, a fact which again suggests that the mind's awareness of itself is of a kind with its awareness of physical reality.  The mind, like the body, is very much placed in the world.  Those who claim to dismiss the mind/body dichotomy actually perpetuate it when they exclude the mind's self-awareness from among the data of human nature. 

By "self-awareness"  I do not mean merely consciousness of one's identity, or of the complex flow of thought, perception, memory and desire, important as these are.  I mean primarily the self that stands apart from itself, that questions, reconsiders, appraises.  I have read that micoroorganisms can equip themselves with genes useful to their survival  - that is, genes conferring resistance to antibiotics - by choosing them out of the ambient flux of organic material.  This is not a pretty metaphor, but it makes a point.  If a supposedly simple entity can by any means negotiate its own enhancement, then an extremely complex entity, largely composed of these lesser entities - that is, a human being - should be assumed to have analogous capabilities.  For the purposes of the mind, these might be called conscience or aspiration.  We receive their specific forms culturally and historically, as the microorganism, our contemporary, does also when it absorbs the consequences of other germ's encounters with the human pharmacopoeia.  Let us say that social pathologies can be associated with traumatic injuries to certain areas of the brain, and that the unimpaired brain has a degree of detachment necessary to report to us when our behavior might be, as they say in the corrections community, inappropriate.  Then what grounds can there be for doubting that a sufficient biological account of the brain would yield the complex phenomenon we know and experience as the mind?  It is only the pertinacity of the mind/body dichotomy that sustains the notion that a sufficient biological account of the brain would be reductionist in the negative sense.  such thinking is starkly at odds with our awareness of the utter brilliance of the physical body. 

I do not myself believe that such an account of the brain will ever be made.   Present research methods show the relatively greater activity of specific regions of the brain in response to certain stimuli or in the course of certain mental or physical behaviors.  But in fact it hardly seems possible that in practice the region of the brain that yields speech would not be deeply integrated with the regions that govern social behavior as well as memory and imagination, to degrees varying with circumstances.  Nor does it seem possible that each of these would not under all circumstances profoundly modify the others, in keeping with learning and with inherited and other qualities specific to any particular brain.  What should we call the presiding intelligence that orchestrates the decisions to speak as a moment requires?  What governs the inflections that make any utterance unmistakably the words of one speaker in this whole language saturated world?  To say it is the brain is insufficient, over-general, implying nothing about nuance and individuation.  Much better to call it the mind. 

It's Time To End Materialists Having It Both Ways

Given the mania for all encompassing theories of evolution, the entire universe and the human person, among materialists, it's telling how much of observable and experienced phenomena they are more than just eager to leave out of consideration.  In one of my earlier pieces I said,

It is one of the strangest features of the writings of many who assert the rational, scientific precision of their thinking, that they discount the effectiveness of human reason to change reality for the better or for humans to govern their lives by reasoning. You wonder how they could put their faith in reason or expect anyone else to care about it, if that is true. As I demonstrated, they tend to hold themselves outside and above the very laws they assert. You wonder how they account for their faith in science if reason is so impotent and it’s application has such notable exceptions.

t is that odd thing that I've been dealing with,  this decadence of intellectuals who use their intellects to debunk the intellect.  It's more than just that it seems that these intellectuals, somehow, don't really believe in the value of their intellectual life, it's a pathological denial that they are doing what they so obviously are, even as they assert the higher value of the products of their own products of higher intellection, science.  They can only do this on the basis of some kind of pathological fear of the consequences of the intellect's validity that is able to produce transcendent knowledge, transcending the merely chance chemical and physical conditions that produced that scientific and intellectual gold.  Clearly, that fear is that it forces consideration of there being more, of there having to be more than just chance material causation if their faith in science and academic life is valid.  They demand to have it both ways,  so strongly demand it that to even point out that situation can transform otherwise genteel and soft voiced scientists and intellectuals into sputtering, cursing, irrational imitations of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage.   Only, with a complete and abiding certainty that they have science on their side.

With their irrational incoherent, crazy, bifurcated view of reality that materialism has made fashionable in western culture,  I believe we have entered into a dark age, with science and technology but without what we need to control those and keep them from merely being a more efficient and potent way to enslave and destroy ourselves.   That dark age is the product of this bizarre situation in which  the authority of science is used to excuse the consideration of those discrepancies created with an assertion of science, just as the authority of kings and popes contributed to an earlier dark age.  The failure of those "Christian" princes to practice their professed belief in the gospel of Jesus is, rightfully, an occasion for condemnation, their crimes and murders used to question that gospel and that prophet, ignoring the fact that his teachings had no part in those crimes.  Indeed, they wouldn't have happened if those had been followed.   Only science really does present us with the possibility of killing us all and it provides no internal means of telling us we shouldn't.  There won't be any survivors of this dark age to call us on the peculiar discrepancies and hypocrisies of our benighted state.

P.S.  I hope everyone has gone out to see if their book store or library has Absence of Mind.  Ms. Robinson has far more to say than we're likely to get from listening to her give these lectures.   I've read them four times and get more from them with each reading.

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