Philosophy and Reason

But for all this terror [20th century with its 100-million-killed], there is one thing that is worse: the thought that all the suffering and all the pleasure of life have no meaning. And that is the sad corollary of our vanishing religious life. . . It [Science] has now brought us to the very edge of a world stripped of all innate moral values, without giving us anything to take its place.  While humanism and existential philosophies may be formulated in the universities, the ignorant thug in the street has already reached the conclusion that awaits the ponderous thinker: You have nothing else but what you get.  When you’re dead, you’re dead.   Evan Harris

Feeling does not succeed in converting consolation into truth, nor does reason succeed in converting truth into consolation. Miguel De Unamuno

Awe. The sight of a waterfall inspired the chimps to perform a spontaneous dance-like display. Goodall believes that such expressions of awe may resemble the emotions that led early humans to religion. Jane Goodall

Many skeptics enjoy skewering the faithful on their lance of reason, while subscribing to a scientific model of reality that leaves a great deal unexplained. Many of these same skeptics have faith that with time everything will ultimately be explained. In this chapter we make the case that we are nowhere close to understanding Ultimate Reality, therefore the pursuit of immortality is a reasonable strategy.

Richard Dawkins, scientist and author of The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design, perhaps motivated to prevent an epidemic of suicide among his readers, wrote Unweaving the Rainbow, Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder prefaced by:

A foreign publisher of my first book confessed that he could not sleep for three nights after reading it, so troubled was he by what he saw as its cold, bleak message. Others have asked me how I can bear to get up in the mornings. A teacher from a distant country wrote to me reproachfully that a pupil had come to him in tears after reading the same book, because it had persuaded her that life was empty and purposeless. He advised her not to show the book to any of her friends, for fear of contaminating them with the same nihilistic pessimism. Similar accusations of barren desolation, of promoting an arid and joyless message, are frequently flung at science in general, and it is easy for science to play up to them . . .

Which he proceeds to do by quoting Peter Atkins:

We are the children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.

Dawkins blesses this nihilistic cathartic as a very proper purging of saccharine false purpose, but then, this purveyor of brutal logic, pitches a change-of-pace:

. . . such laudable tough-mindedness in the debunking of cosmic sentimentality must not be confused with a loss of personal hope. Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life=s hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course we don’t; not if we are sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions. To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposite to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am suspected. But in this book I shall try a more positive response, appealing to the sense of wonder in science because it is so sad to think what these complainers and nay Sayers are missing. . . The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable.  It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver.  It is truly one of the things that makes life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is finite.

We disagree with this eminent scientist.  Throughout history, the mass of men lived lives of quiet desperation, for many life has been “mean, brutish and short.”  That vast sum of labor, exploitation and drudgery, punctuated by wars, pestilence, terror and death is worth the feeling of awed wonder?  This may be adequate sustenance for a brilliant scientist and successful author living in the twentieth century but it was inadequate for Isaac Newton in the seventeenth. Quoting Dawkins again:

Such laudable tough-mindedness in the debunking of cosmic sentimentality must not be confused with a loss of personal hope.

With all due respect, Dawkin’s logic fails here.  Those who choose Faith, are logical in one fundamental respect, they know that if this is all there is, if everything we hold dear is inevitably destined for extinction, then there is no meaning or purpose for our existence.  To believe otherwise is pretense or cognitive dissonance.

Some more Reason, courtesy of Steven Weinberg:

At the other end of the spectrum are the opponents of reductionism who are appalled by what they feel to be the bleakness of modern science.  To whatever extent they and their world can be reduced to a matter of particles or fields and their interactions, they feel diminished by that knowledge . . . I would not try to answer these critics with a pep talk about the beauties of modern science.  The reductionist worldview is chilling and impersonal.  It has to be accepted as it is, not because we like it, but because that is the way the world works.  Steven Weinberg

No pretense there. Unless some fundamental tenet of belief changes, Reason will never replace Faith, for reasons Dawkins can, ironically appreciate: natural selection.  Those sustained on Dawkin’s feeling of awed wonder are not as fecund as those sustained on Faith inspired by awe.

