Thursday, July 10, 2008

Tom Wolfe and Michael Gazzaniga

I love Seed magazine. One feature is the salon that puts scientists and humanists together to talk about life, the universe and everything (see my 'shared items' link for the link to the article). This month, Tom Wolfe and Michael Gazzaniga talk about status, language,free will, cognition, and a few other topics thrown in. The conversation is stimulating especially when the pair get to talking about the region of the left hemisphere that MG has identified as The Interpreter. This is the area that takes in everything that is happening and makes sense of it, probably through language. It reminded me of Eckardt Tolle's Ego in his book A New Earth. Is that what the Interpreter is? The Ego? I would love for MG and TW to comment on that.
Another thread related to the meaning of language is also interesting. The two debate the importance of language as a means to make sense of the world. I agree with TW's basic conclusion that language is a artifact rather than a natural evolution of intelligence. Language allows us to ask why, say TW, and that's about it. That question inevitably leads to the rest of humanity. I think this relates to the ontology/taxonomy argument as well. Ontology is the state of being (ie experiential) and taxonomy or classification gives us a way to describe it through language. Classification of things into boxes is our attempt to artificially evolve our experience into something that can be described and therefore communicated. The problem is that we wrap way too many assumptions about context into our classifications so we end up falling over our categories, our words and ourselves when we try to box things in to predetermined slots. TW also talks about our experiences as humans always being contextualized by status, or lack of it. We cannot help but compare ourselves to the person in front of us. He talks of our affinity for fiction as being an extension of our obsession with status, and again I agree with him.
The final topic for the conversation was free will. The current debate about our dualistic minds and who really is responsible for our actions--our brain which makes us do stuff, or our true selves which actually commits the act. Apparently there are legal arguments abounding that try to allow people to say, my brain did it, not me. This, to me, is ridiculous. While I agree with Tolle and MG that dualism drives human behavior, there is no way to my mind that an individual should not be held accountable for his actions (except for the usual slippery slopes of mental illness that are often rightfully brought to bear in a court of law). Although we don't understand it yet, "we" are "brain mechanics+consciousness", and no matter how you look at it, that combo is all there is. Unless....well, maybe another blog..
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