Monday, March 27, 2006

the narrow throne of reality

Midgley on why talk about the self sounds flaky and unscientific:
Metaphysical materialism [the idea that the biochemistry is all there is to life] got into European thought in the first place as a weapon used, first by the early atomists and then by political campaigners such as Hobbes, against the dominance of religion. In modern times the prime motivation behind it was horror and indignation at the religious wars and persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and its main target was the notion of the soul as a distinct entity capable of surviving death....this social and political motivation was quite close to that of the ancient atomists, who were also moved by outrage at disastrous religious practices.

This motivation was a suitable one for forging a weapon in campaigns against the churches. But it was much less able to provide a balanced foundation for the whole of science, let alone for a general understanding of life. For that wider understanding, change and interaction needed to be seen as intelligible in their own terms and the first-person aspect of life had to be taken seriously as well as the objective one.

Descartes notoriously saw this last problem and made a magnificent attempt to deal with it by making mind or consciousness the starting point for his systematic doubt. He did succeed in getting subjectivity finally onto the philosophers' agenda, but for a long time they were puzzled about what to do with it. Descartes still described mind ontologically, not as a first-person aspect or point of view but as a substance, something parallel to physical matter but separate from it and not intelligibly connected with it.

This kind of dualism had the fatal effect of making mind look to many scientists like an extra kind of stuff, not like one aspect (among many) of the real world but like a rival substance competing with matter for the narrow throne of reality. This vision inclined scientifically-minded people to sign up for an ideology called materialism, meaning by that not just allegiance to matter but in some sense disbelief in mind. The idea of the two as rivals for the status of reality persisted. Mind was seen as an awkward non-material entity which perhaps ought to be removed with Occam's Razor, one which was certainly too exotic meanwhile to deserve serious scientific attention. And alarm about it went particularly deep in the social sciences, which were becoming increasingly sensitive about their scientific status.

This is why, through much of the twentieth century, scientists, both social and physical, in English-speaking countries were extraordinarily careful to avoid any mention of subjectivity and particularly of consciousness....

Which sounds grand and sensible, but I'm still waiting for Midgley to admit that the physical stuff generates mind, rather than saying, "These are aspects of human life which must be considered together in understanding what we are." I understand her impatience with the idea that we're windup toys, and that we're helpless to our biological fate. I like her attempt, later in the book, at arguing that mere physical state does not push our actions; our own conscious thought does. But the thoughts must come from somewhere, and must be part of the physical system somehow. As important as the subjective experience is, and as real as I consider it to be, her arguments do not, so far, persuade me that it drives us as powerfully as other parts of the chemical machinery do. Or that mind is a special kind of emergent property, different from all others, and more important in its effect on the organism. Which is saying something, since I've spent most of my adult life writing fiction, or contemplating subjective experience.

Last week I tried Xanax, a benzodiazepine prescribed for anxiety. Subjectively: It's an abomination, emotional Botox, but it sure does work. I took half the minimum prescribed dose and within half an hour had a heavily anesthetized gut feel. No adrenaline, not even in the middle of a quarrel with my husband -- which I made up by saying, "Was this really so important?" No spring in the feet, no fight. The drug left me with an overwhelming sense of Whatever, and I can't imagine that under its influence I would, say, mount a political campaign, or bother flossing my teeth, or find television inane enough to turn off.

I mention this because it's a dramatic example of what seems to me an ordinary reality. While my thoughts influence my action, so does my gut feel, my physical sense of excitability, dread, paralysis, calm, anesthesia. It seems to me obvious that the biochemistry influences this physical sense and the thoughts and action that stem from it, and so far I am not seeing Midgley account for this ordinary experience.

No comments: