Skip to comments.How real are you?
Posted on 12/26/2008 5:36:50 AM PST by Ethan Clive Osgoode
Has science shown that people are, in some sense, an illusion? According to Mary Midgley, that is precisely what some scientists now preach. Focusing particularly on a claim made by Richard Dawkins, she explains why she believes these scientists are making a serious mistake.
On being a semi-illusion
Are you quite real? Are you (that is) at least as real as the parts that you are composed of - your cells, your genes, your molecules and electrons and quarks and the notions that are passing through your mind? Or are they more real than you?
This may seem an odd kind of question. But it is one that we have to ask when wise persons suddenly tell us that something that we take to be real is actually not real, or is less real than something else. Metaphysicians notoriously do talk like this. Sometimes, for instance, they have said that the whole physical world is unreal compared with the inner life. Sometimes they say that the physical world is the only reality. And these doctrines are not just inert speculative theories. They always carry implications for the way we ought to live.
This kind of talk often has a perfectly sensible meaning, but, to understand it, we always have to ask just what the speakers mean by reality, because it may not be quite what we mean by it in ordinary life. Often it turns out that they mean something much more like importance. I want to ask here how this kind of language is being used today when scientifically-minded people tell us that parts are more real than the wholes that they belong to. This view is sometimes called reductionism, meaning that the wholes can be reduced, without loss, to the sum of their parts. It is a striking contemporary piece of metaphysics and I think we need to understand it. If it is taken literally, it can seem to mean that our everyday experience is simply misleading and ought to be replaced by something discovered through a microscope. Or again, if we are talking about human societies, people may say that `there is no such thing as society, meaning that only the individuals who compose it are real and the bonds between them are illusory.
This kind of reductionist approach is not a new idea in philosophy. It was invented by Atomist philosophers in ancient Greece. But - as sometimes happens to such notions - it has lately been rediscovered and is now presented, not as philosophy but as a bold new piece of scientific speculation. Thus Richard Dawkins:
The individual organism... is not fundamental to life, but something that emerges when genes, which at the beginning of evolution were separate, warring entities, gang together in co-operative groups as `selfish co-operators. The individual organism is not exactly an illusion. It is too concrete for that. But it is a secondary, derived phenomenon, cobbled together as a consequence of the actions of fundamentally separate, even warring, agents.... Perhaps the subjective I, the person that I feel myself to be, is the same kind of semi-illusion. The mind is a collection of fundamentally independent, even warring, agents.... Whether or not these agents are to be identified with memes... the subjective feeling of somebody in there may be a cobbled, emergent, semi-illusion analogous to the individual body emerging in evolution from the uneasy co-operation of genes.
I should explain that memes are things like customs, fashions or notions which Dawkins takes to be the ultimate units of culture - tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches also popular songs, stiletto heels, the idea of God and Darwinism. I have discussed the general meaning of this theory elsewhere and I shall not say more about it here. What I want to investigate now is the atomistic way of thinking involved in the whole passage I have quoted. What does the whole proposal mean?
Can reality have degrees?
What does it mean in general to say that one thing is more real than another? There are two quite different contexts in which people normally question the reality of familiar things. One concerns moral and spiritual matters. In that context, people often suggest that that these familiar things are relatively unreal in comparison with a deeper, underlying system. Thus, Plato compared our everyday life to that of prisoners in a cave - a kind of cinema - watching the flickering shadows cast by images carried along behind us. If (he said) we want to understand the reality behind these confused appearances, we need to look for the intelligible system of ideals or Forms that lies behind it. We should leave the dark cave of appearance and seek to understand that more important world of eternal and intelligible Forms - a world that includes the domain of mathematics and is lit by the central Form of the Good, which corresponds to its Sun. The real, in fact, is the rational. What is confused must always be illusion.
As I say, in metaphysical contexts like this the word real has a complex meaning related to that of words like serious, important or effective. This makes it possible to say that there are be degrees of reality in the same way that there can be degrees of importance. That way of talking is clearly value-laden. It is meant primarily to recommend a moral attitude, a special way of thinking about our inner life and relating it to the life around us. It is not a way of stating facts about the physical world.
