Sunday, December 6, 2009

John Derbyshire: A Collection

Over the years, National Review columnist John Derbyshire has written some excellent articles on science, religion, and philosophy. While I don't agree with him on the Darwin/I.D. debate, and I find him a little too eager to advance Reductionism, I find him congenial on most other issues. So without further ado, here are some of his best articles, along with a few highlighted tidbits.

God and Me: Faith FAQ: "Religious feeling just is, there in human nature, unremovably and inescapably…It’s there, and decent societies have to incorporate it somehow, to the general advantage…The trick, if you want a reasonably happy and stable society, is to corral human nature into useful, non-socially-destructive styles of expression… Any aspect of human nature can get out of hand, as we see with these Muslim fanatics that are making such nuisances of themselves nowadays. That doesn’t mean the aspect is bad, just that some society has done a bad job of corraling it.

What's So Scary About Evolution? — For Both Right and Left, a Lot: "A Darwinian view of human nature really is quite sensationally revolutionary. In particular, it makes a hash of intrinsic human equality. We may of course — and we should, and I hope we ever shall! — hold equal treatment under the law to be an organizing principle of our civilization; but that is a social agreement, like driving on the right, not a pre-existing fact in the world."

The Rapture for Nerds: "Hopes for AI have been around as long as hopes for fusion power…Some folk at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute are tackling the fruit fly brain. This may actually be more promising, as fruit flies are the most studied of all creatures, especially by geneticists. Still, the scale of the project is intimidating. A fruit fly brain is barely visible — about one-eightieth of an inch from side to side. Yet the full mapping of one such speck will need, the researchers are estimating, about a million gigabytes of data storage, and 'To get any good data, you'd have to compare hundreds of fruit-fly brains.' Says the project director: 'In a hundred years I'd like to know how human consciousness works. The 10- or 20-year goal is to understand the fruit-fly brain.'"

Toward a Science of Consciousness, Part 1: "Down at the quantum level, things get radically weird, we all know that. The issue here this morning was: Do brain processes partake of the weirdness? Sheehan believes they do. He offered some arguments from physics, and some experimental results. Most startling of the latter were experiments that seemed to show presentiment. In brief: You show your suspect a blank screen. Then you randomly display a picture, either an 'emotional' one, that will evoke a strong neuro-response (e.g. naked woman) or a 'calm' one (e.g. seascape). Then you quickly go back to the blank screen. You are monitoring neural reactions all the time. The 'emotional' pictures show a strong reaction after they are shown, of course; but they seem to show a measurably stronger reaction before being show, too."

Toward a Science of Consciousness, Part 2: "How far do we still have to go 'toward a science of consciousness'? A long way yet, was my parting impression. In his 2007 Teaching Company lecture series Consciousness and its Implications (which I recommend), philosopher Daniel Robinson remarks that: 'Despite the tremendous growth of knowledge over recent decades, the problem of mental causation … is pretty much where it was in the time of the ancient Greek philosophers.' That matches my own conclusions from the Tucson meeting."

The Dream of A.I.: "Artificial humans? We could not create an artificial ant, with all its complex social behavior based on scent and visual clues. Even in fields where there is obviously a great deal of money to be made, progress has been barely perceptible. Anyone who could get a computer to drive a car as safely as a human being does would certainly clean up, yet the news from the auto manufacturers, who are throwing a lot of resources at this, is that we are not even close. Yet driving a car is a very low-level function of the brain, as proved by the fact that you can think about several other things while you are doing it."

Islamophobophobia: "Inside every Muslim today there is a voice whispering: 'Our faith is so pure and true, our civilizations lasted so long and ruled so many, our God was so potent: yet here we are in the modern world, backward and poor except where accidents of nature have blessed us, our rulers corrupt, our culture mocked or ignored, our people squabbling among themselves, or fleeing the homelands to work as taxi drivers and menials in the great glittering cities of the infidels, those homelands themselves part-stolen by the wretched Jews. It's all wrong, wrong, wrong! Grrrrr!!!' That's the Islam we're up against. I don't myself believe we can do much to reform it. Muslims have to do that for themselves."

March of the Godless: "Outside the sphere of religion, it is difficult for most of us to get a firm grip on the big questions, the questions that have agitated mortals since Achilles moped in his tent before Troy: 'How shall we live?' and 'Why must we die?' These matters, dealing with the foundations of morality and the place of human life in the grand scheme of things, color political issues here in the U.S.A., and so are constantly discussed and debated. This gives a depth and gravity to national political discourse that in other countries, I think, is mainly lacking. Now that I have acclimatized myself to this aspect of American public life, in fact, I find myself thinking, when I read newspapers and magazines from England, that there is something frivolous and shallow about the way matters are presented over there. (And China, where they are not spoken of in public at all, seems a very dark place.)"

Don't Blame Islam: "In our current conflict, our enemies are all Muslims. I don't believe that our enemy is Islam, though. Islam came up in a primitive, tribal society that has never since enjoyed any real political progress. The Arabs are still primitive and tribal today; but their failure to create modern nation-states arises from their ancient habits of thought, behavior and social exchange, and from geographical constraints, not from anything in Islam. Indeed, those Arab countries — Iraq, Syria — that are established on secular principles are even more degraded and corrupt than the theocracies…Instead of mocking or dismissing Islam, we should appeal to believers to look to the nobler and more generous texts in their scriptures, the texts that emphasize a common humanity. We have nothing to gain from alienating honest Muslims, any more than they have anything to gain by being enemies of the West."

Note: For my other articles on Derbyshire, click here.

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