Getting Along without Knowing

Interesting interview with Patricia Churchland, UCSD ‘neurophilosopher’ in Slate today, originally from New Scientist, about the dismay some people feel at the notion that, to quote the interview’s intro, “our hopes, loves and very existence are just elaborate functions of a complicated mass of grey tissue.”

My initial reaction: well, yes of course, but how is this observation more dismaying that thinking of any great book — even, say, the Bible — as “just elaborate” arrangements of a handful of letters? It’s the complex patterns of those components that matter.

GL: Why is it so difficult for us to see the reality of what we actually are?

PC: Part of the answer has to do with the evolution of nervous systems. Is there any reason for a brain to know about itself? We can get along without knowing, just as we can get along without knowing that the liver is in there filtering out toxins. The wonderful thing, of course, is that science allows us to know.

This is a point worthy of extensive expansion. Humans can, and do, ‘get along’ without knowing an awful lot that, nevertheless, can be known by investigation and examination and experience. Most humans in history have ‘gotten along’ without knowing about anything outside their immediate family or tribe or valley, much less awareness of their internal biological or neurological workings.

The effect of investigation and examination and experience, of knowing things, is that the more things you ‘get along’ without knowing, the more likely the things you ‘believe’ are not actually true.

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