Flunking Philosophy 101 on the Pages of Time Magazine
Few people enjoy reading other people's rants, so I will try to avoid falling into a rant here. But it is easy to do when scientists and putative scientists try to swindle people into thinking scientific expertise automatically endows the expert with sound thinking in other areas, such as philosophy or theology.
Steven Pinker's recent Time piece, "The Mystery of Consciousness", may not amount to a swindle--I don't know that he is trying to mislead. But swindle or not, he does mislead his readers and in the process reveals a profound ignorance of basic philosophical and theological issues shocking in an educated man, much less in a professor of psychology.
To be sure there is a lot of worthwhile stuff in his piece. Unfortunately, there is a lot more than isn't worthwhile. Here is one gem from among the seemingly inexhaustable supply:
[T]he biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul. It's not just that an understanding of the physiology of consciousness will reduce human suffering through new treatments for pain and depression. That understanding can also force us to recognize the interests of other beings--the core of morality.
As every student in Philosophy 101 learns, nothing can force me to believe that anyone except me is conscious. This power to deny that other people have feelings is not just an academic exercise but an all-too-common vice, as we see in the long history of human cruelty. Yet once we realize that our own consciousness is a product of our brains and that other people have brains like ours, a denial of other people's sentience becomes ludicrous. "Hath not a Jew eyes?" asked Shylock. Today the question is more pointed: Hath not a Jew--or an Arab, or an African, or a baby, or a dog--a cerebral cortex and a thalamus? The undeniable fact that we are all made of the same neural flesh makes it impossible to deny our common capacity to suffer.
And when you think about it, the doctrine of a life-to-come is not such an uplifting idea after all because it necessarily devalues life on earth. Just remember the most famous people in recent memory who acted in expectation of a reward in the hereafter: the conspirators who hijacked the airliners on 9/11.
Think, too, about why we sometimes remind ourselves that "life is short." It is an impetus to extend a gesture of affection to a loved one, to bury the hatchet in a pointless dispute, to use time productively rather than squander it. I would argue that nothing gives life more purpose than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift.
Note the second paragraph. Now that we know that our own consciousness is a product of our brains, so the argument goes, and we now know that others have brains, the age-old problem of why I should believe others have consciousness is suddenly solved.
And because I now know others are conscious I now know others can suffer.
Therefore ... what? I have now, according to Pinker, "a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul"?
Hmmm. Even granting the fallacious reasoning he employs to bring us to his conclusion that I now know that others suffer because I know that they have brains like me, why does all of that lead me to the moral obligation to care whether others suffer? Why again is it a moral imperative for me to do anything about the suffering of others? How do I get that ought-statement from the is-statement that other people have brains and therefore have consciousness?
Only if there is a moral ought--a category of thought not reducible to the biology of consciousness--can the fact that others suffer have any moral significance for me. And that's granting the fallacious reasoning that supposedly leads up to Pinker's conclusion.
Pinker says Philosophy 101 teaches us that nothing can force us to believe that others are conscious. Well, with all due respect to Dr. Pinker, I think he might benefit from a refresher course in Philosophy 101 because his supposed "biology of consciousness" provides no more basis for the conclusion that others are conscious than it provides for morality, superior or otherwise. Common sense tells us that other human beings are conscious. Whether or not you want to regard the common sense argument for the proposition as a sound "proof", if you reject the common sense argument, you will not find a better one in the so-called biology of consciousness. Why should I accept the testimony of my senses and my reason when it tells me that such things as brains exist and that these brains are linked to (not pace Pinker the sole producer of) consciousness, when I can't accept the testimony of my senses and reasoning when I conclude from my experience of the world and my interactions with other beings that some of them are conscious? To rule out the latter is tacitly to rule out the former.
Pinker's argument about the idea of an afterlife devaluing this life also misfires. One hardly knows where to begin. If this life really is all there is, why does anything I do in this life matter? Why does consciousness matter? Why do I matter? Why do you? Why aren't we simply a product of matter and "chance"? Why not live only to please oneself before one must face the inevitable extinction of existence in death? Why get all bothered about moral issues such as racism or the Holocaust? At the very least, one who denies a transcendent dimension to human life--who reduces consciousness to biology, for example--has "a lot of splainin to do" when it comes to providing a rational justification of morality.
"I would argue that nothing gives life more purpose than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift," writes Pinkers.
Hmmm. A gift. From whom?