Posted by honestpoet on January 11, 2007
At my husband’s encouragement, I’ve begun reading Paul Churchland’s book, The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul. We’ve been discussing the ideas he deals with for a while, the current understanding of neurobiology and cognitive processes, but I’ve never actually read the work. But I’ve recently read another book thick with science, Christopher Williams’ Terminus Brain: The Environmental Threats to Human Intelligence (which I highly recommend and may discuss in a separate post), so I thought I ought to quit being put off and go for it.
I’m still in the introduction, but these paragraphs felt worth sharing here (I have a feeling I’ll be sharing a good bit of this book, for educational purposes, ya know):
If we can be so evidently and so wildly wrong about the structure of the universe, about the significance of disease, about the age of the Earth, and about the origin of humans, we should in all modesty be prepared to contemplate the possibility that we remain deeply misled or confused about the nature of human cognition and consciousness. One need not look far for potential examples of deep confusion. A hypothesis that still enjoys broad acceptance throughout the world is the idea that human cognition resides in an immaterial substance: a soul or mind. This proposed nonphysical substance is held to be uniquely capable of consciousness and of rational and moral judgment. And it is commonly held to survive the death of the body, thence to receive some form of reward or punishment for its Earthly behavior. It will be evident from the rest of this book that this familiar hypothesis is difficult to square with the emerging theory of cognitive processes and with the experimental results from the several neurosciences. The doctrine of an immaterial soul looks, to put it frankly, like just another myth, false not just at the edges, but to the core.
This is unfortunate, since that hypothesis is still embedded, to some depth or other, in the social and moral consciousness of billions of people across widely diverse cultures. If that hypothesis is false, then sooner or later they are going to have to deal with the problem of how best to understand the ground of the moral relations that bind us together. Such adjustments, to judge from the past, are often painful. The good side is that they just as often set us free, and allow us to achieve a still higher level of moral insight and mutual care. In exploring the lessons of cognitive neurobiology, I will proceed at all times on this hopeful assumption.
Exactly. That’s my hope as well. That’s my intent, and my goal. I know I can come off brash, even (gasp!) bitchy at times. But my deepest purpose is to help steer world culture in a better direction than the hell we’re headed for. Let’s face it: these days, we need to be thinking about world culture. I don’t mean a monoculture, some homogeneous melting pot. I certainly don’t mean an empire, like with the Romans, goin’ around “civilizing” (meaning romanizing and then collecting taxes) everyone they could conquer. No, I mean a richly diverse planet, where everyone celebrates and nurtures their own traditions, and honors those of their neighbors, but where all have accepted the truth of our mutual humanity, and what that humanity means: that we are one evolved species among many, that our survival depends on remaining adaptable and learning how to live harmoniously with the rest of the world, of which we are an intrinsic part. I sincerely believe that such a future won’t come about unless and until the erroneous hypothesis elucidated above is let go.
Speaking of neurons, I can feel mine getting stronger. I got a simple-system flute for xmas, an inexpensive (and hardy) one made of bamboo, with which to learn Irish folk music. (I’ll be getting an intermediate flute, I hope, in a year or so, when I’ve learned enough.) I’ve been listening to the flute gods tape, and I fell in love with a song, which, now that I’m more intimate with it, I realize is performed a number of times on the tape, by various artists — mostly unknown — each with an individual style so varied that you wouldn’t guess it’s the same unless you knew the song well. I’m working on the first four bars. It’s coming along, and with this practice (which is a lot more fun, and therefore more educative, than the scales I’d been practicing, which, while necessary, were a bit of a bore) I can practically feel the synapses rearranging themselves. (This is partly why I’m doing it — use it or lose it, you know.) Two days ago I was barely aware of my throat, and couldn’t imagine some day being able to use it to articulate the notes in the Roscommon style (my grandmother’s family came from Co. Roscommon, so I figure I ought to learn that one…and it suits me, too…slower, more expressive), which doesn’t use tonguing, just fingering and this sort of glottal thing.
But tonight, practicing those four bars and wanting badly enough to play like the flute gods that I put real effort into it, I became aware that the difference between the low D and the first overblow is largely in the throat, only slightly in the embouchure. Before, I had almost no awareness of my throat at all. It’s like gaining a new sense.
And that’s what I’m hoping will happen for humanity. With science, we can gain a new set of eyes with which to see ourselves, and the world, and our place in it. And one day our descendants will have trouble understanding what it was like for us, before we learned who, and what, we are.