28 December 2011

Where I part company with the Consequentialist•Atheists

Where I part company with people like Peter Atkins, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris is not so much with regard to their analysis of the logical fallacies of religious faith. I agree with them about that. They are right to cite Bertrand Russell’s famous reference to an orbiting teapot, and his having noted that even agnosticism with respect to the reality of an eternally orbiting China teapot is not really rational. And that the same applies to belief in the God of Abraham, the infallibility of the Bible or (closer to home for me) the miraculous powers of the Buddhas and the reality of rebirth and karma which somehow persists from lifetime to lifetime. These things are not rational, and belief in them cannot be sustained by rational argument nor proven empirically by scientific investigation.

And I am skeptical, myself, about almost all religious dogma, including that from the religion with which I have the most experience, which is the Middle Way Consequence School of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (Madhyamika Prasangika). Where Buddhism teaches the methods of training the mind towards concentration, towards moral discipline, towards awareness, towards generation of love for all living beings-- I believe it is useful and good, in the sense that it helps to decrease the suffering of living beings and to increase their overall well being. But when it comes to whether one or another particular traditional story, or ritual practice, is in some literal sense true, or efficacious-- well, apart from the placebo effect of almost any kind of ritual practice, I’m not so sure.

But where I really part company with these modern day Consequentialist•Atheists, if I may call them that, borrowing the term from Harris (the terms used not together, but separately), is with regard to their assumptions about what is consciousness. Consciousness could be a sort of meta-state that arises from the computational functions of biological computers (brains), or of the entire organism. If so, in principle, if, as these thinkers do, you assume that there is nothing about living organisms, other than their origin through natural selection, that makes them different from artificial systems, it should be possible to model these functions and to create artificial consciousness, or even artificial systems which will serve as hosts for transferred biological consciousness (Presto! Immortality!)

But, and here, I cannot cite empirical evidence, but only intuitive belief, or, if you prefer, faith, I just do not believe this. I do not accept the idea that the inner experience of mind is merely the sum-over effect of computation of a biological computer. I cannot prove my thesis, but nonetheless believe it, probably as firmly as most Christians believe in God, or the resurrection: there is something non-mechanical, non-physical, even, about inner experience, about mind, that cannot be replicated. Whether it in some way, as Buddhists believe, is a continuum, that has always existed and can be neither created nor destroyed, I don’t know, but that it is not merely computation, I believe. No computer, no matter how well it may outwardly simulate the behavior of a mind, is a mind, or ever will be. No one’s conscious mind will ever be downloaded into a computer. No Artificial Intelligence will ever have the inner experience that even a cat or a baby has. Again, I can’t prove this, but I believe it. So, in this sense, I am not fully an atheist, and not fully a scientific rationalist.

So far, I have seen nothing to convince me otherwise, although I will admit that in this particular attitude I am not fully consistent, and am not strictly applying Occam’s Razor, because I suppose it could be argued that the hypothesis that mind is nothing more than a sort of sum-over of the electrochemical functions of brain and organism is simpler than my theory that it is… well, I don’t know. But I hold it nonetheless, and I believe that from it comes a whole host of consequences, some of which actually reinforce the Moral Landscape view of people like Sam Harris.

That this idea of inner experience is somehow connected with the fact that from apparent nothing, something, i.e., this universe and likely an infinity of others, arises, I also hold to be true, although, again, I cannot prove this or describe a rational argument for why it must be so. 

Eventually, everyone chooses what their world view will be. There are philosophical choices made in every system of thought, including scientific rationalism. For the most part, I share the worldview of the Atheists. I find the idea of a God who ransomed the supposed inherited sin of his creatures by torturing his only begotten son to death not only preposterous but offensive. I recognize the hideous harm that is committed in the name of belief in various religious doctrines. I am unclear that, in toto, religion creates more moral behavior, and less suffering, than would occur in its absence. Maybe it does, but there are a lot of counterexamples. But, irrespective or a sort of reckoning of whether holding certain irrational, or rather, not rationally justifiable, beliefs, is or is not beneficial, we all hold certain beliefs, and most of us believe at least some things that cannot be fully justified by rational philosophy or scientific outlook. And this view, that the inner experience of consciousness is in some way a product of the essential nature of reality itself, and cannot be replicated, created artificially, or even fully understood or described, is mine.  

Buddhism has a doctrine of emptiness, which is explicitly held to be beyond the ability of a rational mind to comprehend. The describable part of it seems almost ridiculous, and yet is literally true, from a physical point of view: the way that things appear to exist is not the way that they exist. No thing has fixed existence, inherent, or self-contained. The apparent existence of matter and energy is illusory. I am no doubt influenced by this concept, or phenomenon-system. Perhaps it's like Gödel's proof that no arithmetic system can be fully self-descriptive. Outside of rationality there is... something. And, to me, that something is the ground of existence, which is somehow implicit in, inextricable from, and intrinsic to, the inner experience of mind. 

Yet from rationality, I believe, can be derived a comprehensive, practical universal morality. And where religion fails to do this, fully, it is worse than useless. Religion, and even mysticism, the atheists argue, is unnecessary for morality, and in this they are right, I believe. But morality is absolutely necessary for the integrity of human experience, and for the full flowering of itself: we cannot be a truly moral race, until we recognize that it is irrational, and unacceptable, to cause suffering avoidably; to hold as ours what is needed for others to have well being; to take needlessly what others need. Of course, it isn't realistic for us to expect to fulfill these standards perfectly, but if we do not accept them, and strive for them; if we rationalize systematically ignoring them, we forego our claim to morality, regardless of any affiliation we may have for any religion or philosophy. 

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