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Sci Tech    H4'ed 3/25/10

Consciousness, Values, Science, and Nature

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Considerations about the nature of consciousness are not just academic exercises. Our beliefs about what we are, even if more-or-less implicit, can have a profound influence on our values, personal relations, and political perspectives.

Science is not entirely helpful in considering consciousness and values, although it has become, for many people, the final authority on every question, the arbiter even of which questions are worth asking. And the appeal to science for beliefs and perspective has been for many of us a liberating alternative to the domination of religious and superstitious dogmas. But a disciplined science is restricted to the analysis of things that can be observed, and scientific observations involve the reduction of mental activity to biology, and the reduction of biology to physics. The problem is, if the objects of science are (meta-scientifically) assumed to comprehend all of reality, rather than just the limits of observation, then consciousness becomes a non-essential bi-product of brain function, and there remains no compelling basis for values like freedom, rights, culture, love, and life. Physical things can be justifiably destroyed and re-cycled, biological things can be killed and consumed. Nowhere within the domain of science can "things" like ourselves be discriminated based on intrinsic worth.

So while science doesn't necessarily eliminate our values, it renders them groundless, and consequently, more or less heedless.

To look beyond science for the nature of consciousness and justification of values doesn't require a religious or mystical turn. A naturalistic perspective can appreciate science without regarding it as an all-encompassing metaphysics. Our own self-awareness, and a reflection on the deliberate things we are able to do in the world, can be considered evidence of something beyond strict scientific understanding, just by accepting that legitimate evidence need not be directly or exclusively physical. We can't objectively observe consciousness like we can the workings of a machine, but we have our personal experience to acknowledge, we can observe the physical manifestations of our conscious intentions, and we have an affinity with values that can be as solid and certain as any sight or sound.

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A former visitant of UC Santa Cruz, former union boilermaker, ex-Marine, Vietnam vet, anti-war activist, dilettante in science with an earth-shaking theory on the nature of light (which no one will consider), philosopher in the tradition of Schelling, Hegel, Merleau-Ponty, Marx, and Fromm (sigh, no one listens to me on that either), author of a book on wine clubs (ahem), and cast-off programmer of ancient computer languages. I've recently had two physics articles published in an obscure but earnest Central European journal (European Scientific Journal but my main interests remain politics and philosophy.

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