This kind of language is so familiar in discussions of spiritual matters that Dawkins talk of illusion has inevitably suggested it. Susan Blackmore has accordingly taken up Dawkins meme-theory entirely in this spiritual sense, equating it (rather strangely) with the much more subtle Buddhist doctrine of no-self. This is strange because the point the Buddhists are making is essentially a moral one, rather than a piece of metaphysics. Their point is that our stereotyped notion of ourselves - the independent ego of which we are so proud - is shot through with illusion because we constantly deceive ourselves about it. We need to make ourselves far more aware of our insignificance and our interdependence with the world around us. But if we were literally nothing more than a set of memes - a chance batch of cultural items - we could not possibly take this action or indeed any other. We would be inert, helpless, just as incapable of changing our attitudes as if we were merely a batch of books on a bookshelf or a stack of records in a shop. The reason why we are capable of action is that we are organisms - complex individuals who are relatively independent, though of course supported by an equally complex background. Buddhism does indeed tell us not to exaggerate our independence. But it certainly does not recommend this kind of fatalism.
In the passage from which I have just quoted, Dawkins accepts Susan Blackmores spiritual interpretation. It is, however, surely clear that he does not actually mean to be talking about spirituality. He is talking science, which is supposed to be value-free. He is speaking of illusion in a factual sense, as we do in the other familiar context where these questions crop up, when we say that optical illusions mislead us, or that it is an illusion that the sun goes round the earth. But in that scientific domain, reality does not have degrees. In that domain, things are either there or not there. We would not expect to hear talk of semi-illusions.
What is explanation?
What is actually going on here? It is not obvious why reductionism, or the atomism that underlies it, should have anything particular to do with values. The Greek atomists invented atomism as an answer to the scientific question which the Ionian philosophers were asking, namely what permanent stuff is the physical world made of? As an answer to that question, the theory proved far better than suggestions like water and air which had been made before. Indeed it was so successful that it was taken up by the founders of modern science in the seventeenth century. And it served physics extremely well from Galileos time to Faradays. During those two centuries, physicists were able to follow it in attributing all change to the collisions between hard, unchangeable ultimate particles known as atoms. This meant merely that they were simple, indivisible things, and were supposed to bounce off each other like billiard-balls.
As we now know, however, this model finally proved inadequate. At microscopic levels, billiard-balls themselves turned out not to be solid. They were indeed still seen as made of particles, but these particles now appeared to be held together by electrical attraction in a great deal of empty space. The balls bouncing was not, then, due to their solidity, but to electrical repulsions at the surface. At this point it emerged that the particles of which the world was made were not really stern individualists who ignored each other. Instead they were intrinsically social items, patterns of energy that tend to form still wider patterns by actively attracting and repelling one another in ways that are continuous with the wider system around them.
Interaction, then, is real. Modern physics has ceased to be atomistic in the full sense that the Greek atomists intended. It no longer believes that what ultimately constitutes the world is a set of essentially distinct, immutable particles. But this new understanding is not only a new doctrine in physics. It has brought with it a profoundly different view of what explanation itself is.
To the atomists, and to most Greek thinkers, the project of explaining change meant finding something permanent outside change which could account for it. Change in itself was assumed to be unintelligible and therefore illusory. Explaining it was therefore a one-way journey to a terminus which had to be something immutable, something outside the natural system. The Greek Atomists thought of themselves as sternly rationalistic because they found this terminus in physical atoms rather than in supernatural beings. But atoms as bizarre as those that they proposed were in fact supernatural. They stood outside the realm of nature because the whole of nature is subject to change.
When physicists abandoned this kind of atomism, they began to realise that change as a whole does not need explaining in terms of something else. It is the normal state of things in the cosmos. It is not - as most of the Greeks tended to think - some kind of illusion which has to be explained away. As Heraclitus put it, everything is in flux and you can never get into the same river twice. Indeed, there is really no such thing as the same river. Everything is impermanent. When we want to explain particular changes, we can do so by examining their context and comparing it with the general behaviour of other changing things. As far as physical science is concerned, explaining these changes is, in fact, simply answering whatever questions actually arise about them by looking for evidence in the natural world relevant to these questions. Of course we do not always manage to find it. We are often too ignorant and incompetent to do so. But we would not succeed any better by trying to penetrate to a hidden metaphysical realm behind them instead.
This shift in the concept of scientific explanation is, however, quite hard to grasp. The Greeks found it particularly hard to grasp because they had developed mathematics in a way that allowed them to understand static situations before developing the biological concepts that would have helped them to make sense of change in the living world around them. (Aristotle tried to remedy this, but by his time the trouble had gone too deep). And today the point has certainly not been widely understood. The hope of finding of a universal, quasi-magical Key to All The Mysteries is not readily abandoned. The general public certainly still takes that to be the business of physicists, as becomes clear whenever the discovery of one more particle is greeted by headlines saying Secret of the Universe Revealed At Last. And some physicists, by greeting these moments with reverent talk about the mind of God, are happy still to confirm this impression.
