CIMG3385 Scott Bakker

Scott Bakker at Readercon 2006

CIMG3385 Scott Bakker at Readercon 2006

CIMG3385 Scott Bakker at the “Fantasy, Neuroscience and the Semantic Apocalypse” panel

I was left not knowing what to make of this panel. On one hand, Scott Bakker (who, as I recall, was the only panelist) was saying things I totally agree with, such as

“A lot of people ratchet up the standard of truth and say science can’t measure up, and I’m not saying science has a monopoly of truth, but it’s better than anything else we have. It’s not that science is perfect; I’m saying that in our society, when it comes to competing claims, science is the only one that has any success in arbitrating between them.”

and also

“Science has substituted anthropomorphic understanding with a mechanical understanding of things.”

but also, things that I don’t think follow from the above. Such as:

“If technological optimists are right and we can reverse environmental destruction, we are going to innovate ourselves out of existence. Why? Once again, because of science.”

Why, indeed? Apparently because people require anthropomorphic understanding of the universe, the kind that religion provides them, and science has eliminated that. It substituted it with a mechanical understanding.

It’s a notion that has been floated around a lot, so much so that it has become a well-worn cliche. I never understood it on a personal level. To me, the wonders of science (for example, discoveries in physics or cosmology) always seemed immensely more interesting and awe-filling than the notion of a god who is enmeshed in people’s petty interpersonal dramas. But let’s say for most people it is the other way around. Even if it is true, I did not hear any new take on this idea in this panel.

The “Semantic apocalypse” in the panel’s title refers to the “possibility that meaning is dead”. Those are Scott’s words. He adds that “there is no such things as meaning. I use meaning as a grab-bag term, because I don’t know what meaning is either.” But he knows that things like morality or motive are parts of this general concept of meaning. And apparently meaning is dead because of science. Science, with its mechanistic explanations of things, has obsoleted “meaning”. That’s what I inferred from his very convoluted speech.

So, to summarize this panel, there was a thesis I agreed with (that scientific process is our only way at getting closer to the truth), and a corollary that I didn’t agree with at all — that replacing anthropomorphic explanations with natural ones deprives people of meaning, whatever it is.

Looking back, I wasn’t sure what to make of the speaker’s unusual manner of expression. His speech sounded like a rant, but full of academic expressions, and sprinkled with self-deprecating jokes about philosophers (he was a philosophy major). The unusual format leads you to think that there will be some novel insights in the speech, but then you don’t find any. And you wonder if it’s just you being imperceptible, or if there really weren’t any.

Oh, and neuroscience, despite being in the title, didn’t get much air time on the panel, but was mentioned towards the end as a big culprit in advancing the apocalypse of meaning. “Neuroscience is picking us apart at supposedly the most fundamental level possible. This experience you all are having that seems rich and incredibly complete and deep, is illusion.” According to Scott Bakker, it is destroying the concept of free will. He cited a book, “The Illusion of Conscious Will” by Daniel M. Wegner, that describes experiments that strongly suggest that the feeling of free will we have is something we attach after the fact. “So how do we make sense of responsibility, of morality, or any agency? Will this research lead us back through some circuitous route to confirm our cherished intuitions of selfhood and perceptions of reality and free will?”

I have to say, that IS a good question.