Monday, May 18, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Fifteen

“What is the Soul?,” pages 170-174

Progress in science has a way of undermining what (we had been confident) constituted knowledge. When I [Russell] was young, everyone knew that humans had a body and a soul. The materiality of the body was self-evident, and questioned only by philosophers. But now, we learn from physicists that the existence of matter is suspect. Simultaneously, psychologists tell us that the existence of mind is suspect; indeed, many psychologists think of the mind as a wholly material phenomenon. And the body seems to be a construct of the mind, completing an unpalatable circle. [So far we are covering ground further adumbrated in an essay in Portraits From Memory – RBR] “Evidently this cannot be quite right, and we have to look for something that is neither mind nor body, out of which both can spring [p. 171].”

Surely as a first impression, material objects exist, and you can bump into them. [Russell does not mention Samuel Johnson’s “refutation” of Bishop Berkeley – RBR] But physicists challenge this interpretation, as bumping has something to do with electrons and protons but little to do with you touching something, even though your brain registers the sensation of touch – and your brain can be mistaken. These electrons and protons are waves or probabilistic clouds, not fully material themselves. Nor can science find the mind or soul in what passes for matter.

The world, then, is events, some of which involve causal connections that make it sensible to lump those events into what we refer to as a material object, and others that we might want to collect and refer to as a mind. An event in your brain is of both types, involving the brain, seen as a physical object, and the mind. We can group events into mind or matter at our convenience, choosing one or the other form to serve our present purposes.

Mind and matter are ephemeral. The sun loses matter by the ton, and a person’s memories do not seem to survive his or her own demise.

Though materialism is not an accurate portrait of the world, our emotional connection to the world would not be much changed if materialism were descriptively precise. The spurs to anti-materialism, perhaps, are the hope that mind is eternal and the hope that mind, in the long run, trumps physical power. The materialists have the better of the argument, however. Despite our accomplishments, it is the limitations to our mental powers that stand out. It is only on the surface of the earth that we can see any real effect of mind, with the rest of the universe being untouched by human ideas or desires. And even on earth, it is the energy from the sun that fuels any power we do have.

We can achieve more in the future, but science suggests that one day, humans will cease to exist. This future non-existence exacts no psychological toll today, we are not that emotionally invested in humanity’s fate millions of years down the road. The science that foretells our end has its opponents, but it is tolerated, because though it anticipates a bleak future, modern science brings comforts in the here and now.

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