Fortunately, our house has a strong foundation.
Even though my wife thinks I'm in danger of collapsing our home via the weight of all the books I bring into it, I'm confident that it will survive even after Daniel Dennett's new 512 page tome is delivered.
These days, Mr. Dennett, 71, is most famous for his blunt-talking atheist activism. “There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion,” he said flatly.
But for decades, he has presented himself among his fellow philosophers as a ruthless slayer of metaphysical fancy.
...The mind? A collection of computerlike information processes, which happen to take place in carbon-based rather than silicon-based hardware.
The self? Simply a “center of narrative gravity,” a convenient fiction that allows us to integrate various neuronal data streams.
The elusive subjective conscious experience — the redness of red, the painfulness of pain — that philosophers call qualia? Sheer illusion.
Human beings, Mr. Dennett said, quoting a favorite pop philosopher, Dilbert, are “moist robots.”
“I’m a robot, and you’re a robot, but that doesn’t make us any less dignified or wonderful or lovable or responsible for our actions,” he said. “Why does our dignity depend on our being scientifically inexplicable?”
Great question. I find a lot of inexplicable mystery in the cosmos. I tend to feel that the Ultimate Mystery of Existence always will remain mysterious, because existence just is.
Period. There's nothing after that "is." Existence is. If that bothers you, I've got more disturbing news: you just are.
If we could trace you and me and everyone and everything back, and back, and back some more, we'd eventually zoom through or past the big bang and likely much more besides, ending (if that word has any meaning here) at mind-blowing is.
The is that simultaneously is, was, and always will be, even though everything in existence other than existence itself (not that it is an "it") won't always be.
I'm pretty sure that when I read Dennett's new book I'll agree with him that we humans are scientifically explicable. Insofar as the extent to which the human brain can understand other things in the cosmos, it should be able to understand itself.
On that note, today I read a passage in Patricia Smith Churchland's "Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy" bearing on that assertion.
Our brains -- using whatever equipment is available: conceptual, technological, linguistic, etc. -- drum up increasingly adequate models of reality, where the brain, among other things, is part of the reality modeled.
We keep questioning, and we build the next generation of theories upon the scaffolding of the last. How do we know the models are increasingly adequate? Only by their relative success in predicting and explaining. We cannot doff all lenses -- perceptual, conceptual, technological -- and make a direct comparison between hypothesis and reality.
Does this mean that there is a fatal circularity in neuroscience -- the brain uses itself to study itself? Not if you think about it. I use my eyes to study the eye, but nothing very troubling results from this necessity, since I can study the eyes of others and reliably generalize to my own case.
The brain I study is seldom my own, but usually that of other animals, and I can reliably generalize to my own case. The enterprise of naturalized epistemology involves many brains -- correcting each other, testing each other, and building models that can be rated as better or worse in characterizing the world.
If an hypothesis says that no new neurons are made in the adult human brain, that hypothesis can be tested and falsified. If a hypothesis says that memories are one and all stored in the hippocampus, that can be tested and falsified.
Figuring out what is not true helps us get closer to what is true, whether the subject matter is brains or the origin of the Earth.
Check out my marvelously persuasive (in my non-humble opinion) "Boxing up varieties of belief." In that post, as in many others, I explain why science is so much more appealing than religion. On that, for sure, Dennett and I completely agree.