Thursday, January 19, 2006

But what's it for?

Psychonomy's comments on Tuesday's post reminded me of something else we've haggled over: the question of why we are here.

His argument - I think, anyway, and he'll no doubt correct me - is that a Cartesian, evidence-based perspective of the world has to begin with "Because I am even thinking this, I must exist in the first place". Cartesius did put it a little simpler.

This, Psychonomy goes on, immediately brings into play questions about the nature of our existence, our perception, and our relationship to anything and anyone else.

The thing is, goes the argument, that science can tell us how we are here - and detail the mechanics and mechanisms - but it falls short of providing a reason.

I think the idea of there being a reason is misguided. "Why" means "for what purpose" - something more evident in the Latin-rooted "pourquoi" and "porqué" of French and Spanish. "Why?" means "What for?"

We can look for and find motives in human activity - to get the money; for revenge; so as to spread DNA meme - and we can also find reason in the actions of other living things. Animals and plants can have motives; though care's needed not to apply our own motives and morals to their activities.

But as to why space is like it is, or why there was a vacuum fluctuation and then a big explosion, we're a bit stuck. "It just happens," is about as far as we get.

Grasping for a reason, though - usually that "creation" is all part of someone's grand design - is anthropomorphising non-conscious events. The universe didn't start for a reason, any more than gravity gets something out of us not being able to fly.

Our existence just happens. Best just get on with it.

2 comments:

Psychonomy said...

His argument - I think, anyway, and he'll no doubt correct me - is that a Cartesian, evidence-based perspective of the world has to begin with "Because I am even thinking this, I must exist in the first place".

No, that's absolutely correct, although the issue of what constitutes 'I' in this case is rather more complex. (I also have notions of the cogito being more than a simple statement, but a multi-dimensional concept that's effectively impossible to render in three-dimensional mind/language - but I may be getting a bit PKD here.)


The thing is, goes the argument, that science can tell us how we are here - and detail the mechanics and mechanisms - but it falls short of providing a reason.


I'll concede that the 'why' argument is not, perhaps, terribly productive - although it works as an analogy of how the point, whatever it is, might be missed by reductionists. (Nor am I persuaded that the 'meaning' of existence, if there is one, can be boiled down to a statement that can be expressed in 3D mind/language.)

My point is simply that consciousness is, fundamentally, a metaphysical event, and that allows for a 'playing field', so to speak, that extends beyond the strictly physical. That, I think, is as far as my argument goes before I enter the realms of speculation (which is, of course, the beginning of all enquiry, scientific or philosophical).

The standard reductionist reponse is that consciousness is an illusion, generated by the activity of neurons in the brain. That's sophistry. How do you draw the line between 'illusion' and 'reality' on that one? If it thinks like a mind, it's a mind, regardless of the physical medium it inhabits (assuming, of course, that it inhabits one at all). At some point, the 'illusion' becomes so convincing that it might as well be real - *is*, in fact, real.

I have a mind, and am capable of proving that only to myself. You (presumably) have a mind, but are not capable of proving that to me. I choose to give you the benefit of the doubt (although never, being me, forgetting that doubt exists), because, were I in your situation, I would have you do the same to me. That's the basis for an objective morality, and the kind of thinking that religion does for people (rather than encouraging them to do for themselves, so they end up being, technical term, naieve realists).

The God-shaped hole is, in part, what you get when religion *isn't* doing people's thinking for them, and yet, despite the absence of a crutch, they still fail to think for themselves. This may be because people are stupid.

Why does it matter? Because people may be capable of being more, and experiencing more, than a strictly materialist approach to life would suggest. But mainly because the basis of an objective morality (morality, or divergent versions thereof being the 'reason' most things of human import happen) is lost in a materialist universe. There is no right or wrong, because right and wrong, as values, are also fundamentally metaphysical.

As you say, in a materialist universe "it just happens". Brrr.

Next week: Free will! Woo.

Nimbos said...

psychonomy said...

"The standard reductionist reponse is that consciousness is an illusion, generated by the activity of neurons in the brain."

No - I don't think that's the case. I would say that a reductionaist regards consciousness as a real and physical thing - an effect of, rather than generated by, the activity of neurons in the brain. I would say that inlcuding "generated" implies the creation of something else and that consciousness is somehow elsewhere.

In fact, I believe a reductionist would say that illusion is itself a physical effect of the activity of neurons in the brain.

As you can't actively prove a negative I don't think a scientist would say "there is nothing but the brain", but like with the God argument there is no evidence for anything else.

And yet - I can think. Doesn't that make the physical brain an absolute marvel.