Friday, February 2, 2007


Variety has a piece telling us that Walden Media and Ralph Winter Productions is going to release a movie based on C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters in 2008. Walden is the same outfit that did The Chronicles of Narnia, a sequel to which (Prince Caspian) is due out next year as well.

HT: Prosthesis


Pinker on the Brain

Steven Pinker closes his essay titled The Mystery of Consciousness at with this assertion:

.... the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul. It's not just that an understanding of the physiology of consciousness will reduce human suffering through new treatments for pain and depression. That understanding can also force us to recognize the interests of other beings--the core of morality.

Let us assume that he is correct that understanding that other people have the same experience I have when I experience pain. How does recognizing that fact impose an obligation upon me not to gratutitously cause another person to suffer this pain? Pinker assumes that just knowing that others suffer is enough to obligate me not to cause that suffering, but this is an unsupportable assumption. If there is no higher moral authority than my own conscience, or even the collective conscience of mankind, there's nothing immoral with hurting someone else.

As every student in Philosophy 101 learns, nothing can force me to believe that anyone except me is conscious. This power to deny that other people have feelings is not just an academic exercise but an all-too-common vice, as we see in the long history of human cruelty. Yet once we realize that our own consciousness is a product of our brains and that other people have brains like ours, a denial of other people's sentience becomes ludicrous. "Hath not a Jew eyes?" asked Shylock. Today the question is more pointed: Hath not a Jew--or an Arab, or an African, or a baby, or a dog--a cerebral cortex and a thalamus? The undeniable fact that we are all made of the same neural flesh makes it impossible to deny our common capacity to suffer.

Yes, no doubt others suffer the same way we would if exposed to the same stimuli, but what follows from that? Pinker's argument is missing a couple of premises. If these were supplied his argument would look something like this:

1. Other people suffer as we do.

2. We don't like to suffer.

3. So, we can assume others don't like it either.

4. We shouldn't cause what others don't like.

5. Therefore, we shouldn't cause others to suffer.

The argument fails because premise #4 needs to be demonstrated and Pinker simply assumes it, doubtless because, in fact, it can't be demonstrated.

He goes on to write this:

And when you think about it, the doctrine of a life-to-come is not such an uplifting idea after all because it necessarily devalues life on earth. Just remember the most famous people in recent memory who acted in expectation of a reward in the hereafter: the conspirators who hijacked the airliners on 9/11.

So far from devaluing life on earth, the doctrine of eternal life is the only thing that could possibly make life on earth meaningful or significant.

Pinker is evidently saying that it's better to believe in nothing so strongly that you're willing to die for it. Anything that a man is willing to die for necessarily is more important to him than is his own life, but if a man is willing to die for his friends, or for a cause, does that devalue his life? Why should being willing to die for God (setting aside the question of whether the 9/11 terrorists were really dying for God) devalue one's life on earth? Pinker doesn't say.

Think, too, about why we sometimes remind ourselves that "life is short." It is an impetus to extend a gesture of affection to a loved one, to bury the hatchet in a pointless dispute, to use time productively rather than squander it. I would argue that nothing gives life more purpose than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift.

Well, he's right that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift, but a gift is something which is given. Who or what bestows this gift in Pinker's view? If no one bestows it then it's just there and there's no purpose to it. It's just a brute fact of existence which ultimately means nothing.

More to the point he's mistaken when he says that the realization that consciousness is a precious gift endows life with more purpose than anything else could. The realization that consciousness extends beyond the death of the body invests life with far more purpose than the realization that we will enjoy the "gift" for a moment and then it will be gone for eternity. If existence ends at death then everything we do gets erased. It amounts to nothing. Only if what we do lasts forever does it have any real worth or significance.

Pinker's arguments are those of a naturalistic materialist who knows deep down that the logic of his beliefs leads to despair, an end he devoutly wishes to avoid. The arguments he employs to stave off the bitter conclusion are all like the wild rearward shots of an army in full retreat: ineffectual, pointless, and desperate.

See our comments on the first part of his essay here.


Muslim Valor

The Brits recently arrested nine Muslims who had been plotting to kidnap a pair of their co-religionists who serve in Her Majesty's armed forces and then behead them, probably as a way of intimidating other Muslims who might otherwise cooperate with the infidels. The two servicemen who had been chosen for the kidnapping showed tremendous bravery in allowing themselves to be used as bait in the attempt to apprehend their would-be killers:

Incredibly, the two men carried on with their daily routines but were secretly shadowed around the clock by police and intelligence personnel, using high-technology tracking and bugging techniques. Surveillance teams kept a constant watch, looking for any sign of the plotters.

The two men were fitted with discreet tracking devices, with similar beacons attached to their cars, and armed response teams were on permanent standby to stage a rescue mission in case a kidnap plot was sprung.

It is not clear, however, if the men were even allowed to tell their families.

A senior military source said yesterday: "We have been aware of the operation for a while, and working closely with West Midlands Police."

One insider added: "It was a brave thing to do. Effectively they agreed to act as bait - like tethered goats - without any way of knowing how real the danger was. They had to trust the police."

There has already been speculation that the men's bravery being recognised with a medal or other award, although Army chiefs are anxious to keep their identities under wraps.

This is the sort of courage and resolve on display every day in Iraq in the lives of the people who willingly put their lives on the line to serve their fellow Iraqis even though they know it makes them targets for the jihadis. That some want us to abandon such amazing people to those who would slaughter them in an instant were we to pull out is incomprehensible to me.