© C.F. Payne
Last fall, a few days before Halloween and about a month after the publication of Mind and Cosmos
, the controversial new book by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, several of the world's leading philosophers gathered with a group of cutting-edge scientists in the conference room of a charming inn in the Berkshires. They faced one another around a big table set with pitchers of iced water and trays of hard candies wrapped in cellophane and talked and talked, as public intellectuals do. PowerPoint was often brought into play.
The title of the "interdisciplinary workshop" was "Moving Naturalism Forward." For those of us who like to kill time sitting around pondering the nature of reality - personhood, God, moral judgment, free will, what have you - this was the Concert for Bangladesh. The biologist Richard Dawkins was there, author of The Blind Watchmaker
, The Selfish Gene
, and other bestselling books of popular science, and so was Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts and author of Consciousness Explained
and Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life
. So were the authors of Why Evolution is True
, The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World
, Everything Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized
, and The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions
- all of them books that to one degree or another bring to a larger audience the world as scientists have discovered it to be.
Contemporary philosophers have a name for the way you and I see the world, a world filled with other people, with colors and sounds, sights and sensations, things that are good and things that are bad and things that are very good indeed: ourselves, who are able, more or less, to make our own way through life, by our own lights. Philosophers call this common view the "manifest image." Daniel Dennett pointed out at the conference that modern science, at least since the revelations of Darwin, has been piling up proof that the manifest image is not really accurate in any scientific sense. Rather science - this vast interlocking combine of genetics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, particle physics - tells us that the components of the manifest image are illusory.