Read this by Bertrand Russell.  This is the consolation he derives from reason:

Such, in outline [a world in which God is malevolent], but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man=s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul=s habitation henceforth be safely built.  Bertrand Russell

Read more of Steven Weinberg with awed wonder that anyone might be persuaded to abandon her faith in God:

It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes [of the universe], but that we are somehow built in from the beginning. . . It is very hard to realize that [the entire Earth] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. Steven Weinberg

Believe it or not, it gets worse, there is no self:  

I think modern neuroscience makes it clear that the self cannot be what it appears to be. We may feel as though we have a special little me inside, who has sensations and consciousness, who lives my life, and makes my decisions.  Yet, this does not fit with what we know about the brain. . . . It may feel as though my consciousness starts the actions this body performs, but as Libet’s experiments showed, conscious awareness takes about half a second to build up, far too long for it to initiate reactions to a fast changing world. And the brain is constantly being changed by everything that happens to it, so that I am not the same as I was ten years, or even a few moments, ago. . . consciousness is a >benign user illusion. So rather than being a permanent, persisting entity, the self may be more like a story about a self that does not really exist . . . I believe these ideas have implications for the way we live.  As society becomes more complex, and memes [D] spread faster and farther, so our selves become more complicated. The unhappiness, desperation and psychological ill-health of many modern people may reflect the fact that increasing numbers of memes are using our poor over-stretched brains to construct a false self for their own propagation.  Perhaps the user illusion is not so benign after all.  Some would even say that belief in a permanent self is the cause of all human suffering of fear, jealousy, hatred and unkindness. . . . If this memetic analysis is correct, the choices you make are not made by an inner self who has free will, but are just the consequence of the replicators playing out their competition in a particular environment.  In the process they create the illusion of a self who is in control . . . Dawkins ends The Selfish Gene with his famous claim that: We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.  Yet, if we take his idea of memes seriously, and push it to its logical conclusion, we find that there is no one left to rebel.   Susan Blakemore

What if a majority of us really believed this? (For more nihilism see Appendix N, our collection of nihilistic quotations by the rich and famous). Implicit in these nihilistic assessments of Ultimate-Reality is that they are invulnerable to serious modification in the future.  Compare this recent quotation with the last two, older quotes.

The problems [of determinism] are more urgent now because there is the possibility that we may find a complete unified theory in as little as twenty years. Stephen Hawking

Perhaps but, in the late 1920’s Max Born told a group of scientists visiting Gottengen that “physics as we know it, will be over in six months.”   Stephen Hawking

The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their being supplemented in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.   Albert Michaelson

While Isaac Newton nursed at his mother’s breast, Baltasar Gracian (1601-1658) opined,

We are at the tail end of the centuries.  Back in the Golden Age, they invented; later, added; and now all is repetition.  All things have advanced; there is nothing left to do but choose.  

M-theory, a candidate for The Theory of Everything, is the speculative unification of five or six different superstring theories.  If successful, M-theory will be the final common denominator of all physical laws. M-theory does not explain consciousness, nor does Loop Quantum Gravity. M-theory, (or whatever becomes the ultimate Theory of Everything), may itself be a subset of a larger set of laws governing consciousness.  Understanding consciousness may explain why.

Consciousness.  What is its substrate?  Stimulate the right pigment in particular cone cells of your retina with 7 x 1010 Hz photons and you will perceive the color blue.  What would happen if the gene for blue-sensitive pigment in those cone cells was “turned off,” and the gene responsible for pigment sensitive to red light turned on.  Would we perceive red with those cones, or blue?  The answer is not immediately obvious.  If blue-sensitive retinal cells are wired to brain apparatus configured to interpret signals from those cells as blue, you would expect the mind to perceive blue when stimulated with red light.  However, there is an interesting experiment that hints at other possibilities:  When a human subject is fitted with head gear that inverts his visual fields, (such that up appears down, down – up, right appears left and left B right), over several days, the brain inverts the image to give the mind a correct interpretation of the world.  When the head gear is removed, visual perception is upside down and backwards again for a day. This suggests that the brain is more than a passive processor.  

If you suffered a stroke limited to the amygdala of your brain, you will no longer be capable of experiencing fear.  Not only that, but you will have difficulty comprehending and recognizing fear in others. (see Joseph LeDoux) If this is a general principle, then we cannot comprehend or imagine a particular qualia without the appropriate sensory-motor-cortical apparatus.  Then, it should not be controversial to assert that an entire world may exist beyond our comprehension.

It is passé to believe among philosophers today to believe as David Chalmers:

I have resisted mind-body dualism for a long time, but I have come to the point where I accept it, not just as the most tenable view but as a satisfying view in its own right. It is possible that I am confused, or that there is a new and radical possibility I have overlooked; but I can comfortably say that I think dualism is very likely true.  I have also raised the possibility of a kind of panpsychism.  Like mind-body dualism, this is initially counterintuitive, but the counterintuitiveness disappears with time.  I am unsure whether the view is true or false, but it is at least intellectually appealing, and on reflection it is not too crazy to be respectable.   David Chalmers

The truth is, we are nowhere close to explaining Ultimate Reality.  We do not know.  Nor are we likely to know any time soon.  So, how do we proceed?  Is there a strategy that satisfies the need for Truth & Wisdom,  meaning & purpose?  The unquenchable thirst for life?  A strategy that does not require we abandon faith or reason?

