Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Daniel Dennett Breaking the Spell with Bill Moyers

Charlie Rose - Guest Host Bill Moyers with philosopher Daniel Dennett

57 min 3 sec - Apr 3, 2006

Description: Guest host Bill Moyers talks to philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. Dennett is the director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. His latest book is “Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

The nature of consciousness -- Logic vs. Pattern Recognition -- Spooky?

This is a good interview and typifies the sort of material that started me questioning dualism and got me to think more logically about the nature of consciousness (there is also a lot of reading I did on logical fallacies and critical thinking in general [more on that in another post]).

From the NPQ interview with Professor Gerald Edelman on Neural Darwinism:
I do not believe consciousness arises from spooky forces. I don’t believe in some Cartesian dualistic domain that is inaccessible to science. The brain is embodied and the body is embedded in its environment. That trio must operate in an integrated way. You can’t separate the activity and development of the brain from the environment or the body.
A religious friend of mine was surprisingly upset at the use of the word "spooky". I'm afraid I cannot excuse the usage or back away from that term. I think "spooky" is exactly the right term.

When I look back in my personal history to satisfy my friend's interest in what event triggered my "loss" of religion or my anger at god (since there are no gods how can I be angry at an idea with no basis in reality?), I find nothing to satisfy this assumption of an event. Like most things in my life the current state of my mind and beliefs were gradually acquired and gradually changed. Never much drama. However, I do remember being afraid. I remember fear of the supernatural and religious prophcy. From the ridiculous childhood fear that the rapture would come before the weekend trip to Disneyland, to the more teenage fear of what might be around the next corner (reading the "Amityville Horror" while working alone in a Radio Shack at night). All of it a bit, "spooky".

My current rejection of dualism has freed me from all this worry. The only residual I feel is from books and movies, where the skeptic is always the one who is killed by the thing they disbelieve. Somewhat like this fun little scene from the movie Lady in the Water:
Why you're not a dog at all. My god, this is like a moment from a horror movie. This is precisely the moment where the mutation or beast will attempt to kill an unlikable side character. But, in stories where there has been no prior cursing, violence, nudity or death, such as in a family film, the unlikable character will escape his encounter, and be referenced later in the story, having learned valuable lessons. He may even be given a humorous moment to allow the audience to feel good about him. This is where I turn to run. You will leap for me, I will shut the door, and you will land a fraction of a second too late.
[Turns to run, and is killed by the scrunt]
OK, so the character was a movie critic and not a skeptic. And clearly M. Night Shyamalan was making a slightly different point/joke, but still, I'm going to be more careful suspending my disbelief in the future.


Note: I first got excited by Professor Gerald Edelman's ideas after I heard him on the Berkeley Groks Podcast - Science of Consciousness
.. the brain is not in fact a digital computer. That the brain is in fact something that evolution has put together in terms of an incredible circuitry, which is capable of carrying out pattern recognition rather than logic. Of course, it can carry out logic in civilization after you train a person who has higher order consciousness. But, it’s not a logic machine first and foremost. It’s a pattern recognition device, and it has not been engineered it has been developed by natural selection.
I remember where I was in the car when I heard this. Pounded the steering wheel and shouted "YES!" This makes real sense, perhaps it is the computer nerd in me.

I'm finally getting around to reading his book: Wider than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The whole Religion as Metaphor thing

I have long heard "Religion is just a metaphor" (mostly from fans of Joseph Campbell). I have never been happy with it as an answer. So I thought I would try some thinking with my fingers to see if I can clarify my objections. As per usual the Wikipedia gives us a great jumping off point:
A root metaphor is the underlying association that shapes an individual's understanding of a situation. Examples would be understanding life as a dangerous journey, seeing life as a hard test, or thinking of life as a good party. A root metaphor is different from the previous types of metaphor in that it is not necessarily an explicit device in language, but a fundamental, often unconscious, assumption.

Religion provides one common source of root metaphors, since birth, marriage, death and other universal life experiences can convey a very different meaning to different people, based on their level or type of religious conditioning or otherwise. For example, some religions see life as a single arrow pointing toward a future endpoint. Others see it as part of an endlessly repeating cycle.
This seems to be the sense of metaphor we are concerned with.

As I see it calling religion a metaphor is another way to obscure the quest for knowledge and understanding.
"Jung says religion is a defense against the experience of god. I say our religions are." -- Joseph Campbell - Mythic Reflections
The problem is not getting religion out of the way so we can experience god. The problem is assuming there is a god to be experienced. The best plan is to solve the mysteries not just experience them.

However, the multiplicity of gods and religions is a very good teaching point. It does show that the ideas get confused somewhere. The error is to assume we are confused about something that is really there. Lots of people once thought disease was caused by spirits, now we know better. Dressing up the god of the gaps in lots of different metaphors does not make the idea more plausible.


Still a little rough, but it is late (not like anyone reads my stuff :-)