Social and political atoms
The strange mystique attaching to the notion of atoms as specially real and potent entities has, however, spread beyond physics into other realms of thought, especially into political thought. It supplies the central image for social atomism - that is, for individualism, which was born at the same time as physical atomism in the early seventeenth century and has developed in close association with it. Notoriously, individualism was an attempt to break out of the strong corporate social model which Europe had inherited from feudalism by allowing each person more liberty for self-expression. Notoriously too, much that was achieved in this way was admirable. But, as often happens, the theories which were used to justify this campaign were much more extreme than was needed and they have given rise to a lot of trouble later.
This is particularly true of that splendid bible of individualism, Thomas Hobbess Leviathan. Writing during the English Civil War, Hobbes decreed that human psychology was extremely simple, being explained entirely by self-interest. As he put it, Of the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some Good to himself. Accordingly, as he said, I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of Power after power, which ceaseth only in Death. From this psychology, as is well known, he concluded that human beings in a state of nature (that is, without a government) would necessarily live in a time of War, where every man is Enemy to every man (Part 1, Chapters 11 and 13). No other motives (he said) existed in human nature that could possibly soften that hostility. This was the reason that he gave for the necessity of a Social Contract. People had to agree to accept laws and to appoint a ruler to enforce them because that was the only way in which they could possibly be kept from each others throats.
I have said that the Leviathan is a splendid work and so it is. It is one of those books which display an important half-truth so eloquently that they make it possible to sort out what is right from what is wrong about it. There are many things that the Leviathan gets right. Self-interest and the quest for power are indeed very important elements in human life, and societies do indeed need some kind of laws. Hobbes was an astute psychologist. But if the only thing that made people accept such laws was really the rational prudence that he appeals to, societies would certainly never have been invented. People are far less prudent than he hoped; indeed they are often actively self-destructive. It is therefore lucky that, like other primates, humans are actually quite sociable and affectionate much of the time. Without that natural sociability, they could not actually have got round to making a contract and there would really be, as some people have suggested, no such thing as society. After all, why meet each other in the first place?
We know, then, that real humans, like physical particles, are complex items, intrinsically connected to those around them and have an internal structure that gives rise to those connections. They are not simple, impenetrable, disconnected units who touch others only to bounce off them. They are social animals who, on the whole, do not like to live alone and are often ready to help each other. They do not necessarily distinguish their own interests, or their own fulfilment, from those of the people around them. They often identify with their groups and can be very unhappy if they are forced into isolation. But the social-atomistic model which ignores all this psychological complexity has remained astonishingly influential in political and economic thinking. Locke, Rousseau, Kant and Rawls pointed out Hobbess grosser errors and tried to make the contract pattern more realistic. Yet the notion that individual humans are essentially separate items in a state of competition, linked only by an optional agreement, seems to have been built into the structure of capitalism. Vigorously promoted by the Social Darwinists, it still thrives in the USA and is potent throughout the modern world. We still hear that the state is only a logical construction out of its members and that there is no such thing as society.
All this atomistic thinking produces strange paradoxes if one tries to carry it through consistently. In fact it is scarcely possible to fit together coherently the various kinds of atomism which have been introduced into our thinking at different organisational levels. If organisms are semi-illusory in relation to genes, are genes also semi-illusory in relation to atoms and quarks? Is nothing actually real except quarks - or whatever particles smaller than quarks the next revolution in physics may bring us? What would that proposition about semi-illusoriness mean?
The trouble is even worse when we come to society. Social atomism sees individual people as the fundamental particles, autonomous ultimate units in full charge of their destiny, empowered to make contracts freely. Physical atomism, by contrast, dissolves these people away entirely into chance collections of smaller units such as molecules, quarks or genes, carried away helplessly by processes that they cannot control. In Dawkins own well-known words, We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. For the first story, free choice is essential. For the second, it is impossible.
But both these opposite models of our selves are equally powerful in current rhetoric. We are continually being called, on the one hand, to exaggerate our freedom boastfully, and, on the other, to admit that we are actually only helpless cogs. These two exaggerations have grown up in reaction against one another. When we oscillate confusedly between them, we manage to get the worst of both worlds.
No need for rivalry
What view of these confusing matters is Dawkins actually recommending? What kind of entities does he really take us to be?
