Tuesday, April 26, 2011

I Wanna Idealize You Like An Animal

This is a loooong essay by Raymond Tallis, and I fully admit up front that I don't have the time to give it the careful attention and engagement it deserves, but at the same time, when an argument starts off with such weak points, it doesn't bode well for the rest of it or make me inclined to want to spend much more time on it:

The failure to distinguish consciousness from neural activity corrodes our self-understanding in two significant ways. If we are just our brains, and our brains are just evolved organs designed to optimize our odds of survival — or, more precisely, to maximize the replicative potential of the genetic material for which we are the vehicle — then we are merely beasts like any other, equally beholden as apes and centipedes to biological drives. Similarly, if we are just our brains, and our brains are just material objects, then we, and our lives, are merely way stations in the great causal net that is the universe, stretching from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch.

Hmm. I don't know; maybe we can only get the full effect if he tells it around the campfire with a flashlight under his chin. As it is, I'm sorry, but repeating a viewpoint in an incredulous tone with a disbelieving look on your face does not count as a rebuttal. Affronts to your vanity or conception of human dignity are not automatically disqualified. Does this really need to be reiterated anymore?

Most of those who subscribe to such “neuroevolutionary” accounts of humanity don’t recognize these consequences. Or, if they do recognize them, then they don’t subscribe to these accounts sincerely. When John Gray appeals, in his 2002 book Straw Dogs, to a belief that human beings are merely animals and so “human life has no more meaning than the life of slime mold,” he doesn’t really believe that the life of John Gray, erstwhile School Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, has no more meaning than that of a slime mold — else why would he have aspired to the life of a distinguished professor rather than something closer to that of a slime mold?

Because he is a distinguished professor and not a slime mold. He's not claiming there is no difference at all between the two, he's claiming there is no more inherent biological worth to one over the other. I'm not sure what the implication is here. What is he supposed to do upon realizing that humanity is an extremely clever ape that may nonetheless be undone by its own cleverness? Run off to the woods to subsist on grubs and berries, communicating through clicks, hoots and grunts? Commit suicide? What?

Was it Stephen Jay Gould who basically said that humanity exists at the discretion of bacteria and viruses, the real rulers of the planet? One random mutation is all it would take to quickly eliminate tens or even hundreds of millions of oh-so-special humans. And all of our wonderful cultural achievements aren't going to grant us any exemptions from the consequences of environmental destruction or of any meteors streaking toward an impact with Earth. Our kind of consciousness is obviously a wonderful thing to experience. But it doesn't imply anything about us somehow being independent of our biological origins or promise us a glorious future.

3 comments:

Shanna said...

Oh course not. All consciousness grants us is the ability to believe whatever we want to believe.

And no damn microbe is gonna take that away from me!

Brian M said...

I think the other error is assuming, as he does, that "inherent biological worth" is the primary criterion of value for humans or human society. It ain't!

noel said...

My aspirations don't seem that much different than a slime mold's: find a comfortable environment, absorb some nutrients, and exchange genetic material with others. (TMI? Sorry.)