Monday, March 25, 2013

On and off the grid


I generally stay out of the discussions on Comments, preferring to listen and learn. And it's the rare commenter I personally know. But GJW is a friend of mine, and a frequent lunchtime companion. I won't speak to his philosophy, but he is certainly less skeptical than I am, and does his best to pry open the door of my credulity when he thinks I'm closing it too tight. As in these comments the other day on the origin of consciousness:
Among your reservations, Chet, you say this: "Other supposed irreducible phenomena –- ESP, astrology, petitionary prayer, etc. -– when subjected to close empirical scrutiny, have failed the test of reproducible objectivity."

I might ask whether your criteria for truth testing is so narrow that it would leave out anything that does not fit our invented systems of abstraction and measure. Is great art or music "reproducible"? Is performed poetry or dance? Is it possible that there is more to human existence than what can be placed on a measurable grid! I think so. What? Well, let's find out.
I would answer: Yes, great art, music, poetry and dance is reproducible. You can find it reproduced all over the place. I have a CD of Chopin's Nocturnes here on my desk. You may have one too. I don't think anyone would deny that the Nocturnes are real, that they were written by Chopin, and that we can enjoy them today.

We do, of course, enjoy them in different ways, or perhaps not at all, depending on taste, culture, and the wiring of our brains. Why we enjoy music –- or the beauty of art in general -- remains an open question, like consciousness. As GJW says, let's find out. My default Ockhamist position is: Start with the evolution of the physical brain.

Now as for ESP, astrology and petitionary prayer -– there is no there there. Nothing that the believer and the skeptic can agree on. Nothing but anecdotal claims. Every test to identify some common something has failed (I refer you to Skeptics and True Believers or When God Is Gone for the details). It is the commonest of human failings to mistake coincidence for causality.

Is there more to human existence than can be placed on a measurable grid? Absolutely. I would hope and trust that this blog attests to that. One foot solidly on the grid; one foot awash in the sea of mystery.


More on the Nagel affair here.