Friday, April 20, 2018

Humanism and Animalism

There's too much going on in this book -- Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity -- for me to take a linear approach, at least until I get a handle on it. Therefore, we'll just have to settle for an impressionistic or even pointillistic view.

What does the Aphorist say? My brief sentences are touches of color in a pointillist composition. Moreover, The only claim that I have is that of not having written a linear book, but a concentric book. The points consist of pebbles thrown into a pond -- and the pond is your soul.

Handle. Does the world have one? Is it numbers? Words? Ideas? Or is the cosmos entirely flat, such that there is nothing to grab and no one to lift it? Well, we do have hands, so we can physically handle things. Moreover, human beings are uniquely able to consciously think about things they'd like to lift, like this cup of coffee to my right.

That's a good start, but is there an ultimate handle, which is to say, principle of intelligibility? If you are a neuromeshugeh or Darwinebbish, I'm afraid not. There is no there there, only a here. And it's not even a here, because there can be no presence for whom the here is here.

Quite literally. Tallis spends a good deal of time discussing the reality of intentionality, which is to say, the irreducible "aboutness" of consciousness. Before the age of one, human infants surpass all other creatures in being able to look at where the finger is pointing. It's what we do. It's what you are effortlessly doing right now, seeing through my words (which you didn't even notice until I mentioned them) while both constructing and interacting with an implicit mental image that is more real than the words pointing to it. Polanyi and all that.

Come to think of it, I see Tallis and Polanyi as engaging in very similar projects, that is, rescuing science and philosophy from the metaphysical nul de slack that results from a naive -- but deeply destructive -- scientism. Destructive to what? To human beings, ultimately to the human state itself. The difference is that Polanyi, while apparently not a conventional believer, was very much open to the religious dimension, whereas Tallis has a knee-jerk opposition to it.

I'm frankly a little surprised that Tallis doesn't foresee "where this is headed," so to speak -- why he doesn't think to himself, "ah, now I get where those religious folk are coming from."

Instead, he draws a sharp line: he ventures into the transcendent, and even insists that it cannot be reduced to matter, but leaves it at that. It is literally sur-real, meaning beyond reality, but with no principle to explain or render it intelligible. Look! A hole in the sky:

Where does it go? He doesn't ask. Nor does he pretend to understand where it came from. It's just there.

But for Polanyi, religion involves a "fusion of incompatibles" accomplished by the imagination. God is the focal point of the fusion; or, in other words, He is the Cosmic Area Rug that reveals the meaning of its various patterns: "as in art -- only in a more whole and complete way -- God also becomes the integration of all the incompatibles in our own lives" (Polanyi).

Incompatibles? Like what? Oh, spirit and matter, God and man, knowing and being, body and mind, man and woman, faith and reason, Tallis and Schuon, you name it. Absent the integration, we can be no more than "a heap of impressions," or "a slop of accumulated experiences and their echoes in memory, not too different from delirium" (Tallis).

Instead, we have one mind. Or, more to the point, the mind itself is (or ought to be) one, which means that it possesses (or is possessed by) a synthetic and dynamic interior unity.

How do we -- how does the I of this neural storm -- pull this off, given the fact that there are more potential connections in the brain than there are particles in the universe? Our brain circuitry has "an estimated 9,000,000,000 components," each of which having "many hundreds, even thousands of connections with other neurons." The brain is "the mother of all motherboards." Yes, but which came first, the motherheno or the eggboard?

Where does this unity -- this synthesis -- take place? It can't be in the parts, because that just begs the question. If the parts are parts, they can't account for the whole: no matter how many rocks or neurons you toss onto a pile, it will still be a pile, not a unity.

Or, maybe the unity -- a faux unity to be sure -- is located below. This is what the neuromaniacs and Darwinists hold, that "you are just a little byway in the boundless causal nexus that is the material world" -- that you and your so-called mind serve "evolutionary success, not truth."

Therefore, if the Darwinians are correct, they will leave the most offspring. "The reasons we give for the things we do are mere rationalizations that conceal from us the real reason, which is no reason at all but a biologically determined propensity."

Well, at least God above and Darwinians below agree that we should be fruitful and multiply. But why then do the latter hate us so much?

Again, the rigidly orthodox Darwinian Professor Gray, whom Tallis quotes at the outset, describes man as "exceptionally rapacious," "predatory and destructive," possessing "no more meaning than that of a slime mold," and "not obviously worth preserving." In short, be sterile and stop propagating. How can a reductionist Darwinian be so un-Darwinian? How ever did he transcend his genes to the point of genocide?

It takes all kinds.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Cognitive Illness

I'm dealing with a workplace annoyance that will probably shorten this post, so let's dive right into Neuromania and Darwinitis. Gosh! That's not very charitable. He makes them sound like diseases or something.

Well, perhaps they are. There are obviously physical diseases. There are also mental illnesses. Why not cognitive ones, i.e., systematically dysfunctional ideas such as communism?

Disease as such cannot be understood outside the context of function, in that pathology is what happens when your telos is messed up. Rocks or stars or mountains can't be pathological because they have no purpose. More generally, nature is never wrong because it is never right.

Rather, nature is all Is, all the time. Except there is no time either. Nor even any space. Those two nebulous rascals require a perspective, and until self-aware humans happen upon the scene, there are no perspectives. We'll return to this perspective in due time.

I can see that Tallis is particularly concerned with rescuing humanism from the humanists. It goes without saying -- or saying with contempt -- that he also wants to rescue it from the religionists, but he spends very little time on them. Neuromaniacs and Darwinitwits are at least worthy of mockery. Religionists aren't even worthy, at least in this book.

Thus, he begins with a prominent atheist who absolutely savages human beings. The favorable review from Publisher's Weekly says

Humans think they are free, conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals.... Like the Christians of former times, scientists are caught up in the web of power; they struggle for survival and success; their view of the world is a patchwork of conventional beliefs....

He tears down institutions, especially consciousness, self, free will and morality [miraculously doing so without consciousness, self, free will, and morality!], and questions our ability to solve the problems of overpopulation and overconsumption....

Other animals do not need a purpose in life. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see? This comforting question punctuates an otherwise profoundly disturbing meditation on humankind's real place in the world.

Booklist too sees no obvious flaw, let alone sickness:

Gray attacks the belief that humans are different from and superior to animals. Invoking pure Darwinism, he savages every perspective from which humans appear as anything more than a genetic accident that has produced a highly destructive species (homo rapiens) -- a species that exterminates other species at a phenomenal rate as our swelling numbers despoil the global environment. Gray explains the human refusal to confront the darker realities of our nature largely as the result of how we have consoled ourselves with the myths of Christianity and its secular offspring, humanism and utopianism.

Now, that is rich: because of Christianity, humans refuse to confront the darker realities of our nature. I'm not sure what could be darker than a primordial fall in collusion with the source of all evil (not to mention being permanently exiled from any terrestrial utopia), but we'll leave that to the side. The more interesting question is how Gray manages to elude the blade of his own condemnation. For if humanity is as monstrous as he claims, it could never produce a consciousness as angelic as his.

More cognitive sickness, from the first amazon reviewer (I don't think I could stomach wading through all 92):

If you think that you are not straw dogs that will be crushed ruthlessly by heaven [?] and earth, then you will have to read this book, among the most important philosophical books ever written.... Anybody who knows anything about human history cannot possibly disagree with Gray that we are a very violent species, although not as dangerous as the religions we have created, particularly the monotheistic religions such as Christianity.

Another devastating critique of our civilization is the way we have treated animals, of whom we are but one species but from whom we have usually tried to separate. The role of Christianity [pardon the French, but WTF?] in this endless tragedy of torture and unspeakable murder is appalling, but the consequences are even worse.

Now, that is a lot of stupid. Talk about an animal hater! Why on earth is the guy condemning human animals? Again, if you are going to revert to nature, there is only the Is. No oughts allowed. If everybody is Harvey Weinstein -- homo rapiens -- then nobody is.

While I can no doubt get a bit sanctimonious, at least I try to leaven it with a little irony. But this is a truly unhinged self-righteousness of the kind so ably described by Michael Polanyi, i.e., religious sentiment utterly detached from religion. These people like to speak with ignorant contempt of the "Old Testament God" of their malevolent imagination. In which case I would say: Here comes their New Testament, same as the Old Testament.

So, for a guy who sees volition, and hence morality, as an illusion, Gray sure is a strident moralist. (Additional ewww factor: his work has been praised by George Soros.)

In the words of Jordan Peterson: dude, clean up your own house. At least Jehovah gives humans a second chance (and more). His justice is tempered by -- if not a dimension of -- his mercy. But I don't see any mercy in Gray's grim characterization.

Which is fine: if humans are as awful as he describes, then so be it. As we say -- or insist, rather -- there is no privilege higher than truth.

Wait. Truth? How did that ever find its way into a purely material cosmos? That is what you call impossible. As Tallis asks, "Was it really natural selection that eventually brought into being creatures that could see that they were naturally selected?" If so, on what basis should we believe them, or even have a category called "belief," let alone "truth"?

Speaking of which, I need some Oxygen. Dávila, arranged hierarchically from truth to truth:

He who does not doubt does not shout.

Truths are whatever any imbecile refutes.

The man does not escape from his prison of paradoxes except by means of a vertical act of faith.

The truth is the happiness of the intelligence.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Atheist on Atheist Violence, or Pass the Popcorn

Now, here is a book that is right up our alley: Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, by Raymond Tallis.

Ironically, the author is a passionate, if not intemperate, atheist, and yet, he absolutely demolishes the ground upon which his New Atheist middlebros stand most confidently. In short, he destroys materialism in all its most popular and fashionable forms. At the other end -- almost as an afterthought -- he flicks away any thoughts of woohoo quantum deepakery like a gnat.

