Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cursed Land

A friend sends along a link to an article by Alex von Tunzelmann in the TimesOnline that leads the reader through the slums of Haiti prior to the earthquake. We feel like we're being led by Virgil on a tour of Hell.

Short of a miracle Haiti seems like a land without hope, the problems are so severe. There are lots of villains in the story (the big one may surprise you) and not least are the Haitians themselves. The worst part of reading this essay is that implicit in every paragraph is the sense that there's just nothing that can be done. Americans do not recieve that message with equanimity, of course. We tend to believe that if we have the will we can make any place different, but I confess, short of taking over the country and imposing martial law for several generations, I haven't the faintest idea how Haiti can be rescued.

At one point a senior American foreign policy expert tells von Tunzelmann that the only solution to the problems which plague that island is mass emigration, but who really thinks that any nation will open it's doors to millions of poor, uneducated, unskilled believers in voodoo?

One might easily conclude from von Tunzelmann's column that Haiti is a cursed land. That may be unfair, but it's certainly a terribly tragic place. Read the column, count your blessings, and pray for these wretched people.


Why Socialism Fails

Here's an allegory making the rounds on the Internet (again). It's worth repeating because it illustrates an important, and timely, lesson:

An economics professor at a local college made a statement that he had never failed a single student before, but had once failed an entire class. That class had insisted that socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer. The professor then said, "OK, we will have an experiment in this class on socialism." All grades would be averaged and everyone would receive the same grade so no one would fail and no one would receive an A.

After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. As the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too so they studied little. The second test average was a D! No one was happy.

When the 3rd test rolled around, the average was an F. The scores never increased as bickering, blame and name-calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else.

All failed, to their great surprise, and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great, but when government takes all the reward away, no one will try or want to succeed.

Somebody please send this along to the White House.


Neuroscience and Consciousness

One of the more interesting contemporary philosophical debates is that between those who believe that everything can be explained in terms of matter and physics, called materialists, and those who believe that there's more to reality than just atoms and energy. The latter philosophers hold to one kind of dualism or another, and argue that mind (or soul, or spirit) is an irreducible constituent of the cosmos.

Most Christians are dualists. They believe that there's more to an exhaustive explanation of human beings than just a physical description of our chemistry. They hold to the view that the phenomena of our mental experience point to the existence of something both immaterial and critical to a full understanding of living human organisms. The phenomena of consciousness, they argue, simply cannot be explained within the constraints of a materialist worldview.

A recent column by Ray Tallis at New Scientist takes this view and argues that materialist views of consciousness simply fail to account for what we know about our inner experience. He acknowledges that most people who think and write about these matters are materialists, but he thinks they're simply mistaken:

Most neuroscientists, philosophers of the mind and science journalists feel the time is near when we will be able to explain the mystery of human consciousness in terms of the activity of the brain. There is, however, a vocal minority of neurosceptics who contest this orthodoxy. Among them are those who focus on claims neuroscience makes about the preciseness of correlations between indirectly observed neural activity and different mental functions, states or experiences.

Tallis claims that there's a "deep philosophical confusion embedded in the assumption that if you can correlate neural activity with consciousness, then you have demonstrated they are one and the same thing, and that a physical science such as neurophysiology is able to show what consciousness truly is."

Demonstrating a correlation between chemical reactions in the brain and particular states of consciousness, no more demonstrates that consciousness just is a bunch of chemical reactions than demonstrating a correlation between the state of a television set and the image on the screen demonstrates that all that's involved in producing the image is the television set.

Tallis goes on to note that:

... there is an insuperable problem with a sense of past and future. Take memory. It is typically seen as being "stored" as the effects of experience which leave enduring changes in, for example, the properties of synapses and consequently in circuitry in the nervous system. But when I "remember", I explicitly reach out of the present to something that is explicitly past. A synapse, being a physical structure, does not have anything other than its present state. It does not, as you and I do, reach temporally upstream from the effects of experience to the experience that brought about the effects. In other words, the sense of the past cannot exist in a physical system.

Our failure to explain consciousness in terms of neural activity inside the brain inside the skull is not due to technical limitations which can be overcome. It is due to the self-contradictory nature of the task, of which the failure to explain "aboutness", the unity and multiplicity of our awareness, the explicit presence of the past, the initiation of actions, the construction of self are just symptoms.

It's a little technical but the article is nonetheless a good read if you wish to understand why dualists consider the materialist view highly implausible.