Thursday, 9 April 2009

856 - Easter Early

In case I don't blog over the weekend, I'm wondering if I can give you an Easter gift early.

And this is good: from Susan Blackmore's new book Ten Zen Questions (Oneworld, Oxford, 2009), which - to my great joy - has been classified by the publishers, on the ISBN info-panel on the jacket, as "Gift/ Zen/ Popular Science", in that order -

This brings us to a modern version of the mind-body problem, called the 'Hard Problem' of consciousness: that is, how can objective, physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience? Neuroscientists are making tremendous progress in understanding the objective brain processes; with brain scans, implanted electrodes, computer models, and all sorts of other ways of investigating how the brain works. We can measure the electrical firing of neurons, the chemical behaviour in synapses, the processing of information, and the mechanisms of vision, hearing, and memory. We can see how information flows in through the senses, and how responses are coordinated and actions carried out.
But what about me and my conscious experiences? Where do I fit into this integrated system of inputs, outputs and multiple parallel processing systems? The strange thing is that I feel as if I am in the middle of all this activity, experiencing what comes in through the senses, and deciding what to do in response, when in fact the brain seems to have no need of me. There is no central place or process where I could be, and the brain seems capable of doing everything it does without any supervisor, decider or inner experience. Indeed, the more we learn about how the brain works the more it seems that something is left out - that very thing we care about most of all - 'consciousness itself'.
(pp. 25-6)

In other words, the Good Friday question: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). Why am I just flesh and blood? Where is the transcendence? Where is the poetry? How can I fail to die? What guarantees me? Where is Your place in the world, if we are just neurons and synapses and information transactions?

To which, the Christian I was would have said, "Wait until Easter: that's the point - He rose again. He thought He was abandoned by God, but He wasn't."

And the librarian I became would have said, "That's just a story: one among many. It's a category error to apply the dynamics of the Easter story to hard science. But don't worry. Science, and Easter, say that when I die, the library remains."

(And probably Christianity is just a story, and we are an illusion spun out of molecules. Probably there is no absolute reason why, having defined each other as bundles of interacting neurons, we should not proceed as a society to marshall each other efficiently and unpoetically, like books on a shelf, to the convenience of the greatest number and the shallowest thinking. Perhaps scare stories about challenges by the State to our fundamental identity are alarmist nonsense - they must be if our identity doesn't exist.)

But the artist I am says, "The greatest miracle is that story and science combine at Easter to create something new. And consciousness is neither a spirit, nor a synapse: it is a season. What we choose to do in that season is limited only by our imagination."

4 comments:

Andy said...

Please excuse me, if I take this opportunity to share my favourite ever classification:

"Shaun of the Dead" is a romzomcom.

A bit lowbrow, for which I must apologise.

Steve Lancaster said...

Ha ha!

Low brow's good. Think my blog needs a bit more low brow...

How's family?

ColonelFazackerley said...

OK. Esmé is learning to be awake without crying. A handy life skill, you will agree.

BTW, Andy is now ColonelFazackerley, for reasons to do with openID and Blogger and stuff.

Steve Lancaster said...

Welcome, Colonel!

(My alias used to be Colonel Henry Blake. I wanted to be Hawkeye, but in all honesty, I was only ever the Colonel...)