The aesthetics of animals

The relationship of humans to animals has always been ambiguous.  Our ecology is of course absolutely dependent on them, and has been since our species emerged, and probably before (both chimpanzees and bonobos hunt mammals on occasion). Early human hunters may well have been endurance hunters: not fast, but running for several hours after four-legged prey until the prey collapses with exhaustion and can be easily dispatched.  
Kodiak bear hunter...

At some point in the midde-late Mesolithic, animals started to be domesticated, with the dog perhaps being the earliest, followed by sheep, goats, cows and so on.  Jared Diamond has listed various characteristics that animals "need" in order to be successfully domesticated, including ability to breed under domestication, more or less lacid behaviour, flexible diet etc: indeed he suggests that successful civilizations were partly built on the availability of domesticatible animals.  Girard, on the other hand makes the provocative suggestion that animals were first kept for sacrifice purposes (see posts below) and only become useful in other ways after selective breeding (dogs were indeed early sacrifices as well as sheep).  Based on Girard's theories of sacrifice, it might be interesting to look at the relationship between domestication and levels of violence (which do indeed tend to be higher in hunter-gather tribes as opposed to agrarian ones).
Whatever the origins of domestication, the relationship of human societies to their animals sometimes far transcends mere utility.  Some African cattle-herding tribes (such as the Nuer and Dinka) have such a close and intense relationship to their cows that symbiosis might be more appropriate to describe the connection.  And in modern times, the rise of the environmental movement has made care for the animal (and plant) world a touchstone of popular morality.  Indeed, even Kant, who did not view animal life very favourably (his philosophy is centred strongly on ration beings, a status he denied to animals) saw this very clearly:  "He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men.  We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals".  Ed Wilson has elevated this idea into an evolutionary exploration of human instinctive inclination towards nature, in "Biophilia".
From pet guinea pigs, spiders and snakes through to cattle, whales and polar bears, humans can thus expend huge amounts of effort time and money caring for animals (and indeed plants) that are of no obvious "use".  Why so?  Perhaps Wilson has an important point, although care for animals hardly seems to have a perfect record in early human history: the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna, although perhaps partly climate controlled, is surely not entirely divorced from human interference.  
In his remarkable Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense, W. H. Vanstone describes the curatorial aspect of biological science, with naturalists often expending huge effort to document and care for microenvironments such as a single tree, and compares it to certain religious phenomena.  When pressed, many people I think at first rationalise care for the environment as prudence, looking after the interests of future humans, the possibility of extracting new drugs from as yet unknown plants and so on.  But I think these rationalisations dance around the central issue, the clue to which is given by the very "uselessness" of the endeavour.  The other activities that are essentially useless but we invest huge time and effort in are aesthetic, and I think that is why we care for animals and plants so much: our interaction with them is an aesthetic one.  Is a blue whale or a slow loris of "intrinsic value"? Are the Mona Lisa or the Isenheim Crucifixion of "intrinsic value"? These seem, in the end, to be the same question.  The natural world, in all its complexity, danger and fascination is beautiful; and in its moments of horror is sublime.  The most repulsive natural events, with parasitic wasps infecting live caterpillars with their larvae being top of most lists, still compel. Still, it seems a mistake to try to pretend to ourselves that everything in nature is beautiful: we may wish to preserve the ´Tasmanian Devil, but what about the infectious cancer cells that give them hideous and fatal facial tumours?

Let us return to the Kant quotation at the beginning where we see the beginning now of the relationship (if this connection is correct) between aesthetics and morality.  Perhaps paradoxically, given its sociobiological leanings, biology is above all others the moral science: biologists typically care about their subjects, and struggle to preserve them.  Of course, a geologist can care also about a famous, beautiful or interesting outcrop (no-one would like to lose Osmington Mills in Dorset), suggesting a wider extension of aesthetic care to the broader environment.  

Of course, some relationships to animals are clearly neurotic, as in people who interact much better with their anthropomorphised pets than their peers.  And even more disturbing are those instances of people - Adolf Hitler being the famous example, who seemed to have liked animals (at least according to the propaganda photographs of Hoffmann) yet could also watch people being hung with piano wire.  

Hitler the nature lover...

Such juxtapositions jar our sensibilities - but why?  Surely it is because at heart we think that true taste - whether of the company one keeps, the music or art one enjoys, or the pleasures one takes in, and cares for, nature, are necessarily allied with goodness.  Only a truly moral person would take pleasure in all these things.  Such a feeling drives home something that Kant realised but is less appreciated today: aesthetics is intimately connected to morality.  Yet one sees also a similar association with science and religion too.  I think it is a mistake to think that religious  belief in itself provides an explicit rulebook of  morality, less still of science.  Yet mature reflection on all these things yields moral insight, a rediscovery of the viewpoint from which we see these things, and thus of ourselves.  I do not wish to lionise Kant, but he reached towards this view I think in his difficult Third Critique: when we view our world with our aesthetic sense, its complex orderings mirror our own moral orderings, and reminds us of what we want to come about: it is, literally, to see the world and ourselves  transformed.  The Greek word for this is metanoia, a change of mind; a word that could be casually but not inaccurately be translated as repentance. Somehow, this clear aesthetic vision of the world, in all its order and disorder, reveals to us our own moral priorities, their strengths and weaknesses, and thus brings with it, as well as joy, a sense of sadness and melancholy as we see at the end how both should be, and yet are not.

The aesthetics of religion (i): on lost works.

I have already written about music that was never finished, such as the Mozart Reqiuem and (probably) Bach's Art of Fugue.  But what of music that may have been completed and was then lost, or music that was never written?  In this regard cello concertos have fared particularly badly.  The most notorious case is that of Mendelssohn who seems, from his letters, to have written a cello concerto.  However, when he sent the only copy of it to the dedicatee, it supposedly dropped off the coach and disappeared forever.  Mozart also may have written a cello concerto, the autograph of which was supposedly in the Paris Bibl. Du Conservatoire as late as 1912, dated to 1775.  However, this autograph (of K206a) has never been found, so only a 6 bar intro is now known of this work.  Haydn's most beautiful concerto, No. 1 in C major was thought to have been lost, but remarkably re-emerged in 1961 in Prague.  At least these works were all (at least partly) written.  Beethoven offered to write a concerto for the egocentric virtuoso cellist Romberg, but he refused on the grounds that he preferred to perform his own works.  It is worth noting that Romberg's 10 concertos and concertino are now of only academic interest and, to say the least,  rarely performed.   One imagines that the never-to-appear Beethoven effort would have had a more permanent place in the repertoire.
The cello is a difficult instrument to write concertos for: its normal register sits in the middle of the orchestra, which makes it difficult to make the solo part stand out: famous examples such as the Schumann one therefore tend to write for high registers.  Still, the instrument seems to have had more than the usual bad luck.
Such works have at least some hold on our imagination; but what about works that might have been written by composers who died romantically young - notably Schubert (died age 32) and Mozart (died 35)?  What operas, for example, would Mozart have written if he had lived to the same age that Monteverdi did, who produced his operatic masterpiece, the Coronation of Poppea, at the age of 75, with the Return of Ulysses the year before? 
What I want to mention is our aesthetic response to such loss.  One can indeed regret that such works never appeared; but we cannot miss them: aesthetic response is to subjective particulars, not to general ideas.  Indeed, most people will never hear a Wagner opera, and despite their reputation as pinnacles of Western music, and thus music as a whole, most people who do hear them will probably dislike them.  Furthermore, one's own taste can fluctuate through life: one can go many years without listening to a once favourite composer and then return to it again with renewed love.
One consequence of Kant's Antimony of Taste: the idea that we wish to universalise subjective aesthetic judgments, is that one cannot but feel that someone who does not appreciate, say, Parsifal, is missing something: their life would be better if they did.  Naturally enough, this notion would typically be strongly, even violently resisted by the typical Wagner-uninterested person.  It smacks of elitism, being patronising, and so on. Still, one cannot easily rid oneself of the notion, even if during a period of one's own life when such music did not interest you one did not feel necessarily impoverished. 
I want to apply this sort of thought now to religion, the aesthetics of which I must now start to turn to. 
Religion strikes me as occupying an intermediate position between science and art.  It is a delicate path to tread, and one that is constantly in threat of being collapsed into one or the other: either being seen as just bad science, or as deluding art.  Just as my tastes in particular music have waxed and waned over the years, so has my interest and participation in religion.  Yet, even one if may not miss it doing the "off" periods, religion during its "on" moments is the great experience of life that all else is interpreted in; an ecstatic reinterpretation of experience and community; an "endlessly open epiphany", as Joyce's Ulysses has been described.  Here is T. S. Eliot in Little Gidding:

