23 August 2008

End the (consciousness) war!

Reason is not the ultimate human faculty lauded by classical philosophy, yet neither is it the 'slave of the passions' as David Hume believed. We must avoid the simple, convenient and false reason-emotion dichotomy that rends apart what is intricately entwined, even interdependent. Neuroscientific evidence shows the important role played by feelings, instinct and the unconscious mind - aspects of our humanity often reviled as inferior to reason and logical thinking - in our personal theatre of life.

Reason is commonly misconceived as a sort of superpower humans possess that exists independently of our biology. The truth is that consciousness has a physical basis in the brain and our exercise of reason - like our exercise of the emotions - consists of electro-chemical activity in specific parts of the brain. We must keep in mind that throughout most of philosophical history, speculations on the nature of consciousness, reason and feelings lacked a modern scientific perspective, a perspective afforded by sophisticated brain-scanning technology and incisive research methods. Much of the currently accepted beliefs regarding consciousness are in need of revision, even rejection.

Critics of what is construed as cold scientific reductionism refuse to accept the demonstrable fact that the complexity of humans - like that of any advanced organism we are kin with - is largely the sum of electro-chemical happenings. Yet the honest scientific position does not deny that we as unique human individuals are more than the mere sum of our bio-molecular make-up. People aren't just organic robots running on deterministic software. There are intangible abstracts (language, relationships, culture, ideas) that influence our thinking and actions which cannot be captured in a brain scan and displayed as hard data on a glowing screen.

Still, sincere scientists, far from displaying the cliched arrogance attributed to them by their detractors, are humble enough to accept the implications of their research even if it means the destruction of comfortable myths, the popping of romantic bubbles. Conversely, those who stubbornly cling to the idea of human exceptionalism are the ones showing a serious modesty deficit. Admittedly it's hard to accept the news that we're just not as special as we like to think we are. After all, the greater part of our civilised history is a story where we are cast as the protagonists, where according to certain traditions no greater scriptwriter than God Himself wrote for us a role which gave us 'dominion over the fishes of the sea, the fowls of the air, the beasts of the land, and the pop-culture tastes of the vapid masses'.

Neuroscience and neuropsychology present the best route we can take towards reconciling reason and emotion. The inter-consciousness war has gone on long enough. It's time to give peace, and science, a chance.


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