I feel enlivened by this conference as I see more of the programs. I am also grateful for the internet making the conference available as well as providing the capability to review a presentation.
Patricia Churchland suggested that we do not find the traditional distinction of ‘ought’ and ‘is’ in every day interactions. She told of ethical behavior in other animals, as well as the role of neurotransmitters in influencing behavior. Susan Neiman gave a more traditional take on ought/is, supporting the role of reason in ethical deliberation, among other things using the example of Sodom and Gomorrah: Abraham appeals to reason in order get God to agree not to destroy the cities if a few righteous people could be shown to reside there.
Elizabeth Loftus summarized the research on false memories (interestingly, less than 50% of people are susceptible to having false memories implanted) and Mahzarin Banaji provided an eye-opening demonstration of the role of bias.
One lesson is that in spite of our susceptibility to misperception ( think optical illusion), to misremember, to be subject to inborn behavior and neurochemical influences; our perceptions, memories and responses to our environment and the people around us do serve us well in the main (I think Ramachandran made a point along those lines in his presentation). Further, our ability to reflect on our mistakes, and the factors influencing our perceptions and responses, allows us to free ourselves, at least in part, of these constraints.
There seems to be a fallacy by which we box ourselves in, one that I became aware of in the ‘Free Will’ thread on the Philosophy forum; a fallacy to which the arguments from determinism, for example, are prone: we become so attached to a concept that when it runs counter to our daily life, we reject daily life in favor of the concept. Plato did that when, arguing from instances that our senses can be fooled, he claimed that our senses are unreliable. Determinists, arguing from the principle that every action has a cause, claim that choice is an illusion, as every act or phenomenon has an antecedent cause, which itself is but one link in a causal chain.
[I do not mean to slight the contributions of Paul Davies who suggests a way of looking at the universe that does not depend on infinite regress or some first principle, Loyal Rue who presented an interesting model for the role of myth in culture, or Steven Nadler’s discussion of Spinoza (I must read his books, Nadler’s that is; I have read much of Spinoza, have found it hard going, perhaps I will try again with Nadler as my mentor).]
The Beyond Belief conference is a splendid opportunity to hear and see some brilliant, agile and learned minds sharing the fruits of modern research and thought, providing ideas for a comprehensive secular view of the world and human life.