Contemporary ideas need to be weighed not against others of the same period but against those of the past, and it is here that the average, modern student is defenceless. His interests and leisure reading are confined to an alarming extent to contemporary writers and thinkers who, despite their apparent individualism, are all really working in the same direction. It is ironic that the current demand at universities is for more relevance (that is to say, contemporaneity) in the curriculum. If acceded to, this will result in a still larger degree of temporal provincialism and an even more profound ignorance of the history of ideas than now prevails.—Duncan Williams, Trousered Apes
Sometime around a hundred years ago, philosophers decided not to talk about anything that they couldn’t prove. Over the decades, biology was reduced to chemistry, which in turn was reduced to physics, which in turn was reduced to mathematical formulas.
In the meantime, what was ignored was the whole subject of mind.
It reminds me of an old joke:
“What is mind?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“What is matter?”
And yet, mind exists. There is this thing we have called consciousness. It is that consciousness which, from time immemorial, prompted talk about the human soul. Whether the soul exists apart from consciousness, I don’t know. Whether consciousness can exist unhooked from the whole material superstructure that is the human body, I do not know.
I tend to think that because of my sense of my own consciousness—the thing that makes me who I am—that I say I believe in God. Certainly I am not beholden to any organized religion for my belief: I think that all the scriptures are merely metaphorical attempts to create a myth around a belief in the deity.
In his recent book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Thomas Nagel writes:
I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life. It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. We are expected to abandon this naive response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples. What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a non-negligible probability of being true. There are two questions. First, given what is known about the chemical basis of biology and genetics, what is the likelihood that self-reproducing life forms should have come into existence spontaneously on the early earth, solely through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry? The second question is about the sources of variation in the evolutionary process that was set in motion once life began: In the available geological time since the first life forms appeared on earth, what is the likelihood that, as the result of a physical accident, a sequence of viable genetic mutations should have occurred that was sufficient to permit natural selection to produce the organisms that actually exist?
Nagel does not provide the answers, but he asks the right questions. Is my consciousness of myself an accident? And why is my consciousness of myself so different from everyone else’s consciousness of themselves?
What has dictated that mind across so many billions of instances should be so rich, so incredibly diversified, so beautiful (and sometimes so heinous)?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.