Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dawkins plays Santa

Richard Dawkins has been honoured with the post of guest editor for the Christmas edition of the New Statesman and has been out there this week plugging the magazine via Sam Harris's essay on free will, the essence of which is encapsulated by a sentence one comes across about half way through:

"All of our behaviour can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge."

It bothers me that some rationalists (amongst whose numbers I generally like to consider myself) are unable to perceive the obvious holes in their arguments. Dawkins himself wrote an entire book that affected to dismiss the probability of God by comparing the creator to some giant spaghetti monster in space, a line of argument that completely failed to acknowledge that when men speak of God, as opposed to giant spaghetti monsters, they are talking about first causes, and that when they do so, the whole category of probability becomes moot anyway.

None of Harris's arguments are especially new, but given the nature of the publication, he has attempted to demonstrate how they can be deployed to trump prevailing political discourse, presumably in order to make new enemies as one munches on the Christmas turkey.

It's as if he is saying that we scientists, at least those of us who can face up to unpalatable truths, have a deeper fundamental grasp of the big issues than either liberals or conservatives (in the American sense). Not quite what his chum Dawkins meant when he coined the phrase
Holistier than thou, but certainly a variety of smug superiority that does this little clique of science-led dogmatists few favours.

Harris believes he can dispense entirely with the notion of free will because human consciousness is little more than a package of illusions of acting in the moment, when in fact it is a
"a totality of impersonal events merely propagating their influence." From this premise, he goes on to reach the following conclusion: "If I had been born with the brain, body and experience of Ted Bundy, I would have been Ted Bundy - a serial killer put to death for his crimes. There is no extra part of me that could have resisted taking his path in life."

But hold on, doesn't that word "
experience" muddy things up a bit? What if he had just been born with the brain and body of Bundy? There's no question that there is something innate in this type of psychosis, but the dodgy genetic hand dealt to Bundy had to interact for many years with society via his inherently plastic human mind before he went out to make his first kill.

Minds are never wholly impersonal. Harris has deliberately tied the notion of free will to consciousness, a stream we now know is always playing catch-up with the actual decision-making processes of the human brain, but our on-going mental worlds encompass the past and the future as well as the present, and our behaviour and overall personality is surely forming and re-forming as a result of a feedback loop between our illusion of executive control and those hidden committees of brain function. So while I may not be able to directly influence what I decided to do a millisecond ago, what I do next week must potentially differ depending on how deeply I think about it. Surely the 'totality' must include some more personal events when one steps back a bit from the conscious moment?

1 comment:

norm said...

Quark theory has always made me wonder a bit about free will but I swear that left jab goes off by its self.