Everytime I see a journalist complain about scientism–defined as a misguided belief in the infallibility of science–I wonder, considering that the -ism in scientism is apparently a bad thing, if they also recognize that their discipline also ends in -ism? There are some great journalists out there but more often than not I feel like journalism can be just as “pernicious”, to use a word from the article I’m about to destroy, in its misguided belief in the infallibility of journalism and that anything can and should be turned into a story.
Scientism is a word thrown about to accuse scientists, or anyone for that matter, of thinking and acting like science is perfect. The religious often accuse certain secularists of believing in the religion of scientism. I have no doubt that there are people out there deserving of the pejorative sense of the word scientism but most of the scientists and people who have even the slightest interest in science have a decent grasp of what science is: a powerful but flawed tool that can give us important information to help people make important decisions.
That’s not what Globe and Mail writer Michael Posner or philosopher Peter Hacker think. More specifically, Hacker seems to think that the search for consciousness in the brain is a perfect example of scientism. “[O]ne is not conscious with one’s brain any more than one walks with one’s brain,” he says as though he could have followed that up with a ZING! What a bizarre thing to say particularly because, even with a fully functional pair of legs, you couldn’t walk without your brain.
The point he’s apparently trying to make is that consciousness does not reside in the brain or at least simply in the physical characteristics of the brain. Wait–what was that? Why would you think consciousness would be anywhere else? True, the location–if it can even be located–of consciousness is not known, but given everything we know it seems like the prime suspect. So why would you think it would be anywhere else.
If I was a really cynical person I’d say it was because Hacker, as a philosopher, is trying to maintain philosophy’s turf when it comes to consciousness. But I’m not that cynical, I think it has more to do with the romantic notion of consciousness or the idea that if consciousness can be reduced to the nuts and bolts of the brain, well, doesn’t that take the magic out of it?
Does Chopin sound less beautiful if you know how to play the piano? Would video games be less fun if you knew how to program? Are sports less fun to watch if you know how to play? In each of these instances, I would think that these experiences would be enhanced by playing the piano or knowing how to play hockey, not the other way around.
If we find out one day that our personalities are ‘only’ the configuration of our neurons, are you going to enjoy a tasty microbrewed beer any less? Will you be less surprised if someone throws you a surprise party? Personally, consciousness is such an amazing experience in the first place, there is almost nothing you could tell me about it that would make it less enjoyable. C’mon. Try me.