8.03.2011

The Comets Tale


Back in the 13th century while some amazing guys were creating all the big ideas a modern philosopher would ever need, people had some pretty screwy ideas about comets. Among other things they were bad omens - and not the the strike the Yucatan and annihilate the dinosaurs kind of bad omen. No, comets were cosmic pink slips from God. That slow progression across the heavens with a fiery tail was pretty upsetting. It would be centuries before anyone understood what they really are. Far from being messages of doom (but still very much potential agents of same...) they were dirty snowballs with particularly eccentric orbits.


And as people studied them they discovered some other interesting facts. One of these facts was that the tail always pointed away from the sun. That was curious at first. Why would the evaporation products of the coma always form a pattern away from the sun? It suggested the presence of a force or an agent that was pushing the cometary tail particles away from the sun. Turns out that this is the solar wind. That expanding impulse of particles always being ejected from the sun's surface. Invisible, subtle, but not undetectable. An effect first detectable through observation; then a process imagined to explain it; then the mechanism validated through experimentation. Like every other process in nature the solar wind left signs of its existence long before we had any means of either imagining its existence or detecting it. But what was true elsewhere in nature was true here as well: if it caused some effect, then it left a mark.

Is this one of my usual digressions? I don't think so. Time and again science finds that causes leave fingerprints on their effects in this universe of ours. So why would consciousness be any different? Philosophers who insist on some special status for human cognition not explained by our neuroanatomy, must show us the marks left by these metaphysical processes. Even (usually) subtle forces like the solar wind leave a trail of breadcrumbs. Evidence not words are what is required.

21 comments:

Michael Lockridge said...

What did philosophers have in prior eras other than the accumulated knowledge of their time, if even much of that? Neuroanatomy can inform contemporary discussion only because it now exists. How useful it might be is another matter.

How approachable is the field? I know little of it, so ultimately I will likely end up with simply having a different kind of priest to rely upon for knowledge beyond my understanding.

Unfortunately, a consciousness that is simply the by-product of brain farts lacks emotional satisfaction at least for some people, even if it proves to be the most correct model. I certainly understand why models which offer a bit more dignity might be chosen.

Will they pass the tests of science? Perhaps not. How much does that matter? If consciousness is an illusion, a mere seeming thing, then what sets the value of one illusion over another?

pboyfloyd said...

".. a consciousness that is simply the by-product of brain farts lacks emotional satisfaction.."

On the other hand, "HELL WITH YOU SCIENTISTS!! I LIKE THE IDEA THAT MY CONSCIOUSNESS TRANSCENDS THE NATURAL WORLD!! Fuck you scientists for trying to burst my bubble! Hey, if I can't have my GOD using my imaginary spiritually connected consciousness then I'll just have to manufacture 'end of the World' scenarios, HOW'S THAT ASSHOLES???", is more emotionally satisfying?"

Is that a theme for one of your stories Mike? How emotional satifaction is more important than fact?

Not bad, not bad, but I'm thinking it's going to have to be more than 5 paragraphs.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

How approachable is the field? I know little of it, so ultimately I will likely end up with simply having a different kind of priest to rely upon for knowledge beyond my understanding.

A great question Mike,but I hope to show you that it is approachable. Not only that, but you can observe and test most of the processes in your own experience once you get comfortable with it.

While I certainly appreciate the lack of comfort found in neurophysiology compared with other explanations, I don't think we can afford to continue to allow those explanations to drive national policy beyond an individual's choice.

What makes one illusion better than another? The same morality we have created to reduce conflict and protect the innocent. Whether the Golden Rule is divine or pragmatic, it's still a great guide, for example.

Harry C Pharisee said...

Pb,

"Whatever gets you through the night 'salright, 'salright."

-John 'Vladimir' Lennon

Harry C Pharisee said...

I don't want somebody's "illusion" forced on me, but I can't become incensed at anyone trying to stave off existential despair.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

I don't want somebody's "illusion" forced on me, but I can't become incensed at anyone trying to stave off existential despair.
-------

My philosophy in a nutshell!

Michael Lockridge said...

