Monday, May 5, 2014

"The Brain And The Meaning Of Life" by Paul Thagard

Recently, while discussing the meaning of life, a self-described naturalist brought up a 2012 book by another naturalist, Paul Thagard. In that book, Thagard allegedly argued that "reality is what science can discover". That argument struck me as highly absurd. It is the essence of scientism, a religion that effectively worships science by attributing divine qualities to it and by treating scientists (and inevitably pseudoscientists) as priests. What makes scientism somewhat less refined philosophically than most religions is the fact that we all know how fallible science is, but in most cases the fallibility of God is much harder if not impossible to establish. Those who worship a transcendent God may not be able to prove the existence of their God, but neither can anyone prove the non-existence of their God. But if the God who is worshiped is not transcendent - for example, if it is a deity with physical attributes allegedly living on the top of a mountain or if it is a system of knowledge with frequently shifting content - then it is rather easy to discredit such a deity.

Given the absurdity of the notion that reality could or necessarily should be validated by science, I decided that I would give Thagard the benefit of the doubt and have a look at his book, The Brain And The Meaning Of Life. Unfortunately, Thagard does indeed adopt the aforementioned stand. And reading it in his own words – which turned out to be identical to those used by the reviewer – does not make Thagard's position any more palatable. He comes across just as fanatic – and just as irrational – as any religious zealot. I quote the last paragraph beginning on Page 8 of the book:

What is reality? My answer will be that we should judge reality to consist of those things and processes identified by well-established fields of science using theories backed by evidence drawn from systematic observations and experiments. This view is highly contentious, as it rules out both religious faith and a priori arguments as sources of knowledge about reality. Chapter 2 will provide an argument why philosophy, like medicine and science, should be evidence based rather than faith based. Tying reality to the results of scientific investigations does not in itself rule out spiritual entities such as gods, souls, and angels, for there could be observations and experimental results that are best explained by theories postulating the existence of such entities. Historically, however, the development of naturalistic explanations in terms of physics, biology, and other sciences has rendered supernatural explanations dispensable. I will describe how theories in physics and biology have demolished theological arguments for hypotheses about divine creation to explain the origin and nature of the universe. Chapter 3 will similarly argue that neuropsychological theories are now sufficiently powerful to make it plausible that minds are brains, so that hypotheses about the existence of the soul are as superfluous as ones about gods and angels. Reality is what science can discover.
'Looking Ahead' in Chapter 1: "We All Need Wisdom"
This was not the only disappointing paragraph that I read in the early pages of Thagard's book. Earlier in the same Chapter 1, Thagard presents a two-page section entitled "Sources of Wisdom". In that section, Thagard talks about various things. He describes wisdom (as he sees it), and he draws a distinction between wisdom and knowledge (although he falls short of actually defining wisdom). He also encourages the pursuit of wisdom (despite his vagueness regarding the concept). In this section, Thagard even declares what he considers to be "the meaning of life" - "love, work, and play" (a trinity that he had already used eight times earlier, mostly as 'examples') - and he also gives the reason for that assessment (that is, "because they help to satisfy vital human needs"). (With that basis for ascertaining the meaning of life, it is a wonder that Thagard did not include "food" as a fourth element in his "meaning of life".) Thagard ends that section of Chapter 1 by declaring "[his] own approach to wisdom" ("experimental psychology and recent research in neuroscience to develop a systematic account of what matters to people and why it matters"). But, oddly enough, although the section is entitled "Sources of Wisdom", Thagard only meanders hither and thither, without even indirectly, much less directly, attempting to address the topic that he had specified in the section title.

I could go on describing the flaws in Thagard's outlook and the weakness of his arguments. Some reviewers have described his book as "tightly reasoned". I found the exact opposite to be the case. I do not expect to finish reading this book, and I certainly will not be commending it to anyone.