Thursday, March 23, 2006

What We Know May Not Change Us

Here are a few quotations from a very sane and brief essay by Barry Smith, a philosopher at the University of London.

"Human beings, like everything else, are part of the natural world...we need many different kinds of theories at different levels of description to account for everything there is.

Theories at these different levels may not be reduced one to another. What matters is that they be compatible with one another. The astronomy Newton gave us was a triumph over supernaturalism because it united the mechanics of the sub-lunary world with an account of the heavenly bodies. In a similar way, biology allowed us to advance from a time when we saw life in terms of an elan vital. Today, the biggest challenge is to explain our powers of thinking and imagination, our abilities to represent and report our thoughts: the very means by which we engage in scientific theorising. The final triumph of the natural sciences over supernaturalism will be an account of nature of conscious experience. The cognitive and brain sciences have done much to make that project clearer but we are still a long way from a fully satisfying theory.

But even if we succeed in producing a theory of human thought and reason, of perception, of conscious mental life, compatible with other theories of the natural and biological world, will we relinquish our cherished commonsense conceptions of ourselves as human beings, as selves who know ourselves best, who deliberate and decide freely on what to do and how to live? There is much evidence that we won't. As humans we conceive ourselves as centres of experience, self-knowing and free willing agents. We see ourselves and others as acting on our beliefs, desires, hopes and fears, and has having responsibility for much that we do and all that we say. And even as results in neuroscience begin to show how much more automated, routinised and pre-conscious much of our behaviour is, we are remain unable to let go of the self-beliefs that govern our day to day rationalisings and dealings with others.

We are perhaps incapable of treating others as mere machines, even if that turns out to be what we are. The self-conceptions we have are firmly in place and sustained in spite of our best findings, and it may be a fact about human beings that it will always be so. We are curious and interested in neuroscientists findings and we wonder at them and about their applications to ourselves, but as the great naturalistic philosopher David Hume knew, nature is too strong in us, and it will not let us give up our cherished and familiar ways of thinking for long. Hume knew that however curious an idea and vision of ourselves we entertained in our study, or in the lab, when we returned to the world to dine, make merry with our friends our most natural beliefs and habits returned and banished our stranger thoughts and doubts."

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:54 PM

    a theory of human thought and reason would be a PRODUCT of human thought and reason. And human thought and reason is a product of something else which by simple logic is seen to be impossible to 'understand' since understanding is merely another product of thought and reason. Any explanation is a product of thought. Whatever anything really IS, is impossible to know.

    "As humans we conceive ourselves as centres of experience, self-knowing and free willing agents."

    Knowing is thought, 'ourselves' is also just thought constructs. 'ME' is nothing but thoughts. The idea of being a centre of experience is another product of 'self invested' thought. Conceiving cannot conceive itself.

    "What we know may not change us"

    Thoughts change. The place in which they exist never changes. So who is it that changes?

    It is of vital importance to this planet that humans see this.