The placebo effect. The power of belief. Padre Pio, a Capuchin friar, lived most of his adult life with wounds on his hands, feet and chest – the stigmata of a crucified Jesus Christ.  Wounds that never became infected and never healed. The evidence (see Ian Wilson and Charles Mortimer Carty) suggests that Padre Pio believed absolutely.  There was no cognitive dissonance, no subconscious subjugation of Reason to self-delusion.  For  Padre Pio there was no leap of faith. His Catholic worldview was certainty.  There is no scientific explanation for the phenomenon of stigmata. Science is disposed to ignore or dismiss the phenomenon, the religious to attribute them to supernatural causes.  There is something going on here. Padre Pio was obsessed with the fear of sin. He may have been deluded but he never knowingly lied or misled.  With that in mind, anecdotes of bilocation involving Padre Pio tantalize our interest. Consider this interview in Stigmata:

Sanguinetti: Padre Pio, when God sends a saint, for instance like St. Anthony to another place by bilocation, is that person aware of it?

Padre Pio: Yes. One moment he is here and the next moment he is where God wants him.

Sanguinetti: But is he really in two places at once?

Padre Pio: Yes.

Sanguinetti: But how is this possible?

Padre Pio: By prolongation of the personality.

Discriminating between truth and self-delusion here is a herculean task. Nevertheless, this is no ordinary mortal. He did bleed from his hands and feet for fifty years.  He did not lie or deliberately mislead.  Studying the extraordinary often sheds light upon the ordinary.  Our consciousness may be a frail embryonic form compared with the substance that may be possible.  The power of belief represented by Padre Pio and detailed in the books listed below is a real phenomenon.

The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale

The Placebo Effect by Anne Harrington

The Healing Power of Faith: Science Explores Medicine’s Last Great Frontier. Harold George Koenig

Love, Medicine & Miracles by Bernie S. Siegel, M.D.

There is Power in Belief by Lester Brown.

There is something there, obscured by a heavy background radiation of mysticism, superstition and delusion.  Why should our mental attitude effect the result sometimes dramatically?  What is this power of will, free will1?

The desire for a certain kind of truth here brings about that special truths existence; and so it is in innumerable cases of other sorts.  Who gains promotions, boons, appointments, but the man in whose life they are seen to play the part of live hypotheses, who discounts them, sacrifices other things for their sake before they have come, and takes risks for them in advance?  His faith acts on the powers above him as a claim, and creates its own verification . . . Wherever a desired result is achieved by the cooperation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned.  A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing is achieved, but nothing is attempted.  A whole train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be looted be a few highway men, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any one else backs him up.  If we believed that the whole car full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never be attempted. There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming. And where faith in a fact can help create the fact, that would be an insane logic which should say that faith running ahead of scientific evidence is the >lowest kind of immorality= into which a thinking being can fall.  Yet such is the logic by which our scientific absolutists pretend to regulate our lives! . . . In truths dependent on our personal action, then, faith based upon desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing.  William James  

Why not harness this power in the pursuit of life?  If God made us in his image, why would He expect otherwise?  If God is not, why not pursue life?

The Laws of Physics are not laws.  They are mathematical models constructed to predict the behavior of objects in this universe over a range of possibilities.  Those models are refined and extended to predict ever wider terrain with each generation.  But they are nevertheless models.  The M-theory may well be the theory of everything, everything but consciousness.  Perhaps consciousness is some inherent property for which no further explanation is possible.  However, it is no less probable that the >Laws of Physics= are but a subset of a larger set of laws governing consciousness.

The object of Philosophy is Strategy.  What should our strategy be, if there is no life after death, no God, and no prospect of knowing Ultimate-Reality in this lifetime?  With the extinction of dinosaurs some ecological niches opened up that the mammals filled.  If there is no God, there is an ecological niche to fill.  There is no particular reason we cannot fill it given sufficient time.

Given that we are endowed with limited intellects and time why not buy more time?  With time we might acquire more intelligence.  With time and sheer force of numbers we may find the answers.

So, how do we proceed?  Is there a strategy that satisfies the need for Truth & Wisdom,  meaning and purpose?  The unquenchable thirst for life?  A strategy that does not require we abandon faith or reason?

. . . each thinker and doer must take a chance on the one conception that strikes him as most likely true, or right, or just. That is the tragic in history B everybody (or nearly) is sincere, pursues a legitimate end, a worthy cause; not everybody is right, but in the right, as in a good stage play, and few live to see the denouement.  Such is the permanent spectacle of the world and condition of our thought, for >what umpire can there be between us but the future?  In other words, we are all fated to be a priori teleologists, whether we like it or not. William James

Let’s live to see the denouement.

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