Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Book Review: I am a Strange Loop (Part 4)

(part 4 of 4)

I kept asking as I read, over and over: What is the point really? How should this change actions rather than self-regard? And what is the ethical downside to your philosophy? Typically a scientist should attack his own philosophy to make sure it still stands. This is one of the reasons I read this book myself, to attack my own philosophy with the best absolute materialism has to offer. But at the end of your book I’m hard-pressed to recall a specific ethical prescription. What should we DO, then? Rather, I remember spirited defenses again particular philosophical antagonists and the general concept of qualia. I’m left wondering if your definition of qualia fits with its proponents. Because they don’t seem to match, and that seems to be the whole point of qualia, that they don't match from person to person!

For all your concern with causality, you make a statement on the next-to-last page that upends your argument in another way: these symbols have helped us survive throughout the ages, adding an evolutionary wrinkle to your argument. But why should survival necessarily correlate with truth? I’m not sure, maybe it should deep down, but this concern is never mentioned in the whole book. Does your colleague Dennett’s “universal acid” eat away at your philosophy as well?

While we're at it: why do we live in a universe stable enough to exist for billions of years and give us strange loops? And, most importantly to me, to give ME this particular strange loop that is my only true possession? Isn’t that the strangest thing of all? I'm not satisified with your explanation that this is just what brains do as they grow. Why am I a brain, then, and not a powerful self-regarding computer? To you, it's a meaningless question, but to me, it has the most meaning of all. This viewpoint is ultimately all I have. At root is the question of why I'm not a "Boltzmann Brain" because that would be a simpler solution than the existence of the universe ... but, you know, I really do think the universe exists, it's not just me.

This comes down to a vision of what it means to be human. You say your vision is, well, true, but that it’s also deeper and subtler than the others because it teaches us to hold lightly, life is tenuous at its core, and that we are wildly different from what we seem to be. I worry that we’ve gone so far down the road to abstraction that we’ve succeeded in arguing ourselves out of existence: that nothing matters but it doesn’t matter that nothing matters. I’d like to see your viewpoint in conversation with others, especially those steeped in the strange story of the personality of the Creator seeking us out. Ultimately (and ironically, given your argument about the spread-out nature of consciousness) this is a one-man show and has the weaknesses that come with that. I’d like to see a back-and-forth with Marilynne Robinson on the importance of mind, or with Jeremy Begbie on the connections between the spiritual and physical in the music of Bach. I’d like to see a true dialogue, not one you make with yourself.

So thank you, truly, thank you for a provocative book. I could go so far as to say it was a storm against my own beliefs, washing away some accretions that didn’t really need to be there in the first place. But what stands when the storm has passed is the shape of the cross, and the conviction that we live in a universe of personality, which is therefore a universe of love. You come to a very different conclusion – I am richer for it despite my disagreements. I hope these other things may continue to pass the riches around.

Yours, Ben

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