Re: Damien Broderick's new book (& the soul)

Damien Broderick (
Sun, 18 Apr 1999 14:24:34 +0000

At 07:19 PM 17/04/99 -0700, Lyle cited: >In _New Scientist_, 3 April 1999, page 48

>> Damien Broderick's _The Last Mortal Generation_ is a robust,
>> determinedly cheerful survey of death: what it is,
>> where it comes from and how to make it go away.

The book got a condescending notice in the Melbourne *Age* this weekend from hotshot young Oz novelist James Bradley. Much of what he attributes to the book is, oddly enough, refuted by the text itself, but I was struck by one typical component of his review:

" Scientists consistently claim science can answer everything (and Broderick's enthusiastic barracking for sociobiology is a good example of the latest attempts to `unify' human knowledge). But science can't explain everything. Not because there are ghosts or spirits or souls, but because its whole frame of reference excludes much of what we actually worry about.

" Neither atomic analysis of the paint nor any amount of sociobiological mumbo-jumbo can tell us in any meaningful way why we respond to a da Vinci the way we do. Nor, despite the inflated claims of scientists, should we expect them to: science is a specialised discourse about the physical world, and notions such as right and wrong, beautiful and repulsive have no place in this discourse. " (Age Extra, p. 7, 17 April 1999)

There is a number of quite distinct assertions and implications there. The most obviously false one, it seems to me, is that `Scientists consistently claim science can answer everything'. In my experience, scientists are very wary about treading outside the limited domain of their specialties. What exercises Bradley is that a few scientists, away from their benches, now and then do try to forge large-scale accounts of our experience that conflict or compete with the accounts traditionally provided by religion, the arts, `tradition' itself. Even so, I have never heard of any scientist who held that atomic analysis of Leonadado's paint would add to our understanding of aesthetic response. (Indeed, in my book I specifically disavow such laughable ambition: `Not even the most optimistic reductionist has ever supposed, after all, that we interpret Shakespeare best by assiduously tracking the quantum states of each atom in each copy of Hamlet, or tallying the alphanumerics in King Lear.')

Sociobiology, of course, was an ambitious program that has been replaced by a more modest evolutionary psychology, a field I do watch with great interest for the light its hypotheses seem to cast on human morality, the substrates of our aesthetic choices, etc. Its promise is exactly that we humans *are* part of the `physical world', and subject to formation by selective pressures. On the other hand, the levels of explanation salient to ethics and aesthetics are often detached, in effect, from those operating on genes. But the link remains, and it is a harrowing one for our self-esteem. Again, as I say in my book: `The only item in Darwinism's favour is that it's infinitely preferable to believing that some divine creator deliberately built the vicious ecologies we inhabit. Its strategies, as Dawkins has eloquently explained, are founded on the single fact that each of us is the end result of a long line of ancestors, beings who all successfully passed on their genes. Happily, not every product of random mutation and natural selection is vile. Such a filter can employ many strategies and tactics, including love, kindness, generosity, honour, artistic and scientific genius.'

Which brings me to the topic of a different thread, the question of `soul'. It seems to me that science is good at providing satisfactory solutions only to questions that can be well-framed, questions for which we can hope to find an answer. Its starting point might be the one I. I. Rabi blurted out when he learned of the meson: `Who ordered that?' That is: what's the role this phenomenon plays in the wider scheme of things known to us from all our joint efforts to know and comprehend the world? So: Who ordered the soul? People who were puzzled by the gap between brute, unliving matter and complex living critters, and by the gap between brute matter and the rich inward qualia of consciousness. When some foolish, misguided positivists tried to rule out subjective qualities in the name of a sanitized science, they were making a tragic category error that redounds to the discredit of science to this day. Which is what my critic has in the back of his mind. But increasingly, the public investigative methods of the sciences *are* approaching an adequate account of how mind is the brained body in action. We can't yet explain the allure of the Mona Lisa (I'd bet learnig to copy the avowed responses of others has a lot to do with it), but cognitive science and evolutionary psychology offer a better chance of a good account than gesturing at a supposed `soul' that has no limits or characteristics distinguishing it from its absence.

Damien Broderick