Friday, January 16, 2009
Lying at the centre of this issue is the status we accord to human experience. Say I have an aesthetic, religious or emotional experience of great, life-changing importance. Science has three primary accounts of this. Freud - not now regarded as a scientist, but his account was intended to be and, for some time, accepted as scientific - would describe the feeling as 'oceanic' and attribute it to the experience of the primitive ego. Neo-Darwinians would seek its roots in our evolved natures. Neuroscientists would locate the feeling in neuronal patterns of excitation. Freud we can discard. The evolutionary explanation remains speculative, though Neo-Darwinians will argue that it must be true. And neuroscience is in its early infancy. There is currently not even the shadow of an explanation of my feeling through the workings of my brain, we don't even have a coherent explanation of how matter becomes mind. All such arguments are, therefore, circular. It must be true, therefore it will be true. But what does true mean here? Even if I was offered final and complete Neo-Darwinian and neuroscientific accounts of my experience, what would that tell me? In effect, nothing. These would be accounts of the experience, not the experience itself. They would be based on the dubious conviction that there was something - scientific knowledge - that lay above the human experience. To accept these accounts as final would be to bow down before a disguised metaphysic, a concealed god. Of course, I could choose to do so. But why? What would I gain? Again nothing.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 9:32 am