"If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid."

Religious experience, in all its humble beauty, is the great experience of life, and we should not abandon it under the pressure of those who despise it.  Such should be resisted even more than that from those who despise the high tradition of music.  Even if we know that such experience cannot be objectively demonstrated, and that those who once had it may despise it afterwards, we cannot but continue to think this, just as the case for Kantian aesthetics.  
And so we come to the great problem of our age: how do we persuade others of the value of our own religious and aesthetic experiences?  It cannot be by argument.  It cannot be by demonstration: I cannot *show* someone my experience.  
But perhaps Francis of Assisi was on the right track.  Preach the gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words.

On violence.

I do not necessarily want to endorse all aspects of Girard's theories, although they strike me as considerably more fruitful than the intellectually incurious "religion is a bad by-product of evolution" solution of Dawkins and others.  But one thing that it relies on is the ubiquity of violence.  Indeed, if Girard is correct, then violence is absolutely pervasive and ready to spiral out of control the whole time unless it is alleviated in some way.

For many years, intraspecific violence was considered to be, to use the technical language, a human autapomorphy; ie a feature unique to humans.  Thus, it was reasonable to consider it part of the general complex of other human-specific features: language, culture, religion etc.  But this simple view had to be modified after the discovery of violent intraspecific conflicts in chimpanzees.  The initial detailed reports of chimpanzee behaviour by Jane Goodall implied that, like other primates, they lived rather peaceable lives.  But later reports contradicted this pacifism, suggesting instead that chimpanzees went on hunting parties to attack and kill other groups of chimpanzees.  

As a result of these revelations, it seems reasonable to ask if human violent behaviour is in fact a synapomorphy of these two closely related apes; ie something shared between them.  In fact, this question is hard, if not impossible, to answer from a formal point of view.  Gorillas seem fairly peaceful, and bonobos, the sister-group of chimpanzees, are famous for being so.  So it is possible that humans and chimpanzees evolved their violent tendencies separately.  Conversely, bonobos may have evolved into more peaceful animals from their violent ancestors.  Still, the idea that humans did inherit their bloodthirsty natures seems quite reasonable.  Unfortunately, investigations into intraspecific violence in Palaeolithic hominids has been rather sporadic and has yielded ambiguous results, although it is clear that at least some violent conflict is deep-rooted (see Thorpe (2003) below for a useful summary: he concludes, however, that levels of violence seem, from the limited evidence available, to be variable).

It seems that we are not totally fantasising when we suggest that the origins of violence lie deeper than the origins of culture and religion. What caused it?  The several theories suggested all have problems: violence does not seem to correlate with resource availabiity, for example, nor with population density.  Perhaps, again, Girard's notion of mimesis, of wanting the thing someone else has, may have some evolutionary explanatory significance in this context.  In any case, his general idea that religion and indeed culture arose as a response to violence rather the other way round seems to be the view that needs no special explanation; whereas the alternative view does.

I. J. N. Thorpe (2003).  Anthropology, Archaeology, and the Origin of Warfare.  World Archaeology, 35, 145-165.

On religion and violence (i).

A very elderly couple, Abraham and Sarah, have at last a child.  Yet, while still a boy, God demands that Abraham sacrifices the child; only when Abraham shows himself ready to slaughter the boy does God seemingly relent and provide an alternative, a ram caught by its horns in nearby bushes (Genesis 21-22).
This is one of the most famous of all bible stories, and just about the most controversial.  Christian theologians have seen in it a prefiguration of the crucifixion, with the idea being that although God saved, in the end, Isaac, he was prepared to allow his own son to die (the picture of Isaac carrying the wood for the sacrifice is compared with Jesus carrying the cross).  Kierkegaard saw in it the quintessential image of the demands of the holy being super-ethical; for one cannot understand such a demand in moral terms.  
More recently, of course, this story has been taken as the type of the wanton cruelty of the Old Testament God: however could one pretend to base our morality on such a model? ask bewildered/furious "brights". Dawkins in the God Delusion considers this to reveal that God is an evil monster, and a child abusing bully.  But that is really all he says: showing a curious lack of interest about such a striking story.  How was it, after all, that such a story, apparently casting God in such a bad light, and apparently so in conflict with the image of the "good" God that the writers of the OT elsewhere want to convey, could have found its way into the bible?  The same question, of course, might be asked of the "cursing of the fig tree" that appears to cast Jesus in such a bad light (especially as it was not the season for figs!).  How come the final revisers didn't spot the obvious inconsistency?  They were clearly not stupid, after all.  How come that the Commandments say "commit no murder", yet God apparently entices Abraham to do just that?  
Rather than being the occasion for blanket condemnation, I think such apparent inconsistencies call out for explanation; and one that is not just "religious people are too muddled to think clearly".  In fact, one of the most interesting theories about all this is set out in René Girard's remarkable "Violence and the Sacred", which tackles the association of violence and religion head-on.  

For such stories indeed might make sense if seen in a slightly broader perspective, one that acknowledges the centrality of sacrifice in religion.  Again, annoyed atheists see this is all just primitive bloodletting, but this is to entirely miss the point.  The question that Girard poses is: in a society without a justice system (plus the complex infrastructure this implies), how does one prevent violence?  Here is the nightmare scenario.  Two families live close to each other in a tribe.  A member of one of them, caught hunting in the same area as a member of the other, ends up in a violent conflict with him, and kills him.  The members of the wronged family find out and take their revenge by killing someone in the first family.  At this point, violence spirals out of control and mass death occurs on both sides.
We know that this is a plausible scenario because we have seen many instances of these sorts of massacring disasters in recent times.  Note that the prime reason for the perpetuation of the violence is not religion, but rather vengeance; and that, once the cycle of violence starts, it is incredibly hard to stop. We see this pattern over and over again even in the modern world, even in supposedly civilised societies such as America, the UK, and so on.

