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12/14/10

Know Thyself and Theodore Dalrymple



On the one hand we have some people seeing advances in understanding the brain, mind, and consciousness as holding marvelous possibilities for humankind. On the other, we have those who believe that like all holy grails here is merely hope for one more. Theodore Dalrymple attended a neuropsychiatric conference and listened to smart, brilliant people, and came away with his own ideas about the future of the science of consciousness.

"Neuroscience, it seems to me, is the current most hopeful candidate for the role of putative but delusory answer to all Mankind's deepest questions: what is Man's place in Nature, and how should he live. What is the good life, at least in the western world?" Elsewhere he writes, " But even the most advanced societies are just as full of angst, or poor impulse control, of existential bewilderment, of adherence to clearly irrational doctrines, as ever they were. There is no sign that, Prozac and neurosurgery notwithstanding, any of this is about to change fundamentally."

In thinking about the conference, Dalrymple remembered patients who asked him why they drank so much. Dalrymple spoke to them of statistical correlations between the price of alcohol and the frequency of consumption. This did not satisfy a patient as to why he or she drank.

Dalrymple: "The fact is that, however many factors you examine, you cannot fully explain behaviour, not even relatively simple behaviour. And if you cannot explain relatively simple behaviour, how are we to explain the immense, indeed infinite, variety of human behaviour?"

I recognize that I am jumping from behavior to consciousness, but I believe the corrolary is revealing. In reading Dalrymple I was reminded of a statement by John Haught mentioned in one of my earlier posts. Haught said of Daniel Dennett's theory of consciousness that it was only one way to understand. Haught pointed out three ways of looking at a pot of water being heated for tea. (1) Electrons in the water are moving around, becoming increasingly excited or that H2O molecules are transitioning from a liquid to a gaseous state. (2) I turned on the gas burner under the pot. (3) I wanted tea. Dennett's philosophy of consciousness is the kind that belongs to number one, yet there are three points of view for the same phenomenon.

Dalrymple does not speak of three options, but observes that explaining behavior is manifestly complicated. More.

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