A Call To The Humanities To Reclaim Its Concious Self
- Written by Shaun Johnston Shaun Johnston
- Published: November 16, 2017 November 16, 2017
- Hits: 8791 8791
What matters most about teaching Darwinism to schoolchildren? I think, what it tells them about themselves. And what it tells them I think can be very harmful.
Here's why. Can you follow me?
1. I experience being conscious, having conscious experiences. Agreed?
2. Often while I’m conscious I'll consciously decide to do something, and then do it. This won't be just a physical reflex, I'll be doing it for the sake of some other conscious experience in the future. Suppose I buy a book about art. What matters to me is not buying the book, it's the effect that will have on my future conscious experiences. Conscious experience is what gives meaning to something physical like buying that book. For me, conscious experiences are at least as "real" as matter, and on the whole more meaningful. Agreed?
3. Thinking like this is basic to the arts and the humanities. They're usually about how what someone thinks and does today can affect what they'll experience in the future. Agreed?
4. That's true for the physical sciences too. Carrying out a scientific experiment involves a series of conscious operations like these:
Coming up with a question, creating alternative possible answers, designing an experiment to tell which of these hypotheses is more likely right, judging which of them the results confirm, and empathizing with others--assessing who’d like to be told. Questioning, creating, designing, use of reason, judging other people’s reactions—these are just as much the foundation of the sciences as of the humanities.
It's by thinking of mind and matter interacting like this that we make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Agreed?
5. But here's a strange thought: What's true of us must also be true of the universe we live in, since we're a part of that universe. In other words, if mind and matter can interact within us individually then logically they can interact outside us elsewhere in the universe too, right? It could have been through mind and matter interacting that we have both minds and bodies. By studying that, how we evolved to become conscious, we might discover where our conscious capabilities came from and how to enhance them further.
Here we run up against the account of evolution that's taught to children in school--Darwinism, our shared origin story.
Most people I talk to say, all they know about evolution is what they were taught in school: we evolved through random mutations to our genes, followed by natural selection. No interaction of mind and matter here, these are both purely physical processes.
What does this story tell children about themselves? To me it tells them that, since they're made by purely physical processes, they must be purely physical too. Imagine a smart kid asking, "What about consciousness?" According to today's science, because consciousness isn't made of atoms it's not physical, so it can't interact with anything that is made of atoms. It's not real like matter so it can't make anything physical happen. Now let's imagine, the kid's really stubborn: "Consciousness is real to me, I can make things happen just by thinking them." No you can't, science will reply. Thinking you can consciously make things happen is just an illusion. You're no different from everything else in the world, you're purely physical too, and everything you do is determined by the laws of physics. What you do is what your brain makes you do. In effect, you're a robot.
This is the physicalism that dominates today's science, believed in by most of the writers of school biology textbooks. I strongly disagree. I can’t live without conscious experiences being real, to some extent at least independent of today's physics. To me that's common sense. It's my mission to encourage you to insist that conscious experiences are real for you, too, and to agitate for some other story about how we evolved, that can account for our conscious experiences.
Am I misguided? Show me to my satisfaction I am and I’ll be delighted to give up. Otherwise, for me, it's the logic behind today's theory of evolution that's misguided:
Scientists insist that accounts of evolution must stay within the limits set by today's physical laws. But they don't limit themselves to today's physics when what they want to account for is their own mental operations. Instead, to account for those mental operations they invoke future progress in science that they assume will follow along the lines of science today. But sciences able to account for scientists' mental operations could find similar operations in the processes of evolution. After all, those processes are obviously able to make creatures like us that are conscious, they can "transact" in consciousness somehow. Aren't those scientists guilty of defying logic in applying one limit to accounting for evolution and a different limit to accounting for their own mental operations?
Today's purely physical theory of evolution, Darwinism, could be hideously wrong about almost everything. It could be holding back our understanding of the natural world. And what about us? Our decision-making seems crucially different from that of purely physical things--a volcano can't apply reason, it can't hold two hypotheses in mind while it plans an experiment to distinguish between them as a scientist can. An origin story that tells us our conscious experiences are illusions, that all our decisions are determined by physics, mightn't that have a corrosive impact on human nature over future generations? Should we be teaching that to our children? Isn't that a challenge the humanities should respond to?
Note, the issue isn't dualism or creationism, it's science's assertion that to account for both consciousness and what it means we evolved, all you need is today's physics. Are we sure enough about that to teach it, as the truth, to our children? Doubting Darwinism isn't anti-science if it leads science to abandon an arrogant reductionism it would be better off without.
What you can do for yourself now is look around this site and check out the "Theory of Everything" video, see sidebar on this page. For an alternative mind-focused theory of evolution pick up a copy of the book "Re-thinking What it Means We Evolved," take links also in the sidebar. Please comment below or email me through our contact page. Tell me, does this matter? If so, spread the word. It's a matter of common sense.