Paradoxically, Girard thinks that this sort of conflict arises, not because of differences between people, but the collapse of such distinctions: it is when one wants something the other wants that the conflict starts.  And this desire is "mimetic"; ie we want something,  not because of what it is, but simply because someone else wants it too.

Girard's thesis is that sacrifice of someone of something not closely (but not entirely divorced) from the victim of violence satisfies the lust for violence without calling forth revenge; and thus manages to forestall the cycle of violence.  He argues that such practices originated in real events; in particular, during violent convulsions, one eventually finds unanimous scapegoating, where one single person is "discovered" (arbitrarily) to be the "cause" of the violence (of course, this is a deception); and is slaughtered.  And at that point, the mob find themselves strangely at peace and satisfied.  Thus, the sacrificial victim comes to be seen both as the bringer of discord, in their assumed "guilt" for the original violence, and as the figure who also resolves the conflict and brings peace.  Of course, the truth is that the violence lies in the acts of the mob, and have nothing to do with the sacrifice; but this point must be concealed if the sacrifice is to remain effective.  Thus the communal violent origin of sacrifice is concealed as myth; the life-bringing god-like figure of the sacrifice.  Of course, part of the deception is to remove the sacrifice away from the violence, so that we do not spot the connection; so sacrifice becomes engulfed in ritual and becomes stylised.  

Pentheus being ripped apart in the Bacchae by his own mother...

Of course, sacrifice only works for a time; and thus needs regular repetition, and must be surrounded by piety, or it starts to lose its effectiveness.  And indeed, the Old Testament prophets (and the Greek tragedians) regularly bewail such events, that Girard terms the "sacrificial crisis".  It comes about through two ways; either the sacrificial victim becomes too closely associated with the community and thus fails to forestall violent revenge; or it becomes too detached and thus fails to satisfy the need for violence.  

Thus, violence and religion lie at the heart of human culture; although culture (and aesthetics?? Discuss.) is itself a systematic denial of its own violent origins.  But religion is not, in this view, the cause of violence, but the attempt to suppress it, to alleviate its disastrous and all-invasive influence.  Its need for the delicate balance for the scapegoat means that it is not always successful, and it is easy for it to be infected with the very cyclical violence its aim is to appease.  And Girard also argues that Christianity, with its declaration of the innocence of the victim at its heart, rather than mythologising it, turns primitive religion on its head, even though it constantly lapses back into it.  

What is particularly disturbing is how much the scapegoating of the outsider is relevant to today's conflicts.  Anders Rasmussen's blog has a quotation from an Islamic fundamentalist: "Behead those who say Islam is a violent religion."  Whilst I believe that such apparently bizarre comments can be interpreted in the light of Girard's theories, such ironic self-contradictions are also found in the general response to such threats: as usual, violence begets violence.  If *only* we could eliminate the irrational and violent among us, *then* we would have peace!  But this is just scapegoating again, and thus perpetuates the cycle of violence; worse still, it does it under the concealing myth that hides the disgraceful truth: we are the violent and irrational.  The increasing calls for the "control" of the scapegoat - Islam in this case, made by the most rational among us - is just one more tired manifestation of the violence that is the secret of human society.

Finally, here is Girard on Frazer, author of the Golden Bough: but it could just as easily be about Dawkins, Hitchens, or a whole row of other rationalists:

"The modern mind still cannot bring itself to acknowledge the basic principle behind that mechanism  which, in a single decisive movement, curtails reciprocal violence and imposes structure on the community.  Because of this willful blindness, modern thinkers continue to see religion as an isolate, wholly fictitious phenomenon cherished only by a few backward peoples or milieus.  And these same thinkers can now project upon religion alone the responsibility for a violent projection of violence that truly pertains to all societies including our own.  This attitude is seen at its most flagrant in the writing of that gentleman-ethnologist Sir James Frazer. Frazer, along with his rationalist colleagues and disciples, was perpetually engaged in a ritualistic expulsion and consummation of religion itself, which he used as a sort of scape-goat for all human thought.  Frazer, like many another modern thinker, washed his hands of all the sordid acts perpetuated by religion, and pronounced himself free of all taint of superstition.  He was evidently unaware that this act of handwashing has long been recognized as a purely intellectual, nonpolluting equivalent of some of the most ancient customs of mankind.  His writings amount to a fanatical and superstitious dismissal of all the fanaticism and superstition he had spent the better part of a lifetime studying".

The aesthetics of cruelty.

We tend to associate art with beauty, although there are in fact many compelling works (Picasso's Guernica being a random example that springs to mind) that are anything but beautiful.  But what about the association of aesthetics and cruelty?  


I read recently about food customs in France throughout the ages; and in the medieval period the upper classes used to take the aesthetics of food preparation to extraordinary, if not repellent, levels.  For example, an obsession about eating food freshly cooked developed, to the extent that in Avignon, geese were sometimes cooked alive.  This was accomplished by placing them in specially constructed ovens with their heads sticking out, so that during the cooking process they could be fed and given water.  The idea was to make the time of death and the time of being perfectly cooked coincide as closely as possible.  

Such a story is of course revolting: but there is also, I think, something darkly amusing about it.  But now try a slightly different, and even more sinister one.  Many years ago now, I read an article about a professional torturer: it was based around an interview with him.  He rather shrugged off the suffering he caused with a "just doing a job" sort of defence, which is not to say he did not have any sympathy with his victims.  He said that, in extremis, as the torment became unbearable, the people he tortured all cried out for their mothers; and yet "they all died, slowly, slowly".  This story has stayed with me for a long time now, but it is hard to unravel the response it evokes.  Of course, there is a chill of horror associated with it, as one imagines being in that situation.  But there is something else too; a sense of revelation.  From such scenes of horror, we learn something about the "human condition", and there is indeed something profoundly moving about the primitive cry to the absent mother that harks back to studies on attachment behaviour that I have already referred to elsewhere.  We are all made one by suffering, it seems to suggest; and while this is largely by diminution (defecating yourself with fear in front of a maniac with red hot torture instruments is not a revelation of the common nobility of humans) there is nevertheless something noble too.

