Thursday, 29 November 2012

Which way you face

I don’t have the Discworld books handy right now, and I don’t remember which one it was, but at one point Granny Weatherwax says something along the lines of “It doesn’t matter where you stand; what matters is which way you face.”
I’m pretty sure Granny Weatherwax is speaking for her author here, and I think I have an inkling what Pratchett might have meant. And a few different things have reminded me of it recently. (Spoilers for The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series below the cut, though if you haven’t read The Lord of the Rings or the Narnia series I’m not sure what you’re doing reading my blog.)

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Imponderable I: Morality

Let’s suppose that in the year 2115 neurologists tell us that they’ve figured out how the brain actually understands things. What would that mean? Precisely that they can explain it in terms of components that do not themselves understand.
Perhaps they tell us:
Here’s how the mind understands. The mind is composed of three components, the blistis, the morosum, and the hyborebus. The blistis and the morosum have nothing to do with understanding; the part that understands is the hyborebus.
We don’t have to know what these things are to know that they’ve failed. This cannot be an explanation of understanding, because it simply transfers the problem from the “mind” to the “hyborebus”. It’s like explaining vision by saying that the optic nerve brings the image from the eye to the brain, where it’s projected on a screen that’s watched by a homunculus. How does the homunculus’s vision work?
This will be the first of a series of six or seven articles, aimed at explaining things that are fundamental to human experience (or so we think) and which boggle the mind when we try to analyse them: meaning, consciousness, knowledge, the self, free will, morality. The trouble, I believe, is not that these things have no explanation, nor even that we can’t comprehend the explanation. The trouble is drawn out by the quote above. We don’t have a problem applying it to most things: we can all accept that a car doesn’t have a smaller car under its bonnet driving on a little treadmill to make the big car go, and that if it did it wouldn’t explain anything because you’d still have to ask what makes the little car go.
But with the Imponderables, as I shall call them, our intuitions run the wrong way.