On arrogance (with notes on souls and cosmic consciousness)

The NYAS panel, left to right: Emily Esfahani Smith, yours truly, Michael Ruse, host Steve Paulson, and Jay Lombard

Last week I participated to an interesting panel discussion at the New York Academy of Science, on “Seeking the why of our existence.” We were supposed to talk about meaning and purpose. I am usually somewhat weary of these sorts of panels, as the topic is often vague and open to far too much interpretation, and you never know what the other panelists’ take is going to be until you are on stage and find yourself thinking: “how do I respond to that??”

Nevertheless, I accepted, partly at the prospect of enjoying the stunning view of Manhattan from n. 7 World Trade Center, where the Academy is located, partly because my esteemed colleague Michael Ruse was also on the panel, and partly because, well, how bad could it possibly be? Joining Michael and me were Jay Lombard, MD, Clinical Director of Neuroscience at LifeSpan Medicine; creator, co-founder, and Chief Scientific Officer at Genomind; author of “The Mind of God: Neuroscience, Faith, and a Search for the Soul.” And Emily Esfahani Smith, MAPP, Writer, journalist, and author of “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters.” The whole thing moderated by journalist Steve Paulson, Executive Producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge.”

Sure enough, it was not bad at all, it actually turned out to be a pleasant evening with good questions from the audience and very able moderation by Paulson. Still, I managed to get called “arrogant” twice, by two fellow panelists (and a third time by a member of the audience), one of whom was Michael himself! (If you know Michael, genial Brit that he is, you may think it odd that he would hurl such an insult to someone else.) My Stoic training has taught me not to get offended, so I responded with humor rather than resentment. But the whole episode made me think about why I do so often receive such label. Immediately discarding the admittedly possible answer that I really am arrogant, I figured something else must be afoot.

Let’s begin with the basics, that is, with the dictionary definition of arrogant:

1. Making claims or pretensions to superior importance or rights; overbearingly assuming; insolently proud.
2. Characterized by or proceeding from arrogance, or a sense of superiority, self-importance, or entitlement.

Now let me tell you why first Jay Lombard, MD, and then Michael himself, thought it appropriate to use the epithet with me. You will be the judge of whether they were justified.

Lombard, pretty early on in the evening, said that — as a neuroscientist — he thinks it is obvious that souls exist. I did a double take, shook my head, and asked what he meant by that. He was ambivalent. On the one hand, it seems, he meant what most people mean by that term: some sort of vaguely defined, incorporeal thing that survives our bodily death and decay, and that in some way carries our “essence” to whatever “next stage” of existence. But when I pressed him, he said that the soul was “the same as” the self.

Well, for one, those two definitions are not at all compatible, unless by “self” one means an incorporeal thing that survives our bodily death and decay — and most people, especially cognitive scientists, definitely do not mean that when they use the word. Moreover, as I pointed out to Lombard, the “self” is, at best, a dynamic “bundle of sensations,” as David Hume so perceptively described it back in the 18th century. And modern cognitive science is squarely behind this notion, as opposed to some Platonic conception of the self as being an unchangeable essence of who we “really” are.

Moreover, I told my interlocutor that he was engaging in a bit of bate and switch: if by “soul” he truly meant the self, why was he using a word so metaphysically and theologically loaded. If, conversely, he meant the above mentioned immaterial essence, then I was pretty confident that there is no such thing. That, of course, is when I got the label of “arrogant.”

Arguably, I should have been more careful with my language. I should have said that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of souls (defined as above), and that, moreover, there is no particular reason to think they exist. Hence, it is perfectly reasonable to take the provisional position that they don’t, until proven wrong. To invoke Hume again, a reasonable person proportions her beliefs to the evidence. No evidence, no justification for belief. It’s as Bayesian as that. But these qualifications should have been obvious from the context of the conversation, with no need to spell them out. Lombard, instead of seeking clarifications of my position (as I had done of his) chose to interpret it in the least charitable way possible, a good rhetorical move, perhaps, but a bad philosophical one.

The discussion went off in a number of other directions, and then I got a second “that’s arrogant” accusation, near the end of the evening, this time by Michael Ruse. I do not, unfortunately, recall the precise wording of that bit of the conversation, but what I was arguing was that human mental powers — including consciousness — are of a degree the like of which is nowhere to be found in the animal world. Again, I probably should have been very careful to clarify that what I meant by that was that the quantitative differences between us and every other living organisms are such that they essentially amount to qualitative differences, not that they are, in fact, qualitative. But Michael — a philosopher! — decided to use the same rhetorical strategy adopted by Lombard, rather than actually engage in a conversation. Scoring points, apparently, is more essential than understanding.

Now, my position on this is far from radical or unsubstantiated, and is very well defended, for instance, by one of the scientists who has actually spent decades of his career studying cognition in humans, as well as its evolution: Kevin Laland, the author of Darwin’s Unfinished Synthesis: How Culture Made the Human Mind, the book we are going to tackle next in our book club series. He has tons of evidence that licenses the conclusion that human beings are incredibly different from anything else on earth, when it comes to the mind.

I know that in these times of revived interest in panpsychism it is not cool to say that humans are special, even though researchers who actually work on these issues agree that they are (in the so-quantitative-that-it-becomes-qualitative sense just described). Hell, some people even think that bacteria and plants are conscious, though of course there is not a shred of evidence that they are (invoking Mr. Hume again). On my part, I simply think that one ought to be careful about making those claims, if nothing else because vegetarians and vegans are going to be really upset. (I’m not kidding: I have vegetarian friends who are very concerned by the possibility that the carrots they eat may be sentient.)

So I fully expected a negative reaction from Lombard, but not from Michael! And yet he accused me of going “Cartesian,” as in assuming that animals are simply robots, while only humans have the divine spark. This would be comical except for the fact that Michael ought to have known better. We have frequented each other, and known about each other’s work, and in fact even collaborated on a number of projects, for literally decades. He knows I am an atheist (which means I don’t believe in divine sparks of any kind), and that I am an evolutionary biologist (which means that I don’t believe in any sort of qualitative exceptionality of Homo sapiens). And yet, I was the arrogant one because I stated the obvious, scientifically grounded, reality, while he got away waxing poetic about the entirely implausible, and certainly completely lacking in evidence, notion that rocks and atoms have degrees of consciousness!

Back to the definition of arrogance, seems to me pretty clear that I wasn’t “making claims or pretensions to superior importance or rights,” was not “overbearingly assuming,” and certainly not “insolently proud.” But I was reminding the good doctor Lombard, as well as my colleague and endowed chair professor of philosophy, that honest intellectualism is bound by reason and evidence. If there is anything that could reasonably qualify as arrogant is precisely what both Lombard and Ruse where doing: making sweeping ontological claims, i.e., claims about what is real, without a shred of empirical evidence to back them up. This, after all, was a panel discussion held at the NY Academy of Science, not of science fiction, fantasy, or wild speculation. It is a disservice to the public to lend credence — with impressive titles such as MD and PhD — to notions that are speculative at best, and incoherent or false at worst.

Do I know for a fact that atoms are not conscious, or that souls do not exist? Nope. But in both cases the burden of proof is squarely on the shoulders of those who do. It is not arrogant to proportion one’s beliefs to the evidence. On the contrary, it is the only epistemically modest thing to do.

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Categories: Epistemology, Metaphysics

103 replies

  1. Oh, for those who haven’t seen this, one of the classic episodes of Existential Comics has now gone to video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3F2rtjbu3fs

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  2. Snakes: I read somewhere about monkey’s that have different calls for different kind of threats with different response for different threats. It seems fairly stereotyped behavior, but it might form the basis for ‘veto’ response.

    I’m not sure how hard it would be to teach monkey’s how open mm box. I guess it could be done but would more difficult than a bonobo.

    My favorite story about Kanzi is when they were trying to teach him to make knifes out of flints to get at the box ;by cutting a string. He was apparently unable to do it, not because he didn’t understand what to do and try, but because the chimp wrist does not make the motion needed.

    Then they see his face look like “Idea!” and he takes the rock throws it down on the concrete floor where in shatters in a lot of small, but sharp pieces. He picks up one of the pieces and uses it to open the box and get the mm’s.

    There’s viideo’s of Kanzi doing lots of clever things on YouTube, but not that one. It’s described in the book:

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  3. I highly doubt that Ham or some other chimp is telling himself, “You can do it! Just crawl 6 feet further out on that limb and you can grab that fruit.”

    I don’t recall ‘thinking’ anything like that when trying to get something off a high shelf myself. In the moment, I’m not engaging in internal dialog. My wife might have said something encouraging or more likely ‘don’t fall’…

    Indeed I can stop reaching and go to find a ladder all w/o muttering a word to myself.

    My ‘autopilot’ is pretty good too. Anybody who thinks “That light just turned yellow, I better stop.’ is going to get a lot of tickets.

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  4. get a lot of tickets

    And yet know cop or judge is going to buy the argument that I did not have agency when I did the ‘go very fast’ option when running the yellow.

    “I’m sorry your honor, but I wasn’t talking to myself about it when I hit the gas. It’s not my fault” ain’t going to cut it.

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  5. Presumably no one is arguing for human qualities arising from divine intervention, so there has to be some continuity and precedent. There seems to be a certain scientistic disposition towards assuming everything which can’t be measured, quantified and replicated in a laboratory setting doesn’t exist.

    We are primates who learned to go from swinging in trees, to throwing sticks. Narration is an offshoot of navigation. We have a base ten numeric system because we have ten digits on our hands.

    We have certainly developed a lot of talents above and beyond our fellow beings, but how much are we missing? We are about as acquisitional of shiny objects as crows. We obsess over our personal safety and security to the detriment of the planet on which we exist.

    For all our talents, what proportion of people really don’t do a lot of independent thinking, but mostly have a bunch of commercial, political, religious, professional, etc. ear worms floating around in their heads?

    Presumably philosophy is the field in which these questions are open to discussion and debate, but it doesn’t seem to get much respect. Is that because humanity really would prefer being bundled up in their safety zones, or because academic philosophy has fallen into its own echo chamber?

