Sunday, January 27, 2008

'The Mystery of APinker on why a scientific basis for consciousness provides a basis for morality

I just came across article from Time, reposted on a single page on It's Steven Pinker on consciousness. He discusses the "hard" and "easy problems"—with no resolution. At the end he makes the interesting claim that
the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul. It's not just that an understanding of the physiology of consciousness will reduce human suffering through new treatments for pain and depression. That understanding can also force us to recognize the interests of other beings—the core of morality.

As every student in Philosophy 101 learns, nothing can force me to believe that anyone except me is conscious. This power to deny that other people have feelings is not just an academic exercise but an all-too-common vice, as we see in the long history of human cruelty. Yet once we realize that our own consciousness is a product of our brains and that other people have brains like ours, a denial of other people's sentience becomes ludicrous. 'Hath not a Jew eyes?' asked Shylock. Today the question is more pointed: Hath not a Jew—or an Arab, or an African, or a baby, or a dog—a cerebral cortex and a thalamus? The undeniable fact that we are all made of the same neural flesh makes it impossible to deny our common capacity to suffer.
Sounds like a good point. But is the denial of other people's capacity to suffer really getting in the way of morality? Now that I think about it, I doubt it. We may de-personalize other people, but that's an emotional reaction. I suspect that torturers don't deny the capacity of their victims to suffer. They are either turned on by it, or they repress it. But they don't deny it.

No comments: