Intellectual Humility

Earth from Space

Take a look at the comments section on a controversial youtube video at the intersection of science, philosophy, and faith of any kind, and…  In fact, I can’t in good conscience recommend that you actually take a look at one of those comment sections because quite honestly, they tend to be filled with vulgar, immature and profane filth.  On the occasion that I do decide to take a look at the comments, I normally learn nothing and regret being exposed to such distasteful and negative content.

We are all, as human beings, on this strange and wonderful journey through life together.  Since when did disagreeing, even about extremely serious issues, become grounds for hatred and attacks on each other’s intellects and characters?  What if we all just sat down together and reasoned through things peacefully?

I’m speaking to believers and atheists, creationists and evolutionists, liberals and conservatives, everyone equally here.  Could it be that you become so outrageously defensive about your position because you are either personally insecure, or secretly uncertain about your position?  If not, maybe you are overly defensive because you’ve subscribed to false notions about the nature of those who disagree with you.

And if your opponents are indeed vile, wicked human beings, let me ask another question.  How should someone such as yourself, with your personal wisdom and knowledge of the truth, feel about someone so depraved?  Enraged?  When Jesus looked down from the cross on his executioners, He felt pity.  He prayed that God would forgive them in their ignorance.  What a beautiful sentiment.

I’d like to claim that with great knowledge comes great humility.  Here are some reasons why.

1) Objective proof is a myth.

Theory of mind is the ability to realize that you, and others, have unique autonomous minds.  Why is it called the theory of mind, because honestly there is no way to verify its truthfulness.  I know that I have a mind, “I think, therefore I am,” but I can only assume that anyone else does.

I also don’t know that my memories are things that actually happened.

So even in a world where “reason” and “faith” are often portrayed as opposites, reason itself rests on many faiths that we take for granted.  That’s humbling.

2) Phenomenology.

In psychology, phenomenology is the study of how our perceptions may differ from reality.  In cases such as schizophrenia, the concept is obvious.  But research, and reflection on personal experiences with yourself and others, reveals that your mind is interpreting sensory inputs and ideas in its own biased way.

If you can’t admit that you have bias, you’re living in a dream world.  If you don’t realize the need to think as objectively and humbly as possible when discussing issues with those of different views, you are probably talking past them.

Which brings me to the third and final reason for humility.

3) Circumstances.  

Think about the circumstances that brought you to the beliefs that you hold today.  Somewhere somehow you learned what you believe to be true.  Just like the supporters of slavery in early American history.  Just like Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Atheists all over the world.

And if what you happened to learn from who you happened to learn it happens to be true within this vast sea of wrong ideas that covers the earth, I can’t think of a more humbling experience.  You are lucky.

And also in that case, I’m guessing you’re able to sit down and have a civil, thoughtful, insightful discussion on the subject.  After all, you’re the expert.

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Where Does Consciousness Come From?

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I recently saw an extremely interesting TED Talk by the brilliant Philosopher David Chalmers entitled “How Do You Explain Consciousness?”

During the talk, Chalmers, who calls himself “a scientific materialist at heart,” struggles with the question of why we as humans have a subjective experience of the world around us.  Why are we not robots, mindlessly receiving inputs from our environments and responding with predetermined outputs?

We know that certain areas of the brain correlate with certain experiences, but we do not know why they correlate with these subjective experiences, or what causes them.

Chalmers states plainly the consensus of the philosophical and scientific communities to date: “right now, nobody knows the answers to those questions.”

This is where the talk gets particularly interesting.  Chalmers states that “we may initially need one or two ideas that seem crazy before we can come to grips with consciousness scientifically.”  I would completely agree.

As Chalmers points out, his fellow philosopher Daniel Dennett believes that “the inner subjective movie” that we are viewing in our minds is actually all an illusion.  Spend very long at the intersection of science and philosophy and you will find that at every turn great minds are working vigorously to reduce objective meaning and purpose, morality, and even consciousness itself to rubble.

Chalmers’ idea is much more beautiful and elegant.  He believes that consciousness is a fundamental property of reality, like time, space, or fundamental constants.  I think his rationale is good: “If you can’t explain consciousness in terms of the existing fundamentals, then as a matter of logic you need to expand the list.  The natural thing to do is postulate consciousness itself as something fundamental.”  He goes on to suggest that information processing correlates with consciousness, so the more information an entity processes, the more conscious it is.

He expands and explains his theory and states that it is the leading theory in the scientific world today.

Did you catch that?!  The leading theory in the scientific world today concerning consciousness is that it is a property as fundamental as time or space.  Suddenly the “materialist” at heart is blurring the lines between the natural and the supernatural.

Of course, science has been migrating inevitably that way for decades.  The evidence for the supernatural is just too strong.  Science turned out to show that the universe had a beginning, rather than itself being eternal.  And since Einstein had already shown that time and space are part of the same continuum, we know that whatever caused the universe, it was timeless, spaceless, and immaterial.

Stephen Hawking responds with a line that recently showed up in the movie “God’s Not Dead:”

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.”

Okay, so scientists admit that the universe is not eternal, but maintain that the laws that govern it are, and that they necessitate its existence. Those laws turn out to be extremely, beautifully organized and fine-tuned in a way that cannot rationally be chalked up to random chance.

And now, to top it all off, we are coming to the conclusion that consciousness is a fundamental property either of these timeless laws, or directly caused by them.

Science has slowly migrated from “the matter in the universe is eternal” to acknowledging the timeless, spaceless, immaterial existence of a large amount of very specific information, including consciousness or directly resulting in it.

The lines between the natural and the supernatural are blurring.  In fact, they are becoming obsolete.  Science is discovering God piece by piece all over again.