"On the other hand, "HELL WITH YOU SCIENTISTS!! I LIKE THE IDEA THAT MY CONSCIOUSNESS TRANSCENDS THE NATURAL WORLD!! Fuck you scientists for trying to burst my bubble! Hey, if I can't have my GOD using my imaginary spiritually connected consciousness then I'll just have to manufacture 'end of the World' scenarios, HOW'S THAT ASSHOLES???", is more emotionally satisfying?""

Intriguing projection of emotion. Probably not as universal as implied.

If flash fiction is not satisfying, I have (finally) uploaded the first novel in my fantasy adventure series to Barnes and Noble ebooks. It is somewhat longer than five paragraphs.

Unwillingness to grant science the position of ultimate point of intellectual reference is not to say science lacks value. Indeed, it seems quite foolish to abandon science altogether, even if one's world view is quite contrary to much of what science has to offer.

That there are some fools who do cannot be denied. Then again, there are fools in every camp.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Do you feel better Mike ;)

GearHedEd said...

I think a lot of the confusion is generated by the premise that Humans are qualitatively different from animals (that we have a "soul" and are special creations of GOD), instead of quantitatively different from animals (we have mo' better brains).

Recent animal studies (I'm not digging up the references; they're out there) have debunked most of the things we humans took for granted that only we had possession of: things like morality, tool use, problem solving, communication, emotions, dream states, etc, etc...

We're not "special creations"; just better at some things than other animals.

Michael Lockridge said...

Is anyone familiar with when the qualitative difference between humans and animals was established and how it was taught? What is the nature of that teaching, and how was it transmitted (and possibly altered) through the ages?

GearHedEd said...

@ Michael:

There's probably no record of when it came about, but I'd wager it was concurrent with the rise of organized religion.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

That's an intriguing question and although I think Ed'd right that we can't know for sure, we can make a couple of observations.

It basically comes down to cultures that abide by "man as a part of nature" vs "Man above nature".

We certainly see evidence within hunter- gatherer tribal cultures even today a sense of Man within nature. Many of these cultures are animistic and attribute special significance to the "spirits" of certain animals. There is often a reverence to an animal even when it is used as food.

So I think we can be pretty safe is saying that humans have been spiritual long before they were religious.

I can't know, but I suspect the shift occurred after domestication of food animals. Separated from the lore of the hunt, over time the physical act of domination gave rise to a spiritual one as well.

GearHedEd said...

I agree with Pliny that agriculture and animal husbandry had a huge influence on the idea that we humans were somehow "special", since we became thereby less dependent on conditions over which we had no control. Once we started controlliing the production of our food supply (and further differentiating our list of occupational titles beyond 'hunters' and 'gatherers'), it was only a matter of time until production methods vastly outstripped needs and gave man the necessary free time to develop art, literature, religion, etc...

Harry C Pharisee said...

So, what's intelligence?

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

geeze Harry, we haven't even defined consciousness yet and there you go with the intelligence ;)

Frankly, I think that one is harder to define. As a start, I think it's the ability to see beyond the strict limits of our senses and problem solve beyond the confines of our own experiences.

With that type of definition you can get smart scientists, smart philosophers and smart theologians.

Michael Lockridge said...

Yet an intuitive intelligence lends easily to spiritualism and mysticism. Unless, of course, you wish to define intelligence as a separate (and superior?) agent from whatever intuition might be.

On that tangent, what agency leads toward smart asses?

Jared said...

Smart asses come from observing hypocrisy, gullibility, and stupidity on a daily basis for about a decade... (speaking from personal experience, of course).

Cynics and stand-up comedians are a gift given to us by politicians.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

I tend to place great smart asses above the genius.

A genius can see the truth of reality.

A great smart ass can find the absurdity in the truth.

Jared said...

Absurdity doesn't need to be found, it shows itself quite nicely, usually on cable news, with its friends hypocrisy, egocentrism, and irony.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

That's true, but a friend gave me a button years ago that sums things up pretty nicely: "I used to be disgusted, now I 'm merely amused."

Saint Brian the Godless said...

That's Elvis Costello.

'Oh I used to be disgusted,
Now I try to be amused...
Went broke and got busted...
Now the angels wanna wear my red shoes......'