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May 6th, 2009

Against the Illusion of Consciousness
Sum, ergo Cogito

In The God Delusion, Dawkins argues that you and I (and he) do not exist as real things, but rather as casual agglomerations of matter, which I suppose illustrates Nietzsche's dictum that from the death of God follows quickly the death of Reason. 

Dawkins states that you and I are more like waves than permanent 'things' and quotes Steve Grand:

[Think] of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren't you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren't there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place...  Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn't make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.

The ontological insight of this would make a sophomore stagger in astonishment.  "Man, that's heavy."  So you, me, Dawkins, and Grand are not composed of the same material today as we were yesterday.  But to say that You weren't there is to confuse "you" with the "single atoms" that comprise your body.  Grand is perfectly correct to say: "Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made," although if Dawkins is quoting him with approval, he probably hasn't drawn the logical conclusion. 

In case there is any mistake, Dawkins gives the example of a permanent dune - a barchan - that the wind pushes across the desert but which maintains it shape even while individual grains of sand are being blown into and out of the dune.  He would have us believe that organisms are the same such "casual agglomerations of matter."  In effect, he cannot tell a sand dune from a sandworm. 

[Plants and animals possess natures that make them wholly what they are.  They move, grow, develop from their own inner principles, whereas a sand dune moves and organizes only under external forces.  It's ironic that Dawkins considers himself a "naturalist," but does not seem to recognize natures.] 

If we are purely matter, then we really are not the same entity today as in the past.  In fact, we are not an entity at all -- which is what Dawkins is getting at -- and the concept of "I" is only an illusion.  But how can anyone say, "I think that I do not exist."  If "I" do not exist, then how can "I" think?  And the implications for science are catastrophic.   If "I" do not exist, how can "I" know the existence of anything else, including scientific evidence? 

The persistence of identity -- the "I" -- despite the "wave" of matter comprising us then drives folks like Dennett to deny the existence of consciousness as being "an illusion." 

As Searle puts it: "On Dennett's view, there is no consciousness in addition to the computational features, because that is all that consciousness amounts to for him: meme effects of a von Neumann(esque) virtual machine implemented in a parallel architecture."
Dennett's view implies that conscious states are as illusory as God, the devil, witches and goblins. In reality, there are no conscious states! But as Searle rightly points out, "where consciousness is concerned, the existence of the appearance is the reality."

But the concept of an illusion presupposes a consciousness to be "illuded."  Thus, to say that consciousness is an illusion presupposes that consciousness exists and, hence, presupposes that which it explicitly denies.


The Jingle Belle, by Noelle Flynn

Here is the story my granddaughter wrote that won the first prize in the Easton Library's "Big Read" writing contest.  It's eight pages long.  She is in 9th grade. 


Links to the 2nd and 3rd place stories are here, in the right-hand column: www.eastonpl.org/



Captive Dreams

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