Monday, August 18, 2008

Consciousness: So familiar and yet so puzzling ...

In The Return of Religion in Axess magazine, philosopher Roger Scruton observes,
Consciousness is more familiar to us than any other feature of our world, since it is the route by which anything at all becomes familiar. But this is what makes consciousness so hard to pinpoint. Look for it wherever you like, you encounter only its objects - a face, a dream, a memory, a colour, a pain, a melody, a problem, but nowhere the consciousness that shines on them. Trying to grasp it is like trying to observe your own observing, as though you were to look with your own eyes at your own eyes without using a mirror. Not surprisingly, therefore, the thought of consciousness gives rise to peculiar metaphysical anxieties, which we try to allay with images of the soul, the mind, the self, the 'subject of consciousness', the inner entity that thinks and sees and feels and which is the real me inside.
However, Scruton does not think that that works very well.
But these traditional 'solutions' merely duplicate the problem. We cast no light on the consciousness of a human being simply by re-describing it as the consciousness of some inner homunculus - be it a soul, a mind or a self. On the contrary, by placing that homunculus in some private, inaccessible and possibly immaterial realm, we merely compound the mystery.
Actually, consciousness is immaterial whether we like it or not. Your idea of red - or mine - are both immaterial. They have material correlates - that is, they relate to material things, including red objects, eyes and neurons in the brain. But the concepts are not material in themselves.

Scruton, usually a clear thinker, makes his effort to defend religion (the primary purpose of his piece) unnecessarily difficult, by agreeing in advance to two mistaken concepts - that the evangelical atheists are right in their general picture of the universe and that they are not religious.

Surprisingly, he even endorses Richard Dawkins’s "selfish gene" (you are merely a robot that your selfish genes use to replicate themselves) - a concept that is increasingly regarded as an embarrassment to evolution theory.

He then announces that this concept presents no problem for traditional religion. Huh?

Unfortunately, his idea of traditional religion turns out merely to be sentimental longing for the comforts of an exploded belief system - which is certainly not how we see it at my church, where traditional religion is a living presence and the selfish gene isn't.

Meanwhile, an American lawyer friend, John Calvert, writes me to point out the second serious flaw in Scruton's understanding of religion.
According to a popular dictionary religion is a set of beliefs about the cause, nature and purpose of life.

Dawkins, et al are promoting a set of beliefs about the cause, nature and purpose of life, predicated on a dogma - scientific materialism. Hence, they are also promoting a religion in the Constitutional sense and in its functional sense. Atheism and its sister religion of Secular Humanism function in the very same manner as traditional theistic religion.

The Supreme Court and most other courts have recognized that in a pluralistic society, religion must be defined functionally and inclusively. An exclusive definition of religion discriminates by limiting it to only theistic beliefs

Atheism and Secular Humanism have both been held to be religions. They are in fact organized religions that meet in churches, have manifestos, ethical and moral tenets, priests and Sunday school teachers.
Yes, precisely. "Religion" includes materialist atheism and secular humanism because they act as a set of beliefs about the cause, nature and purpose of life.

The fact that the zealots of these relatively new religions attack traditional religions is more or less what you might expect.

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