Wednesday, 23 May 2012

A sparkling conversation

I just got back from 'Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore In Conversation', a British Humanist Association event, held just over the road in the University where I work (in association with the university's atheist society).  It was, not surprisingly, amazing. The conversation was fascinating, covering a diverse range of topics from memes (of course) to the nature of religious belief. There was some very interesting discussion of Zahavi's handicap principle, group/kin selection and the mechanics of gene replication - so I'm very glad that I've recently been ploughing through The Selfish Gene, in that I managed to understand more of what was going on. There was also some very interesting debate about consciousness, which I'm aware has been the focus of a lot of Blackmore's recent work (she gave a talk at Bristol on the subject a year or so ago, which is still pretty much all I know on this); aside from the difficulty of defining what consciousness actually is, they considered whether consciousness is necessary for the kind of intelligent things we get to, and if we are indeed actually conscious (note to self: read her books).

I loved the format of the event - after a concise introduction from BHA chief Andrew Copson (we all giggled when he said "hashtag": still not sure why), basically the two of them had a nice friendly chat about their work and stuff in general, rambling from topic to thrilling topic; followed by a more interactive session where the audience joined in with some very interesting questions.

These questions eventually got around to the subject of free will - as they tend to do in such situations as this - specifically with the question of whether they believed they had free will. This was one of the (many) highlights of the evening, as it's something I've recently become pretty interested in (both through debates with religious people who claim that we do possess it, and that it is proof of God's existence; and that I'm currently reading Pinker's Blank Slate, which contains some very though-provoking perspectives). On this subject Dawkins responded with his customary Hitchens quote - "I have no choice!"; but Blackmore's answer was quite unexpected, a position I was not previously aware of... though relating superficially to some things I'd previously been pondering.

Her opinion on the matter, briefly, is that she does not have free will; but unlike many other scientists/philosophers (to whom she has asked the question) she does not feel the need to live as if she did. Rather, she accepts that things are not the consequences of her conscious exercising of free will, but the result of this person that she is doing the things that it will do - and whatever happens, happens. Though this seems a little strange at first, I can see how it can be a liberating perspective: that she is able to look upon herself with a more detatched perspective, and take a step back from the immediate first-person experience to consier how this self of hers is reacting. In stressful situations, for example, she describes how it becomes a matter of intellectual curiosity to sit back and watch how she will cope.

It's interesting how this also allows more compassion and sympathy to be felt for others: since they are no longer to be viewed as purely free and autonomous consciousnesses acting in accordance with their independently existing will, but as beings influenced by their genes, their environment, and their experiences, it is easier to understand their motivations and recognise the humanity in them (again, as Pinker would say, the fact that people are influenced by genes, and whether or not they are in any sense free, makes no difference in terms of blame or intent - but does allow us to understand them better). This does not detract from what it means to be human, the value of freedom, or the necessity in making sensible decisions - we can still do the things we do, and we can still have valid reasons for doing them, it just means that there isn't necessarily that spontaneous "me" in constant control. Like I said, this is a fascinating perspective, not one I'd thought about much before, and certainly something I hope to elaborate on in future.

So with that and the general discussion about genes and memes, a mention of temes/thremes (the third, machine-based replicators, which it was good to hear of after having been present in yet another lecture in which she was developing the idea), the potential of Dawkins and Blackmore using their memetic knowledge in designing a new religion, and on how best to counter religion's resilience to critical thought, the evening definitely contained a lot to think about. I'll leave it there for now, lest I ramble incoherently on, and fail to an even greater degree not to brag about how lucky I am to have attended; but hopefully I'll return to many of the issues raised when I've thought a bit more about it all.

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