Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


I hope I am paraphrasing Stephen Pinker correctly. In How the Mind Works, he proposes that the great conundrums of the nature and origin of consciousness, free will and moral responsibility, and the infinitely recursive problem of how we know anything might have solutions. . . . But, the solutions are forever inaccessible to humans because our brains have not evolved to comprehend the answers.

It's just good luck that brains that evolved to solve the problems of existence and reproduction on the African savanna, in the particular way ours did, are also equipped to undertake scientific inquiry, including studying human brains. The mechanistic problems of the neural processes that produce sensation and behavior are solvable by us, at least in principle. (Although they are enormously complex and we might not have the time and resources to get anything like a complete picture.) But why consciousness emerges -- why, for example, we experience pain instead of merely having a behavioral aversion to painful stimuli -- is not one our brains are equipped to solve.

As for the epistemological problem, we know the way we know because that's how we came to be. Whether our picture of the world is valid or accurate according to some other way of knowing, well, it's a silly question. If you are really just a brain floating in a vat and all your life is an illusion, so be it. Who cares? Certainly not you.

Religion survives in part because many people aren't satisfied with these dead ends and it feels as though religion supplies answers. Of course it doesn't. If God gave us consciousness, free will, and apprehension of the world, where did God come from and why and how did he do it? There's no answer there either, only censorship of thought.

As for me, I'll keep pondering the deep questions. You never know. I might think of something.

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