His central message clearly is that of primitive Greek atomism - namely that we and other organisms are composed of ultimate particles which cannot interact, but can only collide. It is the apparent interaction between these particles that he takes to be illusory. Its illusoriness is what makes him say that organisms are only cobbled together.
All this sounds like some kind of physics. But in physics now, nobody says that particles are more real than the things made out of them, or that connections which form more complex entities are illusory. And when we move to the biological level, it becomes at once even more mysterious how any entity can be treated as disconnected in this way. Life is not actually a casino, nor even a game of snooker. It is essentially a system of connections, within which genes have arisen in their appropriate context and (so far as they can usefully be personified) in co-operation with their surroundings.
In his effort to disconnect and sterilise them, Dawkins has to leave literal history entirely and resort to a strikingly Hobbesian origin-myth. Genes, he says, are fundamentally separate, even warring agents who, at the beginning of evolution battled together until they finally ganged together in co-operative groups as selfish co-operators. This language might lead naïve readers to think that the gene-battles described were known to be literally the source of the first living cells. The truth, as now understood, is less exciting. DNA - of which genes are made - is not at all pugnacious. On its own it is an inert molecule which did not exist at all until after living cells began to make it and which - as the plot of Jurassic Park rightly insisted - remains inactive for ever if it is not put in a living cell. Dawkins is not telling this story to convey a new theory about the origin of life. He is simply trumpeting the importance of genes so as to promote the current emphasis on them at the expense of other topics within biology. Many biologists think that this emphasis is now excessive. Its champions, however, see it, not just as complementary to the earlier emphasis on whole organisms but as a new gospel which ought to replace it. As Brian Goodwin explains:
A striking paradox that has emerged from Darwins way of approaching biological questions is that organisms, which he took to be primary examples of living nature, have faded away to the point where they no longer exist as fundamental and irreplaceable units of life.... Modern biology has come to occupy an extreme position in the spectrum of the sciences, dominated by historical explanations of the evolutionary adventures of genes. Physics, on the other hand, has developed explanations of different levels of reality, microscopic and macroscopic, in terms of theories appropriate to these levels, such as quantum mechanics for the behaviour of microscopic particles... and hydrodynamics for the behaviour of macroscopic liquids.
But we do not have to choose between attending to genes and attending to organisms, any more than physicists have had to choose between attending to quarks and attending to black holes. We do not need to see entities at different levels of complexity as competitors, fighting for our attention. We can perfectly well study all of them. Still less do we need to try and settle that rivalry by calling one of them real and the others more or less illusory. There is only one world and they are all aspects of it.
When I hear atheists say stuff like this, I think, “So what makes us any better than say a roach? We’re just a collection of atoms joined together by chance, and so is a roach.”
Richard Dawkins is an educated idiot.
"The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy certain horrible things will happen to him... "
Imbibo ergo sum.
“I drink, therefore I am.”
Veni, Vidi, Vino.
“I came, I saw, I drank.”
Actually, Dawkins’ problem is that he is not educated in what he professes to discuss. Any first-year philosophy grad student could take his arguments apart.....just as Socrates took care of Thrasymachus in Book I.
I think Dawkins is trying to figure out how he came to be where he is.
Really? When the heart stops pumping blood, oxygen is not longer to deliver to those “cobbled together, disconnected” cells and everything in the body dies. If you want to experience reality, stop paying your bills. Tell me how those “illusitory” effects work out for you.
Just because simple organisms for complex systems, that does not make those complex systems illusions. Educated idiots indeed.
Actually I am glad that some people take the time to address (or at least point out) the weird philosophical poisons that professors disseminate for public consumption.
I am so pissed off right now.
I have debated this very issue many times with my bellybutton and we have never even come close to a decision. I refuse to discuss it any more.....
I agree. I was referring to the idiot “philosophers”, not those of us pointing and laughing.
“To be, or not....” *ping*
Therefore, I am.
Are you for real?
Really smart people move beyond this type of thought in short order. Dawkins, however, has made a career out of such drivel. Panspermia is a case in point.
Let us take this question to a level that is more important for humanity: Where is your reality?
Is your “reality” inside your mind, in a world of your own making, where reality is plastic and only pleasant facts are allowed in? A world where truth is what you say it is, where only the rules you like at the moment apply and where only good intentions determine outcomes? A world where the things of the outside world are available to be selected or rejected in making up your present reality.
Or is your “reality” outside of your mind, where you work to keep your understanding of right and wrong in harmony with timeless laws and principles. Where facts do matter and once established, cannot be denied no matter how convenient that would be.
Life is but a dream.
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