Arbitrary "Excitement"

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen celebrates the blogosphere for its teaching potential, although he is only half-right. Yes, there is lots of information out there, and one can profit from studying a given issue from multiple perspectives, but one can do that effectively only with a solid philosophical foundation, as I recently noted was the case with history. The blogosphere does not provide that variable of the equation: Only the reader can, and acquiring that foundation takes more work than firing up a browser and pointing it somewhere. I see the blogosphere as less of a school and more of a hash between a museum and a circus side show.

And only if the reader has rational standards will he know which section he is strolling through at any given moment. Like anyone else, I occasionally decide to entertain myself by slumming through the dodgier sections.

One site I visit, People of Wal-Mart, should illustrate my point about rational standards. As its authors put it:

We are trying to have some fun here and there is a difference between someone who is mentally challenged and a person who has a fu Manchu and is still rocking MC Hammer pants.
In other words, the fun at that site is to be had only at the expense of people who could develop rational standards, but choose not to: not the unfortunate. And, as the fashion catastrophes featured there demonstrate simply by choosing to appear in public in outlandish garb, there are plenty of things that most people would regard as "common sense" that actually do have to be learned.

When I want more cerebral entertainment of the same kind than the visual fare offered by People of Wal-Mart, I will sometimes make a bee line for Beliefnet, where, instead of merely leaving fashion choices up to arbitrary whim, some people put on display the fact that they run practically their entire lives on arbitrary whim.

Deepak Chopra provides us with a particularly amusing example today, one which reminded me of an old Greg Perkins post about Dinesh D'Souza at Noodle Food. In that post, he discusses the notion of the "God of the Gaps" in relation to kinds of "insights" displayed by Deepak Chopra, whom I sight regularly at that Wal-Mart checkout line of the intellect that is Beliefnet:
[T]hese sorts of arbitrarily asserted "explanations" pulled out of thin air should be simply dismissed out of hand -- a principle long recognized in logic and law. When someone brings a baseless charge before a court, it is to be dismissed as beneath consideration (and could even earn penalties for wasting the court's time). Likewise, when someone brings a baseless idea before a rational mind, it should be simply dismissed as beneath consideration. And D'Souza consistently relies on the logical fallacy of the "argument from ignorance," taking peoples' lack of knowledge around this and that as evidence in support of "the God hypothesis." That is exactly the error that dishonest magicians rely on to convince gullible people that they are psychics and mediums and instruments of God. Not knowing how the guy did it is not itself evidence that he is actually a psychic or some sort of divine instrument -- just as our ignorance of why the laws of nature seem so exquisitely fine-tuned is not evidence that "God did it." In all such cases, our ignorance only constitutes evidence that we don't yet understand something.
Chopra revels in exactly this kind of nonsense in his most recent post, titled, "What we don't know is thrilling." I'll give it to Chopra: That's an engaging title, and if I didn't know who came up with it, I might expect it to bespeak excitement at the prospect of new discoveries in science. Indeed, one line even bears a superficial resmblance to a particularly acute observation about evolution I have read before. Quoth Chopra: "Evolution has reached the point where there's no more physical development left for us."

The passage that reminds me of is from Ayn Rand:
[A] certain hypothesis has haunted me for years; I want to stress that it is only a hypothesis. There is an enormous breach of continuity between man and all the other living species. The difference lies in the nature of man's consciousness, in its distinctive characteristic: his conceptual faculty. It is as if, after aeons of physiological development, the evolutionary process altered its course, and the higher stages of development focused primarily on the consciousness of living species, not their bodies. But the development of a man's consciousness is volitional: no matter what the innate degree of his intelligence, he must develop it, he must learn how to use it, he must become a human being by choice. What if he does not choose to? Then he becomes a transitional phenomenon -- a desperate creature that struggles frantically against his own nature, longing for the effortless "safety" of an animal's consciousness, which he cannot recapture, and rebelling against a human consciousness, which he is afraid to achieve. ("The Missing Link, Part II," The Ayn Rand Letter, vol. II, no. 17, pp. 203-204)
Chopra's last paragraph provides both an amusing foil and a negative exemplar to this passage, coming as it does after a woozy paean to neuroscience:
Inside the brain there are no sounds or sights. When you hear music, your brain remains completely silent. When you gaze at a sunset, your brain remains totally dark. The study of cells and tissues, like the study of fossils, offers clues about the mystery of consciousness, yet a great divide has yet to be crossed. We need a Darwin of consciousness, a seminal mind who grasps the mind itself. Only then will Ardi and Lucy make sense. Because right now they don't. The creationists are defending a rear-guard position that will never be true. At the same time, so are the materialists they oppose. Consciousness is the creative force we have yet to unravel. It creates sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Which means that the real thrills are yet to come, when we look inward to discover the most mind-bending thing of all: Consciousness is the basic building block of life and the prime mover of the universe.
Translation: We don't yet understand how consciousness is related to the physical structure of the brain, and neither of two major camps can get us there because one denies the scientific evidence that man has evolved and the other denies introspective evidence that man is conscious. Thus the universe is governed by the caprice of consciousness, rather than consciousness being subject to the laws of existence that govern the rest of the universe. QED. Executive summary: I am still free to make things up for a while!

That's not the only half-confession, half-con-job we have here, or even the most amusing. That actually came right after Chopra notes that physical evolution seems superfluous to man:
Escaping the rule of survival of the fittest -- that no longer applies to a species that takes care of its weak and sick -- human beings entered the era of survival of the wisest. Survival of the wisest means using our consciousness in the highest way possible, for peace, shared resources, the eradication of disease, and increased happiness.
Never mind what man is or what consciousness entails. That would harsh Chopra's mellow. Nevertheless, man is an individual existing in this world, and having a whole host of specific things he must do on his own behalf to survive, all of which he must learn. Whether to take care of others is actually a side issue, but Chopra plainly sees it as a moral ideal and just as plainly hopes nobody will ask, "How does one take care of others?" That question alone demonstrates that man is not free of the constraints of the universe and shows that the "ideal" of altruism is actually fair game for the same kind of rational inquiry Chopra pays lip service to, but actually sidesteps in his last paragraph.

And the punchline here is this: "What has Deepak Chopra done for me today?" Ayn Rand once noted that every call for sacrifice implies a collector of sacrifices. Consider that, and her above observation about "desperate creature[s] that [struggle] frantically against [their] own nature, longing for the effortless 'safety' of an animal's consciousness," and you will see that you have a soul on display that puts the most ludicrous get-up you will ever see at Wal-Mart to shame. And that soul wants you to feel obligated to insulate it from the reality it won't deal with.

When you're done laughing, though, don't forget that you are also in a museum. Laugh, learn, and live.

-- CAV


Rational Education said...

Just completed reading the entire post. (Earlier took a break from finishing reading the post to comment after reading only the first para to share my Eureka moment!)
Excellent observations, integrations and contrasting examples. This post will surely go down as a rare gem! Thanks!



Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks. It almost also went down as a memorable gaffe: After quoting Perkins, my mind somehow latched on to D'Souza's name and started using it instead of "Chopra" for the rest of the post.

I caught the error, but only after posting this with the mistake in it for a few minutes.



madmax said...


Many evolutionary psychologists and other behavioral scientists will criticize the social sciences for the view that "evolution simply stopped" 40,000 years ago. The evpsych people will go on to say that evolution has continued to develop humanity in countless ways with the development of the races, differing intellectual capabilities based on heredity, different physical appearances to assist as tests for reproductive fitness, etc..

I think this is true. We are still evolving in many ways. But the point that the ev psych and bio-sciences crowd don't get and don't want to get is that the development of a volitional consciousness is of so great a magnitude that it makes all other developments pale in comparison. But sadly, as I am sure you are aware, the bio-science crowd despises the concept of volition and free will.

Rand's quote is amazingly penetrating. Thanks for reminding me of it. When she writes this: "longing for the effortless "safety" of an animal's consciousness, which he cannot recapture..." it makes me think that many of today's scientific materialists want just that - to retreat to the evolutionary wiring of a primitive animal (including primitive man) that did not possess the capacity for self-definition. The mystics are of course no better as they counter these materialists with fear-soothing fantasies of all powerful gods and magic kingdoms.

Gus Van Horn said...


"[A]s I am sure you are aware, the bio-science crowd despises the concept of volition and free will."

Yes. As I once explained to a friend, many of my colleagues are determinists in addition to being skeptics. (That combination made her laugh.)

As for the notion of evolution stopping, the very idea makes my teeth curl. One CAN argue that very little (approximately none) has been able to occur in that time frame, but even that notion glosses over genetic variability known to occur among individuals and even among populations (which is ultimately HOW evolution can occur at all). Some of this variability is likely a result of environmental changes that have occurred since that time.