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Philosophy was once the domain of the purely speculative—the nearly abstract. A well-known philosophy department posed the question, "What is human?" The questions were too complex. The answers available only to God. That is, if there is a God.
"Why are we here? Is the world itself real, or is it just an illusion that we perceive? Is there any way to know the realness of the world beyond our mere senses? Is there life after death? Is there a meaning to life?"
These and other questions have been torturing philosophers from since as far back as Socrates. Perhaps the deepest underlying question is “Can we believe our own eyes?” In recent years, we have asked questions of language—which, we are told, is not transparent and comes with its own set of potentially fatal snares. But the deepest question underneath is “What do we know?” Is there any way to touch the realness of reality except through our eyes and ears and fingertips—and through the computing brain that makes sense of all that input?
The Brain is the Next Frontier for Contemporary Philosophy
T. Rather than merely engaging in speculation, posing snippets of ancient Hegel essays against snippets of 21st-century explications of them, philosophy departments have now looked into the booming realm of neurological science:
Neural mapping. This is where philosophy departments have dropped their anchor. What was once considered a vaporous thing living in the ether, in a mystical non-space, has now been located and quantified. A desire for food and a sexual reaction, now has a place, size, and a name. It is part electrical, part chemical…partly it is “a filled space and an empty space” in the manner of the behavior of subatomic particles. It is, in any event, a "thing". An object in time and space, not a mere idea. When mere ideas become things that are quantifiable.
We Believe We Have Free Will
Perhaps the greatest living philosophical mind, Slovenia’s Slavoj Zizek, a brilliant expostulator on all things from the relationship of Stalin to The Sound Of Music. He even discusses the usefulness of impotence and indecision in everyday life. Zizek has a very particular view of the way in which neuroscience has barged in and camped out in philosophy departments around the world. He believes the predominant position of the world’s neuroscientists is to “admit the gap” between our belief that we are creatures of free will…and the truth, with which we are deeply preprogrammed.
“We are just neuronal machines, our freedom is an illusion, that there is no self, no autonomous agent” is Zizek’s take on the human brain.
In brief, what the neuroscientists have told us, marching in to the vast and transcendental and airy rooms of philosophy, is that we have no philosophy. We are no different from the tarantula and the titmouse, the inchworm and the earwig.
Embodied Sense of Self
We are programmed in out heads to have sex, to fight, to raise children, and carry on the genetic code. This progress of life intended, at some point, to elevate the core material by evolving ourselves upward. What is clear is that our innermost self, our genomic core, wants more life at any cost.
This, Zizek says, is what all this focus on MRI’s of your gray matter has gotten us: irrefutable proof that we are not what we appear to be.
So, perhaps, have we no option but to surrender to the fact that we are exceedingly mechanized animals? There is an exception though and it comes from that corny New Age practice of transcendental meditation.
Here is Zizek’s take on the work of German neuroscientist Thomas Metzinger.
“For Metzinger…there is an exception to this, discoverable in “some radical forms of Buddhist meditation” where the embodied sense of self and personal agency is seen to be only a provisionally true surface-level of a much more comparatively selfless, and complex, process of patterns of conditioning. Once the Buddhist meditator grasps this in fact (not just theory) the self is seen as a comparatively unreal illusion. In brief, Metzinger claims that ‘Buddhism is the only form of spirituality that is compatible with what science is telling us today.’
The conclusion is, that the most advanced form of neuroscience has reached its “checkmate” point. Checkmate seems to be coming full circle to a form of spiritual reflection.