Posted November 15, 2010on:
My current obsession with Chomsky must be well known to the readers of this blog by now. I have seen almost every last one of his political videos online, and can almost lip sync him by now. It was refreshing to find a video series of him speaking on Humanism, and related subjects, subjects that interest me a lot these days. I often find myself agreeing with him. He symbolizes a rational, reasonable, sympathetic and tolerant view of things. I have to keep stopping myself from quoting him too much, lest i come across as a fawning disciple who can see no wrong in his Master (Chomsky ki jai).
A few brief comments on the contents of the video, before the videos themselves. The first comment he makes is on science and the human condition. He believes that the subject of human nature is almost inaccessible to Science, considering its tremendous complexity, and that more may be learned about it from literature than exact science. This is a great counter-weight to contemporary thinkers like Sam Harris and Michael Shermer, who believe that humans can be adequately studied by sciences like evolution, neuroscience etc; and almost relegate subjective experience to an inferior plane. It is possible that in the decades or centuries to come, science may be able to describe human behavior and emotions, but this does not recognize the irrational element in the human state. Humans must also be defined as how we would like them to be, not just as how they are.
He rejects religion as an important factor in his life, but concedes that it “means a lot to a lot of people”. “If someone mourning the loss of a child finds hope in the thought of afterlife, its not my business to challenge them. In fact, i think they’re lucky to have that belief”. He holds that the overall effect of religion on polity has been bad, but it continues to mean a lot to individuals. This is a lot more reasonable than believing that religion is the cause of all human ills.
Regarding Evolution, he feels that “we know very little about the evolution of humans in any relevant sense”. Evolution may be able to describe lower processes like the visual system etc, but there is barely much to work with regarding the higher processes – mental and cognitive, especially considering we are an infant species.
I like this about him that he does not overstep the mandate of science, that thinkers like Harris, Shermer and Hitchens do. Science is ultimately a tool, and a more important question is the question of living.
On free will, he says we do not know enough, or ever will, that our sense of free will, our most immediate experience, and an objective fact in the structure of the universe, or an illusion. He then quotes Bertrand Russell, who stated that we should have three levels of confidence in our belief system – the highest that of our immediate experience, the second in the experiences of those around us, and the third in the reports of scientific apparatuses. By that measure Free Will is as real as can be.
Going further he goes to say that like other animals on the planet, we are animals to, and our cognitive capacities have to be like our other biological capacities, which “have their scope, and have their limits”. I think this is a profound statement of our place in the Universe, and our sense of having the faculties to unravel the universe.
Chomsky for me epitomizes wisdom, which has to be more than just a strictly rationalist view of the world.