For we have a complex picture: the torturer, proud of his "art"; the dreadful image of the man reduced to the child, and the endless sympathy this evokes in us.  There is indeed beauty here, in the dreadful interplay between these.  In some obscure way, I find something comforting here as well, although I am not sure what: I suspect that it is that in such a situation, we cannot but help feel a sense of empathy and indeed community with the victim.  No matter who that person was - even your worst enemy, or even a torturer himself - in ultimate suffering that person is revealed as "one of us", crying out for his mother into the coming dark. But - is it not also true, if we are honest, that there is some hint of dark attraction about the intense cruelty of the torturer too - that there is really an aesthetic of the cruelty?  To be in a situation where every taboo about the value of human is being broken, and by you, is there not some sort of dreadful dark joy involved in such a thing?  Of course, it was Nietzsche - who else?  - who investigated this in the Genealogy of Morals; claiming that watching others being tortured - or better still, doing it yourself - is an ancient celebratory act, an expression of the will to power, and he points to the "entertainments" that people had:

    "In any case, it's not so long ago that people wouldn't think of an aristocratic wedding and folk festival in the grandest style without executions, tortures, or something like an auto-da-fé [burning at the stake], and similarly no noble household lacked creatures on whom people could vent their malice and cruel taunts without a second thought".  

And he goes on to say: 

   "Watching suffering is good for people, making someone suffer is even better - that is a harsh principle, but an old, powerful, and human, all-too-human major principle, which, by the way, even the apes might perhaps agree with. For people say that, in thinking up bizarre cruelties, the apes already anticipate a great many human actions and are, as it were, an "audition." Without cruelty there is no celebration: that's what the oldest and longest era of human history teaches us -and with punishment, too, there is so much celebration! -".

Any account of humans and what drives them must, I think, take into account something like this.  Which will not be without further implications.

God: a skeptic's guide in dialogue form (iii).

Protagonists: as before.

Day Three. At the restored Abbey of Monte Cassino, Italy.

Beda: Dear friends, I must thank you for agreeing to meet here, most momentous of places. 

Johannes: Its is indeed a history mottled with grief as well as glory.  How can we reconcile the two, the birthplace of quiet contemplation in Europe, with the desperate slaughters of more recent times?  Perhaps eighty thousand died here. How tragic, too, that the ancient Abbey of old was destroyed to no avail; only sick monks lay there, and they most certainly bore no arms.

Petrus: I think we all stand silently before such a scene.  No words can replace its own eloquence.

B: Yet recall its younger days, when the chants and silences of Benedict?s followers resounded through Europe: and that it was the first school of Aquinas, most rational of Christians.

P: Yes, he who tried in folly to prove the impossible: that God exists!  And who thought he could prove the immortal soul ? again, a nonsense we have at last outgrown.  Our modern studies of the mind have dismissed such fancy.

J: But, did not his adherence to the Philosopher of old temper this view?

B: It is true that Aquinas was no Cartesian.  For him, the soul was the form of the body; intimately connected in every way. 

J: But yet he thought we lived on after the body was laid in earth and corrupted?

B: This was his view.  But note his careful words: only insofar as our intellect and volition are not dependent on our body is the soul immortal.  Even in his view is the soul free from the body not complete: its reconciliation with the body is essential for its true operation.

P: You are a man of science, surely you must reject such views! 

B: The sciences have indeed taught us much.  Aquinas never knew the close connection we now do between mind and matter.  Yet surely part of what he is aiming at is true.   We know ourselves to be flesh and blood, knit together from the matter of the world: but yet, we look into the world from the outside: my thoughts are not atoms nor energies.  To pretend otherwise as the modern materialists do is to do violence to both.

P: Then such things have no place in science!

B: Perhaps on this point we can agree.  We will never capture the self in study of the world; it is experienced only as the window through which we peer into the world.  It has no content to view; rather it is where we view from.  Still, that does not allow us to abolish ourselves even so, even if we can say nothing more of ourselves. 

J: You speak obscurely indeed.

P: Natural philosophers have searched through the world diligently for the supernatural, and have never found it.   

B: Indeed, but what would they expect to find?  And yet, the self falls into such a category if anything does.  We intervene in the world without any causal mechanism, it seems.  Yet no-one doubts we do so.

J: Your words tend to mysticism - I cannot comprehend their meaning!

B: Suppose it true that we are pure creatures of flesh and blood, our minds arise from the complex workings of our mind.  Yet, to us, what difference does it make?  We still live, and see, and think, and wonder.  We can never see ourselves as some material thing.  Our soul is not some sort of other matter: it is merely ourself.  

J: So you mean that our soul is immune to the probings of science?

B: It is a point of view, not a thing.  We can only remain silent. 

P: Yet how could a point of view intervene in the world?  

B:   Not as a physical cause, of course: we do not push atoms around with our minds. 

J: But then, how...

B: is our doom or glory to think so.  All the knowledge of the world will not alter our perception of ourself.  We cannot imagine otherwise, and thus must accept it as practical truth, even without the theory of science - something, I think, that will never come. And if we see ourselves as such, then why cannot we see God as such - He who orders the turning of the endless stars, yet also is outside all causes?  And thus, as we cannot abolish ourselves, we cannot do away with God either.  

P: I will say this much: that I agree with you to the extent that our thoughts and feelings are not illusory.  I am not one of those who would spirit them away, even if they emerge from the workings of the material world.  Yet, when we die, as those who littered the ground around us did, we are gone for all time, never to return.

B: Let us agree that our end comes when our bodies return to dust.  If we can have any hope, it must be of resurrection, not of living on.  Yet that was the hope of Aquinas and Benedict.  

P: But even if this could be so, why think so?  We have no reason to think so!

B: We cannot deduce it from study of the world.  All we can say is that that knowledge does not tell us to abandon hope either.  

J: This topic has been perplexing, and the day has been hot.  I would hear more of it, but not today.  

B: I am sorry not to be more clear.  This is a riddle that none can solve, only live in the light of.   

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins - a review.

 Imagine, as Richard Dawkins invites us to, joining John Lennon in a world without religion, a world with "no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts" etc.  Sunday School clearly didn't have quite the desired effect.  Dawkins' latest book, published at the end of a year in which religion dominated the news in all directions, obviously appeared at an opportune moment, as his sales figures bear witness to.  With Creationism (sorry, Intelligent Design) on the march still in America, and fanatics apparently around every corner, indignant 'brights' both sides of the Atlantic have rushed their concerns into print, and that Dawkins, who has obviously been brewing this one for a long time, has joined the fray must come as no surprise.   Given its nature as a sort of sustained philipic, its somewhat uneven nature is perhaps inevitable, something that has been pointed out in several of the more negative notices that the book has received (eg from Terry Eagleton and Thomas Nagel).

Every age of faith has had its critics, but a few names stand out in in every generation as the sternest.  For many years now, this honour, dubious or glorious according to taste, has been held by a member of the scientific or empiricist tradition: one thinks of the roll-call from the nineteenth century onwards: Tyndall, Galton, Huxley, Ayers, Russell, and now Dawkins, Wolpert, Dennett.  In the eighteenth century we were offered the sometimes mischievous agnosticism of Hume; but across the Channel was the more full-bodied flowering of d'Holbach and Diderot.  Of course, this is a motley connection of names, of greatly varying ability and temperaments; but still, there is a sort of common theme: nearly all of them would claim to have been convinced that the existence of God is bascially ruled out by facts we know about the world, be it the alleged inherent motion of matter (Diderot), the ruling out of metaphysics by the empirical programme (Ayers) or the explanatory power of natural selection (Dawkins).  This odd settling on empirical facts to settle the question of the existence of God, supposedly beyond or above facts, may be seen in the context of ruling out direct personal experience as being too subjective and metaphysics as being too opaque and untrustworthy.  Then, what else could there be?  Or so the argument runs.

The God Delusion
is divided into two rather similar size chunks, the first being a sort of investigation into what Dawkins calls the 'God Hypothesis', and the second an investigation into the evolutionary roots of religion, and to alternatives to traditional religious home patches such as ethics, shooting abortionists and (presumably, although Dawkins is not explicit here) jumble sales and mouldy vestries.  As the latter half is largely a mix of ad hominem comments that, as Dawkins himself says elsewhere hardly have a bearing on the basic issues, and which have been widely commented on elsewhere, I shall largely ignore it and concentrate on the first.  Let's see how he gets on.  

Rather promisingly, he starts with a chapter that deals with the sense of wonder at the natural world, shared by both his school chaplain (apparently not a Secondary Modern then) and Einstein.  After more preliminaries, mostly settling old scores with Steven J. Gould and Michael Ruse in which the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Russell's Orbiting Teapot make their first appearances, Dawkins gets down to the meat of the matter: Messers Aquinas, Anselm, Pascal etc.  It must be said that Dawkins' heart does not really seem to be in this section, as his treatment of especially Aquinas is so perfunctory as to make one why he bothered to include it in the first place - perhaps his editor made him.  The trouble is that Dawkins is so keen to get onto the next chapter, which contains what he evidently considers to be an irrefutable rebuttal of the existence of God, that the great monuments of mature theological reflection don't really have the pulling power to detain him.  I'll deal with the two together, then. 

 Dawkins' basic point is that Aquinas' famous Five Ways include two real arguments, one the Cosmological, and the other the Argument from Design.  Rather curiously, Dawkins thinks that the first of these is dead, and only the second, the one that he has written many fine pages on debunking, has any currency.  So: the Cosmological Argument at its heart is about why there is existence at all, and the Argument from Design is about why existence is ordered in such a user-friendly way.  If you accept both, then you are close to classical Theism; if the first but not the second, to Deism; and if the second but not the first, to Gnosticism or Platonism with its ordering Demiurge.  Dawkins, of course, accepts neither.  His reasons for not accepting the argument from design are well known since the admirably clear Selfish Gene, and need not detain us right away: but he reduces the cosmological argument to the design one too.  To be specific, Dawkins' complaint - and it is a famous one - is that even if you accept that the universe requires a First Cause, whatever that is requires explanation in itself: and if that thing is complicated, which he claims God in the traditional sense must be ('what bandwidth!'), then you have not explained anything.  Complexity, for Dawkins, and this is an interesting aspect to his views, must certainly come about through either i) a vast amount of luck, or ii) (preferred option) natural selection.  I agree.  Indeed, as other commentators have pointed out, Dawkins comes close here to raising natural selection to a sort of universal principle here, to the extent that one might think that his vaunted empiricist credentials are being somewhat compromised.    In other words, if God, traditionally conceived, made the world, then He, like everything else, must have evolved through natural selection; so rather than solving the problem of infinite regress of causes, which the Cosmological Argument is meant to, it simply exemplifies it, and in spades.  

Dawkins thinks this is straightforwardly unanswerable, and this seems to be the reason that he finds it hard to focus on other arguments.  Of course, as he goes on to admit, we do not have a readily identifiable cosmological equivalent to natural selection yet (although he urges physicists to look for one) and thus order in the universe as a whole has yet to be accounted for. Dawkins attempts this by a mixture of the Weak Anthropic Principle (things had to be like this, otherwise we would not be here worrying about them) plus a variety of the old saltational arguments that he himself has spent so much time destroying: i) given the gazillions of planets we strongly suspect of existing, one of them is fairly likely to produce life even if life itself is highly unlikely; ii) in order to generate a universe with the right and subtle balance of universal constants that could generate atoms, let alone pangolins, an awful lot of universes must be available, either serially (the cyclical universe, which on both observational and entropy grounds seems to get more unlikely by the day) or in parallel (the multiverse, with countless baby universes popping into (or perhaps more properly, out of) existence, all of which have slightly varying laws and constants).

In spite of what Dawkins thinks, the cosmological argument has been intensely discussed in the last few years, enlivened partly by the 'Kalam' version of it so vigorously, but not decisively, promoted by William Lane Craig.  To give a taster, Craig thinks he can prove that the universe had a definite point of origin that he, not unreasonably, identifies with the initial singularity of Big Bang cosmology.  This conviction, which seems implausible on the surface, is based on certain controversial aspects of the instantiation of infinities (ie in this view infinities are mathematical fictions that cannot refer to physical realities).  For example, if the universe, or something similar, has always existed, then we would never have been able to get to the present, as there were an infinite number of things that had to happen first.  Or, suppose we meet someone who is counting '-3...-2...-1...0, there, I've done it!', ie someone who from all eternity has been counting upwards from infinity up to the present, and thus numbering all the instances of time there have been.  Like in Hilbert's Hotel, which has an infinity of rooms all of which are full, but where one can still squeeze in more guests (indeed, an infinite number more) by shuffling guests around, this leads to disturbing contradictions that emerge from the fact that two infinite series can be indefinitely paired of with each other: an infinity of past time that ends in 1859 is pairable with an one that ends in 2007.  But if so, why would our indefatigable counter happen to come to an end just now - why not a hundred years ago? Indeed, given that she has had an infinite amount of time to finish, there would never be a time in the past when she would not yet have come to an end, despite the fact that she has an infinite number of things to count: a basic contradiction that suggests something is seriously wrong with assuming an infinite past. For anyone who finds this sort of thing gives pleasure (I accept the number may not be infinite) no better nor entertaining introduction can be obtained than Rudy Rucker's psychodelic novel White Light.  

Any case, the basic and ancient point that persists is this: if everything - radically considered - came into existence 13.7 billion years ago, what made it do so?  Twittering about quantum fluctuations etc does not do the trick, because for there to be a fluctuation, there must be something to fluctuate: the quantum vacuum does not even come close to being 'nothing at all'.  As even Hume said, the idea of nothing at all really giving rise to something beggars the imagination: indeed, it is the shipwreck of rational inquiry.  Conversely, if Craig and conventional modern cosmology are wrong about the infinities and the initial radical singularity, the problem of the eternally existing universe, complete with energy, space-time manifolds and so on, remains: a complex, uncaused thing (or, perhaps better, collection of things).  In fact, although Dawkins seems to imply that such a universe would give Aquinas a hangover he would never get over, Aquinas explicitly discusses it and, although it is far from his preferred option, is not fundamentally challenged by it: causality can be generative as well as temporal (ie even an eternal universe demands a cause).  Dawkins says that he can imagine the universe evolving - through an as yet unknown selective process - from simpler origins to the more baroque structure we see today. 

