Thursday, September 08, 2016

Reason is not required for a life of meaning.

Robert Burton, former neurology chief at UCSF and a neuroscience author, has contributed an excellent short essay to the NYTimes philosophy series The Stone. A few clips:
Few would disagree with two age-old truisms: We should strive to shape our lives with reason, and a central prerequisite for the good life is a personal sense of meaning...Any philosophical approach to values and purpose must acknowledge this fundamental neurological reality: a visceral sense of meaning in one’s life is an involuntary mental state that, like joy or disgust, is independent from and resistant to the best of arguments...Anyone who has experienced a bout of spontaneous depression knows the despair of feeling that nothing in life is worth pursuing and that no argument, no matter how inspired, can fill the void. Similarly, we are all familiar with the countless narratives of religious figures “losing their way” despite retaining their formal beliefs.
As neuroscience attempts to pound away at the idea of pure rationality and underscore the primacy of subliminal mental activity, I am increasingly drawn to the metaphor of idiosyncratic mental taste buds. From genetic factors (a single gene determines whether we find brussels sprouts bitter or sweet), to the cultural — considering fried grasshoppers and grilled monkey brains as delicacies — taste isn’t a matter of the best set of arguments...If thoughts, like foods, come in a dazzling variety of flavors, and personal taste trumps reason, philosophy — which relies most heavily on reason, and aims to foster the acquisition of objective knowledge — is in a bind.
Though we don’t know how thoughts are produced by the brain, it is hard to imagine having a thought unaccompanied by some associated mental state. We experience a thought as pleasing, revolting, correct, incorrect, obvious, stupid, brilliant, etc. Though integral to our thoughts, these qualifiers arise out of different brain mechanisms from those that produce the raw thought. As examples, feelings of disgust, empathy and knowing arise from different areas of brain and can be provoked de novo in volunteer subjects via electrical stimulation even when the subjects are unaware of having any concomitant thought at all. This chicken-and-egg relationship between feelings and thought can readily be seen in how we make moral judgments...The psychologist Jonathan Haidt and others have shown that our moral stances strongly correlate with the degree of activation of those brain areas that generate a sense of disgust and revulsion. According to Haidt, reason provides an after-the-fact explanation for moral decisions that are preceded by inherently reflexive positive or negative feelings. Think about your stance on pedophilia or denying a kidney transplant to a serial killer.
After noting work of Libet and others showing that our sense of agency is an illusion - initiating an action occurs well after our brains have already started that action, especially in tennis players and baseball batters - Burton suggests that:
It is unlikely that there is any fundamental difference in how the brain initiates thought and action. We learn the process of thinking incrementally, acquiring knowledge of language, logic, the external world and cultural norms and expectations just as we learn physical actions like talking, walking or playing the piano. If we conceptualize thought as a mental motor skill subject to the same temporal reorganization as high-speed sports, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the experience of free will (agency) and conscious rational deliberation are both biologically generated illusions.
What then are we to do with the concept of rationality? It would be a shame to get rid of a term useful in characterizing the clarity of a line of reasoning. Everyone understands that “being rational” implies trying to strip away biases and innate subjectivity in order to make the best possible decision. But what if the word rational leads us to scientifically unsound conclusions?
Going forward, the greatest challenge for philosophy will be to remain relevant while conceding that, like the rest of the animal kingdom, we are decision-making organisms rather than rational agents, and that our most logical conclusions about moral and ethical values can’t be scientifically verified nor guaranteed to pass the test of time. (The history of science should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone tempted to believe in the persistent truth of untestable ideas).
Even so, I would hate to discard such truisms such as “know thyself” or “the unexamined life isn’t worth living.” Reason allows us new ways of seeing, just as close listening to a piece of music can reveal previously unheard melodies and rhythms or observing an ant hill can give us an unexpected appreciation of nature’s harmonies. These various forms of inquiry aren’t dependent upon logic and verification; they are modes of perception.

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