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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and readable but a bit shallow in parts, 9 Oct. 2007
This review is from: The Latest Answers to the Oldest Questions: A Philosophical Adventure with the World's Greatest Thinkers (Hardcover)
The book is in three parts: "Who Am I?", "What Do I Know?" and "What Should I Do?" These parts correspond to philosophical conundrums about consciousness, epistemology and morality, respectively. Fearn's method is to interview contemporary philosophers on these subjects and to compare and contrast their views while referring to the views of philosophers of the past.

In the first part Fearn tackles the problem of the self, free will, artificial intelligence, and the dualism of body and soul. The modern consensus, as I understand it, is that the self (as the Buddha taught) is a delusion in flux that the evolutionary mechanism has found useful for instilling in creatures such as ourselves; that free will is an illusion we can't help but believe; that artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence (but that may take longer than previously thought); and that the soul is pure information. For the most part Fearn's presentation of views and his comments are more or less in line with my understanding.

"Does the idea never thought exist?" would be my variant on Bishop Berkeley's old query about the tree in the forest. My answer goes to the heart of the next part of Fearn's book which concerns what we know, how we know it, and how much confidence in that knowledge we can have. I lie awake nights wondering where the idea never thought is. It's not on the ether wind and not in God's mind. WHERE is it? I refuse to believe that it doesn't exist.

Or is all of human knowledge merely a gigantic social construction (as the postmodernists would have it) forever distant from true knowledge? Clearly Fearn is not a postmodernist since he mostly diminishes this idea. Most philosophers and other thinkers that I have read, believe that human knowledge is an ever-widening sphere going out into a larger unknown. We learn more and more about ourselves and the universe we live in, but we have no way of knowing how distant or close to Absolute Truth we might be, or could possibly be. Furthermore, we cannot know with certainty that we know anything at all. Descartes might have thought he found something true in "Ego cognito sum," but actually he assumed the "I am" in the "I think" and proved nothing. And nobody, if I am reading Fearn rightly, has gotten any further than that.

In the final part there are some bits about "moral luck," e.g., Johnny got drunk, drove like an idiot but hit only an old tree stump and walked away with only a scratch, while Frankie, also under the influence, hit a child and killed it. Morally speaking Frankie is feeling kind of low while Johnny hasn't a clue. This is moral luck.

All in all this is a most interesting book, but to be honest, I think Fearn is a little short of a mature understanding of some of the questions. In particular I don't think he realizes that the subjectivity of the experience of color or taste or any sort of feeling is absolute. I can never know exactly how you experience the color red or the taste of black walnuts. I assume--and we all do--that your experience is closely similar to mine. So no problem. But when we get to the larger experience of consciousness in its bedeviling complexity, our assumptions may lead us astray. Almost certainly the consciousness of a dolphin or a whale is difference from ours in some very important respects and in ways we cannot know. But the philosophic problem of consciousness is really like the problem of "seeing" things smaller than photons: it's something that we can never do. Subjectivity is forever subjective. Or to use another example, we can never measure something so accurately that we can be sure that it is exactly one meter long. In fact, the every idea of exactly becomes muddled as we approach the limits of our senses and descend toward the Planck limit.

Fearn also seems a little askew when it comes to the "Swampman" thought experiment. Swampman is an exact replica of philosopher Donald Davidson. Davidson opines that Swampman, despite having exactly all the same molecules in exactly the same arrangements as himself, is different from himself because Swampman "can't recognize my friends; it can't recognize anything, since it never cognized anything in the first place." (p. 103)

Fearn goes along with this, not realizing that the play on words (recognize and cognize) has no meaning here. Fearn calls the memories that Swampman has "pseudo-memories" (p. 104). But where are the "real" memories that Swampman and Davidson have of the past? They are in, and only in, the brains of Swampman and Davidson, and they are identical!

This is a wonderful thought experiment that has been done many times in slightly different ways. What I think we can learn from such an experiment is that--hold on to the steering wheel--we don't really exist as we think we do! If Davidson is dissolved and Swampman comes home for dinner, clearly Davidson is not going to get anything to eat, but no one including Davidson will ever know the difference. Well, Swampman if he had been told he was a duplicate or had seen Davidson might know, but guess what? Swampman would remain convinced that he is Davidson.

Fearn includes this wonderful quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein: "Death is not an event in life; we do not live to experience death." (p. 208) Unfortunately Fearn goes on to miss Wittgenstein's meaning when he remarks that he can see beyond our experience of death and so it matters. But Wittgenstein's point (and that of Eastern religions) is psychological and very powerful; however it requires us to simultaneously understand that (1) we do not exist in a way different than Swampman; and (2) death is not an experience we ever have except in the anticipation.
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