Back in the virtual saddle

It’s been almost a year since I last posted anything on this page. I’ve been concentrating on book reviews and longer essays, on my other page, but the modest but persistent interest shown in the old posts on this page has led me to think that it might be time to post some topical articles again. (The two pages have now accumulated more than 75,000 reads.)

I still have strong opinions on the subjects about which I used to write, and so much has happened in the last year that would have been worthy of comment. So, I’m back. Perhaps not with my former frequency, but I hope with as much clarity and specificity as I can muster.

Meanwhile, don’t forget to read the book reviews, which will continue to be posted on More Notes from Aboveground.

See you soon.


Do we misunderstand our selves?

In a recent series of articles, New Scientist magazine explored what their lead article called “The Great Illusion of the Self.”

The article gave more space to why we don’t know much of anything about our selves than to what we do know, or think that we know, for “While it seems irrefutable that we must exist in some sense, things get a lot more puzzling once we try to get a better grip of what having a self actually amounts to.”

According to the article, we are sure of three things about our selves. We are continuous. We are unified. And we are agents.

“All of these beliefs appear to be blindingly obvious and as certain as can be” ; yet “as we look at them more closely, they become less and less self-evident.”

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Perchance to dream…

In the latest issue of Philosophy Now, Raymond Tallis takes a semi-serious look at the great unknown, the under-examined third of our lives in which we are asleep.

The tone of Tallis’s article comes from the fact that he, like the rest of us, doesn’t know the first thing about sleep. Not just what it is and why we do it, but what it means to our concepts of consciousness and self that every night we lose control, passing from a world of physical perception to another of mental impression. Continue reading

What about morality — does it need religion?

This has turned into a week about the social roles of religion.

On Monday, I presented Scott Atran’s summary of the research into religion’s role in creating and, more important, it  turns out, supporting war.

And last time, I wrote about the contention of Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, that without religion, an enduring civilization is not possible.

Today’s last piece in the series considers the argument that is a favourite of believers:  without religion there can be no true morality. And many of today’s prominent agnostic and atheist thinkers accept that religion has served historically as the “social glue” that keeps us from expressing our selfish and violent human natures.

There are many ways to counter this claim, including the unwelcome but accurate observation that close observance of all of the rules and moral laws of the Koran or the Bible would quickly earn you a life sentence in prison. The Bible passes more death sentences than does a typical Texas judge.

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A commitment to the natural and the observable

Way back, near the start of this blog more than a year and a half ago, I posted an article titled “Science: not just another religion.”

In that article I agreed with Richard Dawkins’s contention that science, unlike religion, doesn’t give unyielding precedence to tradition and authority, and it doesn’t give any credence to claims grounded in faith or revelation.

Having recently finished viewing a full 24 hours of video lectures and discussions from the 2006 and 2007 “Beyond Belief” conferences — not consecutively, in case you were curious — I’d like briefly to pursue a somewhat more nuanced version of Dawkins’s claim. This seems especially relevant in the context of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

What I won’t do is to slacken in any way my thoroughgoing commitment to the supremacy of the natural and the observable as the only true reality. What I hope to do is examine the nature of that commitment itself, as an epistemological stance — there is no other way to know — and as a heuristic — there is no other way to know.
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Playing a little game of life and death

Every once in a while, I encounter a piece of writing that reminds me why I ended up as a philosophy major all those years ago — playing around with the logical implications of words and ideas can be a lot of fun.

There’s danger in becoming too enamored of the wordy argument, and that’s the principal reason that most of the time these days I prefer empirical evidence. But not today.

If you don’t relish going round and round with problems like “Everything I say is a lie,” this isn’t the article for you. See you next time.
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Are you a Diachronic, or are you an Episodic?

Daniel Dennett believes that our sense of self comes from our brains’ concocting stories, narratives that create the protagonists we call “I.”

Other psychologists and philosophers offer explanations of individual identity that agree, more or less. Antonio Damasio, for example, calls the rational, third stage of consciousness “the autobiographical self.”

Last week, Big Think published “Why Are People Drawn to Stories?” The article, written by David Berreby, features ideas from Johnathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal, a book that claims that “we live our entire lives in a web of story.”
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Language v. Science

A reference to Max Bennett and Peter Hacker in one of the articles I reviewed last time prompted me to read more.

Now that I’ve finished Neuroscience and Philosophy, I’m compelled to write just one more article about the assaults on neuroscience mounted by philosophers and the like. This is the last one of these for a while. I promise.

Neuroscience and Philosophy (N&P, hereafter) is the book form of a conference debate between Max Bennett and Peter Hacker, on one side, and Daniel Dennett and John Searle, on the other.

The essence of the dispute: Is it right to say that consciousness happens in the brain, that the brain thinks and feels? For language philosopher Hacker and neuroscientist Bennett, the answer is an unqualified “No.” For Dennett and Searle, it’s a qualified “Yes.”

N&P is not new, having been published in 2003, but it’s new to me, and, like the “brave new world” of Miranda, it’s full of strange creatures. Continue reading

Two more non-scientists criticize neuroscience

The defenders of culture, beauty, and subjectivity are at it again, toiling to save civilization — and us — from a bleak, science-infested future.

Two recent examples from England, where this battle seems most energetically joined, are articles by Roger Scruton and George Walden.

The articles have different emphases, but taken together they illustrate the literati’s fear of the cold and inhuman scourge of “scientism.” Continue reading