So, where does that leave him? He doesn't exactly say, but it seems he's content to accept what we don't know, and to not sneak in bad metaphysics in order to pretend to know more than we do. Like a good lawyer, he needs only undermine the prosecution's case, not build his own airtight one. I've ordered several more of his books in order to better understand where he's coming from. I'm only halfway through this first one, so I'm hardly an expert.

This particular book focuses on neurological and biological reductionism, i.e., neuromania and darwinitis, respectively (you might recall that in mybʘʘk I coined some similar words of my own -- reductionosis and materialitis, I think). The first (neuromania) reduces mind to brain, while the second (Darwinitis) reduces man to his genes. Both are ridiculous, but Tallis excels at higher ridicule and fine insultainment.

He doesn't just poke fun; he eviscerates, often with novel and creative arguments. It's the sort of thing halfbright atheists enjoy doing with dumb religion, only he turns the tables and does it to the atheists. And yet he is one. That's what I call intellectual honesty: criticizing your own best arguments, not just the worst arguments of your hapless opponent. If Bill Maher produced Religulous, Tallis trumps him with Asinihilism. Or something.

Let's begin where we always do, with any amazon reviewers who have already said what I'm about to say, thus saving me the trouble. This guy notes that

Interestingly, while as an atheist the author repeatedly dismisses dualism and what he calls 'supernaturalism' as unnecessary alternatives, he ultimately has to admit that he has no good explanation for the mysteries of the human mind himself...

Indeed, the first half of the book (on neuromania) ends with the acknowledgement that the problem of consciousness is "more than 'a hard problem.' It is a mystery."

Well, yes and no. Tallis absolutely refuses to venture down any supernatural path, in particular, anything associated with traditional religion. And yet, everything he believes could fit harmoniously within a sophisticated traditional metaphysic, a la Aquinas or Schuon, more on which as we proceed.

For he clearly proves the existence of a transnatural world. Like me, he seems to regard humanness as an intrinsically irreducible reality. Except in his case, it is grounded in nothing, instead of being an expression of the Ultimate Something.

Tallis repeatedly describes himself as a Humanist, one who wants to build a kind of protective wall around the human world, so it isn't threatened from below -- by reductionist intellectual barbarians -- but also from above -- by the religious. He doesn't understand that he has nothing to fear from the likes of us. We're on his side, only more than he is.

Come to think of it, it very much reminds me of how liberals have nothing to fear from conservatives, only from leftists: the left is the common enemy of classical liberals and conservatives alike. But only a few liberals realize this, e.g., Alan Dershowitz and Steven Pinker.

The same reviewer mentioned above agrees that the book "should be considered mandatory reading for atheists who are interested in genuine reasoning about the reality of the uniqueness of the human mind, rather than in superficial pseudo-scientific reasoning that is rooted in Neuromania and in a simplistic biologism that seeks to minimize what distinguishes us from the remainder of the animal world, including apes."

There is no question that the popular atheistic types don't end their investigation with materialism, but begin with it. It is just an exercise in intellectual backshadowing, such that they perceive and cherrypick the evidence to support what they already believe. You know the old gag: The answer is the disease that kills curiosity. Thus, materialism is the disease that kills any remotely sophisticated philosophy (which is predicated upon openness to total reality and love of wisdom).

Here is an excellent point that highlights something I wanted to say:

Negative scientific studies, studies that demonstrate negative findings (like showing that a drug doesn't lower blood pressure any more than a sugar pill) aren't as sexy as positive studies. Very few professors have gotten tenure by only showing what is not true. No one has won a Nobel prize for solely criticizing other people's research. That said, negative research can be as practical and useful as positive research.

Oh boy and how. In the back of the book there is a note to myself about what I call "anti-punditry." We have quite enough pundits, thank you -- all those brilliant people who are wrong about everything. But we are sorely lacking in anti-pundits, that is, socratic types who call them on their bullshit without necessarily replacing it with more bullshit. What's wrong with no bullshit? Indeed, I propose an award to the best anti-pundit of the year: the Nobull Prize.

"Aping Mankind is negative research. While most popular science writers attempt to weave compelling stories from the latest neuroscience experiments to explain 'why we are the way we are', Tallis attempts to show why these stories simply cannot be true." Oh my yes. Any idiot can gaze at the stars and discern the pattern of a unicorn. But it takes a real idiot to imagine the unicorn is real.

"I have never read a book that demonstrates more blatantly how atheism can operate like a religious belief."

From the Raccoon perspective, Yes and No. For if traditional religion is the safeguard and vehicle of a metaphysics of the Real, then atheism definitely falls far short of qualifying as a religion. To imagine that materialism could be as capacious and explanatory as religion is to not know what religion or materialism are.

We've laid out a very general view, now to the particulars, which I suppose will have to wait until tomorrow.

One more general point: one great irony is that everything Tallis holds dear and wishes to preserve has mainly been preserved by one institution: the Church, or let's say orthodox Christian doctrine. Seriously, who else these days refuses to give an inch to the opponents of personhood, free will, genuine humanism, natural rights, love, truth, beauty, etc? It's not secular universities, that's for sure.