Ghost in the Machine

The trouble is not just that Democritus' proposal of fitting mind into the atomic scheme by supplying it with smooth round atoms turned out not to work because there were no such atoms. Even if there had been those atoms, they still would not have furnished a usable way of thinking about mind or consciousness.

To do that we have to have a language for the subjective. We have to take seriously what happens at the first-person point of view. And there is no way of doing this inside the atomic scheme, which is irredeemably an external, third-person one.

[Mary Midgley]
Science and Poetry, p.89

[…] the imaginative picture which has shaped our supposed modern problem of free will shows human life, no longer as a drama where active people struggle against difficulties, but as one where they do not exist as distinct entities at all, only as areas of matter which are passive cogs, parts of a vast alien machine.

That is the picture which Richard Dawkins presents so forcefully at the outset of his book The Selfish Gene, writing that 'We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes' (p. 10). Dawkins evidently does not regard this phrase as rhetoric but in some sense as literal fact, for he adds 'This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment'.

This kind of image, however, is not one that could be literally believed in. It belongs essentially to third-person talk. It is a way of thinking devised for describing other people. There is no way in which we ourselves could set about living if we really envisaged ourselves as cogs or vehicles. For people who are not actually paralysed, this pattern is too fatalistic to provide any usable view of life.

[Mary Midgley]
Science and Poetry, p.143

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