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Against Stupidity

by Rick Lewis

To be reading these words you must have (or be?) a mind. But philosophers have always had trouble establishing exactly what a mind is. Is it a ghostly immaterial thing which occupies your head but is separate from your brain? So Descartes thought; but how then does your non-physical mind cause movements of your physical body, for instance when you will your arm to lift or your finger to scratch your nose? Various theories were put forward over the centuries, and my tutor John Heawood used to illustrate them by drawing little stick people with ghosts hovering over their heads and arrows to indicate causes. Parallelism, for example, said that mind and body each follow their own causal laws without interacting, but somehow staying in sync; epiphenomenalism says the causes only go one way, from brain to mind, and not vice versa. My personal favourite is occasionalism, the theory that on each occasion an immaterial mind wills a movement of the physical body, God intervenes with a small localized miracle to make it happen.

Or is the mind not a separate thing at all? Maybe your brain is a biological computer and your conscious experiences are just what it is like to be a brain. In that case, perhaps electronic computers could have conscious experiences too – or might do one day, if they become more sophisticated. But this wouldn’t solve the problem of consciousness, one of the most interesting, important and difficult questions in philosophy today. It is the question of how your brain – that intricate mass of neurons and synapses – gives rise to the extraordinary visions which illuminate your waking hours and punctuate your sleep. Inside your head is an entire universe of experience, of colours, smells, shapes. Where does it all come from? Why is there something that it is like to see red, or to want a cup of coffee?

As you have probably guessed by now, this issue of Philosophy Now has a theme of philosophy of mind. In her Overview article, Professor Laura Weed describes all the recent debates on the subject, and the currently competing theories about the mind. These debates border onto many other areas of philosophy, such as language and ethics. For instance, if the brain operates in deterministic ways, what space is there for free will and hence personal responsibility? Michael Langford tries to clarify this problem by looking at the language we use to describe it. Namit Arora in his article considers whether machines will ever become conscious; Ernest Dempsey interviews leading neuroscientist Michael Graziano, and Vincent Di Norcia examines how moral and social intelligence, and therefore ethics, arise from the way the biological brain works.

Talking of intelligence, one of the most enjoyable aspects of editing Philosophy Now ever since it launched twenty years ago has been that I’ve had the great pleasure of continually interacting with imaginative, clever, interesting people ­– our readers and contributors. Perhaps for this reason it has taken me a long time to get around to thinking about stupidity. Luckily I haven’t had to deal with it very much; or only my own, anyway. “Against stupidity even the gods contend in vain,” grumbled Friedrich Schiller, more than two centuries ago, but it depends what we mean by stupidity. Generally speaking, while struggling against the stupidity of others – bureaucrats, for instance – may be very frustrating, the real challenge is trying to detect and defeat our own stupidity. Everyone is stupid sometimes, even the most brilliant, if stupidity means poor reasoning, entrenched mental habits and unexamined assumptions. A good example is the splitting of the uranium atom. Until 1938, all the world’s top physicists carried the unexamined assumption that heavy atomic nuclei couldn’t be split into two. This left them baffled for several years by the strange results observed when uranium was bombarded with slow neutrons. What was going on? Finally Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch worked it out between them, and told Niels Bohr. “Oh, what idiots we all have been!” was his instant, forehead-slapping response. (Some say the real stupidity at that point was telling the politicians and generals, but hushing up fundamental scientific discoveries rarely works for long).

The struggle against stupidity is a continuous one within each of us, and as well as the internal struggle there is also the struggle for clear reasoning and honest, open discussion in the public sphere, but at least we don’t have to fight alone. So as part of our twentieth anniversary celebrations Philosophy Now is creating a new annual award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity. Nominees can be philosophers, authors, scientists, journalists, playwrights or anyone else who has made an outstanding recent contribution to promoting knowledge, reason or public debate about issues that matter. The prize, appropriately enough, will be a book token and the first winner will be announced at the Philosophy Now 20th Anniversary Philosophy Festival on the 18th December 2011. Please send nominations for the 2011 award with supporting arguments to rick.lewis@philosophynow.org.

If you can make it to London on 18th December, do please come to our festival (see here). There will be events all day and philosophical fun for the whole family!

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