The trouble with this -  apart from the ultimate origin problem mentioned above - is that selection, as Dawkins is of course aware, does not work in situations of extreme simplicity: it requires a certain level of pre-existing complexity (e.g. variation, transmission mechanism, selective pressure etc) to work.  We can thus account at least conceptually for the origin of life by proposing that these mechanisms, nowadays taken over by genes and phenotypes and ecology, were originally embodied in something else (RNA, clay minerals or some other precursor).  But going backwards in the evolution of the multiverse, one would by hypothesis lose more and more complexity until eventually one would simply run out of machinery: nor would there be anything else to replace it as its precursor. 

In any case, any theologian worth their salt (and despite what Dawkins thinks, they certainly exist) would not be fazed by the general and oft-repeated point that God must be 'complex' and thus 'needs explanation'.  Defined as the originator of all there is, God cannot be considered to be an existing thing, a point made repeatedly over the years, most notably, perhaps, by Paul Tillich.  To put it another way, talk of God's existence, and thus His cause, is a category mistake: God is not a thing that, like the universe, so impertinently demands explanation.   Of course, this makes bloggers such as those that frequent the charmingly named '', and from whom Dawkins quotes approvingly, moan about pseudophilosophical, well, bullshit I suppose.  Love it or loathe it though, that is the unsettling concept that one is logically forced to deal with; it is but one route to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (the fearful yet compelling Other).  

Perhaps tellingly, we get some picture of all this from the other end of the scale, ie our own consciousness.  For although our brain is highly complex, and is in various physical states that are correlated in ways that we are only beginning to understand with our mental states, our consciousness per se is not complex: indeed, its most striking characteristic is what Kant called the 'transcendental unity of apperception' - a unified whole rather than a complex mass of interacting 'mental atoms'.  Yet it is by making conscious decisions that we interact with the world and, for example, bring order about it in.  Of course, it might be, as Dennett would have it, that there are lots of shenanigans going on behind the scenes of consciousness, and that there are various correlates of brain activity that take place antecedently to conscious decision.  Still, the point, that I do not think Dawkins would necessarily disagree with, is that our self-experience as non-physical entity that lies outside the material world but yet - effortlessly! - interacts with it is not seriously damaged by this, nor is it clear how it could be.   Oddly, Dawkins makes no play about consciousness in the book, which does not even feature in the index, even though one would have thought that a delusion implies a conscious deludee.  It is our very ability to think in extremely general terms - presumably an apomorphy that arose in one of the basal Homo stem groups (as Conway Morris has implied, such an ability may have also arisen elsewhere too) - that leads us to the contemplation of the dizzying and profoundly disturbing aspects of the origin of the universe, or more simply to the general problem of our own existence. 

As Karl Rahner put it, to radically eliminate God from the picture, so that future humans not only did not believe in God, but no longer remembered even the concept, they would have to be radically different from what they are now, and indeed, considerably less to Dawkins' own taste, who talks (extremely irritatingly, it should be said) about 'consciousness-raising' throughout the book.  We've had consciousness-raising before, ie some time in the Pleistocene, and it led straight to religion. 

What is tantalizing about Dawkins is that, as convert-Dawkins fanatics have optimistically noted, he writes about some of this stuff: both in his first and last chapters, and I believe it is an investigation of the aesthetics of science and religion that is going to be most fruitful.  The Dorset coast is beautiful; and understanding its geology only adds to its beauty.  But walking west over Hambury Tout until the line of chalk cliffs beyond Durdle Door suddenly comes into view; or watching a storm crash into Worbarrow Bay: that is sublime, an experience that can be neither added to nor subtracted from.  Such experiences, which can also accompany ethical, artistic and cosmological and relational reflections, all point towards and beyond the boundary conditions of our understanding, and continuously shock us out of our complacent common sense of how the world is.  If we are to take Dawkins at his own word in Unweaving the Rainbow, then I don't think he believes this sort of numinous backdrop to our life is going to be explained away by neurological or evolutionary investigations, even if it is explained. In this he would join with Rahner, who notes that the florescence of all the 'ologies' concerning humans has not yet succeeded in removing or even eroding our basic self-understanding: ever on the outside of the world, ever gazing in, while wondering all the while.

On mechanical cows and the uses of religion.

In his very interesting introduction to his condensed edition of Aquinas' Summa, Timothy McDermott outlines an Aristotelian view of nature for his readership.  He points out that the modern, atomistic view of the way the world is, ie constructed out of "fundamental" particles and energy, was a view that Aquinas would have viewed as crude and primitive.  Indeed, Aquinas talks about how the early gropers after the truth about the world had such a view (he is thinking of course of the atomists such as Democritus), and slowly felt their way to a much richer understanding of the world, culminating in the obscure and difficult Metaphysics of Aristotle.  The basic point here is that, when one asks "what things really exist" - when one tries to compile an ontological catalogue - the study of biology especially compels the Aristotelian to say that things like dogs really exist, and are not just constructs out of the rather greyish slurry of basic "stuff".  He goes on to talk about animals in this light, and in particular their roles in the world.  What, he asks, is a cow for?  Of course, we can isolate things cows do, or things we use cows for, but these instrumentalist views do not really capture "cowness" itself.  And thus, he argues, we can distinguish between machines, which always have a function (and nothing else) and an animal which, although it has certain faculties (producing milk, mooing, reproduction  etc) isn't for anything.  Indeed, when we try to describe a cow in mechanistic terms, we end up leaving out...what?  Well, we end up with the same problems as with humans; there is some sort of idle component that plays no role in the functional description, but yet is what cowness is all about: ie the sheer being of the cow itself.  A cow is not for anything, but what can imagine to be its idle enjoyment of its own experience.  This is, of course, an aesthetic analysis of a cow, and I am not suggesting (yet: evolution of aesthetics will come later) that cows have aesthetic experience per se.  To put it another way, one could easily imagine a zombie cow without any kind of experience at all; and yet still describe the mechanical functions perfectly well.  Indeed, it is far more respectable to imagine that cows really are like that than humans.  But such a description does not capture the essence, the substance of the cow, to use the Aristotelian terms.  

I previously argued rather equivocally about zombies, coming to the vague conclusion that they are imaginable but not real in fact, at least for humans.  So, despite what some have said, we also have this uncapturable "humaness" about us, that is always left out when doing descriptions of the world.  And I think this is one of the reasons that religion has been so difficult to deal with for those recent commentators who are hostile to it.
So, turning seamlessly from mechanical cows to religion, writers like Dawkins have tried to categorise religion in terms of mechanical uses: and for him, he suggests the for possible are "exhortation, consolation, inspiration and explanation".  I shall ignore the rather pat didactic tone of this characterisation and try to investigate what he means by this.  
There is a fashionable fable about the origins of religion that sees it as a sort of feeble attempt at science. E.g.: the thunder rumbles, so that must mean a god made it happen.  Then, the argument runs, we got philosophy with the Greeks and could start thinking about the world systematically, which in turn laid the foundations for Science; thus rendering at least the first (and presumably the second, too) obsolete.   
I find this Whiggish in the first order.  It makes all sorts of assumptions about what people were about at the dawn of consciousness; and in particular they were all amateur scientists.  But science is a very recent concept, and it seems just bizarre that that is what people were really interested in.  Indeed, most people aren't interested in it today.  It's true, of course, that most religions have some sort of cosmogeny built in to them, but why should be forced to think that that is what "religion is for"? It would be a natural extension of religion to encompass the whole experience of the world, including an account of its origin.  And, after all, cosmogenies don't always look like an attempt to "explain" anything.  Take, for example, the account in Genesis, which in turn relates to other ancient cosmogenies.  The Genesis versions, especially the "Yahwist", actually leaves out most of the "explanation": it attributes creation to God but completely fails to go into potentially amusing details.  It is, in fact, an experiential account of creation - the experience of the world as created by God - rather than even a protoscientific view, telling us a naive theory about how it was done.  So, we are back to the aesthetics of the situation again: the non-mechanical idle component that I think Dawkins completely fails to recognise in his mechanical analysis.  To put it crudely, people in this account are religious not because religion plays a role in their world view, whether it be explanation, exhortation or whatever, but because they have religious experience, akin to, but not identical with, aesthetic experience.  
After all, one can try to analyse aesthetics mechanically too: and I shall try to do this when I discuss its evolution.  Aesthetics might be related to finding food, or mate selection, etc.  But these do not really capture the subjective aesthetic experience itself; the idle, and indeed pointless enjoyment of something without an end in mind.  As soon as one asks "what is aesthetics for", or "what is religion for", one is bound to start missing the essential point, even though some interesting other facts will emerge in this endeavour (knowing how a cow works is interesting, even if it does not tell you about cowness).  In order to have sympathy with religion, one must stop seeing it as a bad version of something it is not, and start looking at it in its own terms.  Such a view is bound to have to include its essential subjectivity.  It seems we must return to Kant's universal subjective judgements at some point.

Even more on consciousness (iv). On being Napoleon. On "-And He Built a Crooked House-".

At the risk of rambling somewhat, I would like to comment about a couple of more things on consciousness.  I have no wish to be supernaturalist - indeed, I am a scientist who thus excludes any sort of supernatural explanation from how the world is (what we mean, however, by supernatural, must come later).  But if we take subjective experience and being someone seriously, it seems to me that the supertwin example (and others like it) show us that physicalism cannot account for everything we know to be true; ie that I am a person with a particular subjective experience,  Let us return once more to eternal recurrence.  Recall that in an infinitely long-lived universe, the same sets of events and circumstances will eventually recur with arbitrary closeness to previous events; and thus a person identical to me will eventually be born again.  Let us assume, in line with physicalism, that that person is really me, and I will really experience my life again.  The question then becomes; how come I end up being this particular person the whole time, and why not someone else?  Why am I never born as Napoleon, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Aristotle?  Why is it that my particular subjective experience is attached to brain states similar to the ones I have now, and not to those around me?  
Not me...

Of course, there is a penumbra of possible lives of people somewhat like me that would have different life outcomes; in some I might die at birth, and in others become a champion athlete.  Perhaps in some I live in a time where the problem of aging has been solved and I live for thousands of years.  After all, we know that personal identity persists through a life where every aspect of our brains, including all the molecules in it, changes; and my brain when I am eighty will be extremely different from the one I had when I was twenty.  So it seems that extreme close identity of brains is not enough to guarantee being the same person.  But then, if not that, what does?  It is in arguments like this that one feels most sympathy with the idea of an "arrow" pointing at a particular set of physical arangements with a label saying "this is person X" as a label, which seems fairly close to some sort of soul-like concept.  Let me repeat that I do not wish to endorse such a view, merely to point out that it would solve certain problems. 
Conversely, surely personality, if not subjectivity, is physically determined.  My personality changes through life to a certain extent as I have different experiences: and we know that drugs, injury and illness can all radically alter personality.  We know certain things about the physical basis for certain mental faculties such as memory, which from sea hare studies if nothing else can be seen to have a molecular basis.  And we will certainly find out more about such things. 
Because many people implicilty recognise these problems, professional philosophers have often tried hard to deny the premiss, ie that we really have subjective experience and are persons; ie the commitment to physicalism forces a certain anti-subjective view of the mind on those so committed.  But to do so seems to me to do violence to the data we all know are true; ie we really do have subjective experience; we really do have unified experience.  Sometimes people point towards mind pathologies to argue against this.  For example, examples of "split minds" caused by surgery or by certain types of schizophrenia are sometimes invoked.  In the latter, alien thoughts seem to intrude into the mind of the sufferer that do not "belong" to the rest of the person.  But still, these thoughts do still belong in the sense that they are recognised as an (albeit alien) feature of that person's mind.  So we must be careful about how we interpret such case-histories. 
If consciousness was the only point at issue - if that was the only thing we did not understand - then perhaps we might be justified in this sort of metaphysical vice, forcing consciousness and physicalism together.  But this sort of world view breaks down in cosmology too, as I already commented on.  Furthermore, some of its most basic features, in particular causality, are also highly troublesome; and I shall post more about this later.
The bizarre feeling one gets when one examines the wreckage of the science and philosophy of the mind; parts of it seem tantalisingly explicable, or as if they could be explicable, whereas others are so far from comprehension (the "hard problem") we do not even know where to start, reminds me of the various stories about extra dimensions; and I am thinking in particular of "-and he built a crooked house-", "A wrinkle in time" and "Flatland".  Here people end up in four-dimensional environments with only their three-dimensional modes of understanding.  It is not as if all aspects of this new experience is imcomprehensible; some of it is identical or similar to known modes of understanding; but then other features are totally ungraspable. And, without wishing to imply an extra dimension as the answer (this is only an analogy), this is the "feel" that problems such as cosmology and consciousness also give.  Two speculative questions: do these similar feels come about because the same sort of expansion of our explanatory world would encompass both psychology and cosmology?  And second, does our aesthetic experience, which I have hinted is similar, fall into the same category too? 

More on consciousness (iii).On personal identity and 'eternal recurrence'.

Nietzsche famously obssesed about eternal recurrence, the idea that everything would happen over and over again, and thus that we would live life again and again.  Indeed, he was familiar with the same idea in Schopenhauer who wrote: "Perhaps no one at the end of their life, if they were simultaneously enlightened and honest, would wish to live their life over again, in fact would much prefer complete nonexistence to it.".  But whereas Schopenhauer saw such a possibility in a negative light, Nietzsche saw redemptive possiblities in it.  Here is Nietzsche (somewhat obscurely, as usual):
"What if, someday or night, a daemon stole into your loneliest loneliness, and said to you; "This life, which you've lived up to now, you must live once again and countless times, and nothing new will come of it. Every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh, and everything inexpressibly small and great in your life must return to you, all in the same order and series. The eternal hourglass of time will be turned over again and again, and you with it, pebble of sand." Would you not cast yourself down, with gnashing of teeth, and curse the daemon who spoke thus? Or have you ever experienced one tremendous moment, which would cause you to answer him; "You are a god, and never have I heard a commandment so holy!" If such a thought were to gain power over you, it would transform you, maybe even crush you. The question put to everyone; "Do you want this again, and countless times?" would become the heaviest weight upon your actions! For how good would you have to become to yourself and your life to long after nothing more than this final confirmation and seal?"
Of course, the idea of such recurrence is also embedded in some Eastern religions: but it is also, by implication, rearing its head in some scientific discussions.  If one really does not want the universe to start along with time and space, then it must persist forever, and as a result, given an absolute infinity of time, the same state of affairs, arbitrarily close to the ones we know now, must recur over and over again.Even if the universe is infinite, an infinity of time will still allow certain subsections of it to keep coming back arbitrarily close to the same state.  Indeed, some of the superspecialists are rather keen on this idea.
It seems that we will all live forever after all, and whether this is a source of horror or joy must depend on whether you incline towards Schopenhauerian pessimism or not.  What I want to discuss here are some very strange effects that a physicalist view of consciousness and personal identity has in such a setting. 
Personal identity has been much discussed recently, with several famous thought experiments: I shall produce some of my own in a moment. Indeed, its very existence has been questioned by people like Hume (a bundle of experiences), and more recently in the weighty effort by Metzinger, Being no one.  However, I am not so sure that that first person subjectivity is so easily removed from the scene. But taking subjectivity seriously immediately means a package of bizarre problems emerge as we try to relate the subjective to the objective, as eternal recurrence brings out.
So, suppose that at some point in the unimaginable future, the world state returns to more or less what it is today.  And thus, a person abitrarily similar to me is born.  But the question is, is it me?  Will I, after my death, be reborn and experience my life again?  Of course, someone will do in this situation: someone will be born who will think just like me, have the same subjective experience and so on.  But that does not in itself make that person me. 
To make this clearer, I want to introduce a thought experiment which, like all such reputable things involves a mad scientist intent on torture (it is of course a variant on several other similar ones).  Suppose I have an identical twin.  Both of us are captured by the MS; who proceeds to make the minor alterations to my twin's brain to make it exactly like mine (lucky him).  Of course, this won't be possible at the quantum level, but by getting the neurone numbers and relationships right, the types and concentrations of neurotransmitters etc, one can surely get a prety close fit.  And now, of course, the MS locks us up and goes off for lunch, with the intent of torturing me when he returns.  Being mad, he forgets that he can no longer distinguish me from my twin.  He takes one of us out and starts to torture him horribly.
Whoever is being tortured will suffer terribly, and identically to the other if it had been him instead.   But surely, I would still rather prefer that it was my twin who was being tortured and not me; I would rather he had that experience, and not me. Now imagine it the other way round: I am altered by the MS to be identical to my twin.  Does this make any difference?  Surely not.  But this seems to show that physicalism is wrong: subjectivity introduces some element that cannot be detected by physical investigation of the world: no-one could ever tell which of the two was really being tortured
Now return to the eternal recurrence scenario: and now do we feel the same about whether or not I get to be born again?  Why is a supertwin of the distant future more likely to be really me than the one in the next room? 
Now think of another scenario, where the mechanism that keeps the universe in existence is "on the blink": the universe sometimes snaps out of existence for an instant, then comes back in the same state with no passage of time.  Am I still the same person then?  Surely the loss of consciousness is not the problem, because that happens all the time when we sleep.  Of course, this sort of problem can be solved by reference to a soul attached to a particular body. But that in itself raises a whole row of problems and I am inclined to think it is a conceptual mistake.
Personal identity, then, points to some extremely strange things about the world, once more dizzying and problematic.  Once more we should be very cautious about people who make confident claims about how the world really is.  But what surely is important is not the conceptual background to who we are: but how we respond to the existential challenge of who we are.  And that is to return to the central issues of this blog.

More on consciousness (ii). On its evolution and the Turing test.

Given the complete perplexity that consciousness seems to generate, it is nevertheless striking that we do not have any conceptual, or even perhaps any practical problems, in envisaging its evolution from some sort of completely unconscious organism to a fully conscious organism (or at least to ourselves).  Partly this is, of course, because we ourselves undergo striking changes in consciousness every day.  We fall asleep, we awake, we pay or lose attention to things, and so on.  
The fact that conscious has evolved implies it must play some causal role in our lives and not be a merely decorative add-on.  But we do not understand what this might be, given that we can, as already noted, give pretty decent functional/behavioural accounts of ourselves without any reference to consciousness at all.  This touches on the famous "philosophical zombie" problem; no matter how we behave, it always seems possible to claim that such behaviour could be produced by something that was nevertheless unconscious.  Yet if this is so, then why would consciousness evolve?  This suggests after all that there really are some aspects to behaviour that demand consciousness (or at least, have consciousness as an unavoidable side-effect).  What might these be?
  We know from cases of 'petit mal' and so on that it is quite possible to act in a fairly complex and consistent way whilst not, apparently, being conscious; yet we can also be conscious when doing far less complex things.  This strikes me as a problem for the "Turing test"; the idea that anything that behaves identically to something that is conscious must be considered conscious itself: for there is no linear relationship between complexity of behaviour and degree of consciousness.  Furthermore, the fact that we can blank out while doing things, with or without epilepsy, implies that there really are, at least to some degree, philosophical zombies.  
If there really is a point to the Turing test, then, it must be to identify that particular set of features that must be accompanied by consciousness; and the examples I've just given I think rule out an awful lot of other things.
Given that absence seizures (= petit mal) are associated with learning difficulties in animal models and humans, perhaps learning is something that requires consciousness.  
The other bracket that can be put around "what consciousness is for" is provided by animals.  Curiously enough, the pioneer in the evolution of animal consciousness was William James.  Given that it would be overwhelmingly strange if at least mammals and birds were not conscious (with the added implication that reptiles are too); then as they have no language and thus are not reasoning, it seems the consciousness did not evolve for this either.  What is it for then?  It seems that without consciousness we can do complex things; conversely, consciousness evolved before the really complex things we do.  Furthermore, as far as we can see, it would be not at all surprising if the cephalopods were conscious (this must have happened convergently to our own consciousness); and I have recently been rather impressed by insects too.  I think this raises even more problems for the Turing test.  One can indeed imagine a "squid simulator", and indeed this might really be much much easier than, say, a Norwegian simulator.   But why would we want to ascribe consciousness to the artificial squid any more than to the artificial Norwegian?  Or take an even more simple model, the celebrated sea hare, Aplysia, long a model for neurobiologists.  Aplysia has a set of stereotypical responses to stimuli including its ability to release ink when stressed.  They do not live very complicated lives, and it would presumably be rather easy to build an artifical sea hare that would pass the sea-hare equivalent of the Turing test.  But would we want to ascribe consciousness to such a machine?  I think the point is that we would not: but that would not tell us anything about whether or sea hare's themselves are in some way conscious.  And what would be so different in the case for a human simulator?
What is the bottom line out of all this?  Consciousness evolved and therefore does something real; but that just confirms our own intutions. As conscious beings we really intervene in the world and our consciousness makes a difference, in terms of decisions, aesthetics, learning and so on.  It seems we have to draw a distinction between different types of zombies: in actlity, it seems they do not exist, but conceptually they could.  And we still have made no progress in understanding consciousness or how it emerged.

RSS 2.0