Monday, January 19, 2009
The rows below about Darwin, art atheism etc took me back to 1992. It was then that I published Understanding the Present, the arguments of which seemed to me to be self-evident to the point of being boring. Others did not agree. For about three weeks I could not open a newspaper. Scientists queued up to abuse me. My reaction was my normal, weak-minded one - I assumed I was wrong about everything. When I recovered sufficiently to read the abuse I realised I was being too hard on myself. The arguments against me were simply rhetorical expressions of faith based on a concealed metaphysic. This has happened again with the comments on this blog. One commenter used the term 'qualia', a which makes my heart sink or, in certain moods, prompts me to reach for my revolver - even though, sadly, I do not own one. Qualia is an important word, however, a term of philosophical art used to identify the subjective and incommunicable quality of experience - the thing which, so to speak, is born with me and dies with me. The arguments surrounding the word are well summarised on Wikipedia. The striking thing about these arguments is that they are inconclusive. No open-minded person is likely to rise from the literature on qualia, ruffling his hair and exclaiming that the whole qualia problem has at last been solved. What he is more likely to conclude is that we do not yet have an account or an explanation of qualia and that, therefore, subjective experience remains a mystery or, if that word is too strong for you, a puzzle. What he cannot rationally conclude is either a) qualia have been accounted for or will necessarily be accounted for in the future or b) qualia therefore God, a position I think I was accused of taking. He cannot say materialism must be true nor that anti-materialism has been proved. He must be, in every sense of the word, agnostic. All the arguments are, therefore, expressions of faith or inclination. For the moment the puzzle/mystery remains. I incline to the view that there is something wrong with the strong physicalist view either that it is not a mystery or that it must necessarily be soluble. Art was my evidence, admittedly inconclusive. If I am proved wrong then I will admit it. But, for the moment, I can't see how that can happen and I will retain my possibly sentimental fondness for the thing that is born with me and will die with me. I think that's about all I was saying, but if you tell me I'm wrong I'll probably believe you.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 10:57 pm