Monday, September 19, 2011

talking past each other

A U. Calgary neuroscientist named Walter Glannon says, in "Neuroscience vs. Philosophy: Taking Aim at Free Will," that "Neuroscientists and philosophers talk past each other." Only too true, I think. While studies in cognition have become very interdisciplinary over the past few decades, I'm still left with the feeling-- based on my own superficial readings-- that a great deal more cross-pollination between scientists and philosophers is possible. My own reading of cognitive theorist Bernard Lonergan, a Catholic priest who devoted his life to what might be called the anthropology of consciousness, has left me with the thought that many such theorists make little or no effort to appreciate the actual science involved.

I find very little in science to support the substance dualism thesis, for example; if anything, I see more scientific support for a Buddhist notion of consciousness and selfhood: a given consciousness is a dynamic assembly of processual phenomena. Any "selfhood" that arises from this assembly isn't so much unreal as not fundamentally real, and this ontology obtains whether the phenomena in question are labeled physical or mental (see my old post here for why I think a Buddhist wouldn't care too much about the substance dualism-versus-physicalism question).

Of course, I also think that cognitive neuroscience isn't yet at a point where it can make self-assured declarations about the nonexistence of free will. Scientists do themselves no favors when they fail to respect their own methodological skepticism.

All the same, there is a serious discussion to be had, here: in the West, we link free will to the notion of moral responsibility. If we are, indeed, beings with no libertarian free will, then in what way are we responsible for any of our actions? A dialogue between and among philosophers, scientists, and other thinkers is, I believe, necessary if we're to make any progress on these crucial questions.

My thanks to Peter at Conscious Entities for writing the post that prompted my own superficial musings. Peter's post also links to a large-scale interdisciplinary project called Big Questions in Free Will, a project that does indeed promote dialogue on consciousness among various thinkers in disparate disciplines.


No comments: