Sometimes I read books, ones that compel me to keep calling out to the authors: “Surely you must have a better argument than that! Surely you can at least try to see and answer some obvious objections!”.
Mostly these books are written by intelligent people who have no philosophical training, so that they think they have discovered the equivalent of America, when they have failed to notice the landscape already well-populated. The gravestones of Plato and Aristotle, David Hume, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche: these they pass by, not recognizing the issues have been discussed before. They are philosophically illiterate.
The question they ask is large, but the answers they derive are trivial. If man evolved (as we all agree) how did we arrive at consciousness through natural and sexual selection?
How did man evolve a consciousness of the minds of others, as well as consciousness of one’s own existence? This phenomenon they call “theory of mind”, which is an attribute humans normally develop, and is present to a greater or lesser degree in the more intelligent other species.
The book in question is called “Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs and the Origin of the Human Mind”, by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower. In essence, their argument is that the blockage in man’s evolution towards higher mental functions was self consciousness. Every species faces this blockage. Only one species has fully made it through this blockage. The idea they advance is that if one were the only self-conscious mind in the pack, then one would be at a competitive disadvantage in surviving. One would be too aware of death, too little inclined to perform the risky acts that lead to breeding success.
The novel idea is negative selection against achieving full ToM [Theory of Mind], as opposed to positive selection for this trait. In other words, unless one could first get past the immediate negative consequences of a full ToM (particularly awareness of one’s own mortality), the likelihood of ever getting to use the positive features of ToM are slim to none. This is the Rubicon that we humans seem to have crossed over. (p115)
….Each time one individual among our ancestors managed to achieve a full stable ToM, she or he would have faced the psychological barrier of watching others die and thus becoming aware of his or her own mortality. A reasonable mechanism for eventually crossing this barrier is the ability to hold a false belief about the situation, that is denying reality.(p116)
….it seems plausible that the process involved partial loss of an existing neural mechanism rather than the addition of a new one. (p117)
The book’s premise is just as simple as could be:
If one were to fully and continuously contemplate one’s existence and the repercussions of its end, it would lead to constant anxiety stress depression and paralyzing behaviour in ordinary circumstances (p145)
Following upon the main argument, the book engages in trashing of fundamentalist religious notions, beliefs and attitudes as the denial of reality, while cautiously allowing for common ground with those who accept the scientific facts yet leave room for spiritual approaches.
The truth or falsity of what they believe is their main point – the supposedly debilitating effects of a theory of mind on reproductive fitness – is not really germane to my real objections to this book. My objection is way larger.
While I agree that fundamentalism – which is a doctrine about knowledge – is in error, I am not taking their peace offering which would allow me my “spiritual approaches”.
The premise that most annoys me about this book and its authors is their assumption that they are defining “reality”. Their calm and imperious belief that their mindset defines the outward bounds of the thinkable is the source of my objection and annoyance. Why is a particular philosophical position of the authors “reality” and all other approaches to the significance of human life “denial”?
Who is defining reality here anyhow? They are confusing their doctrines for reality, their interpretations for facts.
Varki, a cancer physician, and Brouwer, a biologist and geneticist, are so deeply entrenched in materialist doctrines that they cannot see out. They are classic illustrations of the philosophical illiteracy of militant materialism. The following list , for which I am indebted to Rupert Sheldrake, summarizes their views of facts and science.
1. science already understands the nature of reality in principle, leaving only the details to be filled in.
2. nature is mechanical
3. matter is unconscious
4. the laws of nature are fixed
5. the total amount of matter and energy is always the same
6. nature is purposeless
7. biological inheritance is material
8. memory is stored as material traces
9. the mind is in the brain, mental activity is nothing but brain activity
10. telepathy and other psychic phenomena are illusory
11. mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.
I would say on the basis of this book that the authors share every premise of the materialist world view. Here are Varki and Brouwer on the subject of Richard Dawkins, the Lucifer of the materialist interpretation of reality.
The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins eloquently emphasizes that reality (i.e. that which is truly real and being continually revealed by science) is itself more magical than all of the false realities that our minds construct. Read this book [i.e.Dawkins] if you really want to appreciate what reality is….
“After all…, you are nothing more than a kind of hologram made up of subatomic particles that come together to form atoms, which come together to form molecules, which in turn form the organs of your body, including your brain, which in turn generates your mind, which is what you are using right now to understand this reality – for only a fleeting period of time, in cosmic terms. And the daily realities facing many of us are not that pleasant. It is highly unlikely that any other animal can truly appreciate reality at this level. But denying reality helps us tolerate the ugliness of that very same reality. (p196)
O, Bless You, our materialist elucidators of fact! How long have we dwelt in ignorance but for your awakening of us from delusion!
How could I possibly have believed in my own autonomy and worthiness? How could I have sinned so greatly against my meaninglessness? How could I have been so deluded to think myself a creature in a creation so vast and magnificent that the awe I feel was directed towards a sublime force of love and light that created this awesome universe? How could I ever imagined my life had meaning?
I urge all reasonable people to not allow yourselves to be bullied by Dawkins and his intellectual followers. Varki and Brower have written yet another in the long list of books explaining away everything that makes us human as “denial” and “illusion”. I sometimes think you have to be educated to believe such twaddle. Materialism is a doctrine, an interpretation, and not science and not reality. At least most religions these days know themselves to be interpretations, while materialist science does not.