    With rights, even self granted ones, come responsibilities. I’m not all that hopeful that people won’t end up as a evolutionary flop.

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  6. There seems to be a certain scientistic disposition towards assuming everything which can’t be measured, quantified and replicated in a laboratory setting doesn’t exist.

    Many things can’t be tested in the lab or by observation are still scientific if they can be ‘in principle’ tested (even if it turns out it never gets done).

    However, whether they exist or not remains unknown — but that’s not assuming they don’t exist. It’s not implausible that life exist else where. Scientist do not assume it doesn’t. However, we don’t know that it does.

    That God made everything is untestable. There is a good, kind and powerful god running things has been tested and fails (so that was/is a scientific hypothesis, it’s just wrong).

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  7. Arthur,

    “There is a good, kind and powerful god running things has been tested and fails (so that was/is a scientific hypothesis, it’s just wrong)”

    Lol. Yes. God is a theory, essentially anthropomorphizing the universe. It survives out of political usefulness, but current scientists mostly respond to and reject the most literal description, without deeper considerations of how it reflects our thinking. Such as still trying to model good and bad as a top down moral absolute, rather than an elemental emotional and biological binary.

    You also do a good job of refuting the position that human agency requires verbalizing perception.

    One point I’ve steered around in these discussions is a particular ability I seem to have of sensing other beings “aura.” Once, as a child, I remember laying on the porch, intently watching an ant, when it stopped and there was this little cone of awareness, waving around with and only slightly further than its antenna.
    These days, when this effect is most apparent is driving and having that same sense of others awareness as shadows, waves and general focus to the area in front of their vehicle. Now obviously many people here are going to think of me as more of a crackpot than they already do, but I’m just putting it up as an example of something with is not only not particularly testable, but scientifically out of bounds.
    For one thing, any response of my own is my own projection and it interrupts the sense. Though consider that our brain function is electrical and we all currently possess these small wireless electrical devices, not to mention that light is photoelectric, so it is not exactly physically unfeasible, but anything resembling esp is prima facie crackpot. Yet having spent my life dealing with very high strung, large animals, it is, for me, a fact of life, to be able to, often visually, sense their attention and energy.

    So, for me, consciousness does manifest as a physical presence, but I can’t effectively raise it as an argument for why consciousness isn’t simply the software. Yet even the software is manifest as electrons flipping through electrical gates.

    I think we are barely scratching the surface of what life is.

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  8. One thing to keep in mind is that for anyone who has spent their lives reading, writing and talking, such as in an academic or office atmosphere, the internal voice box is going to be a very well developed area of the mental space, whereas someone in a less verbal, possibly more physical life, would be better equipped to keep this particular mental monster caged, or at least on a leash.

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  9. Well if your were eyes were sensitive to infrared you might well see ‘auroras’ so it’s not an insane notion and would be of survival value. Still there’s no evidence outside snakes and such and they are not good at imaging.For cars you might notice the engine heat via the effect on light of unevenly heated air, esp. back in the days when over heated going over a grade. When I was a kid they used to drop like files on hwy 17 grade going to Santa Cruz on a hot summer day.

    Modern cars are much better; not every thing was better in the ‘good old days’.

    Software is not electrical. The computers that run it usually are [a]. Software is just another name for code and it can be stored electrically or just written on paper. It doesn’t do anything w/o hardware it can be run on.

    [a] There are or were mechanical computers, computers made out of adding machines and ladies and somewhere I saw people claim to use DNA to do computations (I don’t know how that works). Anyway running software is ‘substrate independent.’

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  10. I have been a little skeptical of ape language research since that commercial with the gorilla supposedly delivering a message to mankind.

    They were trying to tell us that the gorilla understood climate change and habitat degradation and that she understood what she was being asked to do.

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  11. Arthur,

    The point about software goes to my argument that reality is a dichotomy of energy and information. Yes, the software is information, but it is physically manifest by electricity.

    The most basic and prevalent manifestation of this visual effect are spots and I have heard others mention spots in the vision. Logically it is when others are focusing in your direction. If you focus on them, they do slide around collectively, as if they were on a projector slide, so it takes a bit of further practice to let your visual instinct relax enough to where they act independently. Long story, but if you take a spot which is glowing somewhat red, with a line through it, pulling it, say toward yourself, you have a classic heart shape. I’ve also seen some of these patterns, spots and the heart shape, at least, in pictures of cave art.
    It does take a few years of practice to really be able to let the visual impulses relax enough to get beyond this, but it comes naturally after awhile.
    Also, as a child, I used to wrestle with that internal voice in a similar fashion, recognizing it is not completely validating of my sense of self, but more an authority/opinion.

    At least the old cars weren’t possessed by computers, with a mind of their own and the bugs entailed. We have various large tractors at work with computer issues, mostly in the various sensors and the transmissions. Just had the sensors in my pickup truck transmission replaced and the display on my new motorcycle has lost the average milage calculator.

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  12. “I used to wrestle with that internal voice in a similar fashion, recognizing it is not completely validating of my sense of self, but more an authority/opinion.”

    Essentially another level of ear worm.

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