22 Jul 2015

A miracle for Richard Dawkins

Scene:   Nosstick and Agnes are a couple of café philosophers and, as usual, they are sitting in a café discussing life, the universe and everything. Nosstick believes in God but Agnes is not so sure.

Noss:      (raising his arm in the air) Look! A miracle!
Agnes:    You’ve raised your hand in the air. That’s hardly a miracle.
Noss:      Well, let’s see. But first, let’s ignore any problems about the nature of reality and the nature of what we know.
Agnes:    Oh yeah, epistemology and ontology and all that.
Noss:      Quite. Let’s agree that there is a you-that-is-you who has just seen a me-that-is-me raise my hand.
Agnes:    Fine. I don’t think we need to discuss the possibility right now that we might be living in a Cartesian dream world where everything might be a figment of my imagination. Nor need we bother with the postmodern physics of multiple universes.
Noss:      Good. So I’d like to know how you think it happens that I can raise my hand in the air?
Agnes:    Obvious, really. Your brain just sends an instruction to your arm muscles and they respond by bringing force to bear on your hand to overcome the physical resistance of gravity, air resistance and anything else that stops your hand rising. It’s all a question of brain chemistry, nerve signals and muscle power.
Noss:      Well yes. But where does it all start?  I mean, I know about the law of cause and effect. I know that there is a me that causes my hand to rise and, in this case, I do so as part of a theological discussion – and I know that whenever I do it there is some cause or other. … But, aside from all that, I think there are only two ways to interpret what has happened. On the one hand, you can say that I had it in mind and I willed it to happen. But what is the mind and what is this will? Are they in there in among the brain chemicals and synapses? No: however deep you go into the physiology, you can never explain the mind and will in that way. Remember the Numbskulls in the Beano: the little people in the cartoon character’s brain who controlled what he did? It’s like what happens if you delve into the brain of one of the Numbskulls: there’d be another group of even smaller controllers and so on in an infinite regression. If you don’t have that, there must be an “I” with a mind and will to make the thing happen – or not happen if “I” prefer. That is the miracle.
Agnes:    So you’re saying that the you-that-is-you has control, or choice, or mind or will over what otherwise appears to be a matter of inevitable physical processes.
Noss:      Yes: there is an “I” of pure thought or pure consciousness, which can rise above the deterministic physical reality, and can change it at will. It is a miracle but it’s such an everyday occurrence that most of us take it for granted and have generally stopped noticing how miraculous it is.
Agnes:    You said there were two ways to interpret what has happened. What is the other one?
Noss:      The other interpretation is the one which follows from the cause-and-effect idea. If there is no “I” who can will this thing to happen, it means that we are all automata in a fully determined universe and every event is caused by some previous event – leading all the way back to the start of the universe. You eventually get back to that old philosophical chestnut, the First Cause: a point of Something being created from Nothing – just like in the trivial and everyday example of me raising my hand.  What better definition could there be of a miracle than that it is a Something that is created from Nothing?
Agnes:    I’m convinced. Look, there’s Richard Dawkins. Let’s go and tell him about this.

Postscript 16apr2017 - This conversation just rehearses the distinction wrought by Descartes in the 17th century between body (= all matter) and the mind or soul (relegated to the minuscule pineal gland within the brain).
Here is another, recent reference to the same dichotomy and the problem that arises from it, taken from a review of The Parallax View by Slavoj Žižek '... the scientific parallax, the irreducible gap between the phenomenal experience of re'ality and its scientific explanation, which reaches its apogee in today's brain sciences (according to which "nobody is home" in the skull, just stacks of brain meat—a condition Žižek calls "the unbearable lightness of being no one")'

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