Thursday 17 November 2011

Finished the Sam Harris book "The Moral Landscape"

It's kinda difficult to characterise my feelings.
I was 2/3rds the way through the book (page 191 of 295) and had the odd feeling that the author was "wrapping up".
I turned the page and there it was: "Afterword".
What? It's over? That's it? Hey! What about the other hundred pages?
100 pages of notes and references.
Don't get me wrong... The notes were interesting. Very interesting.

Now. I need to get down to it.
I was flummoxed by the 'end' of the book.
It didn't seem like anything had been established and felt like I'd been running and suddenly found myself like a cartoon character flailing madly as I ran off the end of a cliff.
No definitive conclusion.
I read the afterword.
THAT should have been the book.
I looked at the cover again: "How Science Can Determine Human Values"
Er... No...
I agree completely with the author as he seems to be saying "Whoops. Maybe that line was a bad idea."
Mainly because the book didn't seem to say "How Science Can Determine Human Values" but rather:
"Whether it may be possible at some time in the future that science may have some insight into what human values are and whether it may be possible to have something to say about how human brains work."
I sat back after the Afterword and thought for a while.
Or, as the author seems to be saying, "Thoughts had me" about the what I had read.
I concede that the author is very familiar with the subject of neuroscience and provided a lot of study results to back up his argument at any particular point.
There seemed to be a, how shall I put it, somewhat "stream of consciousness" to the progress of the book.
I never got the feeling that any point had been established with any certainty.
I could characterise the entire book as a dinner party where a proclaimed intellectual giant arrives, dominates the group by monologuing for an hour or so, then for no seemingly good reason says:
"Right. That's established. I'm off. Here are my notes."
And leaves with everybody furrowing their brow and wondering whether they learned anything or had any insights.

Then another thought had me.
There seemed to be an unstated assumption that seemed to permeate the text.
It was like the elephant in the room.
Every statement and question seemed to be framed to avoid saying: "WTF! There's a bloody great elephant here!"
And that is that the author seemed to be skirting around saying:
"You are a machine. A complex machine, but a machine nonetheless. A body hanging off a bunch of chemical and electrical effects held in that head thing. You don't have thoughts. They have you. What you call your mind and your choices are simply post facto results of those chemical and electrical effects over which you have no more control than you have over your pancreas."
And for me that's a worry despite the fact that I agree with it with one proviso:
"My mind and personality may be determined by those effects, but I VALUE them independently of those effects."
Because it seems to me that if that is used as a basis for "Determining Human Values" then your "well-being" can simply be controlled by a bunch of medications or medical intervention.
And there are nutters out there who change:
"You are a machine"
"You are JUST a machine"
And who, just who, will decide what levels of serotonin and dopamine or how many hours of exercise or which vegetables and fruit I eat will promote my personal well-being?
And what nanny state nutter will stop there?
Why not determine that having a choice about milk is not good for your well-being after age 5?
Why not determine that "fill in your horror scenario here."
After all, it's "science".

Hello THX-1138.

Then another thought had me.
There is no "soul".
But I consider myself to be a dualist.
No not a body-soul dualist, but more of a brain-mind dualist.
That is, my mind is the emergent behaviour of the fantastically complex chemical and electrical effects in my head.
This can be shown by the "mind" changing as a result of pre-frontal cortex damage as shown by the author.
But I VALUE that emergent behaviour and I won't submit to chemical or societal force just because someone else's emergent behaviours determine that I'm damaging my "well-being".

Just a thought that had me.

On to a Richard Dawkins book.

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