In my last post I quoted from the 2005 Edge book What We Believe But Cannot Prove. I read the stuff on the website at the time, but thought I'd get the book for a holiday read - it's a great way to get a sense of what scientists are thinking in all sorts of fields without having to wade through all the small print.
The book's only about 250 pages long, and I could probably polish it off quite quickly, if I didn't keep drifting off into a reverie after every three lines. It's all fascinating stuff. Parapsychology is not mentioned at all, and I suspect that very few of the contributors would admit to the slightest sympathy with its claims. Nevertheless, a lot of them give a sense that the frontiers of science are expanding in ways that it progressively makeless hostile environment.
I thought from time to time over the next few weeks I'd pull out a few statements at random to comment on. It'll be a bit of a hodge-podge, and I won't make any attempt to organise it - it's hot in London and I'm off soon for a beer.
First some general philosophical comments from familiar figures in the sceptics' camp. Here is psychologist Nicolas Humphrey, author of a somewhat baffling anti-superstition tract called Soul Searching (in the US, Leaps of Faith). Humphrey believes that
human consciousness is a conjuring trick, designed to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery. Who is the conjuror, and what can be the point of such deception? The conjuror is the human mind itself, evolved by natural selection, and the point has been to bolster human self-confidence and self-importance - so as to increase the value we each place on our own and others' lives.
This may be why we find the 'hard problem' of consciousness just so hard, Humphrey thinks. Natural selection has meant it to be hard. 'Mysterian' philosophers who bow down before the apparent miracle and declare it's impossible ever to get the bottom of consciousness are responding 'exactly as natural selection hoped they would - with shock and awe'.
I love this - it's Darwinism gone mad, and oddly reflective of the way some sceptics think. Observing ourselves, making sense of why we do things, we start to become paranoid, attributing personhood to a concept, and imagining that deception is deliberate. It's not just that nature is hard to understand, it's that it doesn't want us to understand. We are in a battle of wits with Natural Selection.
Richard Dawkins started this all off, but his idea of the 'selfish gene' was just a metaphor - he didn't actually mean that the gene has feelings. Perhaps Humphrey is being metaphorical too. One hopes so, but... He's quite interesting on consciousness, but there's sometimes a rather atheistic tone in his writings, as though he is constantly shaking his fist at the Great Designer.
Susan Blackmore asks, is it possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will ? She says recent developments in neuroscience and theories of consciousness are evidence against free will - we just think we have it. So she set out with her Buddhist practice systematically to change the experience and thinks she has succeeded. Now, she says, she has no feeling of acting with free will - decisions just happen with no sense of anyone making them.
But then the question arises, will the decisions be morally acceptable ? Making a leap of faith, she says, she has found that they are.
It seems that when people discard the illusion of an inner self who acts, as many mystics and Buddhist practitioners have done, they generally do behave in ways that we think of as moral or good. So perhaps giving up free will is not as dangerous as it sounds - but this too I cannot prove.
Again, the heroic Darwinian struggle against illusion! It's interesting that in making a systematic effort Blackmore, a convinced atheist, feels she has personally experienced a state that religious folk would recognise -'letting go and letting God', in Christian parlance, or the New Age 'aligning with the Universe' - and can vouch for the effects they too would claim.
Not quite sure why the novelist Ian McEwan appears in a scientific forum, but perhaps to make the statement that most scientists think too obvious to be worth making.
What I believe but cannot prove is that no part of my consciousness will survive my death... I suspect that many contributors will take this premise as a given: true but not significant. However, it divides the world crucially, and much damage has been done to thought as well as to persons by those who are certain that there is a life - a better, more important life - elsewhere. That this span is brief, that consciousness is an accidental gift of blind processes, makes our existence all the more precious and our responsibilities for it all the more profound.
McEwan has taken to saying this sort of thing quite a lot recently. I've rather given up reading him, but one of his earlier novels, I seem to recall, had a paranormal theme, and I remember thinking here's an intellectual with an open mind. But perhaps not.
I'm curious: does he disbelieve in an afterlife because of the weight of scientific opinion? In that case, would he be prepared to consider some of the claims of psychical research and parapsychology ? What does he think about near-death experiences - wishful thinking illusions ?
Or is his approach mainly humanistic, based on the perception that religion is all evil. And if so, is that really tenable ? Is religion really just about sharia law and suicide bombers, or could it not also motivate much of the decency and philanthrophy that exists in the world ?
Enough philosophy, now for the beer.