Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Consciousness Explained?

For the past couple of days I've been reading Daniel Dennett's book 'Consciousness Explained'. I'm about half-way through and Dennett's certainly on the right track. An extract:

Human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes (or more exactly, meme-effects in brains) that can best be understood as the operation of a "von Neumannesque" virtual machine implemented in the parallel architecture of a brain that was not designed for such activities. The powers of this virtual machine vastly enhance the underlying powers of the organic hardware on which it runs, but at the same time many of its most curious features, and especially its limitations can be explained as the byproducts of the kludges that make possible this curious but effective reuse of an existing organ for novel purposes. (p.210).
I would think the idea that the mind is a kind of software running on the wetware of the brain, pretty uncontroversial, and I find myself in agreement with a great deal of what Dennett has been saying. This is funny (ha ha) because I've received Professor Dennett's response to that question I like to ask other humans: do you agree everything is pointless?
No, everything is not pointless. There are many deeply important projects, values, hopes, fears that have a point just because we (our species, all of us, but not unanimously) deem them important. What ELSE could make anything important? (For instance, why should I care what some creator God wants me to do? He might be a shmuck, even though he made me and everything else. But if my friends and I find something important, that's important! Not decisive, but worth reflecting further on.)
And this is what I don't get. Am I really supposed to be convinced that there is a point to existence, by a biological machine infected by memes?

I am beginning to feel that this may be a reason for people not readily accepting atheism. Many theists believe god made humans with a purpose and that if you deny god, you remove that purpose. They can't understand why atheists get out of bed in the morning. It's the same argument I hear quite often: "If everything is pointless, why do you...". The answer is that consciousness is an illusion and everything is pointless, but you've just got to deal with it. By saying everything is not pointless (like Dennett) you are seemingly contradicting yourself in the eyes of the theist. What point in arguing that there isn't a god, if there isn't a god?

Instead people need to be given the very basic truth of existence (that everything is pointless) and taught that because of that truth, only our actions (and the actions of others just like us) will initiate real change to improve human life for the better. Maybe then we can begin to redefine human priorities based on the reality of our predicament rather than religious delusion.