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Let me lay my cards on the table. If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone ever had, I'd give it to Darwin, ahead of even Newton or Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. It is not just a wonderful idea. It is a dangerous idea.
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Isn't it true that whatever isn't determined by our genes must be determined by our environment? What else is there? There's Nature and there's Nurture. Is there also some X, some further contributor to what we are? There's Chance. Luck. This extra ingredient is important but doesn't have to come from the quantum bowels of our atoms or from some distant star. It is all around us in the causeless coin-flipping of our noisy world, automatically filling in the gaps of specification left unfixed by our genes, and unfixed by salient causes in our environment.
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For more than a century, people have often thought that the conclusion to draw from Darwin's vision is that Homo sapiens, our species - and we're just animals too, we're just mammals - that there is nothing morally special about us. I myself don't think this follows at all from Darwin's vision, but it is certainly the received view in many quarters.
If I were to give a prize for the single best idea anybody ever had, I'd give it to Darwin for the idea of natural selection - ahead of Newton, ahead of Einstein - because his idea unites the two most disparate features of our universe: the world of purposeless, meaningless matter and motion, particles jostling on the one side, and the world of meaning and purpose, design on the other.
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The traditional view of purpose says it comes from on high, from God, from the Creator. Darwin's idea of natural selection makes people uncomfortable because it reverses the direction of tradition. Whereas people used to think of meaning coming from on high and being ordained from the top down, now we have Darwin saying, "No, all of this design can happen, all of this purpose can emerge from the bottom up without any direction at all."
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After Darwin, God's role changes from being the designer of all creatures great and small to being the designer of the laws of nature, from which natural selection can unfold, to being perhaps just the chooser of the laws. By the time God's role has been so diminished, he becomes a bit like a constitutional monarch, presiding ceremonially but not having any more work to do. That's a place for God if it makes people comfortable to keep God as the presider over the universe. I suppose that is satisfying for many.
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While we tend to conceive of the operations of the mind as unified and transparent, they're actually chaotic and opaque. There's no invisible boss in the brain, no central meaner, no unitary self in command of our activities and utterances. There's no internal spectator of a Cartesian theater in our heads to applaud the march of consciousness across its stage.
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I have shown that those who deplore Artificial Intelligence are also those who deplore the evolutionary accounts of human mentality: if human minds are non-miraculous products of evolution, then they are, in the requisite sense, artifacts, and all their powers must have an ultimately mechanical explanation. We are descended from macros and made of macros, and nothing we can do is beyond the power of huge assemblies of macros.
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If the concept of consciousness were to fall to science, what would happen to our sense of moral agency and free will? If conscious experience were reduced somehow to mere matter in motion, what would happen to our appreciation of love and pain and dreams and joy? If conscious human beings were just animated material objects, how could anything we do to them be right or wrong?
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Moreover, the eye contains a big flaw: the retina is inside out. Why would an almighty designer do such a thing? No intelligent designer, .. would put such a clumsy arrangement in a camcorder, and this is just one of the hundreds of accidents frozen in evolutionary history that confirm the mindlessness of the historical process.
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The task of the mind is to produce future, as the poet Paul Valery once put it. A mind is fundamentally an anticipator, an expectation-generator. It mines the present for clues, which it refines with the help of the materials it has saved from the past, turning them into anticipations of the future. And then it acts, rationally, on the basis of those hard-won anticipations.
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I am confident that those who believe in belief are wrong. That is, we no more need to preserve the myth of God in order to preserve a just and stable society than we needed to cling to the Gold Standard to keep our currency sound. It was a useful crutch, but we've outgrown it. Denmark, according to a recent study, is the sanest, healthiest, happiest, most crime-free nation in the world, and by and large the Danes simply ignore the God issue. We should certainly hope that those who believe in belief are wrong, because belief is waning fast, and the props are beginning to buckle.
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The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them - especially not from yourself. Instead of turning away in denial when you make a mistake, you should become a connoisseur of your own mistakes, turning them over in your mind as if they were works of art, which in a way they are.
Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery... a topic that often leaves even the most sophisticated thinkers tongue-tied and confused. And, as with all of the earlier mysteries, there are many who insist - and hope - that there will never be a demystification of consciousness.
Highly technical philosophical arguments of the sort many philosophers favor are absent here. That is because I have a prior problem to deal with. I have learned that arguments, no matter how watertight, often fall on deaf ears. I am myself the author of arguments that I consider rigorous and unanswerable but that are often not such much rebutted or even dismissed as simply ignored.
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Virtually every major technological advance in the history of the human species- back to the invention of stone tools and the domestication of fire has been ethically ambiguous. If you want to reason about faith, and offer a reasoned (and reason responsive) defense of faith as an extra category of belief worthy of special consideration, I'm eager to play. I certainly grant the existence of the phenomenon of faith; what I want to see is a reasoned ground for taking faith seriously as a way of getting to the truth , and not, say, just as a way people comfort themselves and each other
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My faith in the expertise of physicists like Richard Feynman, for instance, permits me to endorse""and, if it comes to it, bet heavily on the truth of""a proposition that I don't understand. So far, my faith is not unlike religious faith, but I am not in the slightest bit motivated to go to my death rather than recant the formulas of physics. Watch: E doesn't equal mc2, it doesn't, it doesn't! I was lying, so there!
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I should emphasize this, to keep well-meaning but misguided multiculturalists at bay: the theoretical entities in which these tribal people frankly believe "" the gods and other spirits "" don't exist. These people are mistaken, and you know it as well as I do. It is possible for highly intelligent people to have a very useful but mistaken theory, and we don't have to pretend otherwise in order to show respect for these people and their ways.
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Those who feel guilty contemplating "betraying" the tradition they love by acknowledging their disapproval of elements within it should reflect on the fact that the very tradition to which they are so loyal""the "eternal" tradition introduced to them in their youth""is in fact the evolved product of many adjustments firmly but delicately made by earlier lovers of the same tradition.
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The kindly God who lovingly fashioned each and every one of us and sprinkled the sky with shining stars for our delight - that God is, like Santa Claus, a myth of childhood, not anything [that] a sane, undeluded adult could literally believe in. That God must either be turned into a symbol for something less concrete or abandoned altogether.
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I think that there are no forces on this planet more dangerous to us all than the fanaticisms of fundamentalism, of all the species: Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, as well as countless smaller infections. Is there a conflict between science and religion here? There most certainly is.
Are zombies possible? They're not just possible, they're actual. We're all zombies. Nobody is conscious "" not in the systematically mysterious way that supports such doctrines as epiphenomenalism. *It would be an act of desperate intellectual dishonesty to quote this assertion out of context!
Some philosophers can't bear to say simple things, like "Suppose a dog bites a man." They feel obliged instead to say, "Suppose a dog d bites a man m at time t," thereby demonstrating their unshakable commitment to logical rigor, even though they don't go on to manipulate any formulae involving d, m, and t.
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The theoretical fruits of deliberate oversimplification through idealization are not to be denied... Reality in all its messy particularity is too complicated to theorize about, taken straight. The issue is, rather (since every idealization is a strategic choice), which idealizations might really shed some light... which will just land us... diverting fairy tales.
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Cults and prophets proclaiming the imminent end of the world have been with us for several millenia, and it has been another sour sort of fun to ridicule them the morning after, when they discover that their calculations were a little off. But, just as with Marxists, there are some among them who are working hard to 'hasten the inevitable,' not merely anticipating the End Days with joy in their hearts, but taking political action to bring about the conditions they think are the prerequisites for that occasion.
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Is he a dread genetic determinist, or a dread environmental determinist? He is neither, of course, for both these species of bogeyman are as mythical as werewolves. By increasing the information we have about the various causes of the constraints that limit our current opportunities, he has increased our powers to avoid what we want to avoid, prevent what we want to prevent. Knowledge of the roles of our genes, and the genes of the other species around us, is not the enemy of human freedom, but one of its best friends.
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If the history of resistance to Darwinian thinking is a good measure, we can expect that long into the future, long after every triumph of human thought has been matched or surpassed by 'mere machines,' there will still be thinkers who insist that the human mind works in mysterious ways that no science can comprehend.
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Postmodernism, the school of 'thought' that proclaimed 'There are no truths, only interpretations' has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for 'conversations' in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.
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