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November 28, 2009


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I have also read this book, which I found to be enjoyable in several respects.

First, Burton outlines a plausible model to explain the evolutionary basis for what I suppose you could describe as the tendency for persistence and belief. I personally found this discussion to be credible and informative, and have since identified other likely examples. For example, members of a certain species of jungle monkeys will patiently roll and tap a river clam against a rock for very long periods of time until the clam muscles are finally exhausted and the tasty payoff can be extracted. In this case, nothing much at all seems to happen for a very long time, but the monkey has "faith" that patience and diligent effort will be rewarded.

Second, and most entertainingly, despite the kinds of thoughtful excerpts highlighted above in this post, Burton nevertheless exhibits the same qualities of stubborn non-empirical belief that he sets out to address. Convinced that consciousness will eventually be fully and solely explained by the mechanics of the brain, but stymied by the fact that the intricate workings of the human mind have so far eluded the grasp of science, he repeatedly invokes the intervention of a mysterious "hidden layer" of neuronal functionality to account for the intricacies of mental phenomena "generated" by the brain. How ironic is it that he himself ultimately assumes a "faith-based" position to fully account for his preferred mechanistic model of the mind!

Ultimately, I found myself bemused by his posturing as one of a select and noble few who seems to be quite "certain" that our existence is a cruel and meaningless joke foisted upon us by an accidental cosmos (which he mentions almost as a casual aside later in the book).

For all of these reasons, I'd recommend this book as a pretty good read.

Brian from Colorado, I got a different sense of Burton's book. But I guess that's because you and I are different (which, of course, is one of Burton's points: that people find meaning in the world in a wide variety of ways).

Burton is a neurologist, so his description of the brain's "hidden layers" was credible to me. It's much the same in Metzinger's The Ego Tunnel book. It seems like knowledge about the world is coming to us directly through our senses, but actually our brain does a lot of processing before a sight, sound, or whatever filters through our "ego tunnel" and becomes a conscious realization.

At various points in the book Burton acknowledges his own personal inclination to selectively pick and choose a certain way of looking at the world. This is admirably honest, something most authors don't do. Thus he walked his own walk, so to speak.

In a footnote he says:

"In writing this book, I have caught myself selecting facts to fit or support a preconceived idea that I've wanted to convey. This isn't a prudent admission if I want you to accept my ideas as being reasonable. On the other hand, it is an inescapable component of my thesis."

Still, I like how Burton is solidly pro-science. The scientific method is a great way to sort out our personal predilections from how reality really is -- recognizing that the truth about reality never can be known with 100% certainty.

Both science and (especially) religion need to recognize that the quest for truth always leads into hitherto unknown territory, so old notions will continually be replaced by updated ones.

Hi Blogger Brian, I'm definitely pro-science too, so I hope my previous comment wasn't unduly contrarian. That being said, I would count myself as one who does see the mantle of science assuming a quasi-religious role for many people these days. Maybe the issue is more about semantics, as the term "science" is routinely being conflated with a strict materialist worldview, as opposed to the methods and ethics of science as a professional discipline and reliable method of prediction in the physical world.

The problem I see is a predilection to inject a "scientific" worldview into realms in which objective measurements cannot be, and probably never will be, obtained. If you can't measure it, it just ain't science.

Regardless, I appreciate the time and effort you've taken to set up and run your blog, err, I mean, churchless church :)

Brian from Colorado, now I understand better what you mean. Yes, science (particularly physics and cosmology) is considering questions that likely can't be answered with objective information.

Such as whether other universes exist beyond the horizon of our knowledge. (However, I've seen speculation that gravity waves, or whatever, might leak through into our universe, providing indirect evidence of the many universes hypothesis.)

On the whole, though, science stays humbly within the bounds of demonstrable evidence much better than religion does. That is, scientists don't make outrageous claims and then expect other people to either accept them without question, or not react skeptically.

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