|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Thursday, November 10, 2011
As I mentioned below, I attended and took part in this year's Battle of Ideas, an event I also took part in two years ago.
(In case anyone doesn't know: Battle of Ideas is an annual weekend festival of controversy that is itself controversial because of the connections of its organizers, the Institute of Ideas, with a long-disbanded far-left organization and its successors, currently represented by the online current affairs magazine spiked. For a somewhat bemused but balanced liberal account, see Jenny Turner's article in LRB; for a critical conservative appreciation of the group's development, check this article; and if you want the full-on left-wing conspiracy account, PowerBase, SourceWatch, and LobbyWatch will keep you entertained for hours.)
For me, a highlight of the weekend was a discussion on mind-body dualism, featuring Raymond Tallis, Richard Swinburne, Stuart Darbyshire and Martha Robinson, and chaired by Sandy Starr.
My initial sympathies in the debate were with Martha Robinson, a neuroscience PhD student and naive mechanical materialist, up against: a polymathic professor and self-professed neurosceptic; a distinguished philosopher of religion (defending, in this instance, the soul rather than God); and two dialectical materialists. (Derbyshire and Starr are both frequent contributors to spiked.) Just to confuse matters, Stuart Derbyshire referred disparagingly to Martha Robinson's view as 'materialism', while himself elaborating (as I pointed out from the floor, to no avail) a materialist view.
His contribution went like this: Consciousness is not a separate substance, but neither is it a product simply of the brain. The brain is necessary for it, but looking for consciousness in the brain is like looking for sunshine in a cucumber. In individual human development, consciousness arises from and goes beyond the infant's natural mental endowment when the infant learns language. Language liberates consciousness from elementary mental functions, allowing the use of abstraction and symbol rather than simple stimuli. Mind arises within a social process, originally in the interaction of the infant and its care-givers, and subsequently broadening out to include the whole of society. You didn't work out the Periodic Table, but you know it; likewise much else that's in your head. Not many of us, after all, coin new words, at least not words that come into general use. In a sense, your conscious experience doesn't belong to you, and that's why consciousness seems ghostly and weird.
I didn't agree with this at all, or even understand it, but while heading for King's Cross on the Tube the following day I was thinking it over while idly observing my fellow passengers reading or talking or staring into space and it clicked. Consciousness is social, it's uniquely human, it's not just going on in our separate heads but between them, in our interactions.
But ... wait a minute ... if that's the case then ... social consciousness is really important.
And it changes - and can be changed by - every individual.
When I got home I checked out the recommended reading for the event, and found right at the end a link to a work of Soviet psychology, and from that a whole archive of links to the works of Vygotsky and the school of thought he founded and the astonishing and inspiring humane applications that it led to, and the terrible vicissitudes of this school of psychology before and after it made its way to the West. Strangely enough, the very same view of consciousness that Vygotsky pioneered and that I heard Stuart Derbyshire outline can be found in all the boring Brezhnev-era textbooks of dialectical materialism.
By what a frail aqueduct did the fallen empire convey to a future civilization that most surprising discovery of Marxism-Leninism: the